Chief Human Resources Officer Executive Summit
I am delighted to be able to join you today from the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation, here in Vancouver, BC.
It’s an honor to be included in your important conversations around best practices in human resources—especially in the area of organizational leadership.
In this wintry season of hopeful waiting—which in my faith is called Advent, but is known by many different names around the world—we are collectively inspired to illuminate the darkness around us. Both literally—burning Yule logs, hanging diyas, lighting menorahs—but also metaphorically, when we gather together in friendship and goodwill.
Except, of course, when we don’t. Remember when “bubbles” were something that came from soap, and “home for the holidays” wasn’t a public health order?
So, the very fact of my virtual presence with you today is testimony not only to the strange times we are living through, but also a tangible reminder of what a resilient and adaptable species we are!I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that at the University of British Columbia we have been moving at warp speed to respond to the institutional challenges presented by a deadly and disruptive global pandemic. And I know we are not alone in this; every organization has had to find its own unique path through the turmoil.
And it’s in situations like this where the strength of leadership at both the micro and macro levels is suddenly revealed. When the ground is shifting so rapidly beneath our feet… when the so-called Corona-coaster leaves us feeling unsure, unsettled and frankly scared by all the change coming at us… well, it’s easy to lose our footing and focus. And so, we look to our leaders to regain clarity and purpose.
Now, one of the best ways we can do that is via a strategic plan—a high-level roadmap that sets out our collective vision, purpose, goals and strategies for the years ahead.
At UBC, our plan—Shaping UBC’s Next Century—aims to “inspire people, ideas and actions for a better world.” And my duty, as President, is to help put a human face on that massive aspiration… to bring it to scale and make it come alive for our students, staff, faculty, alumni and partners. Even—or rather, especially—during a crisis like this pandemic.
Last March, UBC made the sharp pivot to online learning and remote working, and we expect to remain in that mode until at least the end of April next year.
To give you a sense of how dramatic a shift that was: we normally have 60,000 students and 16,000 faculty and staff on our Vancouver campus. Today, there are fewer than 4,000 people on campus.
Now more than ever, I’ve had to muster all the important leadership lessons I’ve ever learned… from my early days in lecture halls and research labs… to my later experiences as a university president both here and in the United States.
It was many years ago that I embraced the philosophy of “servant leadership” developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1964, and refined by many others over the intervening decades.
Servant-leaders focus first on the growth and well-being of others. They aim to build strong communities and lead by influence, rather than power. They start from a position of humility and respect, and strive to listen and serve with compassion and empathy.
In his famous 1970 essay on servant leadership, Greenleaf wrote:
The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
Servant-leadership certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t, at times, have to make tough decisions or assert yourself. But when you approach people from a foundation of mutual respect, no one is left feeling disempowered or dehumanized.
And there is really no secret formula for servant leadership, but there are some important guiding principles: you have to support your teams … grow your people … listen well and often … build community, and … reflect and learn.
This approach can be extremely effective when you’re trying to turn a big ship and get everyone paddling in the same direction. And it can be applied broadly, from the front-lines to the C-suite.
So when COVID-19 rolled into town and emptied our campuses and sidelined our carefully detailed strategic plans, we didn’t have to cast about for a new approach to managing our people: we simply returned to the lessons of Servant Leadership that have served us so well over the past few years.
Once again, we turned to our various communities, and listened carefully to their needs… their fears… and their desires.
We committed to providing the right tools for success—in particular, the November rollout of WorkDay to integrate our HR and finance systems with a more user-friendly and intuitive experience that significantly reduces administrative stress at an already difficult time.
We made sure our faculty and students received additional supports for online teaching and learning… that our remote workers had access to ergonomic advice… and that our people had a full complement of mental health resources to help them cope including the Employee and Family Assistance Program, counselling benefits, and mindfulness training.
And then we socialized the heck out of all of it through social media, podcasts, townhalls, and student, staff and faculty newsletters. I have also done my best to keep the community up-to-date, and to recognize and thank our campus heroes, in a widely viewed weekly video chat.
And when you do all that, you help people clearly understand which port they’re sailing towards. And that’s really important because when you’re caught in a storm… where you can’t see the horizon, and you’re paddling like crazy… you want to trust that you’re heading in the right direction!
The problem, of course, is that at the moment, there’s likely not a single person in this room who can say with confidence the precise kind of future we are navigating towards. But as Marcia Buchholz recently told me:
“All we know for certain is that we’ve been forever transformed by this experience and we must look ahead with optimism. This is a wave of change we really want to ride.”
Marcia’s sentiments are echoed in Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trend report on building a sustainable post-COVID future, which cautions:
“Organizations now face a choice between returning to a post-COVID world that is simply an enhanced version of yesterday or building one that is a sustainable version of tomorrow. The risk is more than that of falling behind—it’s the possibility of never catching up at all.”
At UBC, we are working furiously to ensure we remain sector leaders in a post-COVID world.
The Greek philosopher Hericlitus—an ancient thinker who argued that change was central to the universe—left us with the wisdom that you can never step into the same river twice. At UBC, we know we can’t go back to what was, even if we wanted to!
That’s why last fall, we surveyed our people about their workplace preferences to help inform our new remote-work program. We fully expect that at least a quarter of our staff will want to continue working from home even after it is safe to return to work, and we need to be prepared for that new reality. Our next step is to bring together focus groups to comment on the draft policy, which we hope to implement by the summer of 2021.
It’s just one example of how we are confronting—and learning to get comfortable—with uncertainty. We are learning to stay in the question even as we work to create answers.
And they are really daunting questions! Questions like:
- What will our new organization look like? With fewer face-to-face encounters, how do we preserve or improve our workplace culture?
- How will accommodation and leave policies need to be modified for remote work and study?
- How will we protect the privacy and security of our remote communities?
- How will we develop managers in this new environment? What training will people leaders need to manage the performance and protect the mental health of remote work teams?
- How might enhanced flexibility around remote work advance our reputation as a Best Employer and help us attract, engage and retain the most diverse and inclusive workforce?
I know you are facing similar “big questions” in your own organizations, and that is where this kind of a conference is so valuable: I know you are natural networkers, and together you are far greater than the sum of your individual parts when it comes to shaping bold new solutions. There is no script for any of this. So please, keep talking; keep sharing; and most importantly, keep breathing!
Thank you for staying with me today. I hope you aren’t experiencing too much Zoom fatigue! I’m really keen to hear about your “big questions,” and about how leadership has helped—or hindered!—your ability to navigate the pandemic landscape. I’d also love to know what ideas you may have for building what Deloitte refers to as “the sustainable version of tomorrow.”
Thank you. Now let’s open up the conversation!