A Money Coach in Canada

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I’ve been adamant about not stepping foot inside the local Walmart store here in Yellowknife. You know all the reasons:

But the company is starting to challenge my ideas about them.

Back in 2006 they switched to LED lights for their refrigerators, and that was before I even used LED.

And today, Walmart Canada announced that their “home office” (presumably their headquarters in Mississauga) is a zero waste facility, with plans to adopt this across all their stores.

Even more impressive, I learned that as early as 2005 they have committed to three goals:

  • produce zero waste (clearly they’re moving forward on this)
  • be powered entirely by renewable energy (they just signed a contract with Bullfrog Energy to provide their energy for their home office, and stores in Ontario, Alberta and B.C.)
  • make more environmentally “preferable” (whatever that means) products available to consumers.

Much as I love to hate big box stores in general, and Walmart in particular, I have to admit:  These are powerful commitments, and if a monolith makes these kinds of changes, surely it will not only have a positive impact in its own right, but also motivate others to adopt similar policies.

Readers:  What do you think?  Should I start shopping at Walmart?  Are they Going Good?

Photo Credit:  Jason Mundy

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For the past 3.5 years I worked for Citizens Bank of Canada (bank esp. for progressive Canadians) which in turn is owned by Vancity Credit Union. The whole glory of credit unions is that they are cooperatives, and the members not only share in the profits (I’ll get mine in a month or so.  yippee!) but also we get to decide who is going to govern the credit union.

Last week I had coffee with Jennifer Sweeney who is running as an independent to be a director.  Last time, she missed being elected by a very small margin, and I hope this time she gets a landslide – I think she’s exactly right for the position.

Among other things, I probed re: employee engagement.  I’m a By The People, For The People kinda gal (would you guess?) and after 3.5 years on the inside am even more convinced that it’s the folks who do the everyday tasks that make, or break, the cooperative spirit of Vancity, and thus the quality of experience the members receive.   It’s not about metrics or output, it’s as much about soul as anything.   Genuine Soul, combined with competence, can generate results the likes of which Canada has yet to see from a financial institutions.

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Here is Jennifer’s response to my query.  Read it and consider if you would also like to see her on the Board of Directors, and vote accordingly.

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I had coffee with Nancy last week and she asked me my thoughts on employee engagement.

When I hear the term “employee engagement” I often wonder if it has become another meaningless catch-phrase.  People are quick to adopt new words and terminology without thinking about what they mean.  If employees are “engaged”, what does that look like?  What does it feel like?  How do you know?  How do you make it happen?

A few years ago, I worked under contract for a government ministry to address recruitment and retention of professionals working with young children.  During that time I had the chance to travel around the province and hold confidential interviews with people about their work and their working conditions.  Over and over, I heard stories of people going above and beyond the call of duty when there was a supervisor, manager or local champion who valued them and worked to support them.  I started reading anything I could put my hands on to help me understand the complexities of retention in an increasingly mobile workforce.  I posted a note above my desk to remind myself of this fact:  most people leave because of their boss, not their job.

The most corrosive element I have seen in my years of work with people in many different environments is when there is a lack of trust or trust has been breached. Few people have the courage or the willingness to enter into the difficult conversations that must happen in order to move past a problem. Human resources professionals need to be in a position to fully support employees in reporting problems and working them through.

As I am running for election for the board of directors of Vancity, I have been thinking about the role that a board plays in governing an organization.  A culture where people comes first is vital for real employee engagement.  This takes a human resources department that has adequate resources to influence major decisions.  Healthy organizational culture with employees engaged in the mission of the organization makes for happy employees providing outstanding service to members.   That is what I would like to continue to see at Vancity.

Had coffee this am with a new twitterpal and blogger, Mike.  As a former financial-industry-insider, like me, he had some things to say about our current affairs.   He made this provocative comment:   Capitalism as we know it is something that knows it’s dying, so it threw itself under a bus – and now we’re trying to resuscitate it for $700etcBillion. (pardon me, Mike, if I didn’t quite get the quote right).

Like me, he doesn’t simply want a re-jigging of the system.  He hopes we find a completely new and different way of structuring our economics.

Capitalism, he points out, is was based on enlightened self-interest, aka, greed.  Try as we might to mitigate the natural trajectory of capitalism (ie. complete self-centredness) by legislation and regulation, capitalism ran its course and self-imploded.

What he and I hope for is a new model, based not on self-interest, but – Radical Alert!  -a system based on Other, rather than Self.  I am with him on this, entirely.  As I’ve written before, I’m fatigued of messages shrilly telling me that I can, and should have the life I want yada yada yada (oops- does anyone say that anymore?  I’m old.)  The life I want includes a planet that is able to replenish, rather than depleted.   The life I want includes kids thriving, well-nourished, and free of abuse.  The life I want includes a world without AIDS.

We can do it.

Readers: any recommendations of social-enterprises from whom we can both purchase for our needs and contribute to others?  (and I don’t mean just in the “gives xyz% of our profits, but businesses that inherently contribute to others)

 Thursday, December 4, 2008 

Canadians’ blood should be running a little cold today. 

Economic consideration trumped democracy.  I suppose this should not be too surprising, given our collective disengagement with our political process, and given that notions of citizenship, and the attendant rights and responsibilities, seem to have been reduced to residing and consuming in Canada.

What we seem to want, above all, is a government that ensures we continue to collect paycheques and enjoy our lifestyles.   (We also want a handful of basics thrown in – education, public safety, and healthcare (maybe).   Some of the more progressive among us also want basic food and shelter provided for each citizen regardless of their perceived merit or lack thereof.)

But we’re wrong in wanting that as a chief end of our government.

The constitutional mandate of parliament is to legislate for peace, order and good government.  I’ll get back to this shortly, but first, we’re wrong about a couple other critical distinctions too:

1. We think we elected Harper to be our Prime Minister.  We did not.   He was elected as an MP (as are all Prime Ministers) in Calgary SW;  he was the leader of his party; and the governor general appointed him to be the Prime Minister.  Again:  Our Prime Ministers are appointed, not elected.  By convention, the governor general appoints the person most likely to have the confidence of the house.  Arguments that the coalition does not have the right to overthrow “the PM we elected” are ignorant arguments.

2. We think that the coalition’s request for power is anti-democratic.  On the contrary, it is entirely democratic.   Combined, coalition MPs were elected by nearly two-thirds of Canadians.   The MP conserveratives were in the minority, and subject to precisely the risk of a vote of non-confidence.  We can be angry that the Liberals and NDP would choose to do so in the current climate, just like we can be angry that the Conservatives would use the opportunity to reduce the coffers of their opponents, but threatening a vote of non confidence is absolutely democratic.  The conservatives are not “our government”.   They simply have more seats in our house of parliament than any other single party.  That’s all.   

Instead of  facing a vote of non-confidence, the Prime Minister asked the Governor General to prorogue parliament.  He argued that the economic climate required this.  While our economy is indeed a nail-biter, his request was not about parliament’s chief concern:   Peace, Good order, Good government.  It was about protecting the shaky status of his 127 MPs.   Good government is about demonstrating a spirit willing to collaborate in the face of challenging times.   It may even be about reluctantly trying a coalition government – such as those in Norway, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean acquiesced.  She opted to pre-empt the majority of our MPs, who we Canadians elected, by doing so.  Who knows what her reasoning was.  Her primary duty is to ensure a functioning parliament – did Harper threaten to deepen the disruption?  did she truly believe a coalition government would deepen the disruption?

In any case, democracy took a hit today, trumped by rhetoric about the economic crisis – a crisis which hasn’t even struck Canada, yet.   I hope all of us, regardless of political affiliation (I’m green, for the record), especially conservatives who mistakenly claim that this was undemocratic, are shaken. 

The Dean of York University’s School of Business called it bang-on in a recent issue of the National Post.

The fundamental reason we’re experiencing a financial meltdown, he says, is we abandoned this notion:

Enterprises earn profits through the goods and services it generates, not the imagined value of its shares.

It is the primary responsibility of corporate governance (ie. boards of directors) to ensure a business is actually delivering on its promised goods or services.

Seems a no-brainer, right?  So why did we abandon this?

Professor Gilles points out three contributing factors:

  1.  Focus on share value. For the past quarter century boards have focused on share value, rather than the nuts-and-bolts of operations, and share value can be manipulated by all manner of financial instruments which have nothing to do with the actual value of the goods/services.  As long as the numbers looked good, it was assumed the fundamentals of the company must be doing well.
  2. Lack of Dissent. Boards of Directors by definition are comprised of like-minded individuals – typically, reasonably wealthy;  graduates from similar schools; and with shared values.  This minimizes the likelihood of any board member vigorously taking a contrarian position on anything, when dissenters were needed.
  3. Passive oversight of managers.  Or:  nobody is really paying attention to the actual business.  The assumption was that “somebody” was providing valuable services or goods.

I’ve certainly seen this in action.  No names mentioned of course, but during a career spanning small business, corporations and civil service, it’s been clear to me on more than one occasion that when a business owner isn’t directly involved, it’s all too easy for decisions to be made that provide superficial, bonus-oriented results at the expense of the long-term health of the corporation.  Seeing the recent implosions resulting from this practice, much like the unwinding of characters in Magnolia, is at once a horror show and perhaps contains faint rays of hope that we’ll learn our lesson and start doing it better.

183199851_58ea4dcf98.jpgReaders:  have you witnessed this in action?  Where boards paid attention to charts and graphs, while managers made decisions winning for the short-term but jeopardizing the long-term health of the org?

photo credit: ManilaRyce

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