At the turn of the 21st century, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) was in the midst of a shift in its corporate strategy. The organization—a crown corporation created in 1944 to help connect Canadian entrepreneurs with financing and business advice—had begun decentralizing its business model and increasing the number of branches it operated in communities across Canada. The goal was to enable a closer relationship between the representatives of BDC and the clients whose needs they served.

According to Mary Karamanos, senior vice-president of HR at BDC, the plan required two essential elements to succeed: employees to staff the regional offices and effective managers to lead the teams and ensure that client needs were being met. At the time, employee surveys were revealing some issues that could have had an impact on the latter. “Our employee engagement scores on questions such as ‘Do your leaders provide clear direction?’ and ‘Do they have open and honest communications?’ were telling us that we weren’t seen as having very strong leaders in the organization.”

In an effort to improve leadership capabilities across the organization, BDC assembled a team of 10 “high potential” individuals at the assistant vice-president and vice-president levels. They were given a mandate to refine their own leadership skills, while also determining how BDC could effectively build its leadership capacity across the organization.

Over the course of a year, the team assessed the existing practices at BDC and examined successful leadership development programs at global corporations such as Johnson & Johnson and Weyerhaeuser. The research culminated in a series of recommend-ations, one of which was that BDC should implement a comprehensive program to help its employees develop leadership skills.

The need to lead
Phase 1 in what has become BDC’s Transitional Leadership Program was launched in 2005. Called the Emerging Leaders Program, the first phase involved assessing various competencies of employees across the organization, then putting those with measurable potential as future leaders through a series of training modules to develop that potential. Participants learn strategies for motivating others, resolving conflict and delegating effectively.

“You can imagine there is kind of a culture shock the first time you sit in your [office] seat and you really don’t know what you’re supposed to do in a management role,” says Karamanos of the rationale behind the early-intervention initiative. “We developed a program for employees who were not leaders yet but who we felt have what it takes to become leaders in the future.”

As the success of the Emerging Leaders initiative became increasingly apparent and BDC management made competency training an increasing focus of its corporate strategy, the team began examining ways to extend the leadership development to include those presently in leadership roles.

Leading the Future, the second and most recent phase of the Transitional Leadership Program, was developed in 2008 in co-operation with Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. This phase focuses on providing learning opportuni-ties for those in senior leadership roles. (The program is mandatory for senior directors, assistant vice-presidents and vice-presidents, a group that Karamanos says represents about 100 people, or 5% of BDC’s employee population.)

Like the Emerging Leaders initiative, Leading the Future involves competency training and assessment opportunities presented in various modules.

The initial module, launched in 2008, is called Personal Leadership. It offers participants the opportunity to receive feedback from individuals at all levels of the organization—including direct reports, managers and peers—relating to their personal leadership and management competencies. Once this feedback has been presented, participants are asked to create their own development plan and are provided with coaching to help them implement their personal plan.

“This gives them a lot of good, tangible information. It increases their self-awareness and gives them an opportunity to understand how they’re perceived by others and how their actions and behaviours affect their teams, peers and manager,” says Karamanos.

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