In Conversation With Michele McKenzie, President and CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC)
Michele McKenzie, President and CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC), talks with Knightsbridge about what sparked the CTC’s decision to start a comprehensive leadership development and succession plan in 2008, what the planning and implementation entailed, how CTC employees responded, and what the results have been.
Knightsbridge: Since 2008, the Canadian Tourism Commission has been working on a project that emphasized leadership development and succession planning. Why?
Michele McKenzie: When the project started we had approximately170 employees, and about 100 were working at our headquarters in Ottawa. When we moved our headquarters from Ottawa to Vancouver, we only had 17 of our employees come with us, which meant we had a huge opportunity to re-invent ourselves. So we restructured the organization and got ready for an intake of new employees.
We had been an organization that grew out of government so many of our employees had public sector backgrounds. When we came to Vancouver, we recruited some people with public sector expertise, but our focus was on people with a background in the private sector who were coming to work for their first public organization.
We felt that the first thing we needed to do was invest in leadership development. We had a lot of new leaders, some who were in leadership positions for the first time and hadn’t thought through what that meant and what skills and competencies it would take for them to effectively perform in their new positions.
As for succession planning, we found that after a couple of years of operating in Vancouver, we had a lot more success promoting for senior positions from within than we did recruiting from outside so a decision was made to focus our efforts on making sure we had the talent within the organization to fill any gaps, should someone decide to leave.
We went from investing in leadership development to building a more robust succession plan that would look at the organization more holistically.
KB: Did you focus your succession planning efforts on specific positions within CTC?
MM: We started with the senior management team. And then we developed a more fulsome succession plan by identifying specific positions within the organization that were more at risk or that would be harder to fill. We started to look at things much more precisely in terms of our needs and the staff we had to meet those needs.
Then, we started to develop a robust management development program. And what I’m finding now that our succession plan is rolling out is that we’re really coming back to those core competencies and skills from our leadership development work to help us implement our succession plan. We’re a unionized environment, so you’ve got some employees on succession plans and some who are not, which means you need excellent leadership capacity to communicate consistently across the organization.
KB: How did you identify succession candidates and high-potentials?
MM: To identify successors and high-potentials the senior management team came together to discuss our entire talent pool and how we wanted to develop them. That was a really important element in developing our overall succession plan because it helped us to see that there were situations where a member of the senior team was really keen on one person, but that candidate may not have been identified as a potential by the rest of the team. This awareness helped us to define the development plan that person needed, which in some instances involved “special assignments” or lateral moves. We’re a small organization so we don’t have many promotion opportunities, but we do have great project opportunities and opportunities laterally. We worked with our teams to communicate that not every opportunity is a promotion. Some opportunities are going to be lateral moves and into areas that they may not have expected.
A great example of this is our head of human resources who has no experience in human resources. But this is someone who has a really strong strategic mind, great broad policy skill sets, some good understanding on the marketing side, and just needed more experience working in a leadership environment.
We saw that we needed to move our growing leaders through line positions and through staff positions in their development. It was controversial because in some situations we moved people into positions that they had not been formally trained for in terms of their education. But as we’ve rolled it out, our teams have started to understand the benefits of seeing how different kinds of skill sets can add value across the organization. Other than a handful of positions where you need very specific technical designations, like a CA or a lawyer, we’ve been able to use quite a bit of flexibility in developing a rounded talent pool. So that when we get people ready for VP positions, they know the organization well and I think they’re more effective leaders.
KB: Were the executives told how they rated in terms of potential?
MM: We really relied on the competencies identified in the leadership development phase of the project to have some of these conversations. We didn’t go into meetings with individuals and say, ‘here’s a list of people who are high-potentials and you’re not on that list,’ but we did give them feedback to provide them with some perspective on where they were landing. And everyone had a development plan whether or not they were identified on the succession plan or the high-potential plan. In fact, everyone is still getting development, and that’s the really key thing. Everyone is included in our overall development plans. It’s just that not everyone is being developed in the same way.
KB: How did your executives respond to leadership development, and in particular, the coaching process?
MM: At first, it felt a bit weird. Most of our executives had never had coaching and they interpreted it to mean that maybe they had a weakness. These are high performers who had never encountered anything like this before. During the first round of leadership assessment, we made coaching mandatory for everyone. We didn’t say, ‘you need a coach and you over there, you don’t need a coach.’ The message was, ‘we’re all going through this process of assessment.’ It was a very robust assessment that gave our executives really valuable feedback on what was working for them and areas that they needed to focus on developing or improving. I had a coach too, and so they could tell, ‘this isn’t about me, this is something that we’re in together and there’s no way I can squirm out of it.’
Some people went in with great enthusiasm, thinking that any resource they could access was positive. Some went in thinking, ‘Ah, I’m not sure this is something I want to spend my time doing.’ But it was mandatory, which meant they had to go through six sessions, they had to build an action plan, and their action plan had to become part of their performance management plan. It turned almost instantly from an area that people were very suspect of to something that was treated with enthusiasm.
KB: What role did your board of directors play in the advancement of leadership development and succession planning?
MM: The board really felt it was part of their core oversight to understand that we had a good succession plan in place and that they were familiar with our talent pool at the senior levels. They didn’t get into the detail of it, but we have made it an annual discussion. And as the CEO, I’m very deliberate about making sure that the board is familiar with the top talent and that they get them to see them in action. We consider that a best practice and we build that into who we have make presentations to the board.
It is a leap of faith for the board because it’s quite an investment. We’ve been investing more in our people development at the same time that our core budgets have been declining. So, the work I do with the board to explain and position our people development is important in terms getting their support.
KB: Have you seen changes in the organization since undertaking this project?
MM: Absolutely. We see it in our day-to-day culture as well as in our employee engagement scores. We see it in our specific measures against our core values and employee engagement, which is one of our three critical metrics for the organization. We put a very high value on that.