New company, new leadership culture

The senior management team at Ontario Power Generation always knew that if they were going to excel in an open market the culture of the organization would have to be different — and that meant a new leadership culture was in order.

“We were reinventing ourselves,” says Janice Dunlop, vice-president, corporate HR at OPG, one of the organizations created when Ontario Hydro was broken up and the electricity market in the province deregulated.

They were in essence creating a new company and would, for the first time, be facing competition from other players. While Ontario Hydro had always done leadership development there was a very real need to fundamentally shift how they developed leaders, says Dunlop. They needed to take a more holistic approach to ensure leaders and managers could adapt and indeed thrive in the new environment.

The HR team partnered with the Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto) to develop a new five-day intensive, off-site program — what they call their MBA-in-a-box. The program covers a wide range of topics. Students learn, among other things, what the important leadership competencies are for the new OPG, how the organization will build wealth in an open market and what leaders and managers can do to contribute.

The course includes a session on the importance of soft skills for successful management. To ensure each attendee has the strongest possible sense of the their own soft skills, all participants complete a 360-performance appraisal, and review the results with an industrial psychologist before going on the course.

And while there was a significant cost to the program, the executive team was very interested in the return on investment built into the program, said Mani Goulding, director, talent management at OPG.

Early on the class breaks up into self-selected teams of three to five people. Each group examines real problems facing the organization and then works to come up with practical solutions. The goal is to solve the problem and save the organization money, effectively defraying the cost of the program.

For each class of 50, a member of the senior management team attends for the entire week serving as an “executive in residence,” and continues to serve as an ongoing mentor for the group after the week is finished. Originally, professors from Rotman were going to teach the entire week, but OPG execs ended up teaching one-and-a-half days.

On Sunday, after arriving for their five-night stay at the conference centre and hotel just north of Toronto, the leadership model of OPG is introduced, and the important competencies outlined. On Monday morning, the groups meets with CEO Ron Osborne and talk about the basics of the business strategy. In the afternoon the class looks at some of the soft skills of effective leadership — recognition, team building and so on.

Tuesday is OPG day, says Goulding. The class focuses solely on how the market has changed and what it means for them.

Finance is the subject of the day on Wednesday when the class explores the need for financial credibility, value creation and develops an understanding of the investor perspective.

On Thursday, students take an in-depth look at negotiations — internal or external. It could be with a labour group or a supplier.

And finally on Friday, the groups give presentations on the projects they have been working on.

In one year OPG put 500 executives, managers and high-potential employees through the program. Even senior union leaders were invited. “That provided a lot of enlightened conversation,” says Dunlop.

For the first couple of sessions people were a bit slow to sign up but those who attended were pleased with the program, word quickly spread and pretty soon people were lining up to go, says Dunlop. “People started wearing it like a badge of honour.”

“In some ways we were a victim of our own success,” says Goulding. The new approach to leadership development has caught on at the organization and now they have to make sure they can follow up to prove the commitment is still there. They’ll continue to run the MBA-in-a box but less frequently now, only as new people move into management positions. And for those who have completed the course, OPG introduced leadership alumni events. People were so accustomed to working in silos that they really enjoyed meeting people from across the organization and from different units. Now, every couple of months, graduates can reunite for a development session followed by networking. A “Leader-to-Leader” e-newsletter was created and published every two months to profile new leaders, offer tips on leadership issues and provide updates on the projects that were started at the course.

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