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Head of 3M Canada shares lessons on managing change through COVID-19

Mar 17, 2022

Penny Wise speaking to CEMS students

Penny Wise speaking to CEMS MIM students during a recent visit to Ivey.

As a Canadian with previous experience at 3M Canada, Penny Wise understood local issues, but it was her international experience at the company's headquarters that helped her to lead 3M Canada to success during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve had the chance to travel the world on behalf of 3M when I was in international marketing and what I learned is that inside every 3Mer is what I call a spark. There is a spark that inspires us to do better, to make a difference, to improve lives, and to solve problems,” said Wise, President and Managing Director of 3M Canada. “It’s that same spark that drives us today and drives our purpose to do a better job and improve the world.”

During a visit to Ivey’s MSc Global Leadership class, Wise discussed how that spark in 3Mers, combined with her global expertise, helped her to galvanize both the Canadian and global teams to rally around a $70-million project to start N95 respirator production at 3M Canada’s Brockville plant. The initiative created jobs and strengthened Canada’s supply chain for vital personal protective equipment (PPE) at a time of devastating supply chain disruptions almost everywhere in the world. It also fell on the heels of a major transition at 3M that changed 3M Canada’s relationship with the global team.

Her talk was part of an interactive case class discussion on the case, 3M Canada: Managing Change, Disruption, and COVID-19, co-authored by Andreas Schotter, an associate professor of General Management & International Business; and Kanina Blanchard, an assistant professor of Management Communications & General Management, who led the case discussion.

Prior to becoming president of 3M Canada, just eight weeks before the pandemic’s onset, Wise worked internationally as Global Marketing Director of 3M’s Safety and Industrial Business Group in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She told the class of CEMS Master in International Management (MIM) students how that  experience taught her to build relationships with people in different departments, groups, or countries and align them toward a common goal.

Boundary-spanning leadership

The discussion focused on how that skill – commonly known as boundary-spanning – factored into the success of the Brockville project. Wise said the global team originally had no interest in building a factory for respirator production in Canada so she had to activate a network of people to build the business case for it. For instance, 3M partnered with the federal and Ontario governments to expand the 3M site in Brockville to start manufacturing N95 respirators for Canada. This was possible through close collaboration and a common goal of providing vital PPE to help strengthen Canada’s manufacturing capacity and help rebuild the economy.

Wise said that the Canadian leadership team helped build the case for the expansion in Brockville to share with the global 3M team to make the final decision on where 3M was going to expand manufacturing capacity in the world. Canada was one of the locations selected.

A unique learning experience for students

There were valuable lessons for the students who added to the discussion by sharing some of their own personal and business experiences in their home countries.

Sachin Arakkalan, a student on exchange at Ivey through the CEMS program from the University of St. Gallen, said although there were guest lecturers in class in Switzerland, they weren’t related to cases. He said the chance to ask questions of the case protagonist made the learnings more memorable.

“You typically just read about companies’ stories, but having the opportunity to ask questions directly gives you a much more in-depth perspective on what really happened and the business itself,” he said. “It sticks with you more when you can discuss it with and hear about it from the person that the case is based on.”

For Ludovica Arconte, who’s visiting Ivey from Bocconi University in Italy, the chance to hear Wise’s personal insights made the experience unique.

“When we talked about the really delicate stuff, like what she perceives as leadership and her experiences in the job, you can’t learn that even from the best-written case,” she said. “When you switch from the business stuff to the more personal stuff, you can really learn.”

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