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A Lesson In Leading

A Lesson In Leading

Dr. John Izzo helps companies maximize their potential from the ground up. For over 20 years, Dr. Izzo has worked with thousands of leaders around the world, on employee-engagement strategies and brand transformations. Dr. Izzo has been a pioneer in employee engagement, leading change, shifting employee and consumer values and corporate social responsibility. He is known for his hard hitting practical content, his inspirational storytelling and the lasting impact he has on organizations. Below, he writes on Darren Entwistle, Executive Chariman of TELUS, and the leadership lessons we can all learn from him:

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines once said that “corporate culture is hard to define but without it you ain’t got nothing” (actually Herb was a lot more colorful than that). If you want to know if working on corporate culture matters as much as working on the traditional levers that business leaders use to make a business successful (such as products, services, technologies, etc.), look no further than the fourteen years Darren Entwistle has spent as CEO of TELUS before becoming its Executive Chairman.

When Entwistle took over TELUS in 2000, it was a good but unspectacular amalgamation of two former telephone utilities in Western Canada. Since then it has led the world in total shareholder value creation, returning 304% to shareholders and outpacing the second place incumbent telecommunications company (Bezeq out of Israel) by 95 percentage points. It has the lowest customer churn rate in Canada and the top customer satisfaction ratings from JD Powers. The question is why?

From the very beginning, Entwistle believed that the culture of the company would be the key driver of long term success. While many other CEOs focused on the “what” of the business, he relentlessly worked on the very personality of the business. One of his first acts was to involve thousands of TELUS employees in defining the company’s values. What emerged were four core values – passion for growth, courage to innovate, spirited teamwork and embracing change. Having tapped the employees for the values, he then systematically embedded them in everything from hiring and training to compensation and recognition.

In a highly unionized environment, he set out to establish a “business ownership” mindset aiming to get every person linked to the success of the business. TELUS extended stock options to all employees (almost unheard of in a large unionized workforce) to complement a generous employee share purchase and company matching program. He knew if you want people to act like owners, make them owners.

Darren communicated relentlessly with the thousands of team members including having issued 347 CEO weekly, and later monthly, letters to the entire TELUS team outlining what was happening in the business. He held regular forums with about 150 frontline employees at a time accompanied only by his EVP of Human Resources. Eye to eye with employees he talked but also listened. He calls what he gets from those sessions “gold dust”. If you want a great culture, keep your ear to the ground, be visible.

He took leadership development very seriously. Not only did he personally author and promote what he called the “ten effective leadership techniques” but often talked straight for a ten hour day to his entire leadership team about everything from the business to how they were leading. Having witnessed one of these marathon sessions, what amazed me was how engaged people were. Even in lean times, the top 200 leaders gathered every year for three days mostly about culture and leadership. They invested millions of dollars in training, including sessions to get frontline team members to engage.

Five years ago, Entwistle determined that the business had two key vulnerabilities, the need to be top in customer service and to be top in employee engagement. Once again he focused on culture. He implemented a management style called “fair process” to begin to engage employees in decisions that impacted their daily work which helped catapult them to best in world employee engagement. He aligned 60% of the bonus pay for all employees with increasing the likelihood of customers to recommend TELUS as a service provider to family and friends. He personally started penning over 180 letters to the entire leadership team escalating particular customer issues to show what must be resolved.

Since pride in your company is a big factor in employee commitment, he consistently made a priority seemingly squishy things like giving back to the community, getting recognized as a leading corporate citizen, creating a green sustainable company, programs to let people work from anywhere they wanted to called “work styles” and leading edge wellness programs. All of this seemingly soft stuff for a leader known to be a hard-nosed competitor.

For many years, I have written books to remind leaders that your products, services, rate plans, and technologies can be imitated quickly by your competitors. But corporate culture takes years to build and once created, becomes a competitive advantage difficult to emulate. Waterstone Human Capital, a leading Canadian executive search and talent management organization, founded and runs Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures. Canada’s 10 recognizes organizations that have cultures that drive performance. TELUS, under Darren’s leadership, was recognized four times and in 2013, was honoured further by being into the Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Hall of Fame. Waterstone’s CEO, Marty Parker, indicates “Darren created a unique culture that embodies collaboration, ownership of results, innovation and world-leading corporate social responsibility. This not only drove best-in-class shareholder returns, but created a powerful culture of performance and this unique culture became their competitive advantage.”

On the surface, Darren Entwistle has little in common with the down home style of Herb Kelleher who built the iconic Southwest Airlines. But scratch the surface and the one thing they have in common is an unrelenting focus on creating the right culture. Canada has few leading CEOs who have demonstrated this long term focus through thick and thin. We don’t have many great corporate culture stories in Canada but TELUS, under Darren’s leadership, stands out.

By Dr. John Izzo