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Tony Comper, author and former CEO of BMO, is photographed on July 29, 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Tony Comper is the author of Personal Account: 25 Tales About Leadership, Learning, and Legacy from a Lifetime at Bank of Montreal, published by ECW Press. He was CEO of BMO from 1999 to 2007.

When I turned 16, my dad decided that I was having too much fun and I should have a summer job. So, he approached two bankers, one at Royal Bank and the other at Bank of Montreal. He approached the Royal Bank manager first and said, “Do you have a summer job for my kid?”

They didn’t. So, he went to Bank of Montreal and I wound up working there for six summers – all the way through high school and university – before joining the bank full-time in 1967, as part of its new university recruitment program. During my 40 years in Canadian banking, I learned many important lessons about banking, leadership and life along the way. Five that stand out are the deep importance and value of trust, selling your ideas, diversity, sustainable finance, and being true to yourself and the community.

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Trust is earned

When I became chief executive of Bank of Montreal in February, 1999, I received a trust begun in 1817 by the founders of Bank of Montreal, who knew Canada was different and needed to be served differently if it were to achieve its destiny in the world. The way to achieve that destiny was through a stable banking system that reflected not London, not New York, but Canada. Although I might have moved among prime ministers and business tycoons, I also walked with the customer whose life was invested with us. It wasn’t just our employees and shareholders to whom I owed a debt of service. While the public image of banks is often cold and impersonal, to me the reality is the absolute opposite – the public we serve is a choir of many voices with hopes and dreams. The balance between creating opportunity for customers while protecting their wealth is the other great trust I was handed.

Sell your ideas

I’ve been asked by lots of young people, “What do you think is the most important skill a leader should have?” My response has always been interpersonal skills, in general, and specifically selling your ideas. Everybody is basically in a sales job. We’re all selling. We’re selling our ideas. We’re selling our goals. We’re selling our feelings. Leadership is about using your influence and interpersonal skills to sell people on your vision; it is all about using your emotional intelligence to manage relationships. Banking is a people business and so are most enterprises. Customers and employees alike want to believe your goals are their goals. Sell them on your ability to get them there.

Diversity is an economic imperative

The focus on the advancement of women at Bank of Montreal is one of the things that I am proudest of in all of my career. In 1969, I was in the credit-officer training program and my boss was a woman. That was unusual at the time; women simply weren’t considered management material. She was an amazing banker and one of the first women to start chipping away at the bank’s very thick glass ceiling. I saw very quickly that women were the equal of any man and that there was the potential to tap into far more female talent. I started several initiatives at BMO to support the advancement of women in their careers and into leadership roles. My mantra always has been, “It’s not just a smart thing to do for our business, it’s also the right thing to do, for women and for society.” The argument for removing artificial blockages to advancement of women in our bank was, for me, foremost an economic issue – it’s good for our shareholders, but it’s also a good thing to do. Not tapping into the potential of the talented women in our company meant that we were underleveraging a tremendous economic resource. That’s a huge disservice to the shareholders, as well as to the women who were being held back.

Protect the planet

Today, in the information age, corporations are under closer scrutiny than ever before for their policies and actions. Not only are we accountable to our shareholders, but more and more we are also answerable to the general public. In my retirement speech in 2007, I said that corporate accountability meant “our industry’s doing what our industry can to prevent the environment from being despoiled and people from being abused by future generations of global megaprojects. We are making our funding contingent upon our environmental sustainability.” Part of the point I was trying to make was that in this day and age, only at your own peril would you fight the fight against the environment. Companies must not only react and respond to pressure from governments, regulators and consumers, they need to be aware of the issues that are important to their stakeholders and to society at large, to understand the implications of their decisions and business practices on the environment or the local community, and to be proactive about encouraging sustainability and stewardship. The corporate community, and the banking sector in particular, has to be part of the pressure for positive social change.

Be true to yourself and others

To me, once you begin looking for loopholes and subverting your principles, you’ll never succeed in the long run. We dodged a lot of trouble by avoiding what everyone else was saying, doing or getting away with. The most important question is always, “What’s the right thing to do for our business, for our stakeholders, for the community?” Not every issue is black and white. There are many levels of nuance to everything. The right response is always: first, to do the things that are required by law, which is the bare minimum of doing what’s right; second, and more importantly, do things that seem to make sense from the point of view of both the business and the common good. Corporate accountability is a dance between doing what’s best for the business in the framework of what’s best for society. Find a healthy balance that benefits both. The golden rule of leadership is to be true to yourself – to be authentic. Know thyself and lead accordingly, and everything else will fall into place.

From my own experience during five decades of banking beginning in the 1960s – which evolved from handwritten account statements to depositing cheques via cellphone – perhaps my greatest takeaway is that corporate responsibility is not just the right thing to do – it is a competitive edge on the bottom line.

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