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global commerce insider - thought leadership

Leadership can come in all shapes and sizes, but in today’s global business and economic climate, competent, effective and strong leadership is vital for Canada’s companies and corporations.Yuri Arcurs Images/iStockphoto

Global Commerce Insider occasionally seeks input from leaders on vital issues that affect our businesses and economy in a global context.

Leadership can come in all shapes and sizes, but in today's global business and economic climate, competent, effective and strong leadership is vital for Canada's companies and corporations. Alex Johnston, vice-president of strategy and public affairs for the CBC, and former executive director of Catalyst Canada, (below) offers her thoughts on leadership, and what Canadian leaders can do to best leverage this country's talent advantage.

Alex Johnston, vice-president of strategy and public affairs for the CBC, and former executive director of Catalyst Canada. CBC CBC


Do our educational institutions create the kinds of leaders that the current business climate needs?

I love our educational institutions; we're moving people through and they're getting skills and education and I think the general quality is very strong. That said, I think there's also a practicality component that we need to look at. If we see where the world is going and where sectors are going, we need to work back and make sure that we are equipping people to have the skills to function in those sectors. That doesn't mean that you need everybody to be a computer scientist or to be in math, but you certainly need more hybrid skills. I think more university-college hybrid degrees and diplomas will be valuable.

What leadership qualities are best suited to the current climate?

We [at Catalyst] typically talked about it in terms of leadership behaviours. We did global research on inclusive leadership, which we thought is the key concept. The four behaviours we found across countries for the most part – five of the six countries we did research in – came back with four core behaviours that they see in really great people leaders:

- Empowerment: empowering your employees to do their jobs well;

- Accountability: holding them accountable for what they can control;

- Courage: the courage to take positions that aren't in your best interests but are in the interests of others;

- Humility: the ability to stumble, learn and grow.

Those I think are pretty fundamental characteristics and behaviours of really great leaders.

Can you make a link between the quality of leadership and a company's competitive advantage, or does it depend on the unique circumstances of each leader and the specifics of a company?

I think the key with what we have at our disposal in Canada is what I call a competitive talent advantage: a highly skilled population, unbelievable diversity, a public school system which educates the vast majority of our kids, and livable cities where people want to work and live. What isn't happening is that unbelievable investment up front translating into the kinds of innovation, productivity growth and economic gains you would expect and it takes a very, very good, inclusive leader to be able to do that well. So take this beautiful gift we have at the front end and once it's in your company, be the kind of leader that can really develop talent well, understand your talent, elevate and promote people into the right roles – and the benefits that come from that are enormous. We see it specifically with women in terms of the economic business case for gender diversity. You have more women in senior positions and, on average, you have higher economic performance in those companies.

Do Canadian leaders do enough to leverage our talent advantage into a competitive edge?

We don't. We have what I consider to be one of the biggest global advantages any country has with our work force. What seems to be happening in companies is progress through the ranks for women and visible minorities is pretty average in a global context. I think that understanding what's getting in the way of really effectively promoting people and having a much better representation of gender and ethnocultural diversity through the ranks of companies is a proxy for what's happening in terms of talent development. Much more can be done.

Do leaders need to learn new skills to deal with changing demographics, such as different age groups or cultural groups becoming a growing part of an organization?

I think both. This will not happen organically. It really will happen with people shining a light on these issues, starting to understand what their strengths are as leaders and where they need to grow. The work force people manage today is different from the work force people managed 30, 40 years ago from a gender perspective and from an ethnocultural perspective. When you think of sexual orientation, 10 years ago people typically didn't come out on Bay Street. More and more, they are. There are leaders who were very instrumental in helping that culture change to take place. But I don't think we're quite there yet.

Are businesses investing in developing or attracting the type of leaders needed in today's environment?

I think from a recruitment perspective, because more women than men are going through university, for example, businesses feel like they're recruiting well and they're often getting equal numbers, in terms of entry into the work force. But then progress really stalls for women. So it's not simply recruiting, it's what you do with people once they get there and that we are not doing as well as we should. When you look at key sectors that are going to shape our future – STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in particular – not nearly enough women are choosing that in the first place. We need that to change and we need leaders going out there and finding them and once they're there, doing everything they can to keep them.

If innovation is at a premium now, if critical decision-making skills, higher productivity, all those things are the words that we talk about as crucial to our businesses, all of those things link back to the people you have and what you are doing with them. So I think it starts with recruiting and you've got to look at it in every layer through the company.

Is it a contradiction to say on one hand, the mandate of a leader is to articulate the direction and values of a company, and on the other, to foster an organizational environment of inclusion, empowerment and entrepreneurialism?

No, the values really are key. How you articulate values through the organization is crucial, and inclusivity should be one of those. Any strong 21st-century leader should be thinking about inclusivity. You don't have a cookie-cutter work force; making sure the people feel comfortable being who they are coming to work to contribute fully requires an inclusive work culture. And setting the direction and establishing the values goes hand in hand with making sure you are an inclusive leader cultivating an inclusive workplace.

Responses have been edited and condensed.

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