CEOs talk (Oct. 8, 2001)

Finding and developing the leaders of tomorrow.

A vastly different business world has brought with it vastly different perceptions about leadership. Companies have always needed good people running the show, but with the growing recognition that employees are often the only competitive advantage, particularly (but not only) in knowledge economy firms, there has followed a greater emphasis on finding leaders who can get the most from staff. But that’s not all. Leadership itself is being redefined. Employers want people throughout organizations acting like leaders in their own little corners of the business. Things happen too fast for the old decision-making model to work. Now people at all levels need to make decisions, act independently and take responsibility. With that in mind Canadian HR Reporter spoke to Canadian corporate leaders about leadership. We wanted to know what it means to be a leader in their companies, and what they are doing to find and develop the people who will ensure the success of their organizations.

Eric Newell
Chair and CEO
Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Headquartered in Fort McMurray, Alta., oil producer Syncrude Canada Ltd. employs 3,600 people.

Leadership development has always been important at Syncrude, but lately the company has undertaken an overhaul of its programs and policies — they have to, says Eric Newell, CEO.

The company is in the middle of an $8-billion expansion that will require it to increase the workforce. At the same time, a low turnover rate in recent years has translated into a fairly high average age. “In the next 10 years we figure about 75 per cent of our leaders will be leaving.” It is a high number, Newell admits, but by acting now it can be treated as an opportunity and not a problem.
Leadership capacity in the company is strong now, says Newell, they just have to make sure it will stay that way.

Syncrude has become very cognizant about who is in the leadership pipeline, and development programs are being revamped to make sure they will be able to meet impending shortages.

Every three or four years, all team leaders will participate in a one-week leadership workshop, designed in-house. (When a working model of the development program was complete, a best practices review was undertaken, but the research turned up little that was not already under consideration.)

Every leader will now have a learning contract with their immediate leader and a “smorgasboard” of development opportunities are being offered.

The senior leadership team of about 30 people also get together every year for three days for an executive development forum. The sessions are designed and facilitated by an internal manager and focus on emerging challenges for leadership based on the business plan.

Succession planning is the third important tenet of Syncrude’s renewed leadership development plan; senior managers identify high-potential people in their respective areas. Detailed development plans are created that can include work assignments, mentoring, major university executive development programs and the encouragement of graduate studies.

One of the things Syncrude strives for is to have two people ready to step into any position at a moment’s notice, as well as a number of people who could be ready in the next five years, says Newell.

In planning for the future, Syncrude has also rededicated itself to meeting diversity goals. For example, they want to increase the number of aboriginal people and women.

Of its 3,600 employees, about eight per cent have been identified as high potential; 183 men and 53 women.

Every employee gets a development plan. About five to seven per cent of payroll goes to developing employees, says Newell, but special focus is placed on getting the development plan right for high-potential staff.

“We have a lot of people trying to steal our people and so you want to make sure you are communicating well how valued they are but you also don’t want to create unrealistic expectations.”

And while formal leadership development is being done, Syncrude also prides itself on creating a culture of leadership often associated with new economy knowledge-based organizations.

Like so many other companies, Syncrude went through a considerable downsizing in the ’90s, reducing the head count from more than 4,700 employees to about 3,400.

“A lot of administration roles went away, but the next area by far was management. We took out all sorts of layers of management and we moved towards teams taking responsibility for their own tasks.”

Group leaders are expected to provide encouragement and remove barriers when needed, but also ensure toes aren’t stepped on in other groups. “The tough part of leadership is assessing how far you let them go,” says Newell.

Team leaders also need to lead by example and demonstrate the behaviours they want to see in other employees.

“Leaders need a drive to excel and to challenge the status quo, be excited by that challenge and committed to achieving results. To do that you have to be fairly innovative in your thinking.” That means focusing on continuous improvement.

“We needed employees to redesign how work is done,” says Newell.

“First of all we spent a lot of effort redesigning how work is being done. Really what we are trying to do is engage people to get them thinking and acting like owners of the business.”

Front-line workers, (“Most people call them blue-collar workers, but we call them technicians,” says Newell) have been taught business literacy to get a better understanding of how the organization succeeds and how individual employees can contribute.

Some of the company’s technicians have been published for their innovations at Syncrude. One technician took a special interest in vibration analysis of rotating equipment and figured out a way to improve the handling of large machinery, a useful contribution in improving productivity.

Newell credits improved business literacy and constantly challenging people to improve the way they do things for almost doubling workforce productivity between 1989 and 1997 while workforce numbers were reduced by about 30 per cent.

Bryan Boyd
President and CEO
TeraGo Networks

TeraGo Networks is a Calgary-based Internet service provider that builds and operates networks in mid-sized Canadian cities. The company got off the ground in August, 2000 and has 70 employees in eight cities across the country.

“Leadership is not a campaign, it is not something you put in your newsletter and stick posters up for. It is an attitude, and it is what permeates into how you work with people everyday, every minute,” says Bryan Boyd, president and CEO of TeraGo Networks.

As a young, rapidly growing player in the high-tech sector, TeraGo expects people on the front lines to make decisions quickly to respond to the quick-fire changes that characterize the industry. People need to show initiative to get results, and to do that they are given a great deal of freedom, says Boyd. His role, and the role of the executive team, is to support staff however possible.

“As a young company we have essentially no bureaucracy, and we have a group of highly energized people interacting with customers,” he says.

“The people in our field offices and in our customer support centre know that we in the executive believe that we will be successful because they are successful. And they are the ones closest to the front line and part of their job is to help us understand the opportunities and the challenges they’re facing so that we can support them in overcoming them.”

Since TeraGo is such a fast growing company it relies heavily on third-party contractors, suppliers and partners, says Boyd. Consequently, TeraGo employees are often working with people from outside the company and will have to act quickly and independently and make decisions to direct those outside groups for the benefit of TeraGo. “That is why I really emphasize the point that everybody in some capacity is a leader,” says Boyd.

When it comes to selecting people who will act as leaders, Boyd says there are useful clues to look for in an interview. People who show initiative and will act as leaders should want to work for dynamic, winning organizations and will ask questions to ensure the company will enable them to act independently and make things happen.

“I look for a track record of success, I look for people who finish things,” says Boyd.

“Leadership can be defined in many different ways but it can be found in every person. I look for indicators in what they have done in the past, and will ask questions in an interview that will show they will do it again.”

The firm is also committed to helping develop the leadership skills of people already in the company. Aside from any regular contact, Boyd meets with his director of HR once a month specifically to review the entire organization and look at areas that need further development and people that need support.

“Other HR topics are not very high on our list, because we are growing so much it is all about the people. Things like benefit plans or the more administrative stuff isn’t that important. The key focus is finding good people and then developing them.”

Scott Laver
General Manager
Dominion Information Services Inc.

Dominion Information Service Inc. publishes Telus pages, employs more than 800 people and is one of Canada’s largest directory publishers. The company recently acquired Telus Information Services.

There is an important message Scott Laver wants to get to his employees: He isn’t that smart.

Employees can’t be afraid of him, expect him to have all the answers or make the best decisions for the company. On the contrary, he expects them to do a lot of that on their own. His challenge is creating the environment that enables this to happen.

To get people comfortable taking chances and making decisions, it’s important to send the message that employees are trusted to act on their own. That has to start right at the top. “Sometimes when people come in with a proposal I just have to tell them ‘Yes, I agree.’ I don’t tweak it and I don’t rewrite it. I accept what they’ve done and I signal that I believe in them and I trust what they’ve done.”

He recalls an experience in his previous work where an employee came in with a new idea. On his own, he had created a prototype for a new product he thought the company could sell. “I looked at it and said this a great idea and basically a month later it was finished and he was out selling it.”

While that alone would have been a good sign of what was accepted in the company, Laver took it a step further to ensure that message got out. “We took the products that this person had come up with and framed it and made a presentation in front of his peers to make sure he was recognized for it.”

Laver recently moved into the chief executive position with Dominion Information Services and he draws his philosophy from the great leaders he’s worked for in the past.

“The best leaders that I’ve seen established an environment where people can do their very best work. At the same time they feel enriched and involved so that what they do matters,” he says.

“The best leaders that I have had a chance to work with set a direction, set five or six core objectives. But they understood they may not have the expertise to provide the answers. They allow the people they have hired to go out and figure it out. When you allow that kind of empowerment the solutions are the best and you get complete buy-in. I’ve never seen them fail in contrast to situations where I struggled because that degree of empowerment was not in place.

“You have to let your people solve their problems and let them feel they matter. That is how I define my leadership style and that is what I strive for.”

How empowered people are depends on their position in the company, he says. In some parts there will be more structure than in others. “But as you move into the management ranks I really look for people that are willing to step out a bit. I’m looking for people that like to shine. People that can take a concept and run with it.”

He goes out of his way to talk to employees beyond his direct reports to get a better sense of what is going on in the organization. They are often nervous about talking to the head of the company, “but I’m a big believer in hearing what they have to say.”

Gabriel Bouchard
Vice-president and General Manager is the Canadian division of the leading global online network for job recruitment. Owned and operated by the interactive division of TMP Worldwide, this network was launched in Canada in 1997 with 50 employees.

It’s all about the entrepreneurial spirit, says Gabriel Bouchard, vice-president and general manager of

“Leadership is a lot about that kind of spirit. We have to be very creative and we have to take risks every day. It’s quite obvious that having this spirit is one of the major ways to define leadership.”

What exactly is entrepreneurial spirit? Bouchard says there are many dimensions. But it starts with a vision. A leader has to demonstrate initiative and be able to influence people to work towards the same goal. That’s how Bouchard got up and running in October 1997.

“I spent the year trying to convince TMPW (Monster’s parent company) that the best way to develop Monster on a global basis was to launch it in Canada, and to review the whole business development plan,” he says. “At the time, the original idea was to go with one Web site that would be accessible all over the world. I didn’t think that was the best way to go.”

Unsatisfied with the business plan, Bouchard took the initiative to build his own vision of how Monster could grow into a global corporation. He compliments Monster head office for never saying “No” to any of his ideas. “They said prove to us that this is the way to go and we will support you if it makes sense.”

Since this type of corporate freedom was given to Bouchard to pursue his own initiatives, he says it’s only fair for him to give his 50 employees the same treatment.

“There are so many things to do here that if anyone wants to go that extra mile and take part of the challenge on their shoulders, they are more than welcome to do it,” says Bouchard, who has 15 years’ experience in employee management. “The kind of organization we’re in right now, not only the culture, but the size and the industry is really in favour of fostering take the place they want to take.”

There is also a program that identifies exceptional leaders regardless of their position in the company. Throughout the five divisions of TMPW, 100 leaders are chosen each year and they get together on a quarterly basis to get training on specific leadership issues. At this year’s conference, they were asked to create a project that will help all TMPW divisions on a global scale.

“So, not only are you going to get trained, but you are able to have an impact on the development of the organization.”

There are other incentives for employees to become leaders. Bouchard has a project on the table that, if implemented, would increase the contribution of new ideas.

“The staff people would actually get paid for every new idea they bring that will be implemented and they will be asked to take on the leader role,” he says. “It gives everybody the chance to drive their own projects...the more you empower your people, the more support you give them, the more they will go that extra mile.”

Bill Bergen
Oracle Corporation Canada Inc.

Founded in 1984 and based in Mississauga, Ont., Oracle Canada and its 1,000 employees in 13 offices across the country provide systems architecture and information-management software for Canadian companies.

While leadership and entrepreneurialism are nearly synonymous for startup companies in the new economy, at some point they grow to the point where they can’t act like startups anymore. Such is the case for Oracle.

“As the business matured we needed a different type of leadership,” says Bill Bergen.

“When you are a small software company, typically the people are extremely entrepreneurial. We are at the point now where we are still entrepreneurial but we have a lot more responsibility to the marketplace and our stakeholders, so it requires a different style of leadership. It is a little more methodical rather than seat-of-the-pants leadership.” But he cautions, “You can’t go too far because you don’t want to take the edge off the business.

“All of our people have power to change things provided they are in line with the direction of the business. We’re always looking for new ways to do things. We’ve got a lot of very bright people here with very good ideas and through the encouragement of leadership we expect them to take those ideas forward and enhance our business. It’s for products, process, the way we manage our customers. It could be anything we do.”

And as the business changes so must leadership development.

In the last year or so, Oracle has been introducing new programs and initiatives. Vice-presidents meet with their teams to work through business issues and clarify the leadership direction. And 360-degree workshops give leaders candid feedback from their employees on how they are doing.

For people who have been put in the leadership stream, three or four times a year leadership forums are held with groups of as many as 40 and as few as 10 or 12 participants working on key leadership skills

An outside facilitator is brought in, who presents the group with a series of business challenges.

“And then they work through that process, with a little guidance but allowing them a lot of latitude as to how they want to approach the problems,” says Bergen. “It’s not theoretical at all, we are hoping that they will solve real issues for us.

“You could run a leaders forum to determine what is the optimum way to deploy your resources and then that would work its way back up to myself or senior management to analyze it, put our spin on it or execute.”

Participants aren’t marked or evaluated, that’s not the point, says Bergen. “That would not be the effective way to get good ideas. The intention is to develop their skills and not to evaluate them.”

Bergen met with HR to develop the program, and takes an active part in the forums themselves. “I participate by discussing leadership by example and letting them know what it’s been like for me in the last 10 years: what has worked, what hasn’t.”

Bergen also meets with HR monthly, and with the HR person whose sole responsibility is leadership across the company. It is a new position created in the last two years.

The position was introduced on the recommendation from HR. Essentially it is a leadership ombudsmen that is lined up with each of our lines of business: sales, distribution, consulting, product support and education, to ensure each of those lines of business are developing leadership.

David Stroud
Vice-president and General Manager of Canadian operations
AT&T Global Network Services

AT&T Global Network Services Canada provides network support and services. A wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T Corp., it employs 140 people.

A consequence of creating a true leadership culture, where people show initiative, make decisions and act independently, is that you have to accept mistakes are going to be made.

That’s fine, says David Stroud of AT&T Global Network Services, “I’m okay with people making a mistake once or twice. I think we would want to be careful about making that mistake three times. But at the end of the day the reality is most people will never make the mistake twice,” he says.

“The more you act that way and allow people to learn through mistakes without having big penalties in front of them, that tends to drive a culture where people want to be innovative. I see innovation as a key leadership skill that allows you to move in a fast-paced industry that is changing very quickly.

“A business that is very non-hierarchical, is generally much better at driving a culture that allows people to be empowered and use leadership skill sets to bring in new ideas and implement those ideas. Employees must be empowered to make decisions without needing management approval.”

On a once a year basis, Stroud meets with his senior team to plan all of the HR programs, including leadership development. Objectives and priorities are set, skill evaluations and performance appraisals are reviewed and people are ranked on their leadership potential.

“We have a high-potential ranking of technical people, as well as people we think have leadership and management potential and sometimes they overlap as well.”

High-potential people on the technical side will be sent anywhere in North America for expensive seminars or certification programs. And on the management side, they are also sent to executive development programs that cost upwards of $12,000.

“We’re never concerned about spending too much,” he says. The organization places a lot of importance on making sure employees are happy — particularly people who demonstrate good leadership ability.

“I’ve seen business leaders in the past pay most attention to their stockholders, and especially in the last three or four years it’s gotten to the point of I’d say ludicrous. Or to their customer. I personally view running a business as almost an equal balance between employee, stockholder and customer, because if you don’t pay attention to every one of those the other ones will suffer.

“People want to have a culture where they can be active in decision-making and be part of changing the business. Being an empowered employee fosters leadership and allows the business to move ahead at a faster pace.

“The reality is that business is moving ahead at an exponential pace, moving faster all of the time. I take a lot of care in ensuring that my employee satisfaction numbers are just as good as my customer satisfaction numbers. At the end of the day if you do take care of those two things you got a pretty good chance of taking care of profitability and shareholder value.”

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