Beyond borders and boundaries: Taking the lead in workforce mobility

BMO's senior executive vice-president of human resources explains how the banking giant manages top talent

BMO’s growth strategy is to be a leading transnational financial institution.

To do this, requires different approaches and attitudes to managing top talent.

Virtual leadership

One thing we have learned in going down this road is that when it comes to managing top talent, the physical location of operations no longer matters in most cases. Getting the best person in the right job and enabling her to perform at the top of her game matters most.

Many of our senior executives work in one country, but live in another. For the past 20 years, the head of corporate communications has been located in Toronto. When the position became vacant last year, the person selected to fill it wanted to remain in Chicago, so that is what happened. Our deputy chair of BMO Financial Group also lives in the U.S. despite having significant accountability for an organization that is largely located in Canada.

Ultimately, where the job gets done is not important. With modern technology — videoconferencing, Blackberry, Palm Pilots, cell phones, not to mention free trade and direct flights — the global business community has become much smaller.

“Head office” has become a far more flexible, loosely defined, but also more productive place that exists wherever key people happen to be working and living. Successfully forging the link between people (wherever they are) and strategy is what will make BMO Financial Group an employer of choice.

Our success as a transnational financial institution depends on our ability to create a high performance culture which is, in turn, heavily dependent on our ability to utilize virtual leadership. Ultimately, effective talent management requires leaders to provide direction, gain commitment to that direction, and motivate people to achieve, regardless of their location.

Implicit in this definition is that a leader must be able to move the minds of people, through persuasion or by the strength of argument rather than just authority and command. Strong leadership is not only about bringing out the best in people; it is also about driving the successful realization of goals. Leaders capable of doing this are invaluable and BMO will not let geography prevent us from taking advantage of leadership talent like that.

Managing top talent across borders

BMO’s commitment to lifelong learning has always been an integral part of its culture and core values throughout its 185-year history. Since the opening of our corporate university 10 years ago, tens of thousands of employees have received professional training and development.

Our programs emphasize skills such as sales and service, risk management, information technology and managerial leadership skills. Many of these courses are offered online to meet the varied needs of our global workforce.

Establishing a pipeline of leaders is not only essential to achieving priorities and delivering sustainable results, it is, in fact, an obligation we have to current and future shareholders, as well as employees.

BMO therefore invests heavily in training. Employees from both sides of the border have an opportunity to participate in a prestigious MBA program offered through a partnership with Halifax’s Dalhousie University. Our Institute for Learning also offers a Managerial Leadership Learning System, designed to prepare managers to lead by enhancing their strategic capabilities through management and leadership skills.

Corporate values

A third factor that has led to BMO’s success in managing employees transnationally is the creation and promotion of an enterprise-wide culture based on shared corporate values. In 2000, BMO’s most senior executives developed corporate values which represent our core beliefs. They stand as our collective commitment — to each other, to our customers, to our shareholders and the communities of which we are a part.

These are the shared values by which BMO defines itself — in the workplace, marketplace and out in the wider world. These values provide a stable base for guiding all employee decisions and actions, forming an integral part of an organization’s value proposition to customers and employees, and creating a source of competitive advantage in the competition for top talent.

In an economic environment where national borders are increasingly irrelevant, more businesses will find themselves playing on a global stage, trying to harness the power of a transnational workforce.

To do so they will need to embrace virtual leadership, continuously develop top talent wherever they are located, and create an enterprise-wide culture based on shared corporate values. Through these actions, organizations can function at the top of their games regardless of where their home base is.

Rose Patten is senior executive vice-president, human resources and head, office of strategic management at BMO Financial Group, working in Toronto but managing people around the world.

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