Further musings with Peter Currie

Online exclusive — more of David Brown's interview with the vice-chairman and chief financial officer of RBC Financial Group on his view of HR

What is your take on performance reviews? Do you do them with your direct reports?

I do, but understand that the eight people who report to me are some of the most senior executives in our organization so I don’t sit down with a checklist.

My philosophy is that an executive should probably have no more than five objectives, and one of the objectives is ensure that the business meets its commitments, that is all of the day-to-day things that we do.

Then the other three or four or at the max five other objectives should be summarized on one page. We read those at the beginning of the year and then I chat with the folks throughout the year.

But one thing I don’t want to do is get bogged down in a five-page performance appraisal, and I don’t want them bogged down in it. If I do that with my direct colleagues, that is what they are going to do with their direct colleagues. The last thing a company like this needs is more paperwork, more bureaucracy and more administrivia.

So we have ongoing discussions. I’ll chat with someone and they’ll say, ‘Look, we made this objective and we’re not going to be able to do it for this reason.’ And they’ll explain the reason and it’s usually fine. We are very open with each other I know what is going on. We’ll reset the objective, reschedule it usually. We won’t bend it. We will just reschedule it, and we soldier on.

And you expect those who report to you to do this kind of performance management with their reports, it should be just a one page process, all the way down?

Absolutely. That is my philosophy. People are busy today, if you can’t condense your objectives to a page with the caveat that the first objective to do everything you have committed to doing in your operating budget, then you are supervising the person as opposed to leading them.

Supervising is different than just leading?

Leading is about defining what the goal is and helping people understand what some paths to that goal are. To a large extent you try to inspire them, but then you have to insert yourself in the process, to see if you can help clear the obstacles for them.

Those obstacles could be financial obstacles, they could be interpersonal obstacles, they could be structural obstacles within the organization, and it is up to the leader to find a way — if they are going to agree to an objective — to find a way to help their colleagues achieve that objective.

Organizations want people to be motivated and engaged. Do you think your style enables that and trickles down through the rest of the organization?

My style is a little unique I guess, not totally unique. All I want people to do is be themselves. And I want them to bring three things to the table when they come to work. I want them to bring creativity, because I think companies move forward based on their creativity quotient and the level of creativity or innovation that is inherent in the organization.

I want them to bring professionalism and respect for their colleagues and that will extend to their customers and all their other constituencies. Because if you don’t have that you don’t have a team you have bunch of individuals. You have a baseball team and not a hockey team. I think hockey is the greatest team sport in the world and baseball is probably the least. Because in baseball you have essentially got a bunch of positional players, who are on the field at the same time and that is what makes them a team, but what they do, they do on their own. In hockey very few players do what they do on their own. They rely upon their teammates.

The third thing, and this underpins everything we try to communicate here, is integrity. Integrity is paramount to us. It is paramount to me. I don’t care if someone is the greatest technician in the world, they could be the most brilliant theoretician or strategist in the world, if they don’t practice and demonstrate integrity, they are not here. This is not the place for them.

Have you had to do anything to make sure you are bringing in those people?

Those are criteria I look for in everybody I hire. And there have been situations where we, to use one of (HR’s) terms, deselected people who don’t demonstrate those characteristics.

Of the three, I rank them in the inverse order I gave you. Integrity is paramount, professionalism is second and creativity is third. I can actually work with someone that has high integrity and high professionalism and they don’t have to be the most creative person in the world. We can find a place where they can contribute. But if someone is very creative, and even if they are professional, if they lack integrity, they are gone. They are just not on the team.

Do you coach or mentor your employees?

I try to coach people. I’ll coach anyone who will tolerate me. I’ll talk to anybody. As far down the organization people want to go. I have talked to people I have just hired and given them input. The problem with coaching is unless you deal with them on a day-to-day basis, it is very difficult to give them useful input. So I coach the people I directly deal with and usually about one level down, beyond that I am glad to give people input but I just don’t see them often enough to be helpful.

There is no formalized coaching process?

I view that as part of leadership and they understand that, and in fact they spend a lot of time doing it. That comes down to the kind of people you select for an organization. It is all well and good to say you want people with certain technical skills and certain values but you also want people with certain personality types and I think we have a good fit of personality types. And yes, we have got some very intense people on the senior team, but they are not irrationally intense. And they spend time coaching their colleagues, and leading their colleagues, I don’t call it coaching, I call it leading.

One of the HR buzzwords used in relation to personality types and leadership is emotional intelligence.

I have no idea what that means. Can you tell me?

It has to do measuring soft skills and figuring out how people work with other people.

It sounds like an opportunity for consulting firms. I think leadership is not innate. I think you can learn it. You have to want to learn how to be an effective leader. And you have to be prepared to put yourself behind your team in terms of success, make sure your team gets recognized for success and you stand in the background, but put yourself in front of your team when risks are being taken. That is something that a lot of people are uncomfortable with.

To me that is what leadership is about. And you can teach people that. It is a matter of being comfortable with who you are and what you are doing and being comfortable with taking risks. Because an organization that is not taking risks is dying. If you don’t take some calculated risks, your organization will die. You will become stagnant and you won’t be able to attract good people, and if you can’t attract good people, you are not going to be able to move the needle on your organization. You’ll fall further and further behind your competitors.

How do you encourage staff to take risks?

You have to do it by example. You, as a leader, have to be prepared to stake out a position and it has to be a bold position and say, ‘This is what we are going to accomplish, and here is how we are going to do it and I am going to do it with you.’

Do you reward and recognize risk-taking?

Sure. When I first came into this company in 1997 — this is an accounting example — it took us something like 28 days between the time the quarter ended and the time we were able to issue our financial results. We had the results about 24 seconds before we issued them. I came from an environment where it only took nine days. And in a good quarter you’d have it in six and in a bad quarter you’d have it in 12. So I came here and it was 28 days. That is a different month. Why would you do this? So I said, ‘We are going to cut that in half.’ They said, ‘It’ll never happen. You can’t do it.’ So I said, ‘Sure we will. We’ll streamline these areas and we will cut out these reports and we are going to request information at these points and time.’ They were worried because it wouldn’t be precise.

I said, ‘This is accounting. It is not precise to begin with. It is a matter of getting close enough and getting a reasonable approximation.’

This is a very, very large organization. It has got phenomenal momentum, so anybody who thinks that what we report is precise is very optimistic and that is true for any large organization. So I said, ‘Why are we beating ourselves up trying to get this right to the fourth decimal spot? Let’s get it right to the second decimal spot and do it in half the time.’

We worked away on it and got it down to 14 days, and now it is down to eight days. Once we did that, people started to come forward and say, ‘You know what, we could change this reporting process, we could change our forecasts by doing these things.’

We could get information that is good enough for decision-making. The whole issue is getting decisions made faster, not understanding how beautiful the history of it is. We are trying to make sure we get a snapshot of where we were. That is useful and interesting, but you can’t — in our company or any other growing company — you can’t predict the future based on the past.

All of what we are trying to do here is get people focused on what is going to be.

You are working with very driven people, but do you ever worry about people feeling overworked and underappreciated?

One of the ways I try to help them balance is by trying to moderate the demands we put on them. We could never have gone from 28 days to 14 days by doing everything we were doing in those 28 days.

And that is what people said: ‘Sure, we will get to 14 days, but we will work the equivalent of 28 days to get there.’ And I said, ‘No, we’ll stop doing certain things.’ So you have to intercede in the process and physically pull away some activities. And that means saying you are not going to get that and you are not going to get that report. And we’re not going to do that because we are going to shrink the cycle time but we can’t do everything. When you do that you also set the example for your colleagues.

I start my day very early but I don’t work very late. I am a morning person, I always have been and my contribution drops off fairly sharply after about 6 p.m. So I make it known to people I am not here at night, and I am not going to ask anybody else to work 65, 70 hours a week which is about what I work.

I figure if people accomplish their objectives they can do it any way they want. It is my job to ensure that the objectives are reasonable. And I don’t expect people to do what I do but I do expect them to be disciplined about how they do it.

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