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opinion

Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist and a leadership coach based in Calgary

Early in my career I worked at a national office, which also had employees in four regions, each representing an area of the country: Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario and Western Canada. To say that nobody understood each other would be an understatement. Conversations with the group, especially on national projects and activities went something like this:

National office: Here is what we need the regions to roll out …

Them (in no particular order):

1. You don’t understand us.

2. We are big and have lots of resources so we will do what we want.

3. No. This is not going to work here (angry tone).

4. We have so few resources, so we will take whatever you give us.

It was predictable, and not all that progressive. More time was spent listening to criticism of content and process, as well as defending decisions, than being productive and co-operative. The national office wanted things to look one way; the regions wanted more of their needs and culture represented. It’s a familiar refrain from politics, and much of that is derived from our vastly unequal distribution of population. For organizations, basing an entire leadership team in one area and making decisions for the rest is by choice. There are alternatives.

Recently I met a chief executive who purposely hires the executive leadership team to be located in various parts of the country, primarily where the company has a presence. For example, you may have the CEO in Edmonton, the chief financial officer in Halifax, the chief operating officer in Montreal and the chief human resources officer in Toronto. They may come together to be physically in one space several times a year, but their bases - and the employees they primarily interact with - are where they are located. They (ideally) understand the needs of that employee base, the culture and challenges. Not only do they hear it, by being physically located in that area, they can understand it better than anyone who does not.

It’s not a new concept, but one that is rare, as so many leadership teams are based in a head office: together, usually on the same floor, beside each other. A company may have a large HR department, but the chief human resources officer is located on the executive floor, away from their employees. The leadership team is physically around those who think like them.

Yes, there may be consultation when the leadership team travels around a few times a year, taking the pulse of the area. In reality, people often say what others want to hear, thinking that their views may not be understood in the limited time for the town hall.

Instead of having to go to great lengths to connect with employees, members of the leadership should be with them, or at least work in the same region. With companies going remote or adopting hybrid work arrangements, some may argue it doesn’t matter. It does, because someone who is used to working in Vancouver will know the regional culture and market, as opposed to someone working in Toronto who assumes they know West Coast culture. They generally don’t – hence the regional responses listed above.

If you are thinking about dispersing your executives around the country, there are a number of benefits to consider.

Employees inherently feel more connected to head office, avoiding an “us” and “them” mentality. They know their interests are being heard at the executive level, because the executive is surrounded by those interests, being located in that region.

There is better cohesion within the company, knowing that interests are different, but that they are understood with a dispersed executive team. There is limited need to fight for attention from the leadership table, as a member of the leadership group is situated in their region.

Having a regionally based executive may make it easier to attract top talent, as relocation is less likely to be required. Someone in Vancouver would not need to move to Toronto, so you are less prone to losing them as a top candidate.

Remote and hybrid work make this model easier than ever for executives, who can regularly connect with their own leadership team via video. There is no need to have them all in the same area any more. Put them where it matters the most – with the dispersed employee base. Perhaps then we will be able to understand, not clash, on areas of difference, and move closer to co-operation and cohesion.