Written by: Dr. Adam Stoehr

Special acknowledgment to Laura Nashman, President and CEO of BC Pension Corporation,for lending her expertise to facilitate and summarize the themes of the Thought Leaders Round Table discussion.

Every organization changes and sometimes those changes are in the category of transformation. When we transform our organizations, we are implementing new methods to radically improve our performance by changing behaviour and capabilities throughout the organization. A period of transformation relies heavily on employees. If it lasts too long, we are at risk of wearing everyone out. In many cases, transformation is necessary for survival. How do we successfully navigate this tough road? The Excellence Canada Thought Leaders Round Table (TLRT) met on November 2nd to discuss the ingredients for successful transformation. This paper presents the findings of the TLRT discussion. The recipe for successful transformation includes the promise of relief, the clarity of the overall direction, and the importance of shared belief.

Continual improvement vs. Transformation

Change might be common and constant for most organizations but transformation should be temporary. When leading change it is important to make the distinction between continual improvement and transformation. Continual improvement is the ongoing process of identifying strengths and opportunities and adjusting approachesto close gaps over time. It is a foundational underpinning of world class excellence standards like the Excellence,Innovation,and Wellness® Standard (Excellence Canada, 2012). The spirit of continual improvement should be business as usual and can happen behind the scenes. Transformation is typically more radical in nature. Transformations have a wider focus and result in organization-wide involvement and awareness. Continual improvement is healthy and manageable. Continual transformation can be toxicand is not sustainable.

Promise Relief

Since constant transformation is not sustainable, successful transformation requires the promise of relief. Successful organizations should be clear about the time horizon. The message should be: “We are transforming right now around these specific topics and then we will stop. We will get a break.” Think about this in the context of an exercise spin class. We are doing the sprint right now but in 8 seconds you get a break. As a result, you can push a little harder in the next 8 seconds because you know the relief is coming after that. It’s just 8 seconds! Our brains release a little extra energy when we know that the finish line is close. Specific milestones and clear breaks in the action along the way are essential. Transformation time is now and then we can go back to continual improvement time. The reality of the context and environment will dictate the overall pace but this promise of a breakcan help energize your team, let them reset, and decide what to do next.

Clarity of Direction

Transparent communication of direction is an essential ingredient of successful transformation. Direction is key but specificity of the destination is not necessary. On the first dayof a systems transformation we don’t need to have clarity of every single detail of the system. We only need to know that we are moving in a different direction and the reasons why we are moving in that direction. The message of direction can be lost if your staff are looking for every detail about what 2021 will look like. Be honest that right now we don’t know exactly what it will look like. Think about this in terms of a family vacation that you are planning for next year. You know you want to go on a southern holiday to a beach destination. You might know the country you want to visit but you don’t know exactly what city, what resort, what beach, what room. But we know we are headed south and that’s all we need to know right now. The specifics of the unknown parts of your trip will be dealt with and communicated as the relevant deadlines get closer.

Overall direction can be a guiding beacon on our journey. Open and honest real-time communication about the sign posts will come into clearer focus as we get closer. Imagine that the vacation that we are planning is a road trip. Parts of the journey could be on an unknown, winding dark road. You don’t know exactly what the next turn will look like. But you know to be cautious and that your lights will illuminate what’s there and that we’ll be fine. Not drivingforward because you can’t see around the next corner doesn’t make sense. Knowing your direction and trusting in your driving skills, you know you can make it. Sometimes you might need to slow down and drive according the specific weather conditions but we can still reach our destination.

Shared Belief

Transformation requires a shared sense of belief and confidence (Morton, 2014). Often this is described in change management frameworks as a sense of urgency or a burning platform (Kotter, 2007). Urgency and burning platforms are sometimes taken the wrong way and can instill panic. Instead, leading from a position of belief we can build confidence across the organization. We must believe that together we can do this. We must have a collective belief that what we have today is not sustainable, healthy, or good enough; the belief that future benefits that we are talking about are better and worth pursuing together. We have to do a good job of selling the general picture of the future.

When something is shared,we must all hold a stake in the discussion and discovery. The best way to form a shared belief is to engage in a discussion around the fact that the status quo is not an option anymore. Ask staff about pain points today and how we can change things about how we work together. Spend most of the early days listening and openingthe two-way conversations. Leaders in the organizations don’t need to discover the problems. It takes leaders who listen, as dramatized in the climax scene in the movie Sully starring Tom Hanks, based on the cockpit recording about the emergency landing in the Hudson river. About one minute before they land in the Hudson, while they are 100 feet above the river, Sully genuinely turns to his co-pilot and asks if he has any ideas. This is the ultimate in collaborative leadership and shared belief. No one individually can come up with all the ideas. No one has allthe answers. The secret is to stay calm and ask for ideas at any point in your transformation journey.


This paper presented the findings of the TLRT discussion that took place on November 2, 2016. It provided some clarity to the recipe for successful transformation, which require the promise of relief, a clear sense of direction, and a shared belief. All three of these ingredients need to be present in order to meet the intended transformation outcome.

Here are the action ingredients in revisitingour vacation analogy. “We know the island now. We are getting close to choosing the resort. We will then consult with the team about the preferences of beach activities. It all depends on what we accomplish in this phase. With your help, what we are doing now will help determine what the end state looks like. Once we get there, we’ll take a break and relax. Then in good time, we’ll start planning our next trip.”


Kotter, J (2007, January) Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review.

Morton, R (2014) The Art of Leading with Belief: Achieve Faster, More Effective and Longer-Lasting Impact by Mastering the Art of Leading with Belief, Canada, Webcon.

Excellence Canada (2012) Canada Awards for Excellence, Excellence Innovation and Wellness ® Standard. Available from: www.excellence.ca

Part One: The Future of Work is Here

Over the past decade, organizations anticipated the impacts of technology and globalization on how work is performed. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced change almost overnight, with significant impacts and many common themes shared by Excellence Canada Thought Leaders. In some cases, the pandemic was a catalyst to move faster on existing plans where social and financial benefits were understood; in other cases, this year brought unexpected challenges and opportunities. The TRLT conversation primarily looked at changes to work normally performed in an office setting, where employees are now working from home most or all of the time. A future topic will look at impacts on all types of work, including essential services, manufacturing, and other roles where work is performed almost exclusively on-site.

The first theme that was explored was how critical employee mental health and well-being are for Canadian businesses to survive and thrive in these times. Leading up to 2020, we had already seen an increase in remote work. While some organizations have been forced to lay off employees, others are hiring contingent workers to complement their full-time staff. Roles, responsibilities, and expectations are shifting with a steady increase in the use of technology. At the same time as the nature of work is changing, mental illness is the world’s leading cause of disability. It is estimated to cost the global economy $16 trillion by the year 2030. Layer on a global pandemic, which is transforming how, where, and when work is performed.

According to Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index, the mental health of Canadians continues to be significantly more strained than prior to the pandemic. The top concerns are finances, the fear of getting ill, loneliness, and strain or overwork. COVID-19 has put mental health front and centre for organizations, as the safety of employees becomes paramount to survival (Stahl, Ashley, Forbes. October 9, 2020).

Questions and Discussion

The first question focused on the most significant impacts of the pandemic on employees and the workplace. Among the common themes:

  • People are stressed and overworked, as the lines between work and home are increasingly blurred.
  • Employees are struggling with child-care, elder-care, and loneliness; and these challenges are heightened by uncertainty about the future.
  • The nature of how we engage with one another is changing, and it’s more difficult to build new relationships.
  • Historically, it’s been challenging to connect corporate office and front-line employees. Moving to a virtual framework is improving those connections by increasing accessibility for all employees to participate in meetings and town halls.
  • There is a greater opportunity to hire talented, well-qualified people from outside the local community.

 The second question examined how leaders and teams can prioritize well-being. This is where many positive benefits have been noticed, including:

  • Technology is enabling leaders to inspire employees in different ways, by gathering more frequently and zeroing in on important messages.
  • Intentionally carving out time to relate on topics other than work allows for deeper connections; there is an opportunity to learn more about people than ever before.

Next, the discussion pivoted to consider how the physical workplace is evolving to a hybrid model. Common themes were:

  • A significant majority of employees report they like the flexibility of working remotely, and hope it continues.
  • The technology was there before the pandemic to support working remotely, however culture was a barrier in some cases. The pandemic has proven employees can be productive and client needs can be met virtually.
  • Digital transformation is happening faster, with a shift to paperless procurement and service delivery; mobile devices are used more and there is less need for hardware such as desktop computers or printers.
  • Office reopening is happening in phases where possible, often with a “virtual first” approach that allows employees to make choices based on their own preferences.
  • Rewards and recognition programs that have pivoted to virtual have been well received by employees. There is an opportunity to completely reinvent recognition programs where historically, the approach was regional or site-specific.
  • While formal programs have their place, in the current environment it’s essential for leaders to provide recognition immediately and often.
  • Working from home can present challenges around technology, privacy, and occupational health and safety.
  • Onboarding new employees to the work and the culture, to ensure they are set up well and create a sense of belonging, can also be a significant challenge.
  • Training and tools are needed to help employees use meeting technology effectively.

Lastly, the group discussed how Excellence Canada can support organizations during this time of transformation. Ideas included:

  • Build in new processes to engage organizations virtually in their Excellence journey, to foster the same energy and commitment driven by in-person workshops.
  • There is a need for research to quantify how changes to how people work can benefit organizations, employees, and customers.
  • There is an opportunity for the new Organizational Excellence Standard, slated for launch in January 2021, to identify gaps and guide improvements on many of the themes that emerged in the roundtable conversation.

Key Takeaways: Future of Work

  1. The pandemic has changed the dynamics of work, presenting as many opportunities as challenges. To thrive, organizations must find new ways to help employees engage with colleagues and clients while setting clear boundaries between work and home.
  2. The approach to work is forever changed, and it will serve organizations well to develop policies and structure that support flexibility, allowing work to be performed across a range of settings (i.e. a hybrid model).
  3. To thrive in the future, organizations will need to prioritize the human elements of leadership, ensuring employees have an emotional tie-in to the organizational purpose and feel supported to achieve objectives.
  4. Routines that brought value and engagement in 2020, such as supportive check-ins and virtual town halls, should become regular practice as we move into 2021.
  5. Consider how the pandemic can advance your organization’s digital and environmental strategies, with clear plans to reduce reliance on paper and hardware.
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