Trust, teamwork are top assets in B.C. CEOs’ success strategies

Q&A | Knowing when to step back and let their teams collaborate has helped BIV’s 2020 BC CEO Awards winners keep their companies strong throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

Top row, left to right: Milton Carrasco, president and CEO, Transoft Solutions (small company) ; Shahrzad Rafati, founder and CEO, BroadbandTV (large company) ; Roger Dall’Antonia, president and CEO, FortisBC (enterprise category). Bottom row, left to right: Darlene Hyde, CEO, BC Real Estate Association (not-for-profit company); Ann English, CEO and registrar, Engineers and Geoscientists BC (publicly accountable company); Cathy Thorpe, president and CEO, Nurse Next Door (special distinction award)

This year Business in Vancouver selected six recipients for our 2020 Chief Executive Officer of the Year awards. The four women and two men exemplify superb leadership qualities and commitment to excellence, and this year they have had to adjust to the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic. They were selected for this combination of continuity and adaptability.

In alphabetical order, the recipients are Milton Carrasco of Transoft Solutions (small company), Roger Dall’Antonia of FortisBC (enterprise category), Ann English of Engineers and Geoscientists BC (publicly accountable company), Darlene Hyde of the BC Real Estate Association (not-for-profit company), Shahrzad Rafati of BroadbandTV (large company) and Cathy Thorpe of Nurse Next Door (special distinction award).

They participated in three podcasts on this most challenging year, in conversation with BIV publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe. The podcasts are available at biv.com. The following are excerpts of those discussions, edited for space and clarity.

What have recent times taught you about being a CEO?

Darlene Hyde, BC Real Estate Association: I think the need to be nimble, to be quick to respond quickly but thoughtfully, to engage our stakeholders repeatedly. You know, to be in constant communication with the people who are depending on us, for information or services. What it’s taught me is that this is a 24/7 cycle, and you have to be ready to move at any moment.

Roger Dall’Antonia, FortisBC: One of the key learnings for us and one of the phrases that as a team here at FortisBC that we’ve relied on is to lead by your values when you’re facing a very uncertain time. You don’t have a process, book or guidelines, so you’re making decisions very quickly, and you don’t have the past experience for it. So you should be able to rely heavily on your values, what you believe in as a company to make those decisions that you haven’t had to make before.

Cathy Thorpe, Nurse Next Door: I think when I look back at the last six months in particular, innovation comes to mind. How do you continue to have that mindset of abundance versus scarcity? And it really helped the organization see what the possibilities and the learnings are through times like this. I’m pretty amazed at the amount of innovation and learnings that we’ve gone through and continue to go through, and I think it’s just the start of something that will continue well into 2021.

Ann English, Engineers and Geoscientists BC: It’s hard to know where to start. One of the big ones for us has been the importance of being adaptable and flexible to new situations, because we never could have predicted this would happen. And so to be able to innovate, as Cathy says, and change your way of thinking, I think to recognize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for all staff or all registrants. And I think another good learning is the value of good bones in your organization. So having things like good risk management plans, contingency plans, business continuity plans, all those kinds of fundamental things that often we put on the back of our to-do list. But at times like this, you realize they really are an important part of your work.

Shahrzad Rafati, BBTV: It has really highlighted the strength and the commitment of everyone in the company. You know, productivity has been high throughout 2020, and it’s been inspiring to see the innovative approaches and the ideas that everyone has brought to the table. Resilience is key. The team has always been resilient, and this year that quality has really given us an edge in a fast-moving landscape.

Milton Carrasco, Transoft Solutions: I think it’s in basically having a solid management team that can filter through to the organization. Certainly, you know, being able to work from home has been an eye-opener, and definitely a huge positive, I think we certainly will be coming out of the pandemic with that new approach to working. And I think that’s a huge one for us.

How does a CEO lean in during these times?

English: It’s a great question and a really important one. I think one of the things is to maintain contact with your staff. It’s all about communications. And I know in my own case, every day for the first month of the pandemic, we were working remotely, I sent notes to staff. And over time I had to decrease the occurrence of those to weekly and then eventually monthly, and now they’re a little more sporadic. I think that was a really important piece of continuity and of keeping staff morale up for them, to know that there was a contact and that there was a way for them to reach out. So, communication, communication, communication.

Hyde: I think steering, hiring good people and get the hell out of their way. You know, step away from the micromanagement and the checking everything, trust those people to know what to do and how to do it. Be there to steer and to coach where necessary and to keep the motivation up. And you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to trust the experience that you’ve got and your instincts and your values and go with them, because you don’t have all day to debate every issue.

Rafati: I think it’s more important than ever before that whole companies come together internally. I think that the CEO’s job right now is to create an environment that supports and encourages their teams to collaborate. And you know, we all need to support each other. And we’re all facing new challenges at home. And we’re navigating a new way of working alongside the people in our household. And, you know, everyone is in a unique situation. And together, obviously, we can make it a success.

Dall’Antonia: I think the two things that stand out would be trust and communication. You really have to draw on the collective wisdom of your folks and trust their voices in charting what would be a path you haven’t gone down before, so that trust and delegation to your team is absolutely critical.… It reminds me of a phrase that a previous CEO shared with me: ‘Do more with what you have in your ears [than with] your mouth.’ Listen to your people. They have experience and capabilities that you rely on. It’s easy to say it, but it is absolutely critical in uncharted times.

Thorpe: First of all, you have to show up as an essential service. Showing up is as much part of it as anything. I also think being real. You know, we’re all humans that are going through this together. I think that that’s a really important part of this: we’re human beings, we all have to come together. And we’re only going to be successful if we’re honest about what we’re going through and be real and share those stories. Because I think it’s when people realize that they’re not in those feelings alone, that it really gives them that energy and desire to really go out there and continue to make a difference in anything that they’re doing.

Carrasco: Maybe it’s not been any different to me, because I’m extremely hands-on, and I’m in the trenches with my team. I am not one of those who sits in a corner office, so to speak, and, gives out instructions. I truly get in there because I feel their pain and I want to help them. So, you know, getting in there and working with them is the only way that I can see. So that’s how I’ve been dealing with it.

What has surprised you?

Rafati: In many ways, I feel that the team is more connected than ever before. And collaboration and camaraderie have never been higher, which highlights [that] the programs we’ve implemented are working. You know, communication and transparency are key. And despite working from home, we’re incredibly close-knit as a team. And I’m very proud of the team for how much they’ve come together. You know, it’s been heart-warming to see the team giving back with initiatives like … Doctors Without Borders and COVID-19 relief, and … by employees in response to Black Lives Matter movement. And social good is really a big part of our quadruple-bottom-line business. And it’s something that really unites everyone in the company.

English: I think what surprised me was the fact that we were able to … move from being highly dependent on a physical environment, to being able to cope remotely, so our doors are not open, but our business is definitely open. And I think that it surprised us that we didn’t need the dependence on the real estate that we always thought we needed. We had been looking at moving to a larger facility. We now know that we don’t need that. And we will, on a long-term basis, probably be able to manage for a number of years, with the facility that we have. And that was a big change in mindset. Eventually, I think we will move to a long-term work-from-home remedy, but still with a high degree of contact on a regular basis.

Dall’Antonia: I think it was more what was reinforced, and that’s the depth of leadership that we have in our organization. When you’re faced with uncertain times, you really see people rise to the challenge. I think the other thing is just the speed with which we did things. You don’t know what you can do until you try.

Hyde: Realtors are very entrepreneurial, very get-’er-done type people. They embraced virtual technology in a flash. They had virtual open houses; they had drones flying over homes to get aerial views. And so it was just amazing to see how 23,000 realtors in this province could pivot to virtual options almost overnight. The other surprise … was how well the real estate sector has performed. I mean, it has smashed record sales records for the past five months. They talk about the K-shaped economy. One part of the economy is doing well, another part not so well. Well, real estate is lucky to be in the top part of that K economy.

Carrasco: I think working from home was an absolute surprise. I mean, the fact that we were having to do that in a real rapid succession timeframe is incredible. We had the foundations in the culture and the values which contributed towards sustaining a sense of purpose. And continuing with that through a situation that was very unusual working from home, as was mentioned, you know, with children in the background and having to be very much respectful of the fact that this was the only way we could do it.

What have you learned about yourself?

Dall’Antonia: Two things come to mind. How much I rely on the supportive family and colleagues … the ability in those times of higher stress, higher anxiety, how important the bonds you develop with your colleagues are, how important your family is. Having that support is critical. The other thing is, I’ve got a greater appreciation for the value of empathy and patience. Everyone’s experiencing this pandemic differently, everyone’s got their own situation that may not be evident that at work. You really start to understand who the whole person is, who you work with, and having empathy and patience for the different things people are dealing with while they’re still performing exceptionally well at their job. So having that empathy and patience is something that I’ve come to appreciate much more through this.

English: I think I’ve learned that I get my energy from people. And, you know, that at first was very hard. And I agree with Cathy: you have to be very authentic in your communications about what are the struggles and what are the high points. I think that working remotely as we all are has a different impact for people that are extroverts versus introverts. And I think in some ways, the introverts are kind of thriving on it. And I think the extroverts are, you know, struggling and having to be a bit more adaptable. And in my case, I’m very extroverted. And I really, really miss seeing my staff on a regular basis. And so I’ve had to be more intentional about reaching out and keeping those lines of communication open.

Hyde: I always knew I was a good turnaround leader, because that’s what I like to do. I like to go into organizations that are somewhat in distress and, you know, turn them around a bit. I didn’t enjoy the crisis, but I enjoyed the experience of leading through the crisis, because what I do like is to make decisions and get feedback quickly. And that’s what happened. You quickly knew whether you were on the right track or the wrong track, as opposed to waiting for weeks and months. So I actually found out that I was a good leader during a crisis period, which I didn’t know before.

Carrasco: I’m sort of at the end of my career, so to speak, and a lot of what I have developed has been very much sustained through everything I’ve done in the past. I’m very passionate about work, I’m very empathetic to people, and very concerned about the fact that there are others who area lot worse than we are, and that we have to do our bit. So we’ve been supporting a lot of the scholarships and diversity funds to help in those programs, [while] maintaining our business in a very profitable way.

Rafati: I think 2020 really highlighted the importance of surrounding yourself with people that inspire you, and push you and encourage you to be the best version of yourself. And just because you’re not in the office to be working alongside the team, or you’re not on the road travelling to connect with partners, clients or investors, you can absolutely maintain and develop your personal and professional relationships. And I think for us, we went through a buyout and an IPO and a reorg. And it’s just a showcase of how we create these limits in our minds. And you know, everything is possible, as long as you surround yourself with really an incredible team, which is what we have at BBTV.

How have you taken care of yourself?

Carrasco: It was very busy during the first couple of months. Meetings were going on throughout the day and into the evenings, and because we have an international setup, we have to deal with time zones and wake up at odd hours. But one of the things that I got back into was playing the guitar, I mean, it’s been like, 50 years, since I stopped playing the guitar. It’s given me absolute joy to be able to … get back to how I used to play, back in my teenage years where I did have a band. But I’ve also got into the gym and started to do some extra weight training and so on, just to get fit.

Rafati: Yeah, mental health is really key and physical health is obviously very important. I’ve tried to start every day working out, doing yoga, going for a run, staying active, because a healthy mind [and] healthy body just means that you’re a better leader, you can help your team members even more so than before. I think that ability to be able to stay in the same place and not to be on the plane every day has led me to take care of myself … and brush up on my French.

Hyde: My husband [and I] enjoy hiking and walking, so we got out a lot into nature. We took a road trip to Jasper, enjoyed the Rocky Mountains, then a road trip through southeastern British Columbia, saw our province as opposed to running off to Europe. So I mean, it was a great opportunity to experience British Columbia, reading more like two books a week. I just … turn off the social networks, all the cable news and just focus on reading or whatever I want to do, and finding my own time. And it’s been terrific just to shut off the chatter and the noise, and rejuvenate and recharge.

Dall’Antonia: I think in times like this physical and mental well-being are critical. The physical well-being for me [is] my wife and I are fortunate to be to share a passion for cycling, so I’m able to enjoy our beautiful part of the province cycling and making sure I prioritize time to do that. But I think the mental well-being in times like this or is even more important. And for me … the standout one is when you do have your activities, your hobbies, your passions outside of work, commit to those, turn off the work channel, you really do have to immerse yourself. I coach, I help coach a soccer team, a U-21 boys team. And being on the field with those guys is just a tonic; it’s just great to be out there. The final thing I’ll say on this is that when you’re facing increased levels of stress and anxiety … acknowledge those and reach out and talk about them. Make sure that you are not ignoring those cues, because it’s absolutely normal to be feeling increased levels of stress and anxiety and the ability to talk to folks. Fortunately I have an amazing family that’s very supportive and being able to reach out and discuss those feelings is critical.

English: Making sure that I have the energy for the work being on Zoom calls, day in, day out, all day, which CEOs normally are, because that’s how you conduct a lot of your business. People are depending on you for decisions and input. And so you’re on calls from morning until night. That takes a lot of energy, and it’s tiring, more tiring, I think, than work in the flesh in an office. And so you have to work yourself to have that energy to bring it to the table every single day and be intentional about that.

Thorpe: Everyone has their own definition of balance. You know, for me, that is spending the time with my family, making sure that I’m out there in nature. I’m out there running. Yeah, so it’s helping to find my balances and just knowing what you need to give to yourself every day. How can we be intentional in everything that we’re doing every day?

What advice would you give other leaders?

Thorpe: I go to the word humanness. You know, are we showing up as humans every day? And when we do that you will always make the right decisions. I would also say that, during this time, you’re challenged, probably daily, do I want to look at this from a place of scarcity or from a place of abundance? And you know, how do you help stay in that place of abundance so that you make the right decisions? You see the possibilities of the business, the possibilities of people and the future, and just always work on keeping yourself balanced in that space.

Dall’Antonia: Lead by your values and trust in your people. Draw on the relationships that you forge every day, because those relationships are invaluable in times of crisis. Be transparent in your actions and your intentions. It builds trust. And that allows you to move quickly when you have to. Communication, it’s absolutely critical. You cannot have enough communication when people are dealing with a challenge. So really focus on the communication across your organization. With your folks, be accessible. Stress that with your customers to let everyone know that you’re in it together and you’re trying to you’re going to get through it together.

Rafati: I think your people matter the most. And Steve Jobs said it best when he urged leaders to hire people smarter than ourselves. And while that statement is undeniably true, I think that there is another key part to that equation. Leaders really need to put people first and, you know, if you look after our team, they look after our business and our partners. And I think that’s the most important advice that I would give to other leaders.

English: Something that I live with every day as a leader is my belief that every single day, people come to their work intending to be the best they can be. And when they can’t show up in that capacity for some reason, it’s our job as leaders to try and help them figure out how to remove whatever the roadblocks are. That’s where we come in, so that they can be the best that they can. And I think if you approach any situation like that, during COVID, or any other time, any situation that you approach at all, you will get a better outcome if your mindset and your belief is that people are trying to be the best they can be.

Carrasco: Well, I am actually in a transition phase. We’ve just selected a new president who’s going to take over in January, and you know, my whole last 10 years have been about setting up an alignment in our company and building the management team. The advice I would give is corporate culture is a critical piece of business success, and the more you are able to align your management and all of the various teams towards this culture … it is critical. Certainly in close association with that is having the passion and drive to believe in your products and to be truly proud of what you do.

Hyde: I want to reiterate: hire good people, get out of their way, ensure the health of your team, not just the physical health, but their mental health and all the challenges that they are going through. Expect the best of people; they will rarely disappoint you. Find common cause wherever you can. Collaborate. It’s easier to get things done that way, and faster, and you get far more buy-in. I learned far more about the people I work with during this crisis than I did before. I learned the names of their dogs and their cats, and everything else that went with their home life. And I never knew that before. And I think that’s important. That’s really important to know, to know the people that work with you more than just as an employee.

Do you enjoy your job more now?

Thorpe: I love my job more. I knew the purpose before, but really stepping into that place of being the essential service over these last months, that love and pride that I have is even deeper.

English: I think I do. We were blessed to have jobs that we love. It’s a job I absolutely love to come to every single day. And one of the things maybe that has allowed me to enjoy it more has been I’ve been challenged in a different way. After being in a position for eight years, you think you’ve run across most of the things that you will. And this is brand new. So personally, I’ve been challenged in a way that was different. And so learning new things and being able to grow through this whole process, I think has allowed me to enjoy it even more, although I still miss the people.

Hyde: Actually, I do. Because we were able to offer needed services in a timely way to our 11 member boards and our 23,000 realtors. And we were doing it in the moment. So what it reinforced for me was the service value that we have for that community. Service for me is a noble word. It’s not a one-down word. It’s a very positive experience. So, yes, I love it more.

Dall’Antonia: Absolutely. What I’ve come to appreciate is just how deep the collective sense of purpose we have on serving our communities is and just how good our people are. I’m so proud of our organization, that it’s an absolute privilege to be in this chair and work with the people that I do, because they are so good at what they do.

Rafati: I kind of don’t look at it as a job. I’ve never considered what I do to be my job. It is a passion. And I think it’s how I impact the world in a positive way. I feel as though I’m the luckiest person on the planet.

Carrasco: For me, it’s been 30 years of growing this company organically, and, I couldn’t have had a better job