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CBC president Hubert Lacroix responds to a question during an interview in his office in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct 5, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
CBC president Hubert Lacroix responds to a question during an interview in his office in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct 5, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Simon Houpt: MEDIA

Hubert Lacroix’s game: Sacrifice a pawn to save your king Add to ...

The president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is standing in a place where people lie for a living, telling a bunch of hard truths.

All morning, Hubert Lacroix has been here on the set of CBC News Network’s Power & Politics, which has been commandeered for a series of town halls with local staff. An overflow crowd of French-language employees filed out a few minutes ago, and now about 100 English-language colleagues are nibbling on free pizza, sombrely challenging the boss on his vision of their future at a time of smaller budgets and industry turmoil.

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Lacroix’s jacket is off and he’s swigging from a bottle of water now. He seems almost energized up there at the front of the studio, like his old days as the coach of McGill’s women’s basketball team.

If you were being cynical, you could say he’s learned how to play this scene. In March, 2009, only 14 months after taking office, a cut in federal funding forced him to slash about 800 jobs. “It was a mess,” he acknowledges later. But in April of this year, when CBC announced that a $115-million funding shortfall over three years would result in about 175 fewer hours of original TV programming, as well as an end to drama on radio and the need to run ads on Radio 2, there was something different: a whiff of confidence.

“We’re in a much better place than we were last year,” he tells the staff. “At the end of the day, we’re gonna be bruised, but we’re gonna be okay.”

Lacroix can speak like this because of two achievements that eluded his predecessors: a three-year commitment for funding from the federal government (albeit at reduced levels), and a strategic plan developed on his watch that articulates the organization’s goals. Lacroix believes deeply in planning. François de Gaspé Beaubien, whose family company, Telemedia, had Lacroix as its chairman in the early 2000s, likens the CBC president to the master chess player Garry Kasparov. “I’m pretty good at [seeing] a few moves ahead. He’s very good at multiple moves ahead.”

He’ll need to be, for the challenges, as the implementation of the cuts begins this summer, are manifold. CBC’s critics, including Québecor Inc. and its Sun News Network, have won some nasty legal battles against the broadcaster, and they continue to personally taunt Lacroix on a regular basis. In the spring, his former head of English-language services Richard Stursberg promoted the book The Tower of Babble by spilling secrets about the broadcaster and Lacroix, who had sent him packing in 2010. The Conservative government has made it clear funding will not increase. At the same time, technology and the economic environment have given vertigo even to media organizations that aren’t required by the Broadcasting Act to fulfill a sprawling mandate.

Lacroix seems to believe that the best defence is a good offence. So he is in the midst of transforming the CBC into a nimble model for the whiplash digital age. He may well be Kasparov. But what if the chess board itself is evaporating before his eyes?

That would be a cruel trick, for the broadcaster is by some objective measures in very good shape. Seven years ago, it limped through a two-month labour lockout that left a toxic residue through the entire organization. Now, the president of the Canadian Media Guild’s CBC/Radio-Canada branch praises Lacroix for creating a new era in labour relations. “Other presidents have had breakfast with the staff once in a while, but I can’t remember a president spending the kind of time with staff, one on one, or in groups, or sharing information the way he has,” says Marc-Philippe Laurin. “Hubert Lacroix is a forthright, honest individual, a man of his word, and somebody who really cares about and understands the CBC.”

This is how forthright he can now be: Asked at the town hall if he will guarantee there will be no more job losses after the current round of 650 ends in 2015, Lacroix says plainly, “Absolutely not. You know that. Because in the normal course of any organization, as you evolve and you get better, things change.”

If he was bred in the boardroom – he served for two decades as a mergers and acquisitions specialist with the law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP – Lacroix has earned the respect of the rank-and-file in part by targeting the sort of inefficiency that embarrasses the entire corporation, like a request to sell a spare piano that landed on his desk already bearing 12 managers’ signatures. “Be accountable,” he says at the town hall. “Sometimes we’re spectacular for changing, turning on a dime. Other times, we’re really, really slow.”

This sort of organizational management challenge animates Lacroix, who relishes his role as a coach. And not just for basketball. He’s completed 18 marathons, and begins management confabs with group jogs, where he can often be found at the back of the pack, encouraging the laggards. (Stursberg says Lacroix soured when on him when it appeared he was not interested in being a “team player.”)

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