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Feb21TueThe Salvation Army needs to boost its visibility and challenge the status quo, says Gail Cook-Bennett, Chair of Manulife Financial. February 21, 2012 Interview With Gail Cook-Bennett
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Gail Cook-Bennett is chair of the board of Manulife Financial Corporation. Prior to this role, she spent 10 years as the founding chair of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB). Over the past 33 years, she has served as a director of a number of major corporations and participated in several Crown, professional and not-for-profit boards and committees. A member of The Salvation Army's National Advisory Board, Cook-Bennett is also a Member of the Order of Canada, holds Doctor of Laws degrees (honoris causa) from Carleton University and York University and is a Fellow of the Institute of Corporate Directors. She recently spoke with John McAlister, features editor.
How did you come in contact with The Salvation Army?
I knew the organization by reputation. People around me had always thought highly of the Army, so when I was invited to join one of your Ontario advisory boards 21 years ago, I readily agreed.
What Army ministry have you seen first-hand? What stood out for you?
During a recent visit to Vancouver, I had the opportunity to witness the Army's presence in the Downtown East Side, which is a neighbourhood characterized by poverty, drugs and prostitution. I went for a walk with two Army officers who were wearing sweaters with the Red Shield on them. Although the officers weren't from Vancouver, a gentleman who looked like he'd had a rough life approached them because he recognized the Red Shield and he wanted to thank them for the impact the Army had on his life. Later, I spoke with three individuals who had previously been addicted and living on the street and who were helped by the Army. It was incredible to hear of their transformation and their desire to help those suffering from various addictions.
I think that transitional housing programs, such as the one at Toronto's Harbour Light, are important and essential for recovery and reintegration. This model of after-care is something that inspired support of the capital campaign by people in business.
I've also visited a facility for women who have been trafficked. It's unfortunate that the public isn't more aware of the problem and the Army's involvement in this work.
How do you feel about the Army's faith stance and the way it influences our mission?
I believe that it is the source of your energy and fundamental to the work that you do. What's not communicated well is your openness and willingness to help others who have different beliefs, values or life circumstances. You're motivated by your faith, but you reach out to people regardless of their religion, race or sexual orientation, and I think that is a powerful message. Unfortunately, this message doesn't get communicated as clearly as it should, and it needs to, because some of your funding sources could be compromised unless this message is very clear.
Having served on both a regional and national advisory board, what benefits do you feel these groups bring to The Salvation Army? What do the respective board members gain from this relationship?
In the past, when I was chair of one the Army's regional advisory boards, I wasn't convinced that we were making a contribution at all. This was because we were not communicating with the Army effectively. More fundamentally, I don't think we on the advisory board understood our role and the Army perhaps did not understand what we required from it in order to help.
I credit Andy Lennox, chair of the current National Advisory Board, for the work he has done in establishing a viable and effective relationship between the advisory board and the Army. We are able to focus more effectively on what the Army's priorities are and offer experience and expertise to assist in these areas. I see the payoff from this approach.
Board members have a great appreciation for the Army. They understand very clearly the impact that the Army makes.
Senior people in the business community want to contribute to an organization that they respect and that they feel is being productive. I think that we've found a way to leverage their talents. Through the various task teams on the National Advisory Board, we're not only benefitting from the board members' expertise, but also from their professional networks.
The broader the network, the more considered advice the Army receives. Of course, the Army doesn't have to take the advice of the National Advisory Board. However, according to the Memorandum of Understanding, the Army is committed to providing the board with a clear rationale for its decisions. Obviously if there were a lot of “nos” given to the board, then we'd be back to where we were years ago, but that hasn't been the case.
Every organization has areas in which it can improve. What aspects of the Army could be strengthened?
All organizations have challenges with communication. Not everyone can be privy to the inner workings of an organization—it doesn't matter if it's a business or a non-profit such as The Salvation Army—so it's important that key messages be shared consistently with stakeholders. This is essential so that the Army is in a position to do what it does best, which is to serve people at their point of need. The Army will have to increase its emphasis on external communication because the generations that knew the Army well aren't going to be around for much longer. The Army needs to engage younger people with the message.
Given that the Army is on the ground in so many parts of the world, why don't we hear more about its international relief efforts? We always hear about the Red Cross or World Vision, but we don't hear about the Army. When the Army's supporters see the lists of other agencies involved, they wonder why the Army is not mentioned more often. How does the Army increase its visibility?
Another challenge is with transparency. While I was chair of the CPPIB, we developed a financial disclosure policy because we felt that Canadians had the right to know why, where and how their money was being invested. I think that this emphasis on transparency would help the Army and I believe that there is increasing initiative to do that, whether it's with something simple like financial statements or even more broadly. Internally, I believe that it's also healthy to have people challenge systems and the status quo. Even in organizations with a clear mission such as the Army there are bound to be differences of opinion. The Army needs to continue to create spaces for open dialogue.
What leadership principles have guided you in your professional life?
With the CPPIB, I chaired a board of 12 directors. We were a founding organization, so we started with no staff or offices. Other than a brilliant piece of legislation to guide us, we had to create everything from scratch. At the beginning, a lot of effort went into establishing the values that would set a framework for this organization. I had excellent colleagues on that board who understood what it was going to take to build the organization's reputation. Thirteen years later, the organization has an asset base of $150 billion and somewhere between 600 and 700 employees with a value system that I believe has served it well.
When I became chair of Manulife three years ago, the 125-year-old company was facing the challenge of the global financial crisis. A board chair needs to draw out the contributions of the directors, and if you have the right people in the room, the chair can have confidence in the wisdom of the group. Whether it's at CPPIB or Manulife, the chair has to know what he or she wants to accomplish, as well as what's required for appropriate oversight.
Given the immense pressures of your role, how do you maintain a work-life balance?
My career has been very linear. I finished my PhD before I married and before welcoming our son into the world. I was able to work part-time, which was my choice so that I could be very involved in his life. I didn't face the work-life balance challenges that many women have.
Our son is on his own now, so there aren't as many things competing for my time. My workload is manageable.
I enjoy playing tennis, I'm a member of a book club, I like to spend time at the cottage and to travel.
The number of women breaking into the top executive jobs at Canadian companies remains small. What needs to change?
We have an interesting situation in our management team at Manulife. Our chief actuary, chief strategy officer, chief internal auditor, controller and head of our global human resources are all women, so we're well represented at the senior level. However, we don't see this all the way up the chain. One of the issues that comes up is flexibility. In most families, women have disproportionate family responsibilities. How much further can you push the flexibility so that you can keep those women engaged and on track for a promotion? We conduct an annual employee survey and it gets good response rates year after year, partly because we give considerable attention to the feedback. We don't have all the answers, but work-life balance is an area that we are addressing.
You became chair of the board at Manulife during a difficult financial time. How do you encourage people during challenging situations?
I think a leader has to strategically address how an organization is going to thrive in a challenging context. You have to size the problem, engage your people and communicate consistently. Explore ways to energize the organization. I believe in internal change and the need to find ways to shake things up.
To read more interviews with members of the National Advisory Board, visit Salvationist.ca/tag/nationaladvisoryboard.