If my readers will allow this digression, I would like to use this week’s blog to simply congratulate and highlight the achievements of VIA Rail’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) department, created a mere two years ago.
At its helm, Denis Lavoie, Director of Enterprise Risk Management, has been meticulously developing our ERM program. ERM is a framework within which a company can successfully navigate risk – both negative risk and positive risk (otherwise known as “opportunity”) in order to better achieve its objectives.
The fruits of his labour were already recognized once this year, through his nomination and runner-up win for a coveted international prize awarded by the Institute of Risk Management in London, England. This achievement was remarkable given the limited time Denis had begun his work on the ERM policy.
This week, VIA Rail is pleased to announce that we received yet another award for our efforts in ERM. An honourable mention for this year’s ERM Award of Distinction was presented by the Risk Management Society – the preeminent organization dedicated to advancing the practice of risk management. This further recognition reconfirmed that VIA Rail is doing a remarkable job in managing risk and developing a risk appetite and tolerance framework that will help support its future success.
In his own words, Denis describes the importance of having a strong ERM policy:
“Applying this framework to its key strategic risks strengthened VIA’s ability to assess, monitor, and respond timely to changes in its enterprise-wide risk portfolio, thereby adding value to its decision-making process and enhancing risk oversight by its Board of Directors”
We are very proud that this important work has been noticed and celebrated by leading organizations in the field. Congratulations to Denis and his team on this remarkable accomplishment.
Over the course of my life, I have held many different roles, in various industries including legal, regulatory and government relations, sales & marketing, business & corporate development, finance, IT, in companies in the computer, telecommunications, software, advertising and transportation sectors. Some were private entrepreneurial ventures while others were publicly-held institutional companies.
By listening, observing and questioning everything, by investing myself into every position, I grew and made mistakes, and I also learned a great deal. Those learnings from mistakes are what I refer to as my expertise. I now find myself working in the pursuit of the public interest – this time in the realm of public transportation.
I have learned that one of the most important abilities in business, especially when it comes to a customer-facing company like VIA Rail, is to see and understand the business from an outsider’s perspective, with fresh eyes. Staying inspired is essential. Keeping abreast of trends, being adaptive and taking action to keep the company relevant is how one evolves and works to secure a company’s long term success.
In my office are some of the most inspiring books I’ve read – those that keep the curious and ambitious mind on its toes, those that inspire and challenge the reader to do better, and those that help one form that vital outsider’s point of view. Here are a few of them:
The End of Business As Usual: Rewire the way you work to succeed in the consumer revolution, by Brian Solis
The Upside: the 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs, by Adrian J. Slywotzky
Making the Impossible Possible, by Masatake Matsuda
Work Like You’re Showing Off! The joy, jazz and kick of being better tomorrow then you were today, by Joe Calloway
Since my appointment as President and CEO of VIA Rail a year and a half ago, I have tried to help every department to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of our customers, the ones we have today and the new ones we need tomorrow. Thanks to our team’s willingness to embrace change, to make change a constant feature of our work, I believe we are more relevant and top-of-mind in people’s consideration of travel options. VIA Rail’s success is dependent on each of us staying inspired and continuing to challenge ourselves.
If you have any book recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them. You can write to me through my Twitter account @VIARailPrez.
In August, the Asian financial markets suffered big losses, which affected North American markets as well. In response to this, the CEO of Starbucks, projecting some anxiety would ensue, sent out an email to his employees – all 190,000 of them – about the situation, and about their role as employees, “Please […] remember that our success is not an entitlement, but something we need to earn, every day”, it read. The email concluded with, “The experience we deliver in our stores, the strength and equity of our brand, and the primary reason for our current and future success is because of all of YOU”. I respect this type of direct communication and at VIA Rail, we strive to implement it as well. Early signs show that it is working: our 2015 employee engagement survey indicates that the engagement of all employees is increasing while the percent of disengaged employees has decreased. Communication has a lot to do with these positive results.
Market fluctuations and other obstacles can affect every person working in a company along with every client that company serves. So how do we carry on our day-to-day business in the face of destabilizing or difficult events? In my opinion, it is through supportive and clear communication. Since being appointed as CEO in May of 2014, I have visited every one of our offices and maintenance centers on a quarterly basis. I meet with employees to discuss decisions made after every Board meeting. I send out direct communications through email or through our internal communications website regularly. I strive to remain connected with our whole team: executives, managers and front-line employees.
Here are a few essentials I keep in mind when communicating:
- Talk frankly
I always treat my team with the respect they deserve as informed, intelligent people. For me, that means no sugar-coating the truth. There is no benefit in pretending there isn’t a problem when there is, and there is no benefit in keeping employees in the dark. The best course is to send out a direct message about a situation, stating the facts and outlining a way forward.
- Don’t burn the bridge
Keeping the lines of communication open at all times builds a stronger and more connected team. It’s also a matter of trust. It is imperative that all members of the team be given the truth and learn to handle the truth. Whether it is good news or bad news, our door must always be open. We must show confidence that most errors any one of us can commit, all of us can help fix.
- Sympathize and celebrate
Reserving communication for unfortunate events sends out the message that leadership will only be present in the hard times. Although it is very important to be available when times get tough, it is just as important to be there during the good times. All situations, good or bad, present a moment of truth that defines the culture of the organization. Like any supportive relationship, members of a team should make time to sympathize and to celebrate together.
- Speak with one voice
VIA Rail has over 2,600 employees, more than half of whom are customer-facing, meaning they communicate directly with our clients. Every day our company is represented by these employees, who are recognized again and again for their stellar customer service. Substantive and accurate internal communication is imperative to keep the team informed. Armed with information, our “ambassadors” are better able to represent their company and convey informed and positive messages to our clients.
- Talk less – Act more
Communication is more than just words. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. A bias for action also means that we communicate our beliefs, our values and our commitment to each other by doing, and not just saying. It’s through our positive actions that we bring the most benefit to those who matter most: our customers.
At VIA, we are faced with new challenges every day. Maintaining open communication is one way to ensure that we “Keep Calm and Carry On”, while evolving and improving all the time.
Do you remember your student days? The desire to learn, the mind space that soaks up all and everything you read and the belief that you will make a change in the world around you. Unfortunately, for many reasons and for many people this passion seems to fade with the passage of time. For a corporation like VIA Rail, it is important that its employees remain motivated and stimulated; that their enthusiasm and spirits remain high regardless of the years passing us by.
This summer, one of the ways we harnessed and infused this passion into our corporation was by ensuring an active youth presence. Continuing to surround ourselves with new and fresh opinions is imperative in keeping a company relevant. It is for this reason that we opened our doors to many student interns every year, who are placed in our different departments from legal to IT to corporate communications, marketing and operations. They come from different schools, pursuing different areas of study. But they all share those feelings and beliefs of our own youth.
We welcome them into the corporation and give each department the following instruction: at VIA Rail, student internships are for learning; they are also for contributing. We expect our students not only to listen and lend a hand but also to make active contributions to the company. Students represent the future of Canada’s corporate establishment. They are expected to question our ways, provoke us to review our beliefs and in the end, work to their full potential. Their ideas and opinions are encouraged and nurtured. Their views matter.
At the end of this summer, our student interns and management (including myself) came together to hear about their experiences at VIA. The central theme of the feedback we received was exactly what we were hoping to hear: the interns felt like they were a part of the team. They were given relevant work and trusted with important files. They felt that their opinions mattered!
But let me not forget to give credit where credit is due. The group of students we were lucky to have this summer floored us. For many, VIA was their first immersion into the working world which made the quality of their work all the more impressive. Whether it be from the school they were attending or just from being part of the interconnected social world they grew up in, this year’s students were engaged and played an active role at VIA and we thank them for their dedication.
Not only does the younger generation have worthwhile ideas, it is our social responsibility to let them know that they are important and empowered when it comes to their careers and the rest of their lives. We play our role in shaping responsible citizens and they play their roles in helping move our company forward.
We’d like to thank all the students who spent the summer with us. We expect great things from each and every one of you!
A few significant events occurred recently that got me thinking about the importance of strong and responsible leadership and mentorship, and the effect it has on employees and on people’s lives.
I began my career as a lawyer. While still in law school, I applied for a summer position in one of Canada’s preeminent law firms. That’s where I met a man who gave me my first big break. He was the type of person who could look around himself, see the potential in others and nurture it. Sadly, I came to that realization while attending his funeral a few days ago. Moreover, in that moment it dawned on me that I had him to thank, in large part, for the type of leader I have become. Working with people, coaching them and giving them opportunities to shine is what being a good business person and leader is all about. He was that type of person. Sitting in that church pew surrounded by so many people he positively affected during his lifetime was motivating to me. I only hope that I can be that type of leader to the good people that work at VIA Rail.
Around the same time, an interview I gave was published as part of a series of articles in the Financial Post on the theme of “Lessons in Leadership: Reflections from Canadian CEOs”. It was an opportunity for me to once again consider my approach to leadership and in many ways share the style, tone and manner of the leadership lessons I had learned through the years, starting with that first law student job. Under the title “Why VIA Rail’s boss feels ‘getting his hands dirty’ is important”, I share those lessons. To be frank, I’ve never considered the way I work as “getting my hands dirty”. But I did learn early, and through great examples, that leaders need to earn the respect of their teams. To me, that means being an integral part of the team and pitching in, no matter what the task.
Ironically, the day of that funeral was also my own birthday. And so, as I returned to work, I was surrounded by my VIA Rail colleagues, who are also people I admire and enjoy working with. I recognized my great fortune in leading VIA Rail’s astounding team. Being the leader of that team is indeed a great honour. It is my duty to make sure, as my deceased mentor and others after him did for me, that the potential of those around me is encouraged, recognized, nurtured and rewarded. It is an awesome responsibility, and one to which I dedicate myself, in his memory.