We talked to 5 CEOs about innovation

Canada has been described as a laggard when it comes to innovation. A conservative, risk-averse culture could be holding us back from the benefits of a creative, entrepreneurial mindset. But in talking to five CEOs from across Canada, we heard about all kinds of innovation that are taking place, as employers realize the need to stay ahead of the curve, not only to be competitive, but to attract and retain key talent.

We talked to 5 CEOs about innovation

When it comes to the importance of innovation, Anthony Viel, CEO of Deloitte Canada, is pretty clear on where he stands.  

“If you don't innovate, your life in the new economy is going to be short as an organization. Or certainly your life as a leader in the new economy is going to be very short.” 

On the one hand, it's about survival; on the other hand, it’s about being able to attract the very best talent that wants to change the world, he says. And Deloitte is continually trying to be a preferred employer of choice, he says. 

“We've set up a social media platform internally where 14,000 people or a vast majority of them will contribute on things that impact life within Deloitte as an employee,” says Viel. “I call them users because they inform us as to how we improve the talent value proposition and how we improve the client value proposition. The leaders of those users, they're responsible for creating the culture and the culture that allows the users to innovate with freedom.” 

It’s been said the talent of the future will have 10 different jobs over 40 years — though not necessarily at different employers, he says. 

“If that is directionally correct, it underpins why you need to be an innovative organization if you want to keep top talent because, if you keep reinventing the value propositions for clients and for your people, you’ve got a better chance of holding on to that person who wants to have 10 jobs in 40 years… That probably encapsulates why we're so passionate about innovation here at Deloitte.” 

Human resources makes three major contributions when it comes to innovation. For one, it’s charged with understanding the human psychology but also combining that with the data and analytics, says Viel. 

“HR professionals need to work with our business leaders to make sure that we bring that understanding to life such that we can have a more innovative culture.” 

The second element is helping leaders to be better leaders so they can facilitate that culture, while the third is about both attracting and retaining talent, and celebrating the talent that is living the culture, he says. 

“Our HR folk are strategic talent development advisors, so they’re agitators back with our businesses across 14,000 people to make sure that we are developing our people in line with our strategy of which innovation is one pillar.” 

Also helping Deloitte Canada’s push for innovation is the company’s global network. 

“We're able to leverage innovations from across our network of 300,000 practitioners,” says Viel, and Canada has been one of the leaders. 

“[It’s about] exporting Canadian innovation and deployment across the globe, which plays back to most of the people that join us want to change the world.” 

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges along the way. For example, it’s one thing to think about the idea and the innovation; it’s another to realize the benefits of that idea and innovation, says Viel. 

“How do I do enough of the former and enough of the latter so that they stay in harmony such that you continue to be successful as an organization, as well as being at the forefront of… the client value proposition and the talent value proposition?” 

The other big challenge is making sure you have a culture that embraces failure as much as success, he says. 

“Fear can stop individuals from innovating. We don't celebrate failure very often, so my attitude is that a failure should be greeted with an ‘Attaboy, attagirl, we've learnt something; move forward, let’s innovate with that learning,’” says Viel. “If you don't create that culture, then fear can cripple or stifle innovation within your organization.” 

Obviously, there need to be successes as well, but if an organization just operates under only successes, “then that fear becomes real because no one wants to put their neck out, so to speak, for fear of reprisal,” he says. 

There’s also the challenge of technology itself. There’s a lack of understanding when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), for example, in the science behind the applications and how the data should be used. While Deloitte uses AI to screen applicants instead of manual measures, it has to be free of bias, says Viel. 

“AI can be our friend in this way. And the use of data can be our friend. But we also need to be mindful of what data we are using and what biases are... being built into these AI algorithms; because, sometimes, it has unintended consequences.” 

HR's role

Aviation is one of those industries where innovation is absolutely critical, according to Jim Scott, CEO of Flair Airlines.  

“Twenty years ago, if you were in the low-cost business, which we’re in, your costs would have been twice as high. So, they’ve halved in 20 years. And the reason for that is new technology and aircraft, but [also] innovation in how we move passengers and how we deal with customers. And if we didn’t move, if we weren’t innovative, we would perish.”  

For example, airports are still a costly part of the process because so much is still done manually. But with the advent of self-check-ins, people are able to do much more themselves. And in the future, that will change again, he says.  

“You won't even recognize it. There won't be people at counters — when you go into the airport, it will recognize probably some biometrics of yourself, your face or so on. And it will deal with you from what you've entered into the system, and it will know where you are during your whole journey through the airport until such time as you get on to the airplane.”  

Another area of innovation involves the actual plane itself. There’s a group of captive consumers onboard, whose needs haven’t been well met by airlines, says Scott.  

So, instead of people having to wait for a drinks cart to be pushed down the aisle, Flair is piloting an initiative that gives all passengers access to in-flight WiFi so they can order food and drinks from their phones. There will also be a menu promoting, for example, local breweries, and passengers will be able to sample and order the product while on the plane.  

“[People] will be able to do in-cabin shopping… and then when the aircraft lands, it will download all the information and we will get a commission off of it. But what it allows the airlines to do is to maximize on the fact that they have people literally seat-belted into a seat for two or three or four hours with nothing to do than read the safety demonstration card, and we're going to start to give them options,” he says. “Airlines traditionally are horrible at marketing to their customers — I mean, they think that charging for a bag or a boarding pass is innovative. It's not; it's a regressive way of obtaining revenue. So, we will be looking at Flair and then throughout the industry at innovative ways of obtaining revenue from passengers.”  

For an airline, there are four crucial steps. The first is to get started; the second is to become profitable; the third is to be scalable; and the fourth is to be innovative, says Scott. And right now, Flair is starting to venture into innovation.  

To that end, a group of employees in their 20s and 30s are spearheading innovations such as the in-cabin shopping project, he says.  

“They are constantly looking at ways of dealing with the consumer in a new way, which the traditional airlines haven't done and they'll be very slow to react,” says Scott. “Their job is to find innovation for the airline, and then present it in a business case up through the airline structure, and then we fund it. And we're just beginning that process right now… we have a number of items waiting to come up through the system. And it's just a matter of execution.”  

It’s about having a team of people who can sense what's coming on the horizon and be able to make changes, he says.  

We don't want to be cutting edge. We're testing systems that may not work. We want to be quick followers [of] best practices. So, if somebody else's seen some innovation that’s worked, we'll pick up on it very quickly. But we don't want to be a testbed because when you're doing R&D, sometimes, projects don't work. And that's where you can end up losing a lot of money because you have a bunch of failed projects in the year, and nothing to show for it but your R&D costs.”  

And in hiring for innovation, HR can help by focusing on an entrepreneurial attitude when it comes to core competencies. That means finding people who have the tenacity to win under adversity, says Scott.  

“There'll be 1,000 reasons to say no to new technology. And we really need people that are prepared to muscle the new technology through all the logjams that it normally gets when it meets a conservative industry like flying or banking or something like that,” he says. “Entrepreneurs, they're sold on the idea and then they're prepared to take the extra steps to make it move forward.”   

At its basic level, innovation is about doing something better than is currently being done, says Elio Luongo, CEO and senior partner at KPMG Canada in Toronto. 

But advances in technology and quantum computing and digital attributes are changing the way we solve problems. 

“It's [about] really looking for new ways that solve a real need for a particular group, whether it’s clients, businesses, the community, all of those things. Innovation plays a role,” he says. 

Innovation is also about adaptation and agility, says Luongo. 

“I need to try and create a culture and an organization that can think of new ways of problem-solving, look at new ways and new ideas, and how disparate ideas from all different places might come together and add a new thought in terms of ways of doing things going forward.” 

This kind of thinking helps with attraction when it comes to talent, he says. 

“Employees today want to be with an organization that embraces the future and our part of the ecosystem going forward. And they like new challenges. They like new technology, and they want to be part of it. And I think they don't want to be left behind. So, it's really important as an employer… that they know that they're going to develop and learn new skills in critical thinking, in developing and problem-solving with the latest and greatest solutions, technologies and innovation — ideas that come from all over the place,” says Luongo. 

“Employees are also looking for those opportunities to grow and learn and having a purpose, as well as being relevant in today's changing environment.” 

That’s meant providing employees with a lot of learning opportunities, such as a Digital University program at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. It focuses on technology and data analytics to help prepare KPMG's auditors for advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence and technological transformation. 

KPMG also works with Singularity University in Santa Clara, Calif. so middle and top management can “learn the new skills and technologies and ways of thinking and the like for the betterment of our clients, our community, in all the things we do every day,” he says. 

There’s a global war for talent, and while KPMG has typically been associated with accounting and risk aversion, it’s important to pivot to attract the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) talent, says Luongo. 

It really comes back to diverse thoughts, he says. 

“Inclusion and diversity also plays a role in this because… STEM talent has a different way of working than the traditional auditor, for example, that has grown up in our organization. But when you put the two together, you can create a lot of magic in terms of innovative ways of doing things in a much more efficient and much more accurate way than you currently do it.” 

Strategic alliances are also important to infuse a culture that brings in different ways of thinking, says Luongo. KPMG works with cloud providers such as Google and IBM to transform the existing workforce, along with creative destruction labs such as MARs to find talent and keep building an innovative culture. 

“I don't think you can start at any point and say, ‘Well, I'm done.’ I think this is in itself an iterative process where you have to bring in the right people and the new skill sets at each level and infuse the organization with this new talent and ways of working.” 

In the same vein, KPMG has opened up an “ignition centre” in Vancouver and is building another in Toronto. These involve multi-disciplinary teams vying to transform organizations through exponential technologies, design-thinking methodologies and business model innovations. 

“It's creative thinking and working and collaborating together in an environment where you have the different kinds of AI and digital tools, working together to solve a problem with digital specialists with traditional specialists, and with clients and/or the community to solve problems.” 

One of the challenges with innovation, of course, is people’s resistance to change, he says.  

“You need to foster a culture that embraces change, embraces failure and agility, failing fast, iteration — all of those things that come along with an innovative kind of culture — because innovation is in many respects, iterative… You try, fail and learn from the failure and try again, learn from that failure. And you continue until you find success in an innovation and the process in a capability or new way of doing things. And it takes time and patience.” 

As for HR, it plays a role in helping shape the workforce. That means thinking about how to blend the human and the digital for competitive advantage, says Luongo. 

“The STEM talent, for example, has got a much more relaxed way of working versus traditional models. And, so, we've had to adapt in order to attract that talent so they feel comfortable, and that they belong and... can succeed in our working environment.” 

HR also assists with strategic recruitment, and how to appeal to different types of talents now and in the future, he says. 

“HR plays a very big role in that architecture around how do we put it all together? How do we adapt? How do we change?... And it’s about the digital learning platforms and again, helping foster innovation as part of our culture.” 

  Aviation is one of those industries where innovation is absolutely critical, according to Jim Scott, president and CEO of Flair Airlines.

“Twenty years ago, if you were in the low-cost business, which we’re in, your costs would have been twice as high. So, they’ve halved in 20 years. And the reason for that is new technology and aircraft, but [also] innovation in how we move passengers and how we deal with customers. And if we didn’t move, if we weren’t innovative, we would perish.”

For example, airports are still a costly part of the process because so much is still done manually. But with the advent of self-check-ins, people are able to do much more themselves. And in the future, that will change again, he says.

 “You won’t even recognize it. There won’t be people at counters — when you go into the airport, it will recognize probably some biometrics of yourself, your face or so on. And it will deal with you from what you’ve entered into the system, and it will know where you are during your whole journey through the airport until such time as you get on to the airplane.”

Another area of innovation involves the actual plane itself. There’s a group of captive consumers onboard, whose needs haven’t been well met by airlines, says Scott.

So, instead of people having to wait for a drinks cart to be pushed down the aisle, Flair is piloting an initiative that gives all passengers access to in-flight WiFi so they can order food and drinks from their phones. There will also be a menu promoting, for example, local breweries, and passengers will be able to sample and order the product while on the plane.

“[People] will be able to do in-cabin shopping... and then when the aircraft lands, it will download all the information and we will get a commission off of it. But what it allows the airlines to do is to maximize on the fact that they have people literally seat-belted into a seat for two or three or four hours with nothing to do than read the safety demonstration card, and we’re going to start to give them options,” he says.

“Airlines traditionally are horrible at marketing to their customers — I mean, they think that charging for a bag or a boarding pass is innovative. It’s not; it’s a regressive way of obtaining revenue. So, we will be looking at Flair and then throughout the industry at innovative ways of obtaining revenue from passengers.”

For an airline, there are four crucial steps. The first is to get started; the second is to become profitable; the third is to be scalable; and the fourth is to be innovative, says Scott. And right now, Flair is starting to venture into innovation.

To that end, a group of employees in their 20s and 30s are spearheading innovations such as the in-cabin shopping project, he says.

“They are constantly looking at ways of dealing with the consumer in a new way, which the traditional airlines haven’t done and they’ll be very slow to react,” says Scott. “Their job is to find innovation for the airline, and then present it in a business case up through the airline structure, and then we fund it. And we’re just beginning that process right now... we have a number of items waiting to come up through the system. And it’s just a matter of execution.”

It’s about having a team of people who can sense what’s coming on the horizon and be able to make changes, he says.

“They are constantly looking at ways of dealing with the consumer in a new way, which the traditional airlines haven’t done and they’ll be very slow to react,” says Scott. “Their job is to find innovation for the airline, and then present it in a business case up through the airline structure, and then we fund it. And we’re just beginning that process right now... we have a number of items waiting to come up through the system. And it’s just a matter of execution.”

It’s about having a team of people who can sense what’s coming on the horizon and be able to make changes, he says.

“We don’t want to be cutting edge. We’re testing systems that may not work. We want to be quick followers [of ] best practices. So, if somebody else’s seen some innovation that’s worked, we’ll pick up on it very quickly. But we don’t want to be a testbed because when you’re doing R&D, sometimes, projects don’t work. And that’s where you can end up losing a lot of money because you have a bunch of failed projects in the year, and nothing to show for it but your R&D costs.”

And in hiring for innovation, HR can help by focusing on an entrepreneurial attitude when it comes to core competencies. That means finding people who have the tenacity to win under adversity, says Scott.

“There’ll be 1,000 reasons to say no to new technology. And we really need people that are prepared to muscle the new technology through all the logjams that it normally gets when it meets a conservative industry like flying or banking,” he says. “Entrepreneurs, they’re sold on the idea and then they’re prepared to take the extra steps to make it move forward.”

For Marc-Étienne Julien, innovation is not just about technology. It’s about technology and people coming together to create more value, he says.

“Sometimes, we still see innovation a little too much from a tech lens, and that’s the part that still has a lot of room for evolution

n and improvement. Effective innovation should empower people to do greater things, not necessarily replace people.”

With companies and people performing tasks in completely different ways, and leveraging the capabilities of technology, it’s important to look at how that’s evolving, says Julien, CEO of Randstad Canada.

“We saw a lot of organizations using technology, automation, robotization to replace the tasks that people were performing. And when you do that, it improves your productivity; but we think that the real benefit of innovation is when the technology and the humans are working together to add more value.”

Inclusive process

As for who should be leading the push for innovation, that’s an issue that has evolved. There was a time when it was about going into a strategy room for four days, once or twice a year, and building a five-year plan, he says.

“Those days are gone,” says Julien. “Innovation and transformation have become a common task and a common responsibility for everybody, at least from where we see organizations standing out and really making progress versus organizations that are lagging a little bit. So top-down innovation is not, in my opinion, the way to go moving forward. Especially when you think of the new generation factor, and all the genius that the new generation brings.”

It’s about having a more inclusive strategic planning process where the direction of the company is clear, he says.

“There’s a lot more freedom on how people can participate and how people can challenge the agenda, challenge the plan, and contribute to the creation of the plan in a much more positive way. That seems to be making a huge difference from an engagement point of view, from a performance point of view, from an ability-to-attract-new-talent point of view.”

Randstad has worked very hard to be innovative, and it has a couple of programs in place to that end. For one, there’s an investment fund where it takes minority shareholder positions in HR tech-related startups, says Julien. 

“ Some of them are devolutive by nature, so they do pieces of what we offer as a service; and some of them are completely disruptive and that will help us fuel our genius, if you will, and learn from these companies and obviously be an early adopter of the technologies that are emerging and working well.”

The company also has an innovation lab that works to pick up on ideas and best practices emerging in the global Randstad family.

“We have people that are dedicated to the R&D behind those ideas, but also we see: How can they operationalize those improvements and those changes? So, it’s a little bit [of a] testing ground... that’s validating assumptions,” he says.

Randstad also encourages regional leaders to contribute to the conversation.

“It’s amazing to see the amount of creative ideas, suggestions and different way of doing things that we pick up as an organization because now we have 100 to 200 people thinking about innovation in a formal process, instead of four, five or six people with the traditional process,” says Julien.

There’s also an innovation “squad” that’s open to every employee in the organization who is fascinated by innovative change management, technology and the evolution of business models, he says.

“They have a formal process to come up with ideas, recommendations, suggestions that then get exposed to our leaders as they’re doing the strategic planning process and get tested within our innovation labs.”

Of course, there are challenges to the drive for innovation. For one, it’s about balancing the excitement and focus on the future with the present, says Julien.

“[It’s about] having a foot on both sides of the fence and making sure that, while we dream, we keep being able to afford our ambitions and our ability to create a space for us to think about the future. So, the focus between the present and the future is always a challenge and a dilemma because it means we need to allow people to sometimes fail in the short term to be successful in the long run.”

HR: business transformation partner

As for human resources, it’s evolving from being a business partner to a business transformation partner, helping with the reinvention of the business.

“There clearly is a shift that needs to happen... The HR function needs itself to embrace technology and innovation,” he says.

That means not only reskilling within the HR function but spending more time to support the strategic transformation of the organization, says Julien, “stretching themselves outside of the typical way we’ve defined HR.”

Human resources also plays a key role in helping employees evolve, understanding the changes and making sure the skills are available within the organization. That can mean looking for atypical employees, “a different kind of profile that they’ve been looking at in the past,” he says. “HR has an amazing opportunity if they can really help [the] organization be more inclusive, be more flexible in hiring based on soft skills instead of hard skills.”

Innovation has always been at the heart of IKEA — from its unique business idea to its in-store experience, product design, sustainability initiatives and the entrepreneurial spirit of the workers, says Michael Ward, CEO and chief sustainability officer of Ikea Canada.

“With urbanization, new technology and digitalization, we know the retail landscape and our customers’ lives are rapidly evolving and we are transforming our business to be ever more accessible, affordable and people- and planet-positive.”

 It’s about being available for customers, whenever and however they choose, he says.

“This includes exploring new store formats, enhancing the in-store experience, improving our service offer, introducing new digital experiences and optimizing our distribution networks.”

For IKEA, innovation is about finding the best way to meet and inspire customers, today and in the future, says Ward.

“Innovation is also about leading from our purpose, ensuring we continue to lead in areas such as sustainability, human rights and affordability.”

In transforming the business, it’s about “leading into the unknown and managing change at a faster rate than ever before,” says Ward.

“We must bring people along the journey from old ways of working to new ways of working and, in some cases, leverage talent in new ways and teach new competencies... it’s been important to lead the change through open and transparent communication, and pausing to celebrate our wins and acknowledge and action what we have learned.”

Supportive culture

As for who should be leading innovation at the company, every individual worker has a role to play in contributing to the future of IKEA, he says, “and it is only through engaging our co-workers that we can achieve our goals and continue to lead with innovation.”

To ensure an inclusive, supportive culture that nurtures and develops talent so everybody can be themselves and make a difference, the company’s people and culture team leads innovation by staying connected with employees across all markets, listening to feedback and sharing back to the wider business, says Ward.

“We are also leveraging people analytics to contribute to innovation and creativity, while unlocking talent through a competitive total rewards programs, talent development and succession initiatives.”

And to attract and retain the best talent, the company continues to innovate when it comes to the employee experience, he says.

“This is especially important as we grow and add new competencies to our business. We want to be one of Canada’s top employers and for our co-workers to say that IKEA is a great place to work. This not only includes areas such as our compensation and benefits, but also social platforms and purpose-led initiatives that matter to our co-workers including sustainability and diversity, equality and inclusion.”

Rewards and benefits

IKEA’s workplace is based on the company’s values and rooted in its Swedish culture. That means driving innovation, says Ward, “by ensuring our rewards and benefits are relevant and competitive and by creating a culture where co-workers can share ideas and contribute to the future of IKEA.”

This includes: the digital integration of staff resources, ensuring information can be easily accessed via smartphones; and a total rewards package that includes benefits, discounts, registered retirement savings program (RRSP) matching, subsidized meals, a loyalty program and a performance-driven bonus program, he says.

“We are introducing new initiatives and digital platforms where co-workers across the world can contribute ideas. This enables co-workers to start grassroot movements and collaborate globally with colleagues.”

Latest stories