Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

A personal roadmap for transformational leadership

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Naki Osutei

Three “impact objectives” have guided you in your career. Please describe them.

I crafted these objectives over the years as I thought about the impact I wanted to have in my career and the principles that meant the most to me. The first objective is to support the development of leaders, particularly racialized leaders. I myself have been the beneficiary of lots of people supporting my growth and development and identifying me for interesting opportunities. There have been people in my life who have helped remove barriers for me and, importantly, have helped give me the tools to remove barriers for others. This commitment has come to me through all of those experiences.

The second impact objective is around re-imagining the concept of who and what a leader is. At one point, I worked for an organization that did a really great job of working across sectors to provide advancement opportunities in the Greater Toronto Area. Early in its existence, their definition of leader was very much tied to institutional positions. If you were a CEO or an executive director, you were viewed as a leader.

With this narrow conception, we found ourselves in a place where all the leaders we attracted were essentially white men and women. I knew full well that leadership capacity is not concentrated in any particular demographic group, so at that point, it became very important to me to help the organization start thinking about leadership differently. There are plenty of people who are leaders by virtue of the followership they inspire, the influence they hold or the change they’ve led. It can have very little to do with a title and much more to do with impact. So part of my mission has been around dismantling prevailing views of who leaders are.

My third objective is about connecting institutions and individuals to facilitate positive change. As early as grade school, I found myself with an ability to broker relationships and opportunities, and that skill has been very helpful for me as I’ve worked to help other people break barriers and blaze trails. I have often found myself in positions where I can connect people to each other and to institutions in order to drive change. And as a result, as I’ve ascended the leadership ranks in corporate spaces, I’ve endeavored to share this social capital with others as a way of driving long-term — and ideally, systemic — change.

After many years working for arts, cultural and civic organizations, you switched tracks a few years ago to join one of Canada’s largest banks. What drew you there?

What attracted me to TD was the opportunity to learn, add to my skills and have impact on a massive scale. I’ve worked in a lot of amazing organizations with some truly brilliant people, but when I think about the financial services sector in Canada, it is the backbone of our economy in many ways. To be able to work for an institution with that kind of influence was a great ambition of mine, so when the opportunity presented itself, I pursued it fiercely.

Your role includes improving the bank’s customer experience as well as the "colleague experience." Please explain that term.

I have a really incredible, varied portfolio, and colleague experience is one aspect of it. Put simply, this pertains to the day-to-day experience of our colleagues throughout the bank. Obviously we are all here to perform different functions and to bring our expertise to bear on different problems, but people spend so much time at work (one third of your life!) that it’s very important to consider how that time impacts our well-being. That is an important role for every organization to play. Additionally, the experience of colleagues/employees has a direct impact on customers, so both are very important.

Part of the work my team does is developing and executing well-being programming to support our colleagues throughout the ranks. During the pandemic, that included providing education on how to keep yourself and your family safe in the midst of COVID-19. This year, our theme is "Rest, Reset and Recharge," and it includes a whole range of activities and resources designed to support our colleagues' well-being.

Another piece of the colleague experience is recognition. People are motivated by working with great people and by receiving development opportunities to help them achieve their aspirations; but they’re also motivated by having their efforts recognized. That recognition can come in many forms. It can be as simple as peer-to-peer recognition, like receiving a note from someone saying, “Thank you for the amazing work you’ve done on this project,” or it can come by way of larger scale recognition like our annual top performer programs. So there are different dimensions to recognition, but really it’s about acknowledging our colleagues in a holistic way.

Another aspect of your responsibility is ESG. What are some of the key challenges you and the bank are currently tackling?

In terms of the terminology itself, E, S and G is relatively new, but in terms of companies leveraging their business practices to drive better environmental, social and governance outcomes, that’s not new to TD (or many other corporations, thankfully). We’ve been doing a lot of this work through our corporate citizenship platforms for years, but in my role, we look specifically at how our personal banking products, services and processes can positively advance goals related to environmental sustainability as well as social and governance issues. For instance, we’re looking at how to remove barriers to fuller financial and economic inclusion. In conversations with community members and employees, big topics that have emerged include intergenerational wealth creation, home ownership and investing.

You have said your superpower is diplomacy in tough situations. What key lessons have you learned about having difficult conversations that are productive?

Many people automatically characterize difficult conversations as being confrontational. I think we need to shift away from the idea of confrontation as a bad thing, and think about it instead as “coming at an issue” or "coming at a problem.” This way, we’re not confronting a person, we’re confronting a problem. If both parties can agree, on the issue they want to address, that takes a lot of the pressure off and can help remove the fear typically associated with confrontation.

Second, I view difficult conversations (and all conversations) as a dance. As with any dance, there are different "moves" that you can use, depending on the music. Sometimes it’s important to pull the move of “Ask some questions.” If something untoward has been said in a meeting, I might just ask a question like ‘What exactly did you mean by that?’ to give the person an opportunity to explain what they meant — instead of concluding that the way I heard it is actually how they meant it.

Another move is to just to say to the other party, “This is the impact your comments are having on me” and invite a conversation about that impact. So again, try to depersonalize the situation and talk about the issue for what it is, as opposed to who said what or who they said it to.

Finally, whenever I go into these conversations I try to think about three things: issue, impact and outcome. Are we clear on the issue here? How can we understand the impact that it’s having? And how can we achieve the outcome we actually want? These things are really important when you’re having any difficult conversation.

You once said that “Blackness is a cultural commodity that rarely seems to translate into political, social or financial capital for actual Black people.” Please unpack that for us.

I said that reflecting on experiences I had very early in my career, 20-plus years ago, and I think it’s still true. If you were to compare the quantity of Black cultural commodities that are consumed and the rate by which we see Black people in positions of influence, decision-making and power, that ratio is very imbalanced. You can go to a restaurant and see photos of Black people on the walls; you can attend a cultural production and see Black people on the stage. But the likelihood that you will see Black people in leadership positions for that entity is much lower. And likewise, the likelihood that Black presence in a community will automatically translate into leadership is slim.

One of your early podcasts was titled “Staying Black on Bay Street.” Having lived it yourself, what does it take to do that?

In my experience, it has been helpful to have a vision for why you’re there. It could be that you know you can make a lot of money or that you can do something really innovative.

It might be that you believe you can have an impact on the people you work with — and that’s something that has been very important to me.

Whatever your reason is, you’ve got to understand why you are there because you will need to lean on that “why” when times get challenging. Your reflection might look something like: I’ve had a hard couple of months, but in general, I’ve still been able to fulfill my vision for why I’m here. Or maybe I’ve had a hard couple of months and I haven’t been able to do anything related to the vision I have for myself. Your ability to move your vision forward can be the gauge by which you decide whether it’s time to go or not. The second is access to a community of support. It’s absolutely critical to have people around you in your organization or within your industry that you can lean on, connect to, commiserate with, collaborate with, celebrate with and that can be a safe place for you to be vulnerable. The experience of racism on a daily basis over many years can be soul crushing, and you need people to turn to who will understand.

The third element is growth — experiencing growth and being in an environment that supports it. That’s true for everyone, of course, but for many Black folks that I’ve spoken to, the experience of being passed over for opportunities is very real. Some have felt like their career is not accelerating at the rate of their peers who have comparable, sometimes less, experience and education. And research affirms this: Black Canadians with a university degree have a lower employment rate than their white Canadian counterparts.

Leaders at organizations who believe they are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion must examine and address these disparities and disproportionalities directly, so their employees can thrive and their institutions can remain relevant.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Published in January, May and September, each issue features thought-provoking insights and problem-solving tools from leading global researchers and management practitioners. Subscribe today.

Naki Osutei is VP, Canadian personal banking strategy, colleague experience and ESG at TD Bank. She joined the Rotman School of Management as an executive in residence in 2022.