Unpeeling the layers at Ornge

HR experts weigh in on leadership lessons from scandal at Ontario's air ambulance service
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/04/2013

In April, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosted a special event in Toronto focusing on problems at Ornge, Ontario’s publicly funded air ambulance service, with Jacob Blum, a former senior executive at Ornge, and Kevin Donovan, a senior investigative reporter at the Toronto Star.

‘Reality distortion field’ a characteristic shared by Mazza, Steve Jobs: Blum

Safety net in strategy

There’s just no ducking responsibility


On Dec. 22, 2011, the Toronto Star published a story about the compensation package given to Chris Mazza, CEO of Ornge, Ontario’s publicly funded air ambulance agency.

The newspaper reported Mazza was paid $1.4 million per year, making him the highest paid public official in the province. The figure was later revised to $1.9 million. Despite that salary, he wasn’t listed on the province’s Sunshine List of public sector employees who earn more than $100,000.

The Star’s investigation, and the related fallout and outrage over Ornge, led to a major overhaul of the agency and the termination of Mazza and other executives. In January 2012, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care essentially took over Ornge — and an interim president and CEO was appointed and Ornge’s board of directors was replaced.

The province’s auditor general was critical of the government for failing to properly monitor the agency.

“Ornge is a textbook example of what happens when the government doesn’t get the information it needs to properly do its job,” said Jim McCarter in a 40-page special report issued in March 2012.

The controversy led to plenty of discussions at workplaces across the country about ethics and governance, and what can be done to ensure rogue leaders in powerful positions don’t sink an organization.

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

‘Reality distortion field’ a characteristic shared by Mazza, Steve Jobs: Blum

By Edmond Mellina (Leadership In Action)

According to his former right-hand man, ousted Ornge CEO Chris Mazza had one thing in common with the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs — the famous “reality distortion field.”

The original Apple Macintosh development team first used this Star Trek term to describe Jobs’ ability to convince anyone — including himself — of practically anything. Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld explained the reality distortion field as “a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.”

It is not easy for someone to drive major change in the public sector. There is no doubt Mazza’s reality distortion field acted as a key force towards the ambitious transformation of Ontario’s old air ambulance service.

Despite sharing this peculiar trait — or flaw — Mazza and Jobs’ leadership styles differed in two fundamental ways, which helps explain why the Ornge scandal keeps making the news while Apple is ranked first on Fortune magazine’s World’s Most Admired Companies list.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs talks about his passion for simple, clean designs, which launched a design revolution, with Apple as its spearhead. Jobs made loads of money and became much admired in the process, with design as his driver, not dollars and fame.

From the Ornge saga, it appears Mazza’s hierarchy of motivations was different. As a doctor, patient care must have been an important consideration.

But the story paints a picture of a narcissistic CEO chasing net worth, social praise and power. Research has shown self-centered leaders ultimately damage their organizations.

Jobs also had a narcissistic tendency but designing beautiful, easy-to-use products — not fuelling his ego — was his primary preoccupation.

Throughout his career, Jobs worked hard at ensuring his teams were made of “A-players” — starting from the top. As a result, he waged a nasty but effective war against the people he referred to as “bozos.”

As examples: the way he built the original Mac team; his clashes with Apple CEOs John Sculley and Gil Amelio; and the way he protected the people he brought from NeXT to Apple.

Jobs could be toxic and even “twisted” in the way he responded to disagreements or different ideas. Yet the people he respected could challenge him, keep him grounded or change his mind.

Most narcissistic CEOs surround themselves with yes-people who feed their ego and allow their pursuit of net worth, social praise and power to continue unobstructed.

The essence of leadership includes the following: having your organization’s purpose and health as your primary preoccupation; surrounding yourself with the best people you can find; and welcoming their challenges.

At Ornge, Mazza was in a leadership role but didn’t act as a leader. Conversely, Jobs acted as a leader — which helped keep his dark side under control.

Edmond Mellina is a contributing commentator on Leadership In Action for SCNetwork. He is president of Orchango in Toronto, a firm whose specialty is to help organizations adapt to change. He can be reached at emellina@orchango.com. For more information, visit www.orchango.com.

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Safety net in strategy

By Karen Gorsline (Strategic Capability)

Strategy is often thought of in an abstract, futuristic kind of way. But the direction, values and processes affiliated with strategy, in conjunction with basic governance mechanisms, can act as a safety net.

In particular, strategy can help guide operational decisions in two areas: legality versus morality, and dealing with incremental changes in culture that could lead to collapse.

Organizations that understand who they are as corporate citizens, what they stand for and what type of
relationship they have with consumers, partners and communities will often find that merely complying with a legal requirement or standard is not enough.

Strategy challenges employers to think about direction and what they aspire to become and do. When instances with legal ramifications occur, a minimalistic legal response may fall short of what the organization should do to be true to itself, its mission, values and strategies.

One example would be companies that outsource to manufacturers using child labour overseas. Because this is a supplier activity and may be in a different jurisdiction, it might be considered both legal and cost-effective. But it likely isn’t aligned with the corporate strategy, brand, image or culture.

It may also make it difficult to secure top talent and retain an engaged workforce. The organization has to weigh cost strategy against brand strategy. That decision may require it to find different providers or to influence providers to operate differently. Other operational decisions could be affected in areas as diverse as the impact on environment, labour relations and employment practices, transparency with shareholders and financial reporting.

Rotting from within

Even well-established and reputable organizations are at risk of incremental erosion of their values, sense of purpose and ability to deliver business results. This is not necessarily because bad employees or evil leaders are in place. A lack of clarity about what an employer considers acceptable contributes to a range of conduct, including inappropriate behaviour.

This coupled with a natural human tendency to conform to perceived group norms and avoid sticking out by asking tough questions or challenging unethical conduct can contribute to an out-of-control spiral.

This could be seen in the Ornge scenario as well as Enron and other organizations where, in hindsight, you ask, “How could this happen?”

In most cases, the end crisis is precipitated by many smaller decisions, actions and transgressions, each of which didn’t seem like a big deal. Over time, with escalation and acceptance, the pattern of behaviour evolves into one that condones actions that may seem outrageous to the outside observer, but are considered acceptable within the organization as a result of conditioning over time.

Strategy focuses on key questions that can immunize an employer against this downward spiral: What is the right thing to be doing? How will we measure success? What is the process and accountability for measuring?

Obviously, strategy does not replace or equate to governance but it’s a necessary supporting mechanism. Strategy is a bridge between the mission, vision and values of an organization and operational decisions.

Organizations that take strategy development and metrics seriously are more likely to have greater clarity around their corporate identity and have effective governance mechanisms in place.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and she 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 gorslin@pathcom.com

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There’s just no ducking responsibility

By Dave Crisp (Organizational Effectiveness)

When it comes to moral and legal questions at work, it’s always tempting to simply say, “Follow the law.”

But laws are designed from bad experiences to try and set a base. They can never deal with the complex details of each situation. It’s worth reviewing such topics periodically to sharpen your own or your organization’s practices.

When it comes to laws, there are basically three options on the table. First, you can follow them. Second, you can ask yourself how likely you are to get caught if you don’t. For example, speeding, illegal downloading, copyright, and health and safety are areas where people “interpret” whether the law makes sense to them and can be followed with impractical disruptions. Third, you can openly defy the rules with a view to changing the law or its immediate application.

Unions sometimes try that tack, such as the recent Alberta prison guard wildcat strike. Nobody went to jail but the union was fined $300,000. Generally, we know where things stand and make a choice.

Having faced many legal and ethical puzzles myself, I suggest people try preparedness of thinking by reviewing cases occasionally. It’s easy to find yourself caught up, sometimes sliding slowly deeper, with few ideas about comparative examples for guidance.

Whistleblowing is increasingly protected by legislation but, in practice, there are so many ways to “get” someone — even if it’s subtly shutting them out of future situations — that those laws aren’t going to be the answer much of the time. Often they involve being fired and spending years suing for reinstatement or compensation.

Having your resumé up to date is an imperative for every executive. That’s always a good escape route to contemplate, rather than taking to drugs or alcohol (which just cloud good judgment even more than stress). Having even a notional escape route makes it easier to take a deep breath, de-stress and consider logical options.

I’ve had a few sleepless nights over the years but critically reviewing options helped calm me down. One was feeling personally liable — and possibly morally responsible — for the death of a young employee at a store I’d never visited. Though we knew legally we weren’t to blame, it was a hard one to come to terms with.

A fatal flaw in the equipment that killed our employee was known to the manufacturer, by then out of business, but not to us. The Ministry of Labour wanted someone (that meant us) held responsible for a breach of rules it was making up retroactively — demanding more machine guards than anyone had ever contemplated.

Had we done due diligence? Would even that have been enough, morally? We thought we had but we’d missed this flaw. This was as close to an “accident” as can be, and totally fits that description, in my view — although my board of directors slapped me on the wrist for saying that and claimed “There is no such thing as an accident.”

Have I ever been asked to flat out agree to illegal actions either before or after they occurred? Yes. What did I do? Wrestled with my conscience, considered exit strategies, went forward and tried to come to terms with the feelings. Sharing decisions helps, but you can’t always do that.

More heads are definitely better than one, though, so try to find sympathetic, knowledgeable people who will stay out of it, whom you can trust to give their thoughts or experiences. You can’t duck responsibility no matter how hard you try. If you think you have, you haven’t been paying attention.

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’s Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.

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