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President and CEO Carol Wilding on Leadership, Lessons, Legacy

March 31, 2016
The Learning Partnership
Carol Wilding, FCPA, FCA
President and CEO, CPA Ontario

 Good afternoon.

It’s a pleasure to be here again at the Learning Partnership’s Executive Leadership Program. 

First, congratulations to all of you – you’re just starting your 5th module of the program!  You must have heard the word “leader” about 1 million times by now.  Almost as many times as we hear that word each day connected with a small election just south of our border.

That spiteful, surprising, and, yes, scary campaign has not just dominated the news as entertainment, spectacle and speculation.

It’s highlighted issues of values that leaders express and symbolize. Let’s stick with the political sphere for a moment as consider another high profile leader influencing a culture.

Whatever your party, it’s impossible not to be struck by how completely Prime Minister Trudeau has captured people’s attention by his commitment to an overarching and consistent message of positivity. His spirit of optimism now symbolises Canada, both here and the world over.

It’s early to know how his vision will withstand the tests of harsh realities – when the poetry of campaigning becomes the prose of governing. But it is a timely and impressive demonstration of how cultures are framed and transformed by true leadership.

So today, I want to use my formal comments about Leadership, Lessons and Legacy as a springboard for discussion.  Let’s lift it out of your curriculum and consider how it actually works in life. This course has given you many concepts to study, but leadership is more than rhetoric.  And I hope we can make that theory tangible by looking at real examples in the real world.

That means, despite the late hour in the day and the promise of dinner ahead, I’m counting on you to be lively participants.  We all have so much to offer, so much to learn from each other.

It has often been noted that Learners are Leaders

There’s a Chinese proverb that says “Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.”

How true. The search for knowledge should never end.

I know that life-long learning engages, energizes and expands my world.

And I know you believe this, too.  That’s why, as educators, you’ve chosen this course (metaphorically and specifically).  You want to keep learning and growing in your field.  You want to amplify your skills and abilities and take them to a higher level.

You want to create and refine your legacy.

Your legacy as leaders.

As supervisors of education, you have a privileged position to influence leaders who will then directly impact the quality of education for our children, our very future.

I want to step back for a moment and reflect on my journey as a leader, and some of the lessons I’ve learned.

I started off as an ambitious CPA, and I worked hard to expand into wonderful positions in a range of fine organizations.

The truth is just as Jack Welsh said: "Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others."

I’ve been privileged to have a richly rewarding a diverse career – and been blessed with a sense of endless possibility.

I’ve worked in finance and consulting (PWC), international not for profit (Plan), healthcare, research and philanthropy (Sinai), civic policy and business development (TRBoT) and now CPA.

These were all transformative leadership roles, as well as opportunities to align my values, learn and contribute.  And I’m immensely proud of what was accomplished with outstanding colleagues at these fine organizations.

I am also very grateful for the lessons in leadership that I learned – and practised in each organization. 

Leadership is based on established positive principles, which are often laid out in countless articles and books, courses and forums:

  •  Excellence and accountability.
  •  Energy and perseverance
  •  Innovation and vision
  •  Communication and collaboration
  •  Courage and decisiveness
  •  Integrity and passion
  •  A sense of humour and a sense of perspective

Right now, I’d like to concentrate on just three.

  1. Doing the right thing - courage and decisiveness
  2. Integrity – your greatest asset
  3. Articulating a vision to create a culture 

Martin Luther King Jr was someone with integrity, courage and communication.  And he believed that the ultimate measure of a leader is not where you stand in moments of comfort, but where you stand at times of challenge.

Everyone knows the truth of the comment “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Because even though I have a pretty solid brand with a good track record, the truth is just as the great philosopher (and baseball legend) Babe Ruth said, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.” 

Today’s game for me is my experience as President of the newly merged Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario. 

Let’s set the playing field with some history.

In June, 2014, Canada’s numerous accounting bodies in every province completed their final merger approvals, combining under the banner of the Chartered Professional Accountants.  That meant that Certified General Accountants (CGA) and Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA) and Certified Management Accountants (CMA) agreed to merge, though with different levels of enthusiasm from their memberships.

Now, I know from the outside, an accountant is an accountant is an accountant.  Stereotypically tucked into the far corner of the office with a calculator.  But for people in the profession, there was a passionate belief in their own disciplines, and many careers concentrated on differentiating themselves.  Unification roused a very animated debate.  In fact, there had been many failed attempts to bring the groups together over the past three decades – but it finally happened.

The promise of making this brand new organization successful, and giving back to my profession, was a tantalizing challenge, an opportunity I could not refuse.   And I like to think that every new role I’ve taken on in my career has always included measured risks that paid off over the short and long run.

Now I admit that I’m a bit of a change junkie. I truly believe that only dead fish swim with the current.  (even though I’m hardly someone who fishes!)

It’s often been said that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.  (and we accountants love that reference to taxes!)   But in today’s world, I’d add that “rapid change” is just as certain.  Embracing change is essential to survive – let alone flourish - in times of economic uncertainty, global social pressures, and dynamic technologies.  We need to adapt to a world that is evolving at breathtaking speed.

I welcome this, but I also know that for most people change is very disorienting and uncomfortable. 

But while a leader can take organizations forward to respond to industry shifts, a great leader takes them where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

A unified CPA Ontario was the right place for these organizations to be.

But when I joined as the CPA Ontario Chief Executive Officer three months after the signed merger, there were many challenges in this new entity. 

First of all, the classic challenge of mergers is bringing together two former competitors – and in this case, three, all with long, proud histories and specific ways of doing things.  Our goal was to forge them into a single entity, with one strategic plan, with everyone pulling in the same direction.

It’s one thing to be unified on paper, and quite another to be united in reality. 

In terms of integration complexity, the new CPAO was truly a perfect storm.

Especially since there were strong cultural and working style differences, and no effective governance structure was yet in place to guide integration smoothly.

But the biggest challenge was a lack of a shared vision, and a shortage of trust.

It needed an articulated thoughtful mission for people to rally behind.  Because without a shared vision, it’s too easy as a default to revert to the past, with conscious action or even unconscious behavior.

Though it was not easy, in the end, I really believe I won respect and trust.

Because ultimately leadership is a question of respect earned, not “given,” trust built, not “entitled.”  And building that trust relies on communications and commitment.  It does not mean winning a popularity contest, but winning confidence.  For a team without trust isn’t really a team; it’s a bunch of people doing work, and not as effectively, side by side.

Today, the organization is stabilized and energized. 

We’ve turned the situation around, and turned the organization forward.

I feel this really demonstrates that change can only happen when someone takes an intentional step in a new direction.  You can’t just drift into it.

To be successful, change must be purposeful.  It takes time, effort and commitment – and it’s never “done.”

And because it’s never finished, the organization always evolves. Continuous progress is both valuable and powerful – especially if, like me, you’re a big believer in evolution over revolution!

This experience at CPA Ontario confirmed everything I believe about transformation  and effective leadership. 

It’s about visibility, openness, active listening. 

About communicating a coherent and compelling vision in order to build a positive culture.  

It’s about taking difficult decisions and seeing them through.  And maintaining your energy and passion when things get thorny.

And it means you act with integrity, with the courage and confidence to stand up for what you stood for.

Now while I’m proud of the impact I’ve had as a leader, I certainly haven’t changed the world, nor pioneered anything dramatic like the first artificial heart developed by American scientist Robert Jarvik.  But he and I connect over his comment that “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.”

I just don’t let the odds against me compromise what needs to be done to drive real, progressive change.  Change that is lasting, meaningful and transformative.

And let me share a secret.  I always set out to do work of value with people of value.  For matters that matter.  But I never set out or “planned” a legacy.

I’ve done what I’m passionate about, what truly makes a positive difference.

And I believe that’s the best any leader can do!

I’d like to leave you with one final thought.  When my children were young, we shared Big Life Learning Lessons with the most remarkable philosophers, whose wisdom has always stuck with us.  One of our favourites was Christopher Robin, who counselled Winnie the Pooh – and me! – with this guiding insight:

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts and experiences.  Now I welcome this time for us to talk together.