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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

How to be a change agent

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Charley Butler, Victor Tung

Are you willing to be the first person to bring something up in a room full of executives? If so, you just might be a Change Agent in the making.

Imagine a world where everyone — regardless of race, gender or orientation — was accepted equally and provided with equal opportunity. It might sound like a pipe dream to some, but the fact is, there are people working on the ground every day to make it happen. These are the world’s change agents, and Charley Butler and Victor Tung are among them.

The Rotman graduates work for the Ontario Teachers Pension Board (OTPP) and BMO, respectively — two organizations that count themselves among the growing number embracing a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda. The collective goal: evening-out the playing field to ensure a pipeline of talent that is equitable and fair in all categories. The duo was among those recognized as 2023 Champions of Change by Women in Capital Markets for their work to advance equity in the finance industry. 

The finance industry faces ongoing challenges with respect to DEI, to be sure. “The biggest challenge in our sector is that there are so many individual challenges under the DEI umbrella,” says Butler. “It’s really hard to decide where to focus. We are fortunate at OTPP that we have a culture where people are really leaning-in to DEI.”

That means, for instance, that the HR team is focusing on creating practices and policies to attract a diverse array of talent; and that the financial experts are focused on investing multi-billion dollar assets not only to make strong returns for members, but also to make the world a better place, she says.

Educating your workforce is critical, says Butler. At OTPP, employee resource groups consisting of volunteers rallying around particular issues have become extremely popular. “We have this huge raft of volunteers who are involved in educating our whole organization, so we can collectively begin to understand the issues.” When they started out, OTPP leaders didn’t know even half of what they needed to know, she admits. “We’re fortunate to have these volunteers saying to senior leaders, ‘Let me help you understand what it means to be from my culture within the broader Canadian culture.’”

In addition to employee resource groups, there are many micro-examples of change at OTPP. “Our HR team invested in new technology that allows them to ‘scrape’ data across all job descriptions and the wording on our website so that they’re not inherently biased towards one group or another. For us, it’s about small things and big things.”

This is not about lowering the bar. It’s about increasing everyone’s ability to reach the bar.

Of course, for any of this to take root you need support from the very top. “Our CEO recognizes the inherent value of all these initiatives. It’s not like we’ve figured it all out, though. Nobody is getting this entirely right, yet. We fully recognize that this is a journey.”

Tung agrees that DEI issues are industry-wide in finance.

“The truth is, there are trade-offs to be made between driving a DEI agenda while at the same time pursuing a growth agenda, because the latter is very much tied to having human capital with some very specialized skill sets,” he says. “When you look at the supply of human capital from the segments we want to hire from, it doesn’t necessarily match up with our DEI goals.” Only a small subset of individuals fit both criteria, he says, and everyone in the finance industry goes after them.

“That’s not the way to drive systemic change. It looks good for the organization, but industry wide, it doesn’t address the problem.” To drive change, he says, you need to focus on removing barriers for people. “This is not about lowering the bar. It’s about increasing everybody’s ability to reach the bar. That’s the lens I used when I began working on these initiatives.”

Butler grew up in the U.K, which she says has a very different mindset around diversity — particularly around immigration.

“In the U.K, people are a lot more protectionist about their culture and their country. Canada is more open to welcoming different cultures, and that’s one reason I chose to live here.”

That doesn’t mean she arrived fully-evolved, however.

“When I first started working in Canada, I had never been surrounded by people for whom English wasn’t their first language. Suddenly I realized I had an inherent bias—that, if you can’t speak English clearly, you’re probably not as smart as I am.” Time and time again, people blew that bias out of the water for her—and she was embarrassed to admit she felt that way. “But I realized that if I have such biases, everyone else probably has them, too.” That’s how Butler’s change-making journey began. “I asked myself, What can be done to make other people come to similar realizations?”

For Tung, the inspiration came from a senior leader in the financial services industry.

“A few years back, before the pandemic, I was invited to the Rotman School’s Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner, where former BMO CEO Bill Downe [MBA ‘78] was being honoured. Watching people like [then-dean] Tiff Macklem and [former UofT President] Rob Pritchard talk about Bill’s achievements, it dawned on me that leadership in any large organization comes with a very serious set of responsibilities.” In addition to driving business results, he heard about all the work Downe and his team were doing to make things better in the communities BMO serves. “The responsibility and the importance of what we do really hit me that night. I knew right away I wanted to be involved in the bank’s commitment to zero barriers.”

Butler says she has always been curious about different cultures. “In my personal life, I’ve always sought out difference. Even for vacations, I always go to a place where the culture is fundamentally different from mine. When my son was six, we went on a three-week tour of India and flew to eight different parts of the country. It was fundamentally different from what we knew, in every way. So I think I’ve had a foundation in terms of educating myself over time. For me there is a fundamental belief that difference has value.”

With so much going on under the DEI umbrella, where is an organization to start?

“Gender diversity is an area where many companies feel comfortable starting out, and at Teachers, we’ve been a leader on that front,” says Butler. The push started in 2017, when OTPP joined the Canadian start-up of the 30% Club — which aims to have 30 per cent women on all boards across the country. In 2020, her own board became 50 per cent women, “which is huge,” she says.

Butler and Tung agree that change starts from the top. “The fact is, if people can’t see themselves represented in senior roles, they will struggle to push themselves to develop the skills they need to get there. Or they will just choose not to stay in your organization and move to a company where they do see themselves represented,” says Tung.

For Tung and BMO, one of the skills they were lacking in the midst of the tech boom was cloud engineering skills. “The market was extremely aggressive in terms of recruiting this type of talent, so it was very challenging,” he says. “I sit on BMO’s DEI Council, where one of the areas we really focus on is Indigenous talent.” He had an idea.

One of BMO’s partnerships is with Amazon Web Services (AWS) — one of the country’s largest cloud providers. So, he reached out to them. “I wanted to noodle around with them to solve this. We decided to recruit a cohort of Indigenous candidates. Amazon would provide them with free training on the required engineering skill sets; and then BMO would provide a six-week paid internship, with the intention that if there was a good match, candidates would be offered full-time roles.

“We were able to target a group that never traditionally had access to a lot of these opportunities. And at the same time, this helped us get the skill set we needed,” he says.

Successful change agents are said to require two character traits: emotional resilience and a tolerance for conflict. Butler agrees. “When I think about my work driving change around diversity, the value that I can bring lies in leveraging my voice within the organization. Because of the meetings and settings I get to be in (by virtue of my position), I have opportunities to say things that drive this agenda forward. Doing that does take emotional resilience, because you’re asking your organization to invest in one area, which naturally creates a trade-off somewhere else.”

It also takes guts to be one of the first people willing to say things like that out loud in a room full of executives, she says, because you don’t necessarily know how people are going to respond. “But it’s moments like these that give other people the confidence to do the same. So often, when you’re the first one to say something, five people come up to you afterwards and say, ‘Oh gosh, thank you so much for saying that; we’ve all been thinking it!’”

A learning mindset is also critical in this work, says Tung. “When it’s your first time doing something like this, you’re not going to do everything right. You will make mistakes, and the honesty with which you approach that aspect of it is very important. When I talk to candidates for our programs, I always say, ‘This is the first time we’re doing this; we’ll probably make mistakes, but we greatly value your feedback along the way.’” In general, people are coming from a good place, he says. They might just be skeptical. “If you can create an emotional connection with them, that’s how to get some momentum going.”

Once you start behaving like a change agent, people notice. “When I was asked to be the executive sponsor for one of our employee resource groups, it blew me away. I didn’t think I was the right person for the job because I didn’t represent any of the groups that needed the most help. But this group of employees obviously thought I had the required qualities, so I accepted. I’ve been on this journey of figuring out what it means to be an ally and raise issues even though they don’t affect me directly. There is power in that.”

Tung says his proudest achievement to date is the relationships he has built over the years. “I believe achievement and success are about the impact you have on other people’s lives. Whether it’s students, community leaders or people who work with me, hopefully my interactions leave people with something that they can take away to continue their own journeys.”

So, what's the first step to becoming a change agent? Butler is quick to answer. “The first step for anything is to educate yourself. So, lean into whatever is happening in your organization. Try to figure out where there are people trying to make change, no matter how small or big; and ask what you can do to help.” The minute you surround yourself with people who are trying to drive change, it becomes much easier, she says.

You will probably have to do some sort of audit of the work you do in your current role, and where you might be able to make some changes. “Ask yourself, Is there a meeting coming up where I can say something? Maybe I can raise a particular issue? Maybe you can reach out to mentor someone who might be in a challenged group?" says Butler. The minute you start doing these things, your internal reward system will make you feel great about it, and you will want to do more.

The two agree that the first change you tackle should be as proximate to your existing role or function as possible, because if you set out to change the whole organization, that is very difficult to do.

Impact can start small. One of the most impactful things OTPP ever did was appoint Michael Cherny as its director of DEI, says Butler. “He has whipped our efforts into shape and challenged us as an organization to think differently. And his own courageous journey and his generosity in sharing that have been invaluable.”

Tung’s advice? “Choose something you are really passionate about. That is step one. Step two — and it’s not easy — is to overcome your own insecurities. At the end of the day there is no right or wrong approach.” Be your authentic self and let your passion drive the change, he says. “When you do that, whatever the outcome is, it will be something you can be proud of.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring issue of the Rotman Management Magazine. Subscribe now for the latest thinking on leadership and innovation. 

Charley Butler (Rotman MBA ‘20) is the chief pension officer at Ontario Teachers Pension Plan.
Victor Tung (Rotman MBA ‘11) is the EVP, U.S. CTO and CIOO at BMO Capital Markets.