Down the rabbit hole

Rebranding, creating 10-year strategy among George Brown College’s initiatives
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/20/2012

Transformation: Anne Sado, president of George Brown College in Toronto, spoke at a recent Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event about the transformation the college has undergone since she became president in 2004. Revamping the curriculum and fostering partnerships with employers were among the initiatives. For more information, visit

What isn’t said can be more important (Organizational Effectiveness)

Strategy, social responsibility (Strategic Capability)

4 leadership traits (Leadership in Action)

When Anne Sado became president of George Brown College in Toronto in 2004, she felt a little bit like Alice in Wonderland.

“In the movie, she fell down the rabbit hole and could see Wonderland through the keyhole. But she didn’t know how to get there, and she had all the tools in the room but she had to figure out how to use them,” she said.

Up until joining the college, Sado’s career path had been entirely in the private sector, so she had a lot to learn, she said, speaking at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in October.

As she was learning more about the public sector and the college itself, she realized there was an opportunity to transform the college and take it to the next step.

“Any organization should always be looking at where they are and where they want to be, even if they’re excellent — I don’t think you can be lulled into complacency,” she said. “The environment changes all around us and if we don’t know what’s going on, then we might not be relevant.”

The first part of the George Brown transformation was rebranding. When Sado took over at the college — which has 63,000 students and about 3,000 employees — the senior leadership team wanted to change the name to Toronto City College. They wanted to cement the fact the college was in the core of the city and felt a name change would better represent that.

Sado brought in a seasoned marketing executive to do some research and discovered there was a lot of brand equity in the George Brown name and changing it would be the wrong decision.

“We decided to stay with ‘George Brown College’ but we needed to rebrand and set a direction,” said Sado.

She and the leadership team came up with a brand identity to be applied consistently across the college — as opposed to the varying brands and logos that were found among the different faculties at the time.

“We didn’t have a single identity anymore and we were really trying to create a single college,” she said. “We undertook significant research to understand what we stood for and what our mission and vision was and how we were perceived both externally and internally.”

Through this process, the leadership team defined the college’s core mission as excellence in teaching and learning. To ensure the college lived up to this mission, an academic plan was developed.

“We focused on how we teach, what we teach, that we have the skilled teachers in the classroom… that we provide the environment that supports teaching and learning with the right facilities, classrooms and technology,” said Sado. “We spent a lot of time creating something that’s now embedded in how we do things by virtue of an academic plan and not a stand-alone strategy.”

The academic plan laid out a clear set of priorities, steps for implementation and specific targets and measures for the next three years. This evolved into a three-year rolling academic plan, which the college currently has in place, where every time an academic year is finished, another year is added.

The major components of the academic plan are curriculum, learning experience and college culture, said Sado.

“We’re having a completely different conversation now than we were having 10 years ago. When there’s a new initiative and a new opportunity, academic questions come to the forefront and that’s how we have the conversation as opposed to, ‘Oh, by the way, did you think about how this classroom has to be set up?’”

As part of the transformation, Sado realized they needed to paint a “whole picture of where the college needed to go” so she spearheaded “Strategy 2020.” The strategy — developed in 2010 — focused on how the college was going to evolve over the next 10 years.

“We came to realize that building capability takes time and while it was going to be more difficult to look out for a longer time horizon because the world is changing so quickly, we determined that looking out to 2020 was going to be critical to how we were going to evolve as an institution,” said Sado.

Innovation is one of the key components of Strategy 2020. It looks at innovation in teaching and learning, which includes the use of technology in the classroom, online courses, hybrids of in-person and online learning and different delivery models such as compressed courses or executive format courses in the evenings and on weekends, said Sado.

“So many learners have different needs now and you have to be able to marry the needs of industry and learners and offer programs in different ways.”

Innovation is also important because colleges have become involved in applied research over the last five years.

“We have helped (employers) commercialize and introduce new products to market, and helped them with production and process problems that significantly improve their profitability,” said Sado.

Another key aspect of the strategy is to become a college that truly understands employment and the needs of employers, said Sado. The executive team wanted to look from the outside in to make sure the college was really preparing graduates for what employers needed, she said.

“Employers told us they expect someone they hire to have the technical skills they need to know. If they hire an HR professional, they expect you to know the compensation system, performance management system; for engineers and IT, they expect you to know how to program. However, they also look to our graduates for soft skills.”

As a result, the curriculum has been adapted to make sure students are learning the necessary technical skills and receiving more opportunities to communicate and work in teams so they can further develop soft skills, she said.

Partnerships with employers are another main component of the strategy. The college works with employers to offer field education opportunities to students. While 69 per cent of the college’s programs currently have an experiential learning component, the college is striving for 100 per cent by 2015, said Sado.

One bridging program at the college, for example, helped internationally educated nurses pass their licencing exams. While 50 per cent of them were initially failing their exams, 95 per cent received a passing grade after they were placed in an eight-month co-op at a health-care centre, said Sado.

There have been similar success stories with co-ops for internationally trained professionals in the construction industry such as architects, civil engineers and mechanical engineers, she said.

“They worked in their home country but are having a hard time, or have decided it’s just going to be too difficult for them to go through the somewhat onerous licencing process we have, so we take them through a four month co-op.”

In one cohort of 29 students, 26 received permanent jobs from their co-op employer.

“It’s about working with industry to promote opportunities to get some Canadian work experience and it’s about encouraging employers to be open to the possibility of taking those professionals once they have experience.”

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What isn’t said can be more important (Organizational Effectiveness)

By Dave Crisp

Sometimes what is not said in a presentation is more important than what is. Anne Sado’s description of the wide array of programs, partnerships and innovations George Brown College has developed and enhanced under her leadership is such a case. The results are spectacular and everyone in attendance at the Strategic Capability Network event was intrigued as to how they were achieved — but how many listened for what wasn’t there?

What isn’t discussed may come out through questions — what went wrong, what didn’t work, what would you have done differently? Some of those were alluded to, though these were relatively few and were still not the key points.

So, what wasn’t there that was so striking? Mainly the absence of short-term thinking and bowing to short-term pressures that are so common, especially at public companies focused solely on last quarter’s results. It might be easy to dismiss this as the difference between business and not-for-profits, until you look at what is frequently reported in health care, secondary education and other services.

Budgets, and the need to restrain, cut, trim, shave, redirect and so forth, are a constant pressure at virtually all operations, profit-based or otherwise. One especially expects to hear those obstacles from a college president, whose job often revolves around keeping funding sources happy and proving fiscal responsibility is being diligently attended to. It’s hard in such roles not to get drawn into talking about limiting factors.

Instead, Sado’s achievements come straight from a long-term planning orientation that is very robust compared to what companies and non-profits typically table. Not entirely surprising, she has moved the organization up from short-term issues to look at five- and 10-year planning while making sure everything has measurables so progress is visible and quantifiable in realistic ways — a sure aid in obtaining continuing funding, undoubtedly, but not the only objective.

What appears, equally unstated, is a shift in culture from separate teams with their own agendas to an overall organizational set of objectives, long- and short-term goals and agreed-to plans so everyone pulls in similar directions and synergies can be found among programs and strategies.

It would be easy to gloss over the challenge Sado faced in the levels of integration of programs and partnerships. To establish partners for internships, work terms and placements all around the world — spectacular options for students, staff and a tremendous model for others — is no small feat.

This cannot be achieved by one individual mandating it. It is a tribute to the nurturing of amazing team co-operation among people who naturally tend to not co-operate. Professionals, particularly those who come from diverse industry backgrounds, are almost certain to favour their own areas of experience and discount the benefits of sharing or learning about others. That, in turn, means a very different style of leadership has to be installed to achieve the results this demonstrates.

A long-term view, leadership style change and unleashed co-operative culture form the less tangible but critical achievements a casual listener might have missed.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Strategy, social responsibility (Strategic Capability)

By Karen Gorsline

The George Brown College transformation story is about vision, strategic direction and culture. And the strategy development techniques are not extremely different from those in a private sector environment.

The approach was adapted to meet the college’s need for longer timelines and broader consultation with the community and employers. The breadth of consultation signalled that the strategy and its execution were not going to be bound by “ivory tower” thinking.

One of the most exciting aspects of the story is the convergence of strategy and social responsibility as George Brown explored the role of college education in society.

By establishing a strategic position — “We understand employment” — George Brown differentiated itself from traditional academic institutions.

It was not trying to be a place for students who failed to get into university but positioned itself as an alternative path, tailoring programs to meet the needs of employers for qualified staff to perform specific functions and the needs of students to be qualified for employment.

Strategic imperatives and committees were established to support the strategy, including:

• field placement with a target that 100 per cent of programs would include field work (it has achieved 69 per cent)

• innovation in teaching methods, including the use of technology in delivery and innovations in program scheduling

• partnership in its broadest form that has included working with employers and community partners in program development, offering applied learning, drawing upon business and technical experts in the delivery of programs, obtaining financial support and developing staff and faculty.

The three areas above reinforce George Brown’s commitment to applied learning and to flexibility in addressing business and community needs.

With a clearly defined strategy, the organization was able to respond to a host of business and community needs. Examples include:

• meeting a need for more integrated health care by opening a new Health Services Program at a new campus that brings health-care disciplines together, both physically and in terms of program design

• responding to the needs of at-risk youth, in collaboration with community partners

• developing education specifically geared to immigrants and international students, and providing international field placements

•developing new programs, such as Health Informatics which brings together knowledge of technology and health science.

Often social responsibility is tacked on to the list of organizational initiatives but fails to achieve the degree of integration illustrated in this situation. The story of the George Brown College transformation is a compelling example of how social responsibility can also be good business strategy.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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4 leadership traits (Leadership in Action)

By Trish Maguire

Plenty of leaders believe in their dreams, but only a handful take action to achieve them. When it comes to realizing a vision, Anne Sado, president of George Brown College in Toronto, epitomized how action is far more important than believing. The vision, direction and culture of the college resulted in a critical public discussion on the value of college education in Ontario’s economic development and growth.

As Sado shared her story, four influential, action leadership traits emerged:

People: People want to engage in a more meaningful and purposeful way. They want to be part of an authentic work environment where sharing knowledge, ideas and concerns about the business are encouraged. By mobilizing people’s imagination, commitment, patience and perseverance, the George Brown story demonstrates how to achieve a vision for a new future.

Purpose: How does your leadership team ensure people know what the organization is striving to become, where it’s headed and where they fit with the overall goals and aspirations? When people understand their employer’s purpose, they connect more effectively with others and collaborate more strategically. What excites your leadership team the most and how do they share that with people? How effective are they at finding ways to align people’s passion with their daily responsibilities? When people see and feel that passion, it stirs the core of what fuels their creativity and sense of purpose.

Perseverance: Perseverance is a delicate but much-needed trait, and it’s not on many lists of leadership competencies. We all experience similar challenges at our workplaces, only in different forms. A wise president I worked with frequently reminded me the difference between the impossible and the possible was perseverance.

Patience: Patience is both an art and a virtue. It’s fascinating how successful leadership is typically equated with achieving results, but patience is the absolute catalyst to achieving results. Mastering patience gives you the strength to delay what you want to do while having the capacity and spirit of choosing to champion others.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached at

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