In 12 years, BMO women execs rise from 9 to 35 per cent

Business strategy must be linked to employees. And if you’re taking full advantage of all your people can offer, that means attention to the advancement of women.

That’s the strategy being followed at the BMO Financial Group, one of the largest employers in the country with almost 34,000 employees in Canada and the United States.

At BMO, people strategies must result in measurable outcomes designed to successfully execute customer-focused business strategies. In this context BMO’s human resources strategy focuses on three imperatives:

•Enterprise-wide top talent, meaning the ability to attract, develop and retain top-calibre people. Organizations can only prosper if they have top talent everywhere.

•A high performance culture where employees have well understood objectives, clearly aligned to strategic priorities, where there are rigorous performance assessments and differentiated rewards.

•Engaged employees driven by an open, trusting and inclusive culture.

Central to these imperatives is maintaining an equitable and supportive workplace, which reflects the diversity of the communities the business serves. Strategic initiatives and a commitment from the top of the organization are made evident to ensure these objectives are achieved. One of these strategic imperatives is the advancement of women.

Accessing the scene, developing a plan

In 1990, chairman Tony Comper, then president of BMO, took a leadership role in breaking the “glass ceiling” with his decision to sponsor a task force on the advancement of women. Early task force discussions with employees uncovered widely held beliefs about why women were under-represented at senior levels.

To discover whether these assumptions were supported by facts, the task force developed a statistical, demographic profile of men and women at BMO.

The study’s results told a compelling story. While three-quarters of permanent employees were women, they represented only nine per cent of executives and 13 per cent of senior managers. BMO needed to ensure it made use of its best talent throughout the organization but clearly there were barriers to women’s advancement in the organization. To address the situation, BMO declared its commitment to create an equitable workforce in its 1990 Corporate Strategic Plan.

To further its commitment to a supportive workplace, BMO’s internal employee assistance program (EAP) partnered with an external organization to provide child-care services to employees. Today, BMO’s internal EAP continues to provide information, counselling and referral, education for employees and management, and consultation in enterprise-wide policy development.

In 1992, BMO established a National Advisory Council on the Equitable Workplace to oversee enterprise-wide implementation of all workplace equity initiatives. Chaired by Comper, and comprised of BMO’s most senior business line leaders and senior corporate executives, the council set the strategic direction for quantitative and qualitative diversity goals.

An integrated model

Today, the council — now known as the Chairman’s Council on the Equitable Workplace — continues to meet quarterly as part of the bank’s management board executive committee (the highest council of officers) to measure its performance.

I have led this council twice and helped put in place a unique integrated diversity model. The model defined the linkages between diversity, workplace equity and the enterprise’s business initiatives.

Corporations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have since adopted this framework to understand diversity’s influence on business strategy — breaking many traditional paradigms.

Measuring progress a must

In addition, BMO’s annual employee survey (externally administered) was re-designed to include a comprehensive diversity index, a compilation of questions enabling BMO to measure how well employees think their employer is doing on its commitment to creating a diverse workforce and an equitable, supportive workplace. The index enables BMO to use facts about employees to form diversity action plans and strategies.

BMO’s commitment to diversity and workplace equity continues to be supported by a comprehensive system of goal setting, monitoring and evaluation processes using clear metrics and benchmarks including an extensive suite of online management information reports.

External recognition

BMO’s progress towards the goal of a diverse workforce and an equitable and supportive workplace has also been recognized externally. In 2002, BMO was the only major Canadian financial institution to be cited by Maclean’s magazine as one of Canada’s top 100 employers. Other honours received over the years include being the first Canadian company to win an award in 1994 from Catalyst, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women in business. BMO is also the first company and only financial services institution to win the Vision Award twice from Human Resources Development Canada.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 1990, nine per cent of BMO’s executives were women; today, the percentage of women executives has increased to 35 per cent. As well, 30.8 per cent of BMO’s executive vice-presidents are women, up from zero in 1991. In the U.S., representation of women in executive positions increased from 20.8 per cent in 1999 to 25 per cent in 2002.

When I re-read the task force’s 1991 report, I can see we have made tremendous progress. I am often asked why BMO has been so successful in advancing women. The answer is clear: under the strong vision and leadership of the chair and our most senior business leaders, BMO has linked the full participation of women to its business strategy and is perpetually assessing its progress.

Rose M. Patten is the executive vice-president human resources, and head, office of strategic management, BMO Financial Group.

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