TFI Talent Talks Webinar Recap: Lessons from the Pandemic with BMO, OTPP and Manulife

Julie Bryski

Posted by Julie Bryski on November 25, 2020

This summer, Toronto Finance International (TFI) launched TFI Talent Talks, an interview series which showcased senior talent leaders in financial services sharing how their organizations are responding to the pandemic, the new directions they have taken to support their employees, the lessons learned and their views for the future.Common themes that emerged from the interviews included:

  1. Adapt and Pivot: despite the size of our financial services organizations, we have been able to adapt and pivot quickly, literally within days or weeks, to respond to the crisis and ensure employee and customer safety.
  2. Embrace Opportunity: we found the opportunity in the midst of massive change to think differently about work and workplace practices.
  3. Strategy Acceleration: leaders generally agreed that the talent strategies that they put in place haven't changed, but the pandemic has provided the impetus to accelerate them.
This fall, we extend the conversation with a 3-part webinar series launched on October 21st with the first session, entitled “Lessons from the Pandemic”. Three dynamic leaders engaged in a panel discussion to share their organizations’ learnings, progress and way forward:
  • Pippa Aird, Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) for Wealth, Canadian Personal & Business Banking and Enterprise Functions, BMO
  • David McDonald, Vice President Human Resources for Global Technology, Manulife
  • Matthew Smith, Senior Managing Director, Talent, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan

The panel was moderated by TFI’s Senior Vice President, Talent Initiatives, Sashya D’Souza.

The following is an overview of key insights shared in the session:

Topic: Key changes that were implemented or happened organically in your workplace as a result of the pandemic

Speed and Agility

BMO responded to the crisis with speed and agility to shift the workforce to remote capability and ensure employee safety. A phased approach was used as a framework to allow immediate action, while linking to the longer-term strategy.

Operating with speed and agility allowed BMO to put the health and safety of their employees and customers first and provide people with the technology they needed. Later, speed and agility became a key source of mutual trust within the organization.

Increased agility allowed BMO to leverage their talent more effectively – redeploying branch and other employees to support the contact center to help with the increased volumes they were experiencing.

Pippa: “We were able to quickly shift people into new areas of demand that arose through the pandemic, in a way that we’ve never done before and in a way that we want to continue to do.”

Leaders’ Mindsets

Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan helped leaders shift their mindsets to one of trust and clarity of expectations – focusing on outcomes and impact, rather than using attendance as a proxy for productivity. The leadership team was very accessible and connected authentically with employees, underscoring that we are all experiencing challenges in this time.

Matthew: “A big change for our employees was to see our senior leaders be so authentic - expressing vulnerability and talking openly about their challenges.”

Values and Technology

Manulife’s corporate mission and values were the North Star that helped them navigate through the crisis. In 2018, they embarked on a company-wide transformation with the aspirational goal to become the most digital customer-centric global company in the financial services industry. The investments in technology positioned Manulife well to react quickly when the pandemic hit, and helped to enable an exceptional employee and customer experience. Manulife addressed some of the communications challenges by implementing a collaborative platform, using an organic bottom-up approach to achieve close to 100% adoption.

David: “As a result of digitization efforts over the last couple of years, we were able to quickly shift approximately 95% of our global workforce to work from home (at some point) during the pandemic, allowing us to remain fully connected with our customers and agents around the world.”

Topic: Organizational lessons learned through the changes implemented

Focus on the Right Things…and Move with Purpose

Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan believes that, like most financial services companies, they have smart, driven people who can assess risk and make decisions. The pandemic accelerated the organizational shift to a greater focus on outcomes – a culture change that had been talked about prior to the pandemic. Teachers’ also realized that to move quickly, you have to let go of perfectionism - an “8” next week, is better than a “10” next month. At the start of the pandemic, the focus was on controlling possible negative scenarios, rather thinking about new ways to leverage the changes happening in the business.

Matt: “I wish that we had embraced the positive aspects of the change more quickly - to help transform our business and our culture and our teams.”

Change Behaviours…and Retain the Changes

As BMO reflects on the lessons learned, retaining the behaviour changes they have seen through the pandemic is a priority. Leaders took on more accountability and ownership without asking for permission. People collaborated across the enterprise and across business silos in a genuine, authentic way. BMO is having open conversations around what employees have learned, and are giving each other permission across the enterprise to call out instances when they might be falling back into old patterns.

Pippa: “We have busted through old paradigms, because we had no choice. We want to hang on to those amazing behaviors and outcomes.”

Communication and the Employee Experience are Key

Manulife’s key lessons learned included the importance of communication, supporting front-line leaders and focusing on employee engagement. Like others, the number one priority was the care and health of employees. To accomplish this, communication had to be frequent, transparent and empathetic. Front-line leaders were supported to deal with ambiguity and lead through new situations, such as flexible hours, uncertain family situations, and recognizing stress. A focus on the employee experience was needed to ensure that people felt connected even while being apart. Employees were engaged in decision-making and pandemic planning, using a customer-centric approach that worked well.

David: “As a foundational element, we have learned to be nimble, as we are all speeding things up in our organizations. We’ve learned that sometimes it's okay to go fast and not worry about the potential to fail”.

Topic: Ensuring that organizations embrace new ways of working, without sliding back into older patterns and processes

Focus on Outcomes and Employee Empowerment

BMO has launched a multi-year initiative aimed at driving a high-performance culture, which includes a focus on outcomes-oriented behaviours. This initiative provides a unique opportunity to overlay and embed the lessons learned through the pandemic. The organization will clarify new expectations for leaders, and will enable employee empowerment to spur a grassroots movement to hold senior leaders accountable and to ensure that the organization does not take steps back.

Pippa: “It will be fundamental that we support leaders to give people permission to challenge the status quo, and to call out when they're seeing us regressing into old behaviors.”

Lead with Values

As Manulife moves forward, leading with values will continue to take on even more significance. The organization will continue to anchor to those values and use them as guideposts, to help make things simpler, smarter, less complex, and more actionable for both employees and customers. The organization will continue to prioritize the health and safety of employees, and our commitment to taking care of ourselves and each other.

David: “Our values have been a guiding force since we launched them two years ago, and have served us well as we navigate through the pandemic.”

Change Mindsets

Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan is working to weave together 3 concepts that will work together to drive performance.

  1. Reimagining the time, place and methods of work
  2. Recognizing the whole person
  3. Focusing on impact and performance accountability

Matt: “We are exploring how these three pieces come together for the benefit of our stakeholders around performance. We will increase work flexibility and we will take care of the whole person. We need to be sure that these two levers have an exponential impact and will drive performance.”

We thank our panelists, Pippa Aird, David McDonald and Matthew Smith for sharing their experiences and lessons learned so openly, and our webinar participants for enthusiastically engaging in the Q&A segment that followed the discussion.

The TFI Talent Talks Fall Webinar

The 2nd TFI Talent Talks webinar in our fall series, entitled “The Talent Marketplace” was held on November 4th. An overview of the session will be posted to the TFI website shortly.

Please join us for the 3rd webinar in the series, entitled “The New Leader”, scheduled for Tuesday, November 24th from 12:00pm – 1:00pm EST. Register now.


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