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Ivey MBAs gain insights from leaders during pandemic

  • Cam Buchan
  • |
  • May 19, 2020
Ivey MBAs gain insights from leaders during pandemic

The MBA Teachable Moments Virtual Speaker Series provides Ivey MBAs with unprecedented access to accomplished leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's an example of Ivey's ability to pivot and provide an exceptional experience when classes moved online. Students hear firsthand the leadership challenges faced, and the insights leaders have gained, as they navigate the global pandemic. 

Students have heard from senior leaders in conversations that are “raw, honest, surprising, and eye-opening,” said Gillian McIver, MBA ’21 Candidate in describing the MBA Teachable Moments Virtual Speaker Series.

Classmate Cindy Li described the importance of these events during times of great uncertainty: “The Teachable Moments series is a live lesson of true leadership which helps broaden my outlook and keep me anchored.”

To date, students have heard from Neil Cunningham, President and CEO of PSP; Jeff Orr, HBA '81, President and CEO of Power Corporation; Bank of Canada Governor Stephen S. Poloz, MA '79, PhD '82; Michael McCain, HBA '79, LLD '17, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods; David McKay, MBA '92, LLD '19, President and CEO of RBC; Mark Poweska, President and CEO of Hydro One; Linda Hasenfratz, EMBA '97, CEO of Linamar Corporation; Charles Brindamour, CEO, Intact Financial Corporation; Darryl White, HBA '94 CEO of BMO & Mona Malone, HBA '94, Chief Human Resources Officer of BMO; and Prem Watsa, MBA '74, Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer of Fairfax Financial Holdings.

Highlights from past events:

Prem Watsa, Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer, Fairfax Financial Holdings - July 9, 2020

Watsa highlighted Fairfax's guiding principles and values as key to their long-term success through multiple global crises, including COVID-19. These principles and values include:

  • Acting with integrity and working with other companies that act with integrity;
  • Focusing on long-term and financial soundness; and
  • Investing in their communities.

Most importantly though, Watsa emphasized over and over again that a good leader and a good culture are imperative to a company's success. Doing the right thing is always the best choice, and always follow the golden rule.

Darryl White, CEO, BMO & Mona Malone, Chief Human Resources Officer, BMO - June 22, 2020

In a wide-ranging session, White and Malone reveal the mammoth and complex challenges the bank faced head-on in order to adapt to COVID-19. This successful transition required stakeholder cooperation and frequent and open communication, including:

  • Consistent dialogue with competitor institutions, federal government and the Bank of Canada
  • Accelerating and changing the way leadership communicates with customers and employees
  • Strong internal communication, including consistent employee pulse surveys
  • Increased emphasis on mental health 

Charles Brindamour, CEO, Intact Financial Corporation - June 9, 2020

Brindamour spoke at length about how coping with crisis in the past has helped influence his leadership approach today. Underpinning his talk with Ivey students were five essential pillars he and his team use as guiding principles:

  • Values and purpose are not just a poster or a nice to have – they are critical for good functioning that goes beyond strategy;
  • Understand the importance of engagement and loyalty – an engaged team will be willing to move mountains;
  • Be very deliberate about a clear, narrow set of priorities and strategies.
  • Over-index on the recruitment and retention of top talent; and,
  • Stressing discipline and preparedness is fundamental – if the firm isn’t disciplined when entering a crisis, it’ll end up weakened.

Linda Hasenfratz, CEO, Linamar Corporation - June 2, 2020

Hasenfratz, a scientist by nature, spoke in-depth about how Linamar as a company is naturally suited to thrive during a crisis. Some of those key elements included:

  •  Assembling a core team with the right capabilities to make fast decisions;
  •  Rely on good data that is not born out of emotion. Understand what   elements are driving the data underneath;
  •  Communicate information clearly and frequently. Be transparent when       you don't have all the answers but make sure to circle back; and,
  •  Find a balance between short-term obligations and long-term decision-   making.  

Mark Poweska, President and CEO, Hydro One - May 19, 2020

Poweska articulated the challenges of being in a regulated industry and the importance of balancing the interests of different stakeholders. He also outlined other lessons learned:

  • Set guiding principles at the outset to direct decision making; and,
  • Lead with empathy, and put people first. 

David McKay, President and CEO, RBC - May 12, 2020

Evangeline Philos, also a current MBA student, wrote about the conversation students had with McKay, President and CEO of RBC. Here is a summary of her takeaways:

  • Be agile in learning from the past and apply those lessons swiftly to change and improve;
  • Seeing both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, is crucial in being able to scenario plan; and,
  • Crisis management teams cannot have cracks. Don’t hesitate to make changes to teams, while ensuring that individuals can move into roles for which they are better suited.

Michael McCain, CEO, Maple Leaf Foods - May 5, 2020

McCain spoke about the importance of commitment and compassion for his team during the crisis.

"(He) spoke very clearly and eloquently about leading through crisis," said MBA ’21 Candidate Kailey Howell-Spooner. "He’s led through a variety of difficult times, and his message around accountability to your personal values during a crisis resonated with me. "

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen S. Poloz - April 30, 2020

Governor Poloz outlined the leadership lessons he learned from the experience:

  • Diversity of past experience pays when blazing a new trail;
  • Crises are exhausting — a deep personnel bench is a key part of resilience;
  • Over-invest in technology and business continuity preparedness; and,
  • Stay in touch with staff — even the ordinary things must still happen.

Jeff Orr, President and CEO, Power Corporation - April 22, 2020

Orr highlighted the importance of articulating top priorities, and using them as your guiding principles in all your decision making. 

"Leadership isn't shining during the easiest of times but rather thriving during the most challenging ones. The best organizations can "weather any storm"," said Sab Sankaranarayanan, also an MBA ’21 Candidate.

Neil Cunningham, President and CEO, PSP - April 7, 2020

Cunningham focused on PSP Investment's response to COVID-19, and brought important lessons in general management and leadership in a time of disruption to students.

"The market disruption lessons and crisis management preparedness guidance that Neil provided will give much deep thinking and advance their understanding for our MBA students," said MBA Program Faculty Director Larry Menor. 

Leadership during challenging times

“The series has affirmed the value of leadership during challenging times,” said Sankaranarayanan. “I find the overarching message of the series to be that every leader has to value his or her team and be prepared with risk management measures. However, things can still go haywire and the true testament of leadership is embracing the challenge and finding solutions to navigate it, and most importantly, learn from it.”

McIver said leadership comes in many forms, but the resounding message during the pandemic was clear.

“Leadership in a time of crisis takes engagement, it takes listening, it takes communication, and it takes adaptability. All of the speakers have emphasized the importance of listening to their employees, because without healthy and happy employees, the business will not survive a normal circumstance, let alone a crisis.”

Watch for more highlights from the Teachable Moments series throughout the summer, as we feature some of Canada's top leaders and their insights on leading during the pandemic.