- May 26, 2022
Assuming the role of CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation is daunting at the best of times. For Greg Hicks, HBA ’95, taking the helm of the iconic Canadian Tire Corporation a mere 12 hours before the declaration of a global pandemic, takes daunting to a whole new level.
“You didn’t have time to think about it, you’re just thrust right into it,” says Hicks.
Nearly overnight, Hicks and his team evolved an existing group intended to promote the agile decision-making required to manage the rapidly changing COVID-19 landscape in March 2020. This group established a horizontal way of thinking that literally changed the way Canadian Tire’s leadership team operated, emphasizing radical collaboration.
“This forced everybody together,” said Hicks. “I think the most important thing was forcing common objectives. We were all trying to solve the same problem. Any of the egos, the titles that can get in the way of making progress in an organization, just went away.”
Reflecting during a fireside chat session at Ivey’s signature MBA career management event Get Connected, Hicks spoke candidly about the personal challenges and leadership lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rapid leadership evolution
Already in a senior role at Canadian Tire, Hicks knew he was going to be appointed CEO two weeks prior to the formal announcement. During that time his mind was occupied by the functional aspects of the upcoming shift: Do I know enough about all of the different business lines? Can I talk to the analysts? What was I going to say at the first shareholder meeting? These questions represented the “to do” aspects of the role.
Then the pandemic happened.
“What COVID has done for me as a leader is taught me to really think about the ‘to be’ side of becoming a CEO … It was really about how do you show up in every single interaction you have?,” said Hicks.
Related to this, Hicks grew to understand the impact your words can have from the office you occupy.
“I really pushed myself to show up with humility and vulnerability in every engagement that I had … I really tried to connect with people in a meaningful way. I think the “to do” versus “to be” has changed the way I lead day in, day out.”
Trying to make trust more tangible
Canadian Tire operates in a highly competitive marketplace against global competitors far larger, forcing its leadership to think hard about the need to reach people with brand relevance.
“So what truly is your point of difference?,” asked Hicks. “Our brand stood up over the past couple of years because we really believe in that moment of truth. If Canadians know that we care about the community in which they live, we think we have a chance.”
The intense leadership experience during COVID has helped the organization to shape and articulate its values.
“This embrace of brand trust has led us to think about the role that we play in shaping a stronger nation,” said Hicks. “So it’s much more than the products or services that we sell. And we know we have a brand purpose that embodies that nation-building component – which is we are here to make Canada better… and I think that’s the way we stay relevant.”
Creating a culture of connection through communication
Almost immediately, Hicks understood clear, concise communication was going to be paramount to help steer the organization through ambiguity and uncertain times.
“I committed to the organization very early on that they were going to hear from me,” said Hicks. “That I was going to be transparent, that I was going to tell them what I knew, and tell them what I didn’t know.”
With this concept, Hicks committed to leaning into vulnerability and the empathy required to make thoughtful decisions.
“The outcome of the communication was connection … my individual purpose is to create a culture of connection.… The culture now is committed to a shared purpose, or shared objectives with respect to our direction,” he said. “There is no finish line for this type of work, but we’ve made great, great progress, and there’s real power in embracing that personal purpose.”
This year, the MBA career management curriculum was overhauled, and challenged students to consider their career aspirations from a different lens. This year’s Get Connected programming encouraged the MBA class to think less about what job title they wanted, and instead asked them to reflect on the critical issues that they want to solve as a leader.
Greg Hicks' journey is featured in a collection of exclusive, first-person stories on leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic from 29 chief executives at iconic Canadian companies in a book called Unprecedented: Canada's Top CEOs on Leadership During COVID-19, edited by Steve Mayer and Andrew Willis