Find the best grads, grow them, then reap the rewards

Do what’s right. Be performance driven. Have a bias for action. Continuously improve. Be externally focused. Dare to be transparent.

These things might sound like an inspirational lecture from Grandma, however for employees at Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto, the six values go far beyond a family fireside chat. According to Wayne Johnson, vice-president of human resources, every aspect of an employee’s performance is based on Leadership Edge Values. They’re the cornerstone of the culture at Maple Leaf and reinforce behaviour expectations. Everything is linked to the values and that includes performance reviews and bonuses, says Johnson.

Grooming homegrown leaders who possess these values is a top priority for Maple Leaf, which is why it embarked on numerous initiatives to hire and develop prospective leaders. One of the most ambitious projects is the Management Trainee Program (MT). The program, which launched in 1998, targets the best of the best from eight Canadian universities. Once students are selected, they go through a three-year process at Maple Leaf and are able to work on three to four different assignments in various areas. While one trainee may likely work in finance, manufacturing and HR, another may take a completely different path, working in sales, business development and marketing. The purpose behind the program is to shape leaders who are in the know and understand the complete operations of the company.

“We want to give them a broad range of experiences because we believe that makes better leaders,” Johnson says. They also wanted to be more proactive in their recruitment strategy since the war for talent has become more intense.

Though the MT program was a solution for recruitment, there were still many potential leaders already working in the company that needed to be catered to also. So, a year after the MT program was underway, Maple Leaf introduced its Leadership Academy in partnership with the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London. The most talented employees study at the academy with the intent of moving up in the organization.

Johnson says it’s not hard to identify future leaders because leadership is constantly being measured at Maple Leaf.

“There’s a lot of measurement going on with respect to leadership, most particularly the execution of the development plans of individuals. That’s reviewed once a month.” Employees are also force ranked on an annual basis to distinguish between the good performers and the exceptional.

HR also looks for other criteria. This includes having a variety of experiences, demonstrating the six values on a consistent basis and delivering results. On the flip side, there are benefits to being a part of the cream of the Maple Leaf crop.

“They’re going to make more money because we set our salary policy line higher for the top performers. As well they’re going to get bigger bonuses because they tend to deliver their results.

“We’re going to give them a challenge and ‘A’ players crave challenge. So the more you can give them the more they thrive and if you can’t then somebody else will,” says Johnson.

At the same time, that’s not to say poor players get the death sentence. They still deserve the chance to grow and to be provided with opportunities, although the onus falls on the individual to perform above average, he says. The main point is transparency, every employee knows they can get ahead if they want to. Johnson hopes this message will have a trickle-down effect because initially many of the leadership programs were geared towards top executives, now HR is trying to involve hourly workers and front-line staff. Bringing it down to all levels is Maple Leaf’s ultimate goal.

With all these new programs in place, the HR staff can take much of the credit yet they know a winning leadership program goes beyond a picture-perfect plan; it takes a CEO to back it.

“Although HR drove the implementation, the CEO (Michael McCain) made it successful. There was absolutely no convincing required, he’s absolutely committed to first-rate leadership,” says Johnson.

Johnson advises companies looking for a better leadership strategy not to be afraid of adopting another company’s best practices. In fact, he says their program was a combination of ideas taken from other businesses.

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