The CHRO View: Inside the Crucible of Transformation

As the chief human resources officer at Rogers Communications for the past seven years, Jim Reid has been on the front line of constant, challenging, often intense change at one of Canada’s largest and most iconic companies.
JUN 01, 2018
Vince Molinaro, Ph.D.

As the chief human resources officer at Rogers Communications for the past seven years, Jim Reid has been on the front line of constant, challenging, often intense change at one of Canada’s largest and most iconic companies.

There have been three CEOs over Reid’s tenure, a number of high-profile transformation initiatives and a nearly complete rebuild of the composition, culture and practices of the leadership of the company at all the levels of the organization.

After all that change and disruption, Reid has come to one inescapable conclusion.

“I love my job, I love my team, I love the challenge of being here,” Reid said in a recent interview. “I’m in my wheelhouse, which is driving the relationship between leadership teams, culture and performance. There is no better assignment for a CHRO than the one I’m in today in Canada.”

Rogers was founded in 1960 with a single FM-radio station and has grown over the years into Canada’s largest wireless and cable television company, with over 10 million subscribers and more than $14 billion in annual revenue. Reid came to Rogers three years after the death of iconic founder Ted Rogers. 

Rogers had been, since its inception, a company that thrived on change and innovation. However, Reid found himself stepping into a company that was facing a new and, in some ways, more disruptive era of change.

New competitors were entering the wireless market on what seemed like an annual basis. Meanwhile, the cable side of the Rogers empire was suffering at the hands of cord-cutting Millennials and other internet-based streaming video options. 

Nadir Mohammed, a long-standing Rogers' executive, took over the company immediately following Ted Rogers’ death. When Mohammed announced his retirement four years later, the company switched gears and hired Vodafone executive Guy Laurence to shake up the culture in the wireless and cable operations, and address a raft of customer service problems.

The best way to describe Laurence’s agenda was ambitious. As with many founder-led companies, Rogers struggled after Ted’s passing, and Laurence was called upon to help drive change that would put the customer first and improve execution. Reid said the board at that time realized that the core business strategy needed to be refocused and redefined to account for the absence of the influential founder of the company. Laurence started this process with an intensive process of consultation, Reid said. 

For the first 100 days he was at Rogers, Laurence met with the top leaders and their teams across the company to gather observations and ideas. “Our goal through this process was to think about the architecture of the company—what should we change and what should we not change. We also gained insight into the people who were here and could fit with the new culture, and those who could not.”

Laurence found a company that was disengaged, particularly when it came to customer needs. The company had also evolved into a series of combative silos where there was no common mission or goal. 

Ultimately, this process manifested in two big ways. First, Laurence established a mission statement to rally the team around one vision for the company. Second, he had to make some tough decisions at the top of the leadership strategy, saying goodbye to some long-standing leaders and bringing on new people that were better aligned with the new, customer-focused strategy.

Laurence would ultimately leave the company just under three years into his term. Even so, the company still feels the impact of the decisions he made. 

“The context when he was here was pretty clear,” Reid said. “There was a feeling that we had lost momentum, and that we needed a CEO to shake the place up. And that’s what he did. He got the organization unstuck and moving again and refocused on the things you need to do to win.”

Reid said current CEO Joe Natale, an accomplished Canadian executive and former head of wireless rival Telus, has continued the momentum that Laurence started. This time, however, Natale is primarily concerned with ensuring the organization is laser focused on its core business and on building a high performing culture. 

“He’s building a strong team, has set new priorities, identified our plans for 2018 to 2020 and is aligning our team to one vision,” Reid said. “He has a resolute determination to deliver for the customer and believes it all begins with our people and culture. It’s an exciting time to be at Rogers.”

After serving three different CEOs in seven years—all of who had different missions and leadership styles—what has Reid learned?

“The pace of change is quicker now,” Reid said. “Everything is more intense. It’s a more competitive environment overall. It used to be that, in a normal day for me, I had a whole bunch of issues to deal with, some big and some small. Now, they’re all big.”

Reid said that through the various changes in the C-Suite at Rogers, he has come to appreciate a number of truths about managing human resources at a large organization.

In the transition from Ted Rogers to Mohammed and then Laurence, Reid said he has greater appreciation now for the enormous impact that a CEO departure can have on an organization and its employees. Even in an organization like Rogers, which is chock full of world-class executives and talented technical people, the departure of the senior-most leader is physically, mentally and emotionally taxing, he said.

“It creates a leadership vacuum at times and tremendous uncertainty. People who were feeling secure suddenly feel insecure. It’s a whole array of emotions coming at you in increasingly rapid cycles.”

Reid said he has a greater understanding of the role that HR must play in any transformation initiative. However, he has also come to understand that not every HR executive is prepared for the implications of being “at the table” during these periods of profound change.

“You can’t wait to be invited in,” Reid said. “You have to step into that role, lean into that role. You have to have the courage to agree and disagree in an honest, authentic way and not be afraid to take a risk. 

“It’s important to realize that this is not a 9-to-5 kind of thing. You’ve got to be ready and willing on the weekends when they call. The HR community needs to step up and step into their role and partner in different ways with line executives to help drive the impact in the organization.”

For his part, Reid said the experience helped him explore the limits of his stamina and capacity to manage stressful situations. 

Rogers is an incredibly high-profile organization, and almost everything that happens at the board and senior leadership levels is newsworthy. That intense scrutiny can put tremendous pressure on the top-level executives, including the chief human resources officer.

“When you’re the CHRO, it’s kind of like being in a batter’s cage. But instead of one pitching machine, you have a dozen machines hurling at you, all at the same time. It’s wave after wave of trying to support the executives who have the accountability to keep the business performing.”

Ultimately, the success of an HR executive will be based on his or her ability to build trust with the executive team. 

“In a high stakes situation where you’re advising a CEO or members of an executive team and helping that team perform better, you’re put in a position of trust that is so important and delicate and fragile. And you can’t let people down, you have to have people’s backs and take it seriously.” 

Once “inside the tent,” Reid said that it’s important to manage the relationships you have built so that, as the senior HR executive, you can be the go-to person on big challenges. “It’s such a privileged position. You have to be in 100 percent and never betray that trust.” 

Reid noted that the outcomes of Rogers’ commitment to workforce transformation have been impressive. In January 2018, the company reported its best quarterly result in more than a decade and outperformed its competitors on Total Shareholder Return.

“Personally, this journey has pushed me to my limits, but it has been the most gratifying period in my career,” Reid said. “Bottom line, the Rogers transformation is working, and the culture is changing to be more customer-centric, more disciplined and more focused on our teams.”

And what is Reid’s biggest takeaway from this whole experience? “At the end of the day, successful change begins and ends with people. It’s just that simple.”