The Governor General's Canadian Leadership Conference


Q&A on Leadership with Annette Verschuren, 2012 Conference Chair

Interview with Annette Verschuren, 17 February, 2011

Question: Why is leadership development important for an organization and a country?

Annette Verschuren: Leadership development is critical to the future of any organization and to the future of any country. In my business career I have always spent about 50 percent of my time developing people, because I really feel that the world and businesses are changing so dramatically that people really need to develop and become stronger and recognize that they have to deal with diverse issues. The way to do that, I believe, is to expose your emerging leaders to development experiences so they can improve their performance, whether it is running a business, union, NGO or government.

Q: What are the qualities of an exceptional leader in todayís world?

AV: I think any exceptional leader is ambitious and results oriented, but I think the qualities that really make them exceptional are their genuineness, curiosity and respect for all people. Their ability to listen, their ability to bring teams together with common goals and common action plans - those are the qualities that make exceptional leaders today. I think people that can adapt and respond quickly to changes in their workplace, changes in policy, changes in society - I think those qualities are critical to exceptional leadership.
I would also say that leaders today also need to be greater risk takers; being too comfortable and going with the herd is not necessarily a great leadership quality, I think those leaders that run outside the herd or those that take risk when they truly believe in something, those are the exceptional leaders.

Q: What is the difference between a leader in an organization and a manager?

AV: I would say that as a leader you also understand management. A manager is someone that takes the budget, someone that executes a responsibility. But a leader in an organization is one that develops the vision, that can take a team and develop the plan and then execute the plan. A leader leads people, leads people to agree or disagree on a perspective. Leaders are those that take the lead in setting the goals and standards.

Q: When did you realize that you wanted to lead a large organization?

AV: I think I was 7 years old when I told my parents that I wanted to be a president, although I didnít know what a president was back in those days! I was brought up with 5 kids and I was between 2 brothers on a farm, and I was an ambitious little one. So I always wanted to be in a leadership position. In my family, and in every job that I ever had, I would watch the people at the top and see how they operated. I had great beginnings with my parents on the farm in Cape Breton. My parents were Dutch immigrants that came to Canada in 1951. They worked hard with great integrity to sow principles in us, and that base was really important for me. All my life I wanted to lead, and I took some risks at a very young age. At university I was taking arts and I was very bored and I switched into business and didnít tell my parents. Even then I knew wanted to lead and be a head of an organization and be an influencer and enabler of other people.

Q: How did you start preparing yourself?

AV: I think you start preparing yourself very young. When I was a kid I had a speech impairment, and so my parents sent me to an oral teacher to improve my presentation skills. I think it is something you start early and continue your whole life, you find ways to become better and you are self critical, and if you are really open and transparent and genuine you will listen to what people tell you. There was a period in my life that I needed more focus on detail, and I developed that and now I can go into great detail. But I can also come back up and see the bigger picture. I also learned how to deal with male colleagues more effectively. I have always worked in male-dominated businesses. I really had to adjust my style, because you want to maximize your performance. I am not afraid to ask my teams what I could be doing better and then I take action to do so.

Q: Why does a leader have to develop an understanding of other sectors other than the one in which they work?

AV: The foundation of our society is business, government, labour, not-for-profits all working in the same communities and sometimes under the same roof. We are in constant interaction, so if you donít understand the perspective of where these organizations and people come from, how do you make your own decisions? I think it is extraordinarily critical to understand what other organizations think, how they look at an issue, so that you can understand their perspective and come up with ways to solve problems in a more collective and creative ways. It is worth noting that the reason why I got the job originally at Home Depot was because of the operational experience that I had, working in both government and the private sector. They saw that as a great opportunity. I think my time working in Crown corporations, and my understanding of the social and economic reasons for doing the things they do, really helped me become a better leader when I went to the private sector. I remember working with the United Mine Workers in the coal mines of Cape Breton and I became very comfortable working with them. Understanding their perspective was critically important to move anything forward on any issue. I think walking in other peoples shoes really does make a difference

Q: There are only so many hours in a day. How does a good leader balance the different demands on their time - work, family, stakeholders, community? How do you find that balance and how do you help others in the organization find the right balance?

AV: I have always been very, very conscious of work-life balance. Am I brilliant at it? No! But what I do know is that you have to develop priorities. I know how to say no. I am very organized - I sit down and plan out my calendar three to six months in detail. If you donít plan it, if you donít schedule it, you canít get it done. My family and my husband are the most important priority of my life and have always been. So I really carve time out. I am better as a business leader when Iím happy in my personal life. The other thing I do is exercise regularly. I am careful what I eat. And I go home a lot to the place where they donít care who I am. I love spending time in Cape Breton - it is a wonderful community where the more basic things in life tend to be more important than the material things that I see in other parts of the world.

Q: Are mentors important to the development as a leader? Did you have a mentor or people that helped you develop?

AV: The greatest gift of all is to be believed in. My parents believed in me, they were great mentors. I thought I could do anything in my life because of their influence. There are people in my life that have been terrific. My teacher Miss Musgrave is an example. I started in a three room school and she saw my ability and I became the assistant to the teacher. In grade 5, I was teaching the grade 3 children. Those are very important things in life - it doesnít all happen later. I have great business mentors, like Purdy Crawford. He was on the board of Cape Breton Development Corporation. We just connected when I was there and I stayed close to him. I really believe in positive motivation. Everybody wants to be recognized, everyone wants to be credited for something. I understand the power of being believed in, being supported. When I made mistakes, and there were many, the people important to me loved me just the same, they supported me just the same.

Q: How does this Conference help emerging leaders develop their skills and capacity to interact?

AV: I was jealous that I wasnít a participant in this Conference. Having the opportunity to work and travel with such a diverse group of people, with diverse opinions, diverse thoughts, different perspectives, and have to find way to forge a common agreement, I think that it is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to an emerging leader. What I love about this Conference is that really allows for diversity, it creates an inclusive environment, everybodyís voice is heard, and every different perspective is given. And that you know at the end of the day you have to come up with an agreed presentation on what youíve learned together - I think thatís brilliant!

Q: Youíve worked in the U.S. and Asia. Are Canadian leaders different from what you see in the U.S. or what you see in your Asian experience?

AV: I think Canadian leaders are very effective. They get to lead smart people. I think we donít talk enough about how well our work force is educated in Canada. We are different in certain ways, like the stress on the individual versus the collective perspective. U.S. society finds its roots in the homestead society, and basically the homesteaders went across the country alone. In Canada we have built a more collective society. I think Canadian leaders recognize diversity of their work forces and really try to get their teams to move forward together. Canadian leaders are very smart, very capable, very thoughtful. I feel that they are more conservative than Americans who, without a doubt, take bigger risks compared to Canadians. A little bit of both societies moving in either direction would make for a great country!

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