Skip to main content
leadership lab

Among hockey fans, Wayne Gretzky was celebrated for his uncanny ability to go where the puck was going to be. In football – or soccer, as we call it – Barcelona centre midfielder Xavier (Xavi) Hernandez Creus is renowned for his ability to play a ball perfectly into space that a teammate can run to at full tilt.

In business, the corporate equivalent of these abilities is critical, whether you have an ironclad business model or a changing business model. We can all rhyme off companies that have failed or are no longer industry leaders – many in the photography and technology sectors – that saw where the puck was going, but weren't able to execute the pass into open space.

From a leadership perspective, no one can see all the forces at play better than the chief executive officer, the organization's centre midfielder. Only the CEO has the vantage point of seeing the whole business, with all its parts interacting daily, from vendors, to consumers, to partners, to new technologies to other factors from inside and outside the company. What does the CEO do with all this information?

Luckily in business we don't need to be a Gretzky or a Xavi – we don't need to react in a split second. We can develop a plan. Developing a corporate strategy is, at its core, thinking about where the puck is going to be. Executing it is playing a pass into the right space.

Our new corporate strategy at Cancer Care Ontario looks nothing like how our business used to be organized. It was a strategy that looked at what we thought was going to be important five to 10 years from now. We had been focused on improving the cancer and chronic kidney disease care systems, and providing information to reduce wait times for health services in the province. Our new strategy focuses on meeting the needs of patients throughout their care, chronic disease prevention, better co-ordination of care in and out of hospitals, creating better value for money in our health services, and sharing approaches that worked across the health system.

The key to arriving at a plan that challenges your current business model is to focus on looking at the outside world and seeing how your business fits into that now and in the future. Many leaders instead try to modify or improve operations so that the new plan reflects the current business. Leaders must continually turn the question upside down.

Making the pass into space is about changing the organization to address the challenges of the future. And nowhere is this more difficult than in an organization that is delivering well on its current business model. Many people may question the new direction and the need to shift priorities. So the pace of change needs to be just right – quick enough so the organization can stay ahead but slow enough so that the team can get there at full stride without being disrupted.

At Cancer Care Ontario, we started by shifting resources in support of our new direction. We began to build new teams to develop expertise and to become leaders. And we spread accountability for these new directions across the executive team.

We also recognized we needed to add new partners to the team. If we were to advance patient-centred care, we needed to ask patients and the public to help design our services. If we were to improve health care in and out of hospitals, we needed to partner more closely with community agencies, family doctors, and nurses – in addition to hospitals and specialists. If we were going to help prevent disease, we needed to partner with public health agencies and provide advice to government on policies to reduce exposure to the major risk factors for chronic disease (tobacco, alcohol, poor eating habits and physical inactivity). And to increase value we needed to partner with the province's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to change how services are funded so that it is tied to the quality of care delivered.

The first year was spent building; the teams, new partnerships and early initiatives. Initially, spending on the new plan was slower than forecasted as it took time to build momentum. But it is often the short pass that advances the ball, and now, two years into the plan, we are seeing acceleration. Our teams' expertise and value is being recognized internally and externally. The number of opportunities is increasing and the plan is starting to change the direction and face of the organization.

Internally, the leader's task is to keep the new vision and new direction front and centre during this slow and sometimes bumpy start so that the organization does not drift back to its old focus.

On Saturday mornings, I watch English soccer. Recently, the commentator noted that there was only one club (Barcelona) that never relies on the long ball, but always builds new attacks from well within their own end through a passing game. A skilled team, and a good corporate plan, starting in your own end with a vision for the future, with passes into space guided by the CEO as the play maker in the midfield, will lead to continued business success.

Michael Sherar is president and chief executive officer of Cancer Care Ontario (@CancerCare_ON), a provincial government agency that manages the quality of services and patient care for those with cancer or chronic kidney disease.