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Transforming Leaders for a Better Canada

Glen Orsak smiling over an skyline view of Ottawa


by Telfer Executive Programs Website ›

The Telfer School of Management has just unveiled its Vision for a Better Canada. Director of Executive Programs, Glen Orsak, answers questions on how Telfer’s Executive Programs contribute to achieving this bold vision.

What are Telfer’s Executive Programs all about?

Our focus is pretty much exclusively around leadership development. Lots of executive education shops have a much broader range of things that they do: how to be a better this or a better that. We have chosen to focus on Leadership. Leadership is about making things change, whereas management skills make things operate effectively. We work with leaders to transform their leadership capabilities. We also work with organizations who want to grow their leadership capacity. There’s always that dual focus. We’re serving an organizational need — a strategic imperative — and we’re serving the needs of the individual leader for their career or professional development.

How do these programs help contribute to a “Better Canada”?

You know, it’s funny. At one point our team penned a neat and tidy statement of purpose that declares that we are about: Transforming leaders. Shaping communities. Changing the World. It hasn’t gotten a lot of public attention, yet, but it still anchors a lot of our conversations. We’re all about transforming leaders. By doing that, we help shape organizations and communities. And by shaping and transforming organizations and communities, it is leading to a better world. Transforming Leaders for a Better Canada sharpens that focus for our programs, our community of practice and our customers and clients.

I know it sounds like a lofty goal — and it is. It made us stop and go, “Really? There’s only 17 of us!” But we realized that of course that’s what we’re doing. We are working with people every day who are going to become very accomplished and influential leaders, people who are setting out to have an impact in their own corner of the world based, in part, on the experiences they’ve had with us. So why would we shoot any lower than that?

Having a growing number of better companies in Canada, or better government institutions, or better healthcare organizations will certainly make Canada a better place. 

Who are your Executive Programs for?

Lots of our clients are in the public sector, working for the public good — literally to make Canada a better place. Lots of our clients are in healthcare and they are, again, literally making Canada a healthier place. These people are absolutely committed to a better Canada. That’s what brings me back every day.

One of the things we tend to do really well is we create customized learning programs within certain communities and sectors. In the federal government there are communities of like-minded people. So, we created a leadership program for the policy community. We have a leadership program for the security and intelligence community. We have one for lawyers and people in the justice department. We have a leadership program for people in national defence and related sectors centred around huge complex projects — think military procurement. We try to find ways to build leadership programs that are contextualized, customized and relevant in those communities such that you’re not just gaining generic leadership skills but learning the practice of leadership in your own unique context.

How do your programs help leaders have a broader impact? 

Some people have gone through our programs and five years later are sending their own leadership teams through our programs, too. They’ve described the huge impact it has had on the culture of their organization. The entire leadership conversation can change. Sometimes my team will know the entire executive team at such and such a health care institution or government department because almost every one of them has been through one of our programs. Obviously, that’s having a high impact on these organizations and communities.

I would also argue that our business has a very strong social mission. When you’re working in the healthcare or public sector, you’re working with people engaged in social, economic and community development. We’re trying to help leaders create culture shifts and to introduce progressive changes that will transform their workplaces. We have to bring these kinds of discussions into the room because our clients expect it.

What effect do you think your programs have on participants’ careers?

Can we attribute their success entirely to our programs? Of course not. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, but it doesn’t need to be. I wouldn’t take credit for your success, but I would certainly take credit for having nudged you in the right direction. And a nudge is good enough for me. I think that’s a valid intention to have, I think it’s the truth about what we do and it’s not too much hubris. We don’t set ourselves up as these heroic gurus of leadership. Rather, we position ourselves a co-pilgrims on a leadership journey — on the pilgrimage to make Canada a better place.

Has anything changed since the pandemic began?

Prior to March 13, 2020, we didn’t have much online programming. Since the first pandemic lockdown, every single minute of programming from then until now has been delivered in a virtual environment. The conversion to online was rapid and amazingly successful. You could say that the pandemic response in the executive learning space has opened all of our minds to virtual learning — and I think we will never go back to the old way. We can’t unsee the possibilities. Oh, we’ll definitely go back to the in-person learning experience, there’s no doubt about that, but there are a ton of things that we’ll no longer do in-person, because it no longer makes sense. 

It’s given us all the push we’ve needed to innovate and improve how we deliver our programming — and that’s giving us access to a broader set of potential clients. We’ve already had people join our programs from across the country that probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Now, all of a sudden, we can enrich our engagement with communities outside of Ottawa and possibly have an even greater impact on shaping a Better Canada.

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