Back in 2016, I interviewed Harley Finkelstein, the chief operating officer at Shopify. It was less than a year after the retail software company’s successful stock market debut and a few months after Finkelstein had been promoted from his previous role as chief product officer. Regardless of title, Finkelstein often served as Shopify’s main spokesperson and most public face, taking the place of chief executive Tobi Lütke. “We’ve just decided to focus on our strengths,” Finkelstein told me, explaining the reason behind the unconventional division of roles. “A lot of companies get that wrong. They focus on mitigating the weaknesses of their leaders instead of amplifying their strengths.”
In the ensuing years, Lütke has stepped into the spotlight more often (and Finkelstein has earned another promotion—he became Shopify’s president on Sept. 29). But Finkelstein’s prominence underscores a simple fact about running a company. No chief executive—no matter how smart—operates a successful business on their own. A few non-CEOs have earned their own fame, like Apple’s Jony Ive or Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. But we often attribute a company’s success to its CEO and downplay the contributions of innumerable SVPs and EVPs, along with chief operating, innovation and financial officers.
Which is why we’re launching the Best Executive Awards. In this issue, we celebrate the accomplishments of 50 corporate leaders working in the C-suite or at the senior and executive vice-president levels. We began assembling this list in January by calling for nominations of excellent senior execs working in five functional areas: finance, human resources, operations, sales and marketing, and technology. As the magnitude of the pandemic became clear, we issued a second call, seeking stories of individuals who had met the challenge of the moment. We also broadened our criteria to include not-for-profits, and government and academic institutions. Editors within The Globe and Mail newsroom made their own suggestions. Then, our team evaluated the contenders based on their achievements and effectiveness as leaders. To ensure our final list reflected the many different skills needed to run a successful organization, we chose 10 honourees in each of our five functional areas.
All of these execs have profoundly improved their organizations, sometimes by labouring in unglamorous areas. It’s true of Aritzia president Jennifer Wong, a Best Executive honouree and our cover story. “Wong is Aritzia’s analyst-in-chief,” writes contributor Joanna Pachner. “Finance, HR, facilities, logistics, technology, operations—those are all her.” Like Lütke and Finkelstein, Wong and Aritzia CEO Brian Hill amplify each other’s strengths. It shows what firms achieve by letting their best executives shine.