Darren Entwistle is preparing Telus Corp. for a battle against the cable television giants, and he is making sure the company is on the offensive instead of sitting back defending its turf.
As a determined and intense leader, Mr. Entwistle is using images from the navy and exploratory expeditions to guide his leadership team.
Last month, Telus managers heard from Michael Abrashoff, a former U.S. Navy commander who told them how he turned the USS Benfold into the best ship in the Pacific fleet. They have also watched movies that showcase leadership and teamwork under duress, including Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure.
The military lessons are numerous, Mr. Entwistle said in an interview: "To use innovation to level the playing field or to gain competitive advantage."
He added that "true leadership is evidenced in periods of duress rather than just periods when it's convenient."
The comfortable monopoly days are long gone -- Telus is now under attack like at no other time in its 100-year-plus history.
The Internet's transformation from a tool for browsing the web into a platform to make phone calls and watch TV means Telus is losing customers to arch-rival Shaw Communications Inc. Bell Canada is also pushing further into its traditional territory.
And so, Mr. Entwistle is arming his team to fight off the competition.
Like the ships that Mr. Entwistle likes to use as metaphors for the Vancouver-based company, he realizes a cultural turnaround won't come instantly. It is a project that has kept him occupied since he joined Telus five years ago and found a company floundering with an ill-advised strategy and a leadership team weakened from a series of executive departures.
Mr. Entwistle decided that in order to thrive, Telus needed to be a national instead of regional player. He opted to focus on three strategic areas: wireless, data and preserving the traditional voice service. That meant spending several hundreds of millions of dollars on expanding its high-speed Internet service to catch up with Shaw, deploying the latest technology -- Internet Protocol -- as it pushed into Ontario and Quebec, and making a major wireless acquisition.
While the market didn't disagree with these goals, it had a big problem with the $6.6-billion that Mr. Entwistle spent on the purchase of Clearnet Communications Inc. in 2000. Many critics dismissed it as far too expensive.
But Clearnet not only immediately gave Telus a national wireless network and a fast-growing business, but it also brought in well-respected senior managers. Many of those Clearnet executives have since joined Mr. Entwistle in the top leadership ranks, including two over the past year.
Both the wireless and wireline managers have strengths that complement each other, Mr. Entwistle said. The wireline team injects structure to the entrepreneurial flair that the wireless executives bring. And the wireless managers know how to grow a business from the ground up, valuable experience that Telus will need when it launches its TV service, which could be as early as this year, to challenge Shaw's control over the entertainment market.
"It drives a diversity because you're bringing in an entrepreneurial mindset from Telus Mobility and you're bolting that onto an organization that's a hundred years old," Mr. Entwistle said. "That's a lovely cocktail in terms of the mix."
But Mr. Entwistle stressed he is not only turning to the wireless side for new management talent. Over the years, he has also promoted executives he recruited from outside the company and others from within, including a vice-president who had been with Telus since 1998.
"Any good manager or leader is perpetually recruiting, even if they have no vacancies to fill," Mr. Entwistle said.
What these new executives, and the rest of the top leadership team share is a specific mindset. They have an ability to think nationally rather than regionally, and are comfortable dealing with the stepped up levels of competition and quick-fire pace of change that now permeates the telecommunications industry, Mr. Entwistle said.
He also said his team can transform technological trends into products that the customer wants, while still recognizing that they must create value for shareholders. And they can handle the soul searching that comes with making difficult decisions that are critical for the company's future, Mr. Entwistle said, citing past job-cutting efforts as an example.
Obviously not all the cultural changes have been easy for the employee base. The company has cut 7,500 jobs since 2001. And, after more than four years of negotiations, Telus and the union that represents 13,700 of the company's employees in Alberta and British Columbia still have not reached a new labour agreement.
Mr. Entwistle argued that the old contract is outdated and doesn't reflect changes in technology or competition. But the union is concerned about job security in the language that covers contracting out positions in the new offer.
Bruce Bell, president of the Telecommunications Workers Union, said people aren't happy working for Telus. Mr. Entwistle has changed the culture from a "family-like" company, he said.
"I'll tell you the No. 1 thing a lot of these CEOs miss out on, and that is dedication," he said. "You can't buy it, you can't will it. You treat people well you have a good spirit, and dedication you just can't beat it because every employee is like a disciple and when they're happy with the company they tell everybody."
Still, the labour turmoil has not hurt Telus's financial results to a great extent so far. The Clearnet purchase is paying off as Telus now generates a higher-percentage of its sales with wireless than competitors such as Bell Canada. Wireless growth is making up for slumping long-distance revenue and the loss of local phone lines.
A. Charles Baillie, a member of the Telus board of directors, called Mr. Entwistle a practical visionary with a spine of steel who is driving his employees to be better.
"He's been inculcating a culture of excellence, or the aspirations for excellence," Mr. Baillie said. "People like to be on a winning team, and Telus is now winning."
Mr. Entwistle said employees are the company's most valuable asset, and teamwork a core value. For those reasons, he decided to do away with a program that only distributed options to top managers and in 2001 introduced a company-wide plan in which all employees receive 100 options a year.
He also made it a disciplinary offence a few years ago to cut the training budget, one of the areas where the axe traditionally fell first. "In a monopoly environment, maybe that's not such an issue because consumers don't have choice," Mr. Entwistle said. "In an area of significant competitive intensity, where your people are your differentiator, then you better make sure that you've imparted to them the right capabilities, tools and leadership attributes."
To illustrate his point, he returned to Master and Commander, a film that he said is chock full of leadership examples. In one scene, a French ship is gaining on the British craft, which just hopes to outrun it and get into the cover of night. But the captain of the British ship takes time to train the young lieutenants on how to use sextants. "Rather than deferring that training because of what is happening, or cancelling that training because of what is happening, he gets on with the training because that's the future of the Royal Navy," Mr. Entwistle said.