OMERS CPO on the Importance of Leadership

In the first installment of their "Leadership Under Fire" series, Satish Rai, Chief Investment Officer, and Annesley Wallace, Chief Pension Officer, chat about the impact of COVID-19 and the importance of leadership during unprecedented times. Mr. Rai writes this on LinkedIn:
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with leaders from OMERS and our portfolio companies to discuss the impact of COVID-19. Amid a global pandemic, a slowing economy and what can often feel like an uncertain future, we discussed lessons learned and the importance of true leadership when it matters most.

While each leader had unique experiences and insights to share, there were a number of recurring themes, including the importance of having crisis and emergency plans ready, the significance of building stable and trusting relationships with employees and partners and the positive impact of frequent communication and transparency.

Here’s what Annesley Wallace, Chief Pension Officer at OMERS had to say.

What are some of the most important leadership principles that you relied on through the COVID-19 crisis?

The COVID-19 crisis emphasized that a big part of success in leading through a crisis is building a team’s strength and resilience before the crisis even begins. A team that has the ability to adapt to change, and also has an inclusive culture stands a much better chance of surviving and thriving in any storm. Through the crisis there were three leadership principles that stood out: decisiveness, transparency and thinking big.

Let’s talk about decisiveness in decision-making. This isn’t as simple as it seems, is it?

No, it is not. In the very early days as we were responding to the crisis we needed to make some difficult and quick decisions. In retrospect those decisions seem straightforward, but in the moment there were many pros and cons to weigh, and despite having imperfect information about future implications, we needed to make a call, and quickly. The impact of not making a decision would have been far worse than making it. With a decision, the team was able to adapt and continue to deliver.

The ability to make critical decisions in real-time requires tremendous trust at the leadership level doesn’t it?

Absolutely. Trust is critical across the team, and to best respond in a crisis it is also necessary to have transparency. Trust is important so that the right people feel comfortable making the decisions they are best positioned to make, knowing they will not be second guessed. Transparency is important because better decisions will be made if those making the decisions and planning for various future outcomes have as much information as is available. In times of crisis being transparent can also help ease anxiety. We all feel more anxious when we do not know what is going on, and so communicating regularly and getting information into people’s hands becomes critically important.

You mentioned thinking big. Can you elaborate?

Through the crisis this was important in two ways – both thinking big in the short-term, and also being mindful not to lose sight of the opportunities that present themselves as a result of the crisis. On the former, we decided to transition the team to work from home not knowing if it was even possible and recognizing that only a year earlier we had ended a work from home program. It was an uncomfortable decision, but we tried it and not only has it been overwhelmingly successful, it is creating new opportunities for ways of working that will carry well into the future for the benefit of our members and our people. We also continued to think big about the future and were able to identify opportunities to evolve the products and services we provide. Without the crisis we would not have made these changes.

Following the interview with Annesley, it is clear that her team’s ability to adapt was critical in managing through an evolving crisis, and through trust and transparency the team was able to identify ways to thrive rather than merely survive. I also believe that an important tool in managing a crisis is having a strong business continuity plan. You cannot predict a crisis, and when one hits, the details of the plan quickly become outdated, but the planning process trains you to think creatively and quickly, which is so important in a crisis.

I look forward to sharing highlights from Mike Graham, Global Head of OMERS Private Equity, on the theme of compassion and humility in leadership. Stay healthy!
Good interview with Annesley Wallace, Chief Pension Officer at OMERS.

It was at the beginning of the year that OMERS named her as its new chief pension officer:
Wallace has been with the OMERS pension services team for about two years, before which she was a managing director at OMERS Infrastructure. She also currently sits on the boards of Infrastructure Ontario, Bruce Power and Alectra Utilities.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to lead the OMERS pensions business, as we continue to deliver exceptional services to our 500,000 members across Ontario,” said Wallace, in a press release. “Today, we have an opportunity to further the member experience by leveraging the expertise and innovative mindsets of our teams.

“Ultimately our goal is to ensure that the value of an OMERS membership is felt on day one and grows with each member every step of the way into retirement. I am excited to be part of this journey with OMERS.”
Little did Ms. Wallace know at the time that a global pandemic was unfolding and it would hit OMERS and other pensions in more ways than one.

From the above, she sounds all the right notes but this part stuck with me: "A team that has the ability to adapt to change, and also has an inclusive culture stands a much better chance of surviving and thriving in any storm."

She's absolutely right. A crisis can hit anyone. It might be a personal medical diagnosis which turns your world upside down, or something else.

When a crisis hits you, you rely on your family and close friends. Similarly, when a crisis strikes your workplace and impacts everyone, it's up to everyone to band together and step up to the plate to do their part.

The COVID-19 crisis isn't any different. Yes, it forced people to work from home but in the end, once the novelty of that wears off (and it has worn off), you still need to deliver and make sure you're doing your part to help your team.

Look, I'm on record stating working from home is here to stay, some will love it, others will hate it, but it doesn't really matter.

Right now what matters for OMERS and other large Canadian pensions navigating this health crisis is first and foremost to ensure the health and safety of all their employees, including the ones at their portfolio companies, and to continue delivering great results in spite of the crisis.

Are there obstacles? You bet. Real estate divisions dealing with underperforming retail assets are on the phone with lawyers all day. Doing due diligence on new managers in public and private markets is almost impossible because you can't do an onsite visit. Building culture is tougher when everyone is scattered all over the place and try doing a Zoom meeting with kids screaming in the background.

But that's all part of the new normal, no use whining about it, accept it and move on, focus on what you can do, not what you can't change.

And what about the anxiety of working from home? My advice is to suck it up, it's better than the anxiety of being unemployed and desperately looking for work to cover your basic living expenses.

Having said this, Ms. Wallace is absolutely right about this too: "Transparency is important because better decisions will be made if those making the decisions and planning for various future outcomes have as much information as is available. In times of crisis being transparent can also help ease anxiety."

At the beginning of the month, I wrote a comment on the importance of pension communication where I stated the following:
Communication is important not just with the media and stakeholders but with all your employees. If you don't take the time to properly communicate with them, and listen to them, you risk alienating them.
And that's even more true when employees are working from home and have ample time to search for new job opportunities elsewhere.

That's why it's critically important to engage with them, not just at the CEO level but at all levels.

If I was the CEO of a major pension fund, I'd be talking with all my senior managers and asking them the following:
  • How often do you speak with your team members, not just the senior ones but all of them?
  • Are you transparent about the situation and strategic priorities?
  • Are you also taking the time to call people one on one to see how they are doing and whether they need anything?
And on that last point, if you're going to be robotic and disingenuous about it, don't bother calling them, the last thing employees want is some manager calling them to ask a checklist of questions pretending they care about their well-being when they really couldn't care less. That only causes more anxiety.

I'm telling you, I can write a book on building the right culture at pensions, mostly because I've seen plenty of examples of how not to do it, but I've also seen examples of how to do it properly.

Anyway, I applaud OMERS for starting this "Leadership Under Fire" series and look forward to the next installment featuring Mike Graham, Global Head of OMERS Private Equity, on the theme of compassion and humility in leadership.

I just wish these interviews were taped webcasts and posted on OMERS YouTube channel which basically has no up-to-date clips I can embed here.

Guys and gals, we are 2020, social media is critically important as are visual clips. If you want to be transparent to your stakeholders and engage your employees, it takes a little more effort but start using all the available social media platforms, especially YouTube. Trust me on this.

Below, Good Morning America had an interesting report yesterday on the challenges of working from home. Take the time to watch this, I agree with Sara Sutton, CEO and founder of FlexJobs.

And JetBlue is the first major US airline to test UV cleaning inside the cabin as airlines try to increase safety standards amid the coronavirus pandemic. Cool stuff, still doesn't put me at ease to get on a plane but I hope these new UV cleaning devices become standard from now on (on top of regular cleaning and I would still bring Lysol wipes on any plane ride and wear a mask at all times).