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Could You Lead a Company to Greatness?

What it takes to make a positive impact.
Manitoba leadership conference
Manitoba business leaders sat down this week for a candid chat about what it takes to lead their organizations.
University of WinnipegIt was all part of the 2016 Leadership Symposium: Adapting to the Changing Nature of Business held at the University of Winnipeg Convocation Hall on February 29. Hosted by the U of W’s Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics, Dr. Sylvie Albert, the event featured prominent business leaders sharing their leadership wisdom, while also discussing some of the modern challenges that all business professionals will face in a leadership role. The session culminated with a “fireside chat” between MTS CEO, Jay Forbes and Great-West Life Assurance Company President and CEO, Paul Mahon.
“There are so many things our leaders have to deal with,” said Albert in her introductory remarks. “The concept of global business, the idea of trying to formulate cultures of innovation within workplaces, and how to deal with multigenerational and multicultural workplaces. There are so many challenges we have to meet,” said Albert.
Dr. Sylvie Albert, Dean, Faculty of Business & EconomicsDr. Annette Trimbee, University of Winnipeg
Annette Trimbee, U of W President and Vice-Chancellor, welcomed the approximately five dozen participants, which included members of Manitoba’s business community as well as business and economics students.
“Why is leadership so important now?” asked Trimbee. “It’s been said we live in times of exponential change, but that’s been said forever. Only today, it’s likely true.”
Whether you’re a public or private sector leader, Trimbee said the necessary skill-set is clear.
“At the end of the day, all organizations are built on people,” Trimbee said. “If you want to adapt and lead through change, you have to understand people and how to motivate them.
“What is a leader? In my mind, it’s not necessarily someone with the title ‘leader,’ it’s someone who influences others to do things that matter. Leaders need to know how to learn, how to ask the right questions — it’s all about the soft skills.”
Donna Burnett-VachonIn the morning’s keynote presentation, Donna Burnett-Vachon, an associate director with the Conference Board of Canada’s Leadership and Human Resources Research Division presented results of the group’s national research project on organizational leadership.
This two-year project included a survey of almost 450 organizations, getting responses from business and human resource leaders at multiple levels in both the public and private sectors. Key recommendations in the report include tying leadership development more directly to an organization’s overall strategy, and the need to focus on communication.
“We’ve moved beyond the idea that organizations are run by one individual who has the answers,” Burnett-Vachon said. “It’s a team sport and we have to be able to develop that team to be strong leaders for the organization so they’re actually able to work together to deal with change.”
Communication is key, whether that means leaders holding town-hall style discussions, one-on-one chats or maintaining a regular social-media presence.
“One CEO was talking to me about his social-media strategy and said if I’d asked him five years ago if he tweeted, he would have told me I was crazy,” Burnett-Vachon said. “Now, he said he’s spending a significant amount of time doing it because it’s a way for him to engage with the millennials in his organization and to share information quickly to get a message across.”

Connie Walker Winnipeg

The first of two panel conversations was focused on leadership in the context of community. Moderated by Chuck Davidson, President and CEO of the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce, the panelists were Connie Walker, President and CEO of the United Way of Winnipeg, Jessica Dumas, Chair of the Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce, and Mark Jones, Partner at Olafson & Jones, CPAs.

“One thing I don’t think anyone should underestimate is the value the private-sector perspective can bring to social issues,” Walker said. “It challenges us to think about how we can play a role across sectors to work in very new ways.”

The United Ways holds a leadership breakfast series where they ask CEOs of top companies to identify up-and-coming leaders. They recruit those leaders to take part on various committees to get involved in the community.

Jessica Dumas and Mark Jones

While it’s valuable for business leaders to bring their perspective to social issues, Jones said it’s equally important that companies give a chance to those who come to positions of leadership along non-traditional paths.

“They often bring unique and valuable perspectives,” Jones said. “Somebody who’s had to struggle a little to get there, I think there’s great life lessons and value from having to make their own path.”

Dumas said it’s very important to work outside your comfort zone.

“Broaden your experience,” Dumas said. “The best way to learn is to jump in. Be open to learning and action.”

Jay Forbes, MTS and Paul Mahon, Great West Life
Much of the afternoon fireside chat with Forbes and Mahon echoed Burnett-Vachon’s findings on organizational leadership.
“When I think of the magnitude of change, the sheer nature of change an organization faces, it’s coming at you faster now than has traditionally been the case,” said Forbes who became president and CEO of MTS in January 2015. “It demands a very different attitude in terms of how you lead the organization.”
When he started in leadership roles, Forbes said he recalls binders or leather-bound volumes of strategic plans for a business or organization.
“Now, strategy is much more about execution and is a living document,” Forbes said.
“What might have been a truism at one time can easily become an anchor that keeps an organization from acknowledging that shifts are taking place.”
Paul Mahon, Great-West Life Mahon’s rise through Great-West Life started in 1986 when he started working as an employee benefits specialist. The journey into leadership started there, as he moved into numerous group and individual management roles between 1988 and 1997. In 2005, he became executive vice-president of individual distribution and corporate strategy and moved into the position of chief operating officer of Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life in 2008. He became COO of Great-West Lifeco in 2011, two years before he became the company’s president and CEO.
Mahon said leaders need to adopt more of a scenario-based model.
“Strategy is no longer ‘We’ve figured it out and that’s where we’re going.’” Mahon said. “It’s that we’ve figured out we need to have a toolkit to have the ability to respond. It’s just such a different mindset in a different world.”
That new mindset should apply to businesses of any size.
“We keep stressing to our leaders that strategy is nothing more than a working hypothesis that you set forth to prove or disprove,” Forbes said. “To recognize that helps build that agile mindset.”
Broader ideas of what it means to be a leader also serve an organization well.
“There’s a risk sometimes of figuring out what works for you as a leader and wanting others to be like you. Never choose the smartest person as the CEO—and clearly they didn’t when they chose me,” Mahon joked. “If you view yourself as the smartest person in the room, it could become a very troubled organization very quickly, because there’s no recognition for the wisdom and insight that come from a broad, diverse group of leaders.”
Jay Forbes, MTSAs for advice to new leaders, Forbes offered up a maxim that was told to him earlier in his career.
“Make a decision then make it the right decision,” Forbes said. “It goes back to the pace and magnitude of change we’re seeing. You need to be more adaptable. The right answer is more about what you do with the decision you’ve made.”
“And get comfortable with uncertainty, or you’re probably not going to survive as a leader in today’s business climate.”
Mahon also counsels leaders to embrace uncertainty.
“Put yourself into a whole bunch of other situations,” Mahon said. “Do things in the charitable sector that will draw you out of areas where you’re comfortable—that put you in situations where you’re not the resident expert.”

Mahon is involved as a board member with CancerCare Manitoba Foundation and the Misericordia Health Centre Corporation, and he is a member of the United Way Resource Development Standing Committee.

University of Winnipeg leadership

The other panel conversation called What does it take to be a business leader in today’s world? was moderated by Dave Angus, President and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. The panel featured business leaders from three different generations: Daniel Blair, CEO and founder of Exchange District custom web applications and service company BIT Space Development, Ash Modha, President and CEO of Mondetta Clothing Company, and Tom Pundyk, President and CEO of National Leasing.

One of the hot topics of the panel chat involved how leaders can best engage millennials.

“Millennials require a lot of praise and a lot of appreciation for the work they’re doing,” said Blair, who counts himself in that demographic. “Because we work on smaller iterations and everything is a small victory, everybody feels engaged and like they’re achieving something.”

“It’s not just about profitability for millennials,” Modha said. “It’s not just about a salary. They want to see a company that’s socially compliant.”

All panel participants also keyed in on the importance of open communication.

“The whole idea is that you still have to operate like a smaller company and let people be involved,” Pundyk said. “Everyone is involved in our strategic planning process so they know exactly where we’re going.”

For more advice from local leaders, watch the Manitoba Mentoring Moments series featuring:

Jason Halstead

Jason is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photographer who has been published across Canadian media.

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