Podcast – Navigating the Tides of Leadership

https://mindmatters.transistor.fm/episodes/navigating-the-tides-of-leadership-insights-from-ceo-eric-dillons-journey-to-success

Podcast – What Connects Us

I recently had the chance to chat with Mason about my time at Conexus and my decision to pursue a new opportunity.  You can check it out on any of the platforms here:

Lessons From A Recovering “First Time CEO”

I got cornered at work the other day (socially distanced, of course) asking if I am still blogging. <Gulp> That’s not a good sign that I’ve been diligent about finding time to share the stuff on my mind lately?!? Thanks to both of my regular readers for the reminder to get back to writing (insert mental ass kick picture)……

I like spring the best. It is a time of personal renewal. The weather is nicer and I enjoy getting outside and exercising more. The golf courses open back up and I love being able to walk outside for a few hours with my own thoughts. Professionally, it is also “Annual Meeting Season” which is a great way to look back on past work and think boldly about the future.

This year, I found myself a little more reflective on my tenure as a recovering “First Time CEO”. There has been much change and turnover in CEO roles in our industry lately and it has caused me to reflect on my ten years being a CEO at Conexus. There are lots of lessons in my first experience as a Chief Executive. Here are a few lessons from a recovering “First Time CEO”, along with some “Rookie Tips” for you to think about when you are faced with a new, expanded role:

It’s Can Be Lonely

Once you become a CEO, you don’t really have a Team of “peers” any longer. The relationships are just different than they used to be when I was not the leader of the team but a member of the team. It takes a long time to get to the point where people are brutally honest with you about your ideas, your performance and your leadership. In fact, some might never be as honest with you as they are with their other colleagues. I have lots of examples in my tenure where a colleague finally shared some feedback that was hard for them to say. I wish so much that they would have had the courage to tell me in real time or as soon after as was practical. After a decade it gets better but keep in mind that over that time, you also add new members to the Team and lose members of the Team, so the journey to get to the point that they all share openly with you takes constant effort. The lack of direct feedback makes it a lonely place.  Rookie Tip: Find a network of peers (in my case, it was other CEO’s from my community and my industry) that you can connect with, learn from and commiserate with.  It won’t replace what you had as part of the Team, but it will help.

You Are Only Human. And Flawed. Just Like Everyone Else

As a first time CEO, I recall vividly being so afraid to make a mistake. All I could think about was 1,000 employees (in the case of Conexus) talking about how some “wet behind the ears” new CEO had just screwed up. The irony is that the sooner you recognize your own vulnerability and imperfections, the more likely people are to want to follow you. The easiest way to do that is to be honest about your mistakes and your own shortcomings as a leader. People want to work with and for other humans – warts, flaws and all. Last year, I wrote about our Fail Forward awards and our own learnings in recognizing the opportunities from failed innovations. Rookie Tip: The sooner you can model the honesty and transparency around failing and learning, the more acceptable it will be in the organization to try new things and not expect perfection. Your first broad public admission of failure to your work family will be very hard. But I promise, it gets easier. I speak from experience.

Working With And For A Board Is Very Different

I recall my first Board meeting like it was yesterday. It was October 21, 2011 – just four days after I started and I was scared stiff. I had been to lots of Board Meetings but never as a CEO responsible for the entire organization. Adding to my stress was the fact that we spent much time at that meeting talking about a failed project that had cost the organization a significant amount of money at the time. In my ten years working with a Board, there are few things to note. First, they are just real people trying hard to do good work and make a difference. They are not there to make your life hard or miserable, merely to oversee Management and to create healthy tension in the most significant decisions that organizations face. Rookie Tip: Embrace the healthy tension. Respect the role they hold and do your best to serve them as the representative of the owners. Ask permission before you share your opinion on decisions they own and solicit their candid feedback on the decisions you believe you own. Remember also that they are humans just like you (see above). When you work for a Board, there will be a number of opinions on pretty much everything you consider or propose. Not everyone around the Board table will always agree with the decisions that are made or how you implemented those decisions but you work for the Board as a collective not individual Board Members and it’s really important to learn the difference.

What You Do Matters Way More Than What You Say

When I talk about leadership now to younger, emerging leaders, I speak about the “backpack of leading”. Like everyone else, the Instagram stories of CEO’s do not reflect the totality of the work that is done. My day is not just engaging with community organizations, governments and watching Cultivator pitches. In my case, 1,000 people are watching my feet way more than they are watching my mouth. How I behave matters. For example, I can suggest on a video communication to the company that it is really important to create a coaching culture where development of our human talent is critical. If it is so critical, I better find the time (see below on time management and choices) to observationally coach, to mentor and to continue developing myself. If it matters enough for me to ask others in the organization to do it, it matters even more that I do it. Consistently. Rookie Tip: Don’t let your ‘little birdie inner voice” tell you that your leaders are more self sufficient and they don’t need coaching just because they have some fancy title. I started to do less coaching of my colleagues a couple of years ago and then ended up having to apologize for the error. If it is important for the organization, it’s equally important for people to see CEO’s lead by example. Imagine now when I show up unannounced to the Team Meetings of my direct reports and let them know I am just there to invest in my colleague and provide them some feedback. It becomes a powerful moment of reinforcement and my colleagues regularly tell me how much the investment of time means to them and their development.

You Will Get More Credit And More Criticism Than You Deserve. Share the Credit and Wear the Criticism

Are you a sports fan? Have you heard the analogy that football quarterbacks get too much credit when the team is winning and too much criticism when the team is not? Being a CEO is much the same. When the organization produces great results or a winning idea, people generally want to give the CEO credit. Conversely, when things don’t go so well, CEO’s get much of the blame. The best CEO’s I have learned from figured out how to ensure that the credit gets spread around to those that worked so hard to create that result. Conversely, they also stepped up and took much of the blame when the organization was not able to succeed for whatever reason.  Rookie Tip: Find ways to spread the love and also to shoulder the criticism when necessary to allow the organization to learn, grow and succeed from the setback. It might not be fair but it is part of the deal.

You Will Be Expected To Know Everything And Guess What…You Don’t Know Shit 🙂 

When you get the opportunity to lead new areas of the business, the natural reaction from new leaders is to try to convince those working in that area that whomever hired you, made a good choice. You want to show them that you are technically brilliant in their area of responsibility. Guess what – as a first time CEO, you don’t know shit. Looking back to my own experience having grown up in the operations side of the business, I had never led (i) a human resources department, (ii) a risk department or (iii) a finance department. I remember vividly my first Executive meeting at Conexus, having started the meeting talking about what my background was and where I thought I could add value – operations, strategy, leadership and innovation. Then I quickly acknowledged openly the areas of the business that I had not led before and how much help I was going to need from the team in those areas. My new colleagues shared how they appreciated the transparency and at the same time, how they would work hard to help me learn other parts of the business. Rookie Tip: I had a great mentor at the time and I remember him telling me not to pretend to be an expert in all areas of the business. He told me that they already know there are areas I likely am not an expert in and trying to convince them makes little sense. He was so right. The early admission helped me set myself up to learn quickly as opposed to trying to portray a level of competence that did not exist.

Make Great Choices With Your Time (Wellness, Hobbies, Thinking Time)

When I first moved to Conexus, I immersed myself in the business. My family did not relocate for some time after I took on the job and I used the extra alone time to read, learn and meet our team and our communities. The first few months were gruelling. The problem with that was that it was not sustainable and it really didn’t model what high performing executives do to be successful. I forgot the other things I needed to do in order to be a consistent, healthy, high performing leader. Therefore, I didn’t eat well, sleep well or exercise nearly enough. I also did not spend nearly enough time thinking about strategy and really owning the part of my role as Chief Strategy Officer. Eventually, I had forgotten how to incorporate those things into my routines. It took me a while over the first few years to regain those habits. Rookie Tip: Go into any new role protecting fiercely the things you need to do for yourself to be at your best. Know them, practice them and make them known to those around you so that you can get feedback when you slip.

Your Job Is Not To Finish, But To Leave It Better Than You Found It

Transforming organizations is never done. It becomes a very hard mental game when there are always new challenges to respond to, new opportunities to seize and a constantly changing environment to do it within. As an emerging leader, you sometimes get opportunities to put a bow on some work and call it complete or paint it done as Brene Brown would say. As a CEO, you will never get an opportunity to finish the job. Rather, you have to accept that your success will be measured by whether you left the organization in a better place than when you were hired. Rookie Tip: Make yourself slow down from time to time to recognize the progress that the organization is or has made. It is a bit like watching your kids grow up. Some days you wonder if they are learning new skills or growing into the adults you want them to be. Then, when you look back at pictures of them from a few years earlier, you quickly realize how different they are and what substantial progress they have made. As a CEO, force yourself to look back at the “pictures” of the organization from years past and realize the progress the organization has made. You will never be “done” but this progress will fuel you to keep going.

 

Ten years after joining Conexus, I think about my first few days as a CEO from October 2011 often. I look back and wonder how I ever survived the early years of finding my way and learning how to be a better CEO. I should probably thank the Board of Conexus from back in those early years for giving me a chance when I clearly had much to learn. I am still on the journey to become a better leader and a better CEO and like the organization, I will never be done.

Taking time like this to reflect on the last ten years reminds me of all of the lessons and also motivates me to continue learning and growing — right along side of the organization. What have you learned on your leadership journey that you wish you would have known earlier? Drop a comment in below so that we can all learn together.

 

The Credit Union Difference – My Discussion with Wellington Holbrook

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Wellington Holbrook from Connect First Credit Union. I’ve known Wellington for many years and was really excited when he found a role in cooperative finance working in Calgary. Wellington and I chatted about how credit unions are different, our ability to innovate for the customer and how we can be a catalyst for local economies. Have a listen:

Apple Podcast

Spotify

Let me know what you think. Drop a comment below

The Bad, the Ugly and the Opportunity

I have watched and read all of the great posts outlining the progress that we have made and ought to make around gender equity. It is important to get to a time when there will be no difference, real or perceived, in the opportunities available to both women and men. In Canada, we are not close to being there.

I am normally pretty optimistic about progress. We (society, business, etc.) usually evolve in a way that creates more hope, more optimism and better outcomes for all of us. The changes are never as quick as some would want but generally speaking, we progress in meaningful ways.

Community Social Responsibility (“CSR”) has evolved to a broader topic around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (“DEI”) and/or Environmental, Social, Governance (“ESG”). I would suggest that this continuation has extended new, promising thinking and, therefore, expectations for businesses, governments and societies.

While the aspiration in these discussions helps motivate us, the raw data particularly as it pertains to gender equity in business is not very promising at all. In fact, a few recent data points stand out for me as troubling:

  1. A recent Globe & Mail article recently detailed how the pandemic is being disproportionately felt by women in the economy. Since the pandemic began, much has been written about the much larger economic impact being felt by women. We know they are paid less on average and they have typically have more career interruptions to either raise children or act as care givers. Those interruptions have increased dramatically through COVID-19. We also know that women today are more likely to work in jobs affected by lock downs. If we know that women retire with, on average, 30% less in pensions and RRSP’s than their male counterparts, and we also know that the pain of the global pandemic is not being felt equally then we know we are losing ground.
  1. Another Globe & Mail article from February of this year detailed how a very prominent business law firm in Toronto had male equity partners earning 25% more than female equity partners. The review of this particular law firm also highlighted how “over 80 per cent of men got a bonus, while only 44 per cent of women did.”
  1. A World Economic Forum Global Gender Report from 2020, shows similarly troubling data. Canada ranks only 19th in the world on overall gender equity and below such countries as Rwanda, Latvia and Namibia. Even more disturbing is that we are losing ground to the rest of the world having moved from 16th place to 19th place in the last 12 years. Perhaps more damning if you read further in that report, the authors outline that it will take 151.4 years, at the current level of progress in North America, to get to complete gender parity. Let thank sink in…..151 years……from 2020……..sigh…..

So, we know that the problem is real and we know that what we are doing today is not nearly good enough and won’t solve this problem in our lifetimes.

That said, let’s not give up. Let’s get together, get past the yelling and the shouting of social media and find ways to accelerate progress. Let’s make it the mission of more leaders to take accountability for how their organization can become gender neutral.

In our ongoing discussion and thinking about this at Conexus, we have had some successes and some “do differently’s” as we have explored this topic. I want to share a few observations in the interest of helping others and also in the interest of learning from others, who are better than we are in this area. If you have ideas that have worked in your business or industry, please comment on the blog for others to read and learn from.

Here’s a few observations from our Conexus journey in this area:

  1. Organizations don’t change, people change – Whether you want to change your innovation quotient or gender equity, leaders cannot just hope and “will” the organization to change. Change will result from some targeted changes in expectations, behaviours and outcomes. What gets measured gets done and leaders cannot just hope they get better without some material action, target or change in accountability.
  2. Men need to be champions of gender equity – If men currently dominate leadership positions in organizations (including Government) and therefore, are the ones designing, supporting and funding leadership programs, they need to be mindful of their own biases. The leadership programs that created today’s leaders (mostly male) might have unconscious biases that favour producing more male leaders. I suspect that it is not intentional but the data doesn’t lie. Part of the challenge is then to have male leaders find ways to become more conscious of the differences that exist and to ensure that programming takes these subtle differences into account.
  3. Some of the learnings for men will be very uncomfortable – I wrote before about some of the very uncomfortable things I have experienced in mentoring female leaders. While uncomfortable at the time, the discomfort has led to a more enlightened perspective for me as a CEO. I am likely to have another one of those moments this coming Tuesday. A number of Senior Leaders from Conexus are taking part in the YWCA Upstander training. The training is meant to help males learn about harassment in the workplace and how to be a better ally for others around us.
  4. Female and Male professionals age differently – I had a conversation with a female colleague recently about the “seasons of careers”. My colleague was very open with me about the changes taking place for her physically as part of her journey. I had to ask some very stupid questions to better learn but I am very thankful that she tolerated the questions and helped me explore how our work environment could be more adaptable to these changes. A learning for me was how the flexibility of work environment with COVID might be a very powerful learning that we can use as we find new ways to support female leaders.
  5. Data matters – At Conexus, we measure gender parity across a number of dimensions and that data is really important to take away the assumptions of how the organization is performing. Today, at Conexus, we can certify if any gender pay gaps exists at any level in the organization. We can look at the number of applicants for all new roles and how many of each gender were considered. We can examine how our benefits programs were accessed by each gender. We know how many mentees each of our leaders has and whether they are male or female. We know from our succession analysis what the mix of the next group of leaders might be and whether we are gaining ground or not. We know how many of our Cultivator resident companies are founded by females and how we can profile and grow more of them. When I speak to groups about leadership development and our work in learning more about gender equity, I lead with data.
  6. Delivering to a segment of one – The evolution of customer experience design (“CX”) would suggest that companies organize themselves to deliver to a segment of one. In other words, the experience that a customer receives should be uniquely curated to them as an individual if at all possible. The same is true of leadership development and the path to gender equity. Leadership and development experiences can most certainly be curated and designed for the individual and be unique to their needs and most surely, their gender.

If building more diversity doesn’t appeal to your moral compass, it should most certainly appear to your financial one. Some McKinsey data correlates ethnic and gender diversity to financial performance and the conclusions are crystal clear and unambiguous.

The science about the impact that diversity has on business performance could not be stronger. The graph above shows that there are material differences in performance. I don’t know about you, but I am always interested when I can find ways to accelerate the performance of our organization. It might make you uncomfortable, but much like the blog topic from two weeks ago, the discomfort will lead to new learnings, growth and ultimately more progress. In fact, it might be one of the easier ways to accelerate performance of your organization.

What are the ways in which you have been able to materially change the gender equity in your businesses? I’d be interested in learning from you……

The Power of the Stretch

The world of people development has changed considerably since I first began my leadership journey, many years ago. What has not changed is the responsibility of leaders to participate directly in the development of other leaders.

The primary job of leaders is to create more leaders.

I appreciate that leaders have multiple responsibilities (strategy, innovation, stakeholder engagement, etc.) but none is more important than the responsibility to ensure that the pipeline of future leaders in their organization is full and constantly growing and evolving to meet the future leadership demand of the organization.

When I first joined Conexus, there was not a single internal candidate for the CEO role. The good news about that is that I had a much better chance at getting hired with less competition :-). But seriously, I would suggest that an organization of 1,000 people should have had several candidates who were ready and able to take on this leadership role and who had been actively developed for consideration when the role was vacant. Fast forward a decade, now when we post very senior roles at Conexus, it is normal to have between more than 50+ candidates for these roles including multiple internal candidates. This allows the organization to choose a great candidate from several that might be able to fulfill that role but to be able to choose one that has the skills that are most required at that particular time given the current business climate, organizational performance, future strategy, etc.

Part of this development journey for Conexus has been the creation of “experiential learning” as a key part of development planning for leaders.  Today, at Conexus, we use a 70/20/10 model for leadership development.  This correlates to the relative amount of investment (time, money, resources) in different learning activities.  The numbers correspond to:

  • 70% Experiential Learning
  • 20% Self Development (Lead Self Activities)
  • 10% Classroom Training

You might be asking why we have such a heavy focus on experiential or applied learning? The reason is simple – our experience has been that it provides a much richer learning environment where leaders can apply new skills in real life settings. Why does this matter? When building new skills, it is one thing to read about (from a book) or hear about (from a mentor / coach / leader) a business problem and how it was solved. I would also suggest that it is a completely different learning experience for an emerging leader to be directly involved in working on the business problem — The one making real decisions having impact and consequence and experiencing real accountability for those decisions. This isn’t to suggest for a minute that you take emerging leaders and throw them into the deep end of the pool without the requisite skills. On the contrary, it is taking the training wheels away from leaders as they grow so they feel the real emotion of executing at a higher level, the real satisfaction from getting results and sometimes the real pain of falling down and “skinning a knee”. Think of the first time you rode a bike and either successfully made it into the arms of mom or dad at the end of the street or fell down and had to get back up a few times to ultimately make it there. In either event, you always eventually made it to the end, by yourself without any help. I appreciate that over-simplifies the process of experiential learning but it is a helpful analogy.

On larger applied learning opportunities, we frequently hear from leaders that they might not feel perfectly ready for the opportunity to take on greater responsibility. I know that feeling well and have lived it several times throughout my career.  My first day as a CEO at Conexus included a 20 minute trip to the bathroom, to stand face to face in a mirror wondering what I was doing there and how long it would take me to fail, to then splashing cold water on my face, to telling myself I’d be fine and then getting back to work. Everyone who has taken on greater responsibility or new challenges has those feelings and guess what, they are completely normal. Just like the feeling on the bike when mom or dad let go of the back of the seat. You first feel a little wobbly, then you find a rhythm that works for you, then you speed up a little, then you start to try new tricks, then you are crushing the little jump that you begged your mom or dad to make for you out of spare wood.

We have talked openly about this feeling at Conexus to normalize it for all of those who are trying to stretch themselves. We have named that yucky feeling in your stomach “GROWTH” to make it easier and normal to talk about the feelings of anxiety that come from learning new things and admitting that you are are not the expert and need to learn a few skills for a new opportunity. The worst thing you can do as a leader is to pretend you have it all cased, not admit there are a few new tricks to learn and that you are the “expert” at this new area of the organization. PS – the rest of your Team know you are are’t the expert either, just ask them :-).

Today, at Conexus, we regularly review our list of successors and mentees and consciously match them to opportunities within the organization that need leaders and that offer an ability for them to develop while doing important work. Some recent example are having a high potential finance employee work in retail banking to review all of our processes to serve members.  Another would be having a senior member from our risk area lead the project for our new HQ in Regina that involved considerable work with outside stakeholders and involvement from across Conexus, including our Board. The only promise we make to them when taking on roles like this is that we won’t let them make catastrophic mistakes and that we trust them to lead this work. Then we engage in active coaching and feedback as they walk through new responsibilities, learn, make mistakes and then ultimately, grow.

We have seen a few direct benefits of this kind of leadership model, namely:

  1. Leaders have a much more well rounded view of the business having worked in different areas, and
  2. Leaders rely much less on being “experts” and more on involving a broader group of diverse perspectives given they are not the technical expert in those new areas, and
  3. This approach creates leaders that are a bit more likely to listen, to learn, to be curious and to ask first before simply “prescribing” the answer

In a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), I would rather have a stable of leadership candidates that are actively learning new skills, engaging broadly and harnessing the power of others to create solutions than those that rely solely on their own technical expertise learned over many years applied to the business problems of today.  Would you rather be a leader with twenty years of diverse experiences or a leader with one year of experience, twenty years over?

I speak frequently on leadership development and in those presentations, frequently point to recruitment based on potential. These thoughts were formed years ago from practical experience and an HBR article that speaks to how to assess “potential”. John Harvey from ANZ Bank in Australia said it well in the article when he suggested – “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens. But we want well-rounded, values focused leaders who see the world through a wide-angle lens, and the right stretch assignments are what helps people get there.”

I couldn’t agree more.  What are you doing today to stretch yourself and others around you? When was the last time you felt “GROWTH” in your stomach or had to splash a little water on your face?

Is it time for you to get your hands on some new handlebars and try to get to the end of a new street of growth and learning? Comment below on some of the areas you have explored in your own journey and how you managed the “GROWTH” feelings while doing it.

My Conversation with Hilton Barbour

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Hilton to talk about transformation in the context of leadership and culture.  It was a delight to get to know him and read some of his previous interviews with Microsoft, Starbucks, Southwest, Tangerine and Coca-Cola, to name a few.

Here is our discussion:

CULTURE & TRANSFORMATION – Building a Culture of Agility and Resilience at Community Bank Conexus

Within Canada’s ecosystem of financial services organizations, cooperative banks and credit unions hold a special place. While most people are familiar with Canada’s “Big 5” banks, as they all have an international presence, there are over 700 credit unions and cooperatives operating in Canada today. Uniquely, the principal difference is that the members of these financial institutions actually own the bank and aren’t shareholders like the publicly traded “Big 5”. I had the opportunity to chat with Eric Dillon, CEO of Sakatchewan-based Conexus Credit Union and discuss how the unique structure – and culture – of community credit unions gives them significant advantages over their larger public competitors. We also get into the critical need for CEO’s to put on their mask first and how a culture transformation can, and should, feel like a 61-hour drive. It was a fun and fascinating chat from start to finish.

HB: Morning Eric. Appreciate you getting up early for this chat. I deeply admire anyone from Regina Saskatchewan in the middle of a Canadian winter because I imagine it’s always -40.

ED: It’s not -40 all the time, we got up to -20 the other day. <Laughs> No denying we’re a hardy bunch out here in the Prairies.

HB: No offense but I think I’ll postpone my visit until July. Getting started can you tell me a little bit about yourself and a little about CONEXUS for folks that might not be familiar with the business?

ED: Sure. In the simplest terms, and the way I talk with our team, is I’m head coach and chief cheerleader.

That that’s really how I see my job and my role. Beneath that I’m the CEO meaning I’m ultimately accountable for how the organization shows up, how it behaves and the results we deliver to our customers and members. We were talking football before the call (Go Bills!!) but the classic, perhaps over-used metaphor, is I’m like a quarterback; when things go well, we get too much credit. And when things go poorly, we get much of the criticism. The reality I’m just the one face of a thousand people that are working their asses off every day to do interesting things. Since leaving University I’ve worked in the cooperative banking industry.’ve been in this role for almost a decade at Conexus and prior to that at another Credit Union called Servus.

HB: I’d love to flesh out co-operative banking, particularly against the backdrop of other financial services institutions. What makes the sector different and in particular, what makes Conexus different even within the cooperative banking group?

ED: Happy to. The easiest way is to describe cooperative banking vis-a-vis others in the sector. So versus the publicly traded or very large banks, there is a point in my mind at which the interest of a financial consumer and the interest of a shareholder diverge. The beauty of cooperative banking is the owners of the bank are also the customers. So, it’s much easier for me, as the CEO of a cooperative bank, to build the organization in alignment with the needs of the consumer and the shareholder. Cause they’re the same person. I think the challenge for the CEOs of publicly traded banks is there comes a point at which those two audiences diverge, and we know, in that model, the shareholder is often the one meant to win.

One of the other significant advantages for co-operatives is the capital is much more patient. There’s no quarterly earnings call that we need to meet. We’ve got people who were invested in the institution who really want us to build generationally for the next generation of member owners.

That’s a real luxury for us as leaders that you’ve got this kind of patient longterm view of how to build the organization. One of the other areas we’ve got clear alignment with our board is to really root ourselves in purpose and redefine, what does it mean, in 2021 and beyond, to be a community credit union. And what role should we play as a catalyst for economic activity.

HB: I appreciate you must breathe a sigh of relief not being tethered to a 90-day analyst call but that doesn’t mean there isn’t real pressure to perform and grow at Conexus. Some people, mistakenly, think of Credit Unions as these slow and lumbering organizations which couldn’t be further from the truth. Talk to me about those drivers and where you see growth coming from.

ED: I think that (mis)perception does exist. However, the subtle but important difference is that our race is not around quarterly earnings. Our race is around relevancy and to make sure that the organization really delivers on what it means to help people with money, not to see consumers as a source of profit, but to see an opportunity to actually help people be more healthy financially.

Conexus has completely stepped into this different view of what does it mean for somebody to succeed financially and to ask our members “what’s your definition of financial wellbeing?” Interestingly, in some intensive research we commissioned, what’s more important to people is a kind of emotional connection with money as money enables them to live the life they want to lead. Not their Net Income. And the realization that the life you want to lead will be different from mine and will be different from others.

At Conexus that’s 150,000 different people with 150,000 different lives. That’s the basis on which we guide the company, not seeing people as a source of the next credit card sale, or a mortgage sale, but rather to see the family, you know; Susie and Jim and their kids, and here’s their picture today and how can we help them be more successful financially? Or particularly in times like this, perhaps more resilient financially, which we believe is a really important.

HB: I adore that orientation that goes deeper than seeing your members as more than a walking product up-sell. Putting my bias on the table, I’m going to say that deliberate strategy inherently has got a culture that supports it. So, Eric, I’d love to understand what does culture mean to you as a business driver and how have you, as the CEO of Conexus, seen it as something that allows you to deliver your strategy?

ED: Well, as you and I talked earlier, we’ve been very deliberate and conscious about the strategy and the culture we need to enable the strategy we have. But I think its vitally important to ground any culture effort against what’s happening in the market – and where is the market evolving – so you can build a culture with that resilience and adaptability. While it might be a cliché to talk about the VUCA-world we’re living in (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) I think there’s an unbelievably big competitive advantage for institutions, cooperative institutions of our size, who are really close to the customer to be able to quickly meet what the market expects and to do that in a way with direct customer feedback and direct engagement as a member owner. For the enormous financial institutions that agility is harder, if not impossible, to pull off.

So, if you accept that hypothesis, I think it’s a natural kind of extension to say what’s the culture that the organization needs to act like?  Even though we are a 90-year old company, we must act like a startup that’s nimble and agile, that’s close to the consumer, is naturally curious about what they need and how we must orient ourselves to deliver on that.

We set out 10 years ago to radically change the way the organization behaves to try to capitalize on that strategic opportunity of quick and close to the consumer. I think we’ve made some progress for sure, but we have a long way to go.

HB: It’s absolutely a journey changing an organization, refining or modifying a culture. Talk to me about some of the explicit things you’ve done to move your people and culture along that journey?

ED: Couldn’t agree more and, to your point, we had to be intentional and explicit about it. The first thing we put our thumb on was organizations don’t change, key people inside organizations change. So, if we’re going to be markedly different in terms of the culture that we wanted, we knew we needed different kinds of people or different skills in the people that we had.

We made no bones about that and used unambiguous language like “leaders will change or leaders will change.” And I have to hold myself to that ethos and attitude too. As you and I talked about previously, my biggest personal fear is not evolving myself quick enough to keep up with what the organization will need in this VUCA world.

Case in point, I was doing interviews last week for an executive level role, and I was really poking at the candidate to show me a time where they’ve done something completely different, something unique to the industry where they were sophisticated enough to figure out the risks or the consequences and took that idea over the finish line to production in the market. You’ll be shocked at how few people with a legacy in banking can actually articulate those things. It’s remarkably few and far between to be honest.

HB: I love the notion of leaders will change or leaders will change. There’s something deliciously unambiguous about that. Coming into this role where you’re sandwiched between the Board, your employees looking for direction and reinforcement and your members looking for service and returns, how do you drive that thinking into the culture?

ED: My observation is that the natural inclination of many leaders is to go in quickly, steal or borrow content from others, and then try to adapt it to their new role. Fair enough, maybe things aren’t that strategically differentiated in some categories. However, I would say on things that matter greatly to strategy, where you need people who are actually going to create things and try things that have never been done before, you’ve got to be more deliberate, more conscious and definitely more patient.

Bizarrely we found when we started our journey that there was not a universally accepted definition of financial wellbeing in the history of banking. A category that is 350 years old. So, this tiny little bank from Saskatchewan Canada went out and built one. It took us four or five years to get our heads around it, but, but we built it from scratch. And, today, that “purpose” is the absolute rallying cry for the entire organization. And it’s not just some glossy picture hung up, you know, in offices across our province. If you were to call any of our employees and say, what do we stand for? It would be the first four words out of their mouth. There is absolutely no question about that. And what’s interesting is, from a talent attraction perspective, the people we’ve brought into the organization recently cited helping advance that purpose as a key reason for applying. That purpose absolutely connects us internally. So, it has become a magnet for people who feel similarly about the opportunity and what we’re trying to create at Conexus.

HB: That’s remarkable. I congratulate you Eric, because it is substantively different to numerous organizations who pontificate, but sadly don’t have the proof or evidence beneath the pontification. So congratulations, mate, congratulations.

ED: Thank you Hilton. If I had a nickel for every time, I pulled down a strategic plan, read it and thought my God, that sounds fantastic. <Laughs>. I talk openly to our team that people can think strategically, but strategically doing, you know, that’s what separates the average from the great in my mind. We’ve certainly had our own struggles figuring out a way to deliver on this beast but, I would say, that’s what differentiates the great organizations from the average. It’s the difference between saying, and the much harder task of actually finding ways to build that in to how they deliver to the customer.

When you start to think about here’s our strategy, the next question naturally is, what’s the culture required to deliver on that strategy? And then the most difficult question is, okay, how do we actually move the entire organization? Now you’re talking about recruitment, performance management compensation system and rewards systems, the way the organization communicates, how leaders show up to formal and informal events. The list goes on. It’s really easy as a leader to go, “Oh my God, that sounds hard to have to reinvent all these things”.The goal is not to blow them all up. The goal is to take them and consciously be moving all of them towards some desired future culture that’s never done. Don’t let the fact that it’s so daunting get in the way. Rather, be really clear about the culture that the organization aspires to have, and then just take small, but deliberate and meaningful steps towards that constantly and making that clear to the organization.

At Conexus, we talk openly about our strategy journey being like a trip from Regina to St John’s Newfoundland. (Dear Reader – That’s a 61-hour drive or 5,375 kilometers) Metaphorically, we’re not sure if we’re going to fly walk, drive, take some time to hike, or camp out for a few days. We’re not sure. All we know is that the direction is East. And we all need to be going East together. And, from time to time, we’ll decide together if we need a rest or we need a plane or we need a truck or whatever it is we need to get there. It’s inevitably going to change, but we’re constantly taking those meaningful steps towards Newfoundland and our final destination. It’s been a useful metaphor for us.

HB: That’s a brilliant metaphor. Purposeful but it does take the pressure to get the culture and transformation piece right straight out the box. Switching gears, one of the common refrains I hear about innovation or agility in the banking industry is how hampered organizations are by the wall of regulations they face. Is that a fair observation?

ED: There’s no denying we face regulations and regulators in this industry. And we should, we’re entrusted with other people’s money and their futures. However, I’ll give you an analogy that I use when I speak to our team about this. When my Conexus colleagues say the regulator is not going to permit this or that, my answer back is that we sound like (with the greatest respect) taxi cab drivers arguing about Uber. My unwavering perspective is that our customer’s expectations are going to drive the evolution of our business, not the regulator. And our job is to find smart and savvy ways to deliver on those consumer expectations while obviously maintaining trust and integrity of the systems. That’s our responsibility.

A recent example inside Conexus would be venture capital and running it inside a community bank. It has never been done before in Canada. And of course, the first conversation we had with the regulator, they had questions about how we were going to manage this business. Did they just come out and say, here’s your blanket approval go forth? Of course not, but we found sophisticated ways to demonstrate to them that we understood the businesses. We could manage the risks. It was consistent with our purpose, we’d hired the expertise to do it well. We’ve just had our first venture exit and had a hundred percent return in 130 days, that’s a very successful start to that business.

To my mind it’s just lazy and convenient to accept that “no” from the regulator and stop pushing. That’s not the culture we’re building here at Conexus because our customers and members in Saskatchewan are demanding more from us. Particularly around venture capital and nurturing home-grown start-ups. I can proudly say that the burgeoning start-up community in this Province could stack up against anything in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver and we (Conexus) want to be a central part of that economic growth and that financial wellbeing.

HB: That’s an excellent example Eric. For readers outside of Canada who might not be familiar with Western Canada, particularly the Prairies, there’s a real can-do attitude that seems to personify the West. Is that just a romantic illusion? What role does that play in creating can-do cultures?

ED: Well, it certainly takes a certain resilience to face our winters – and our black flies. <Laughs> One of the really interesting things that came out of our research was that some of the best incubators and ecosystems in the world are located near farming communities. There’s an entrepreneurial reality about working in agriculture that isn’t immediately obvious but it’s definitely there. Farmers know all about facing left turns, whether that’s the weather or that’s prices or that’s international trade. So, I think to your last point, it’s definitely a bit of a roll up your sleeves, get shit done, kind of mentality here on the Prairies. So, in the people we hire, the people we attract, the customers and entrepreneurs we serve, it’s certainly part of our fabric.

HB: Love it. I always ask my interviewees what advice they have for their CEO peers staring down the barrel of the same challenges you do on a Monday morning?

ED: Sure. Maybe let me start with a bit about kind of current state, because it’s a very challenging time to lead companies. First and foremost, you need to kind of put your own mask on first in terms of wellness. You can’t set up for the organization and coach it through a very challenging business environment if you don’t find personal time to get fresh air, find time to think, find time to disconnect. This “working from home” thing has propagated a very dangerous “always on” mentality and that doesn’t lead to high performance. As CEO you must find time to rest relax, rejuvenate, and most importantly think.

I think the second thing is just be gracious. Always. Recognize that we’ve never operated in times like this. I’m going to make mistakes and I’ve made lots over the last 12 months of leading through a pandemic. My colleagues have made mistakes, but you just need to be gracious where, you know, everyone is genuinely trying their best. Anything we do that doesn’t look perfect, it’s not because of bad intent. It’s just because we’ve never seen, experienced, or lived through something like this before.

The last thing I would say though is, if as CEO, you think you’ve done all your learning and growth and development, it’s the contrary, it’s now that you need to be your most voracious learner reader, grower, developer of yourself, your knowledge. Again, my biggest fear as CEO is that I’m not going to reinvent myself as quickly as the organization demands and needs. It’s taxing as a leader to, you know, run the business and then reinvent yourself and you’ve got to still learn, read, explore.

Just like you’ve got to put your mask on first to be, you also got to put your mask on first to show the organization that this constant reinvention (of yourself) is now the new normal. I don’t think there’s any way around it if you want to genuinely lead your people.

HB: What a brilliantly pragmatic Prairie’s answer Ed. This has been a thorough delight. Appreciate your time mate. Stay safe and stay warm out there.

ED: Thanks Hilton. That was lots of fun. Appreciate you giving me an opportunity to tell the Conexus story.

My time on the Talking 306 Podcast

Eric speaks with host Dale Richardson about his life and career, including his family’s background and Saskatchewan roots; growing up in a military family and moving around Canada; how he got started in the financial and credit union world; his approach to leadership; the importance of failing forward and taking the time to THINK during the day; Conexus’s new headquarters in Regina; investing in Saskatchewan’s tech sector; and much more.

The Talking 306 Podcast is hosted and produced by Dale Richardson, and is a proud member of the Saskatchewan Podcast Network.

https://www.stitcher.com/show/talking-306-podcast/episode/eric-dillon-79811910

The “Either / Or Paradox”

I have been watching the last few weeks / months with great interest. Election season is everywhere it seems. Where I live, we have just finished a provincial election, a municipal election is coming next week, there has been threats of a federal election and of course, there is the US election next week. I am not sure how Fox News and CNN intend to appear on the US ballot but they are surely trying 🤷‍♂️.

All those elections have rightfully dominated news, social media feeds, water cooler chats and of course, discussions with my colleagues, friends and even my kids. I am fascinated by politics. Not the stuff that makes all of us shake our heads, but rather the process to make change and bring policies forward that address the challenges we have today in our city, our province, our country and our world. I get to chat regularly with those elected to various political offices and I have asked several of them if they have a “take a friend to work day” and if so, I’d sign up right away. I’d love to see the inner workings of the process to create ideas, debate their merits and then turn the best of them into regulation, policy and laws. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love to debate and at times, get very carried away with passionately exploring ideas. To be clear, that is the only interest I have in politics. The other parts of politics, I could do without, but I digress.

Watching the exchange of ideas lately has me wondering how we became such an “either / or” collection of humans, incapable of listening and exploring the ideas of others. When did it become such an (a) or (b) discussion? Did I miss a memo?!? I started to think about places where the “either or” discussion has allowed us to be less accountable to each other to work together, to learn and to solve real issues or exploit real opportunities. Here’s a few on my mind:

Climate Change -Clearly, the changing nature of our planet is something we all need to address. I had a chat with a young finance executive on Friday. We had good discussion about both the opportunity for financial institutions to participate more fully in the change but also the practical economic challenges for all of us to produce less emissions. It was an interesting discussion in which I felt like my own thinking evolved a bit while at the same time, I felt like I was able to share some views in different ways which he hadn’t considered. Watching this debate around the world, it has been reduced to a discussion about whether the world would survive the with only fossil fuels or how we should completely shut down any source of energy that produces emissions.

Gender Equity – I have written previously about my personal biases towards creating more gender balance in finance and business. I shared how my personal biases have created some interesting discussions with both men and women as I have lived these choices. I have also heard comments like “burn the patriarchy” communicated by some to highlight how frustrated and angry they are about the issue. I don’t pretend for a minute to argue validity of the frustration and emotion, but I do wonder how that emotion will get translated into a better tomorrow. I spoke in the blog above about a conversation with a male colleague and my regret at the missed opportunity to enrol him as an advocate for change. I believe the eventual outcome does lie in enrolling more advocates (both women and men) into this discussion and finding a better path forward.

Racism / Black Lives Matter – I watch the media reports and see demonstrations on both sides of this issue. The demonstrations can be violent and hurtful. I am reminded of Charlottesville and feel like I am watching the ugliest part of humanity. Conversely, when I attended the large BLM rally in my community earlier this year, I was moved by the optimism and by how much the conversation had changed to a “we” discussion from an “us/them” discussion. An “and” discussion versus an “either or”. I was more optimistic leaving that event than I ever had been as it relates to BLM and BIPOC.

Why have the debates / discussions become so unproductive and how do we create a better forum for engaged discussions, learning and solutions? What has been the catalyst for taking such complex discussions and reducing them to “either or” statements meant to incite emotion? Is it just the stress of 2020? Is the now 280 characters that social media forces us to make our arguments within? Is it that our frenetic, busy lives have caused us to “fire our statement out there” and then just as quickly move on and not listen or engage with anyone else in a really curious way? The challenge with this kind of emotionally charged “zinger” is that it creates less accountability in others to listen, like really listen, to your thoughts. They are easily able to dismiss them or argue back with a similar level of emotion. We just yell at each other. In essence, aren’t we letting them off the hock for having to really think about your view, to consider it against their own perspective and then to thoughtfully engage with you.  Aren’t we just lowering the level of accountability to critically think about your view and give it the thought it deserves? Maybe you aren’t looking to debate your thoughts but then at the same time, don’t expect anyone else to do anything with it other than dismiss it completely as being different than their own.

HBR published an article a few years ago that highlighted the challenge for business leaders in managing paradoxes.  Here were a few of the questions:

  1. Are we managing for today or tomorrow?
  2. Do we adhere to boundaries or cross them?
  3. Do we focus on creating value for our shareholders and investors or for a broader set of stakeholders

Isn’t the answer to all of these clearly “both”?

The article goes on to talk about how leaders must create a dynamic equilibrium in their minds to hold multiple ideas in their head while exploring each of them. A recent book I read, Loonshots, talks about loving the artists (the innovators) and the soldiers (the current do’ers) in the company equally. The book goes on to ensure that leaders are focused on watching for the P-type loonshots (there’s no way that could ever work – and then it does) and the S-type loonshots (there’s no way that could ever make money – and then it does) even though they are probably predisposed to one kind or the other.

Could you frame those social challenges above as absolute paradoxes in the same way?

  1. Are we reducing emissions or supporting current jobs?
  2. Are we advocating for female leaders or male leaders?
  3. Are we exploring our own privilege or reducing the systemic biases apparent for others?

Clearly the answer to these questions is again…..both, and….

The next time I am engaged in a discussion with a colleague about complex problems like this, I am going to try very hard to listen well, to hold space for their idea while I consider their views and compare it to my own before responding. As a leader, I get it…..it’s hard. Like really hard. I know that better than most and have failed miserably in trying to do this well all of the time. I would rate myself as a 6 out of 10 on doing this consistently well. My coach would tell me that the goal is to try and be a 6.5 next week and go from there. All of the circumstances (lack of time, high stress, social media, etc.) are true and hard to ignore but at the same time, the solutions of the future, will demand a much more curious exploration of ideas and new solutions that we haven’t found yet today.

For the business leaders reading this blog, good luck in raising the bar, if only a little, in managing the paradox and equilibrium that next week will bring.

For those elected and re-elected to office this election season, share your ideas broadly, listen closely and fully consider the ideas of others. Do what you can to thoughtfully explore the ideas different from your own that might help move us forward and solve complex problems. We are behind you following your lead.