Banking on leadership development

BMO and Maple Leaf Foods get serious about finding and developing leaders

Though many organizations claim leadership development is a priority, few could honestly claim they are as committed to doing something about it as BMO and Maple Leaf Foods.

Both companies have dedicated considerable resources — both financial and human — to making sure they are finding and developing the leaders needed for the organization to thrive in the future.

That commitment to leadership development was one of the factors attracting Audrey Wubbenhorst to BMO in 2001. After earning a master’s degree in communications from Toronto’s York University and spending a year with a small consulting firm, Wubbenhorst applied for a job in BMO’s HR group.

She knew the bank had a reputation for developing people with aspirations to leadership, including a unique MBA in financial services, created in partnership with Dalhousie University, in Halifax.

Now, three years later, Wubbenhorst, at just 25, is a senior manager of HR communications. The bank is paying for her to earn a full MBA on company time. Beginning last summer, for one week every quarter for the next four years, Wubbenhorst and 34 of the bank’s up-and-coming leaders, will gather at the bank’s learning centre on the outskirts of Toronto.

A professor from Dalhousie will fly in to deliver one of the 16 intensive modules that constitute BMO’s MBA. In between the week-long sessions each student is expected to complete another 15 to 20 hours a week of coursework.

It is a lot of work, says Wubbenhorst, but everyone realizes that being selected for the program means the company is investing heavily in them. “Most of the people are very flattered just to be accepted to the program,” she says. It proves the company is willing to provide them with opportunities to grow and develop. In return, most of the grads feel more dedicated to the bank. Though having an MBA makes grads highly marketable, more than 90 per cent of the roughly 200 grads have stayed with the bank upon graduation since the program started eight years ago.

Wubbenhorst herself admits that, after just two sessions, the work and interaction with people from across the organization have already got her thinking about new opportunities when she graduates.

At BMO discussions about career development usually begin with the question “What do you want to do?” not the decree “Here is what we want you do to,” she says. If an organization considers someone to be high potential, the key is to find something that person is excited to do to keep them motivated.

Though she has no intention of asking for a change any time soon, she has thought about moving into a new area of HR or even the possibility of moving into other functions.

After outsourcing much of the HR function two years ago, the bank now has three core areas of HR. Aside from the diversity and employee engagement group, which Wubbenhorst is in now, there is also a talent management group, and a learning and development group.

She has already had discussions with other groups about what types of jobs might be available in the future. “It’s something for down the road, in a couple of years, maybe,” she says.

That is just as it should be, says Lesya Balych-Cooper, vice-president equity and employee engagement for BMO, and Wubbenhorst’s direct supervisor.

One of the benefits of the MBA program is that it exposes future leaders to greater areas of the enterprise, she says. “You don’t have to stay in HR. I came from the line and it is critical for us to be able to exchange skills and resources (across the bank),” she says.

“(Wubbenhorst) felt she had a narrow experience and she wanted to learn more about the company and how it made money,” says Balych-Cooper. She wanted more formal business and finance skills and that is exactly the kind of knowledge the will enable the HR department at BMO to meet its objectives.

“That means we can concentrate on becoming a high performance culture. We need to be able to understand financial targets so we can focus on productivity and driving revenue growth, and providing a superior customer experience,” she says. But if Wubbenhorst takes that knowledge to another part of the bank, so be it. BMO is still better off for having made the investment and keeping her within the organization.

Meanwhile, in a very different industry, very similar attitudes are shaping leadership development at Maple Leaf Foods.

Four years ago, Bob Hedley became vice-president of leadership. “My job is to champion what we call the leadership edge,” he says.

The leadership edge includes everything from campus recruitment to performance management, recognition, a leadership academy (created through a partnership with the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, in London, Ont.) and a rigorous leadership ranking system.

“The objective is to bring the best people into the company, to make sure they have the right level of opportunity and to enrich that opportunity.”

Annual performance reviews based on results and adherence to corporate values — which is equally important, says Hedley — are used to rank managers and leaders.

Each leader is then put on a grid of values and achievements. “Then we force-rank them. We divide them into top 20, mid-30, mid-40 and bottom 10.”

Someone could be rated a mid-30 on the strength of their ability to achieve results. But they may not score well on meeting the corporate values. “The message is not that she is a mid-30. That is a consequence. The message is that if you really want to strive and perform, you need to focus on maintaining your results, but also on improving value consistency.”

It is a model made famous by GE, he says. “People ask, ‘Do you fire the bottom 10 per cent?’ In the first couple of years — Maple Leaf hadn’t done performance review in 25 years — there were a few people who were just putting in time, so yeah, then it was a case of (drafting) an exit plan.”

But as the bar on leadership gets higher and higher the conversations change. “We do differentiate in compensation, and recognition and access to enriched learning opportunities,” he says. But by now even the bottom 10 per cent have something to contribute within the organization. “It is more often we look at maybe this person needs to be re-deployed that will get them to a place where they will be motivated. Or maybe this person is just in a job that needs to be rethought. Or maybe they have more work than they can handle. Let’s resize the job. The last option is an exit plan.”

And yet, even though the organization has been heavily committed to improving leadership for four years, a shortage of great leaders is still a major concern. “Where I lose sleep right now is we still don’t have enough bench strength. One of the challenges is to acquire enough talent within the company and grow them fast enough so that we are ready to grow ourselves,” says Hedley.

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