Leader isn’t a title

Leadership is a role that isn’t granted by a promotion or getting the corner office: CEO
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/04/2014

Positions of power or a seat in the C-suite do not a leader make — leadership is an ongoing role that has little to do with your job title.

That was the message John Cassaday, president and CEO of Corus Entertainment, shared at a January Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto.

Being a leader isn’t just about getting that promotion or landing the corner office — for Cassaday, leadership is about collaboration, shared values and actively engaging your team.

“I have a little acrylic message on my desk… that says that great leaders see greatness in others. It’s hard to be a great leader if all you see is yourself. That really, I think for me, epitomizes what it’s all about,” he said.

“It’s a role — it’s not a position. Every one of us and every person in your organization has a role in leadership.”

And taking on a leadership role encompasses many different things — most importantly common values, teamwork and collaboration as well as a strong focus on recognition.

Shared vision, values

For Cassaday, values aren’t just limited to your personal life — they’re the building blocks of a successful organization.

“Earlier in my career, I thought values were really more about how you led your life personally — I didn’t think they had much relevance to corporations,” he said. “(But) I believe the modest success that I’ve enjoyed in my career is really and truly attributed in large part to my personal values — more so than any particular technical skills that I have or any insights that I can bring.”

And values are a big part of what makes Corus, which has about 2,000 employees, an employer of choice, he said.

“Early on, we developed a set of core values and a vision statement for Corus, which I talk about on every single occasion that I have to meet with employees. Much to my surprise and delight, I found out that our core values are the single most important thing that give people pride in working for our company.”

Those values — which include accountability, knowledge, initiative, innovation and teamwork — are also the foundation of Corus’ employee engagement surveys, to ensure they are practising what they preach, said Cassaday.

“We survey our employees on a bi-annual basis and over 90 per cent of our employees participate. And every year, our satisfaction rates have gone up — despite the fact that we’ve had to do many, many difficult things including as recently as yesterday with a number of layoffs,” he said.

Gathering employee feedback is one of the best ways to ensure company values are being upheld throughout the management structure, said Cassaday.

“This is the value of looking at data and making sure you really understand what you’re doing. Because you talk about core values and then (if) the people you put in charge to steward those values are not good stewards, you’re wasting your breath entirely.”

Collaborative space

Another factor that should not be overlooked is the importance of the physical office space in terms of building a positive, collaborative culture, said Cassaday.

“To me, getting everybody under one roof at our company was really, really important. The significant investment that we made in our building… in Toronto has massively increased the recognition of our brand… but, most importantly, it’s created an incredibly high sense of pride among our employees,” he said.

Corus Quay, the organization’s Toronto waterfront headquarters, features a large atrium with a slide, repatriated wood panelling and screens that display photos of the company’s talent.

There’s also an employee art wall where Corus employees — many of whom are talented artists — can display their work.

“We give all of our people an opportunity to post their work. So there are approximately four exhibitions a year — I attend all of them,” said Cassaday.

Conference and meeting rooms are designed to reflect individual brands such as Cosmopolitan TV and 102.1 The Edge radio.

“When we moved in, we moved from 12 different locations to one. And we wanted to make sure that we got the Corus brand really prevalent, but we also wanted to make sure that people didn’t lose that sense of identity they had in their brand. So each of our meeting rooms has got very, very strong individual brand orientations,” said Cassaday.

The physical workstations are designed to be open concept to encourage discussion and collaboration.

“What we did on our workstations just to encourage collaboration and teamwork — everybody has an open office concept, but we didn’t build big caves with 72-inch (high) walls. All our walls are 36 inches, so that people can see over and you can see over from within.”

Recognition, recruitment

One of Cassaday’s core messages — and perhaps the most important one — is to say thank you.

“We really reach out to our employees to try to recognize their performance in many, many different ways,” he said. “I think money is (important) but recognition is the most important thing.”

Corus has many different awards for employees and winners receive a personal call from Cassaday and invited to an awards luncheon. There are also monthly birthday breakfasts, training and development opportunities offered through Corus University and annual town hall meetings at each Corus location across the country.

They also post every job in their organization externally, to widen the search for the best talent.

“It is important to really hire tough and manage easy... you have to get the right people. We’ve all made mistakes in hiring and then we’ve spent a lot of time managing tough, trying to make our hiring mistakes seem like their failure instead of ours,” said Cassaday.

“So what do we look for when we hire? Obviously — you won’t be surprised — alignment with our values. Secondly, I always look for ambition or a burning desire to succeed. Third, integrity, which is I think the governor of unbridled ambition, and then, finally, skills.”

Once the right people are in place, the focus shifts to how well they work in a team.

“We believe the greatest value is realized when we work together. And we’ve had some real rock-star performers in our place that weren’t good team players, and they did not survive,” said Cassaday.

Ongoing talent development is also a crucial focus, he said — and it’s not just for high performers.

“We’ve now started to track how we’re doing, not only in terms of developing high potentials but what progress we’ve made in dealing with people we’ve identified as being a challenge,” he said.

“This contributes to an environment that is proactive, not reactive. I think this means less stress for everyone.”


Commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders

How do top-notch leaders develop?

By Dave Crisp (Leadership In Action)

The burning questions one asks about top leaders are often how do they develop and how much is born versus built? Thankfully, Corus Entertainment CEO John Cassaday shed a little light on these questions and his comments were insightful enough to be interpreted pretty clearly.

It’s obvious he had some instincts that helped him rise quickly from early on in his career, every step of the way. Whether these evolved from family or skills learned before he started working, or whether he was born with some, it’s impossible to tell.

When a first job painting fire hydrants suggested there must be better options, Cassaday was open to the idea of a temporary assignment promoting cigarettes to golf clubs and their members. So far, this is not a big difference from what most of us probably experienced in one way or another.

What distinguished Cassaday was something that clearly runs through all his career steps, including the present ones — he had ideas and saw them as valuable, like most of us, but he also took the concrete step of putting them in a letter to his bosses, sufficiently impressing them so he was offered permanent employment after college. Clearly, some of that is luck — he hit a resonant chord — but a good deal is initiative that many would not have taken. Is that a skill, a trait, a family habit?

Whether the courage to try was innate is something we can’t know and neither, perhaps, does Cassaday. Most of us can trace our own fundamental personality inclinations to a combination of “just how we’ve always felt” and reinforcing events we encountered along the way.

It’s probably safe to assume we tend to find situations and people who reinforce what we’re already interested in, but exactly how much of each is involved in developing the skills we arrive at work with is moot — we don’t need to know.

What’s more important is the openness to ideas to begin with — openness being one of the big five personality traits many psychological tests measure and suggest are innate. Cassaday was not only interested in his own ideas, he has consistently recognized it is best to be open to value in the ideas of others in every job he undertook. At Corus, he encourages a culture that helps managers innovate and he credits that with creating their tremendous success.

He solidified his early personal tendencies, clearly through trial and error, learning and listening on job after job, to build a company on stated values — four out of five of which are specifically about creating ideas, continual learning, empowerment and the teamwork that makes them happen. (The fifth value is simply to make those ideas actually happen, not just sit unexpressed or untried.)

Cassaday is very clear — he builds on his strengths and we can see that in operation on every level. He’s been a steward and instigator of ideas from day one. That’s a valuable orientation in today’s business world, but notably something other companies could copy. That more don’t is a testament to just how much a CEO’s (especially a founding CEO’s) personality stamps itself on every part of the organization. Cassaday’s initial traits certainly wouldn’t have taken him this far without good learning experiences — in marketing, large companies, handling budgets and profit and loss statements and managing people.

But we have to note his fundamental skill is trainable if we realize it is important and we develop programs and job rotations to promote it in more executives. Clearly, Cassaday transmitted this skill to many other managers in his organization.

It’s great when we can see so clearly the key ingredients and how they work. Now we just need to ask “Why not?” in other organizations — build the environment and people will deliver.

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 www.balance-and-results.com.

‘Hire tough, manage easy’ good recipe

By Barbara Kofman (Organizational Effectivness)

The spotlight was on the essential role a CEO plays in creating the framework for success in an organization. But as John Cassaday, CEO of Corus Entertainment, emphasized, in defining a company’s culture, the CEO must take the necessary steps to ensure the right conditions are in place for facilitating buy-in from every employee.

His formula for doing so predictably echoed the message delivered by other well-respected CEOs who have taken the stage at Strategic Capability Network events. The mechanism for driving success at Corus, just as it is at Maple Leaf Foods, is an underpinning of core values that permeate every aspect of the organization — from hiring practices through performance appraisals and promotions.

At Corus, employees are measured every day not just on their effectiveness in getting their work done but on their ability to live up to the core values of accountability, knowledge, initiative, innovation and teamwork.

While the responsibility the CEO holds in establishing the conditions for success is pivotal, the foundation of any thriving organization is its people. One cannot overstate the importance of having clearly articulated values at play in defining what it means to be a good organizational “fit.”

The degree to which this careful inculcation of values into every aspect of corporate life has been taken at Corus was made clear by its hiring process. The hiring philosophy put in place is one other companies would do well to follow and can best be summed up by that old adage: Hire for fit, train for skills.

All jobs are open to anyone who meets the basic qualifications, interviews are conducted by a panel and no one gets in simply by knowing somebody. The focus is first and foremost on alignment with values, and then on factors such as a burning desire to succeed, integrity (versus unbridled ambition) and, finally, skills. As Cassaday summed it up, if you make it a point to “hire tough” you’re then in a position to “manage easy.”

It would be interesting to see the results of exit interviews to find out how often this culture mismatch was a factor in decisions made by managers to let staff go and by individuals to leave Corus.

A quick check on Glassdoor.com to get a flavour for how employees past and present view the company revealed that while Corus has its share of people criticizing it for such things as poor management and restricted budgets, it also has numerous positive reviews referencing such things as the engaging work culture, creative atmosphere and the inspiring CEO.

Once again, we heard from an esteemed leader championing a straightforward formula for organizational success, one that is easily transferrable to any organization no matter what business it is in — communicate a clear vision, infuse your corporate values into all aspects of your company so they truly come to life, embrace being a good corporate citizen and an environmental leader and, if you can, build a creative workspace with certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

In doing so, not only will your organization be activating the value chain we’ve heard so much about (engaged employees lead to happy customers and an enhanced bottom line), it will also be putting in place an unbeatable generation-Y attraction strategy. After all, one of the primary things that generation — your company’s future — is seeking is an organization with a conscience.

Barbara Kofman is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic career coaching and HR solutions organization committed to providing clients with the personalized processes and information they need, to achieve the individual and organizational outcomes they are seeking. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. Based in Toronto, she can be reached at (416) 708-2880 bkofman@careertrails.com.

CEO weaves consistent web across company

By Karen Gorsline (Strategic Capability)

One would expect that John Cassaday, president and CEO of Corus Entertainment, with a strong background in media and packaged goods would have great sound bites to share — and he did.

His lively presentation included nuggets such as:

•“Great leaders see greatness in others.”

•“As a leader, my brand is me.”

•“You can’t say thank you enough.”

But he also painted a picture of careful attention to integration. The focus was not just on a single approach or initiative but on weaving a consistent web across the management of multiple aspects of an organization — vision and values; leadership and people; process; and place.

Vision and values: Corus has maintained the same values and vision since its inception in 1999 and through more than 20 acquisitions.

In a business known for volatile change and diva-style personalities, these values have set behavioural expectations and contributed clarity and continuity during rapid and disruptive change.

The balanced values of accountability, knowledge, initiative, innovation and teamwork are inputs for success. “Results” is not a value but an output. Divas who value only their own skills and results-only leaders are just not a cultural fit.

Leadership and people: There are a number of ways Corus invests in its people, such as training, mentoring, open job opportunities and town halls. Two examples stand out as specifically supporting integration across the organization.

The first is a birthday breakfast with the CEO. On the arbitrary basis of month of birth, a group of people from different ages, genders and departments get to know each other and the CEO better and share opinions and insights.

The second is the concept of hiring tough to make managing easy. Factors taken into consideration to improve hiring fit include: values, desire to succeed, integrity (to bridle raw ambition) and skills. While the individual is valued and recognized, the expectation is skilled individuals work within the broader team to achieve overall success.

Process: Often in the context of people and culture, consideration of process is restricted to those related to people management, such as performance, succession and talent.

This keeps employees in the dark with respect to the business environment — they do not know what to expect.

Having a proactive, regularly scheduled and known business and strategy process with
ongoing participation and outcomes communicated helps employees cope with the flux and change in an uncertain industry.

When Corus asked people to take salary cuts and days off, employees understood the fiscal situation was real and why they needed to participate in the reduction.

Even in tough times, employee survey results showed Corus employees appreciated hearing about the situation first, rather than reading about it in the Globe and Mail.

Place: Corus recognized space is a luxury and expense and should not be wasted. Instead of massive studios and rows of high-walled cubicles, Corus’s location represents its values, vision and brand in a very tangible way.

The facility is light and open, with glass or low-rise walls where possible, gathering areas for teams and groups, displays of employee art, Nelvana and other units recognized in naming and decorating meeting rooms, nearly any spot useable as a studio, and a built-in fun slide.

It is designed to create a sense of community, promote pride in both company and individual accomplishment, and to facilitate teamwork. It is in sync with the culture — the way things are done around here.

While there are interesting practices in each of the categories above, what stands out is the CEO, with the assistance of human resources, is a key integration resource, choosing not to focus on just one area. For the business to be successful, it must direct all of its resources (cultural, people, budget and business strategy, and real estate) in ways that support its vision.

This integration focus at Corus has nurtured a culture that has supported growing through many acquisitions, weathering changes in an uncertain industry, and successfully developing a business niche.

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 gorslin@pathcom.com.

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