John Kay, CEO of Realize Strategies on an innovative, people-first approach to business post-pandemic

Small Business Canada

John Kay, CEO of Realize Strategies

Over the last twenty years, John Kay has held senior and executive positions in both the private and public sectors, and supported projects spanning social services, real estate, insurance, finance, food and beverage, education, arts, tourism, and more. As a Principal Consultant at Realize Strategies, John assists executive clients in driving sustainable, transformative organizational change through strategy, governance, culture, and business model innovation. As CEO of Realize Strategies, he supports and empowers his team in unlocking their potential and creativity to strengthen and support their clients. John serves as chair on several non-profit and co-op boards across the country, and seeks inspiration in people-centred businesses locally and abroad.

Describe your leadership experience (i.e. What have you learned and what skills do you bring after serving as senior executive positions in both public and private sectors for the past twenty years)? 

I’ve learned that Peter Drucker was right when he famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. You can have the best product or service in the world. But if you don’t have an organizational culture that inspires your team, your great product is useless. People are the lifeblood of any organization. 

What skills do I bring after 20+ years? The ability to bring an organization together around a common purpose, along with learning how to balance financial performance, strategy and keeping people at the center of the organization. Another skill is the ability to design a workplace that is truly inclusive – regardless of race, colour, religion or cultural background.

As many organizations predict a shortfall of leaders in the next five years, how can they inspire existing leaders and their employees to generate their best work? 

Leaders are going to need to make a significant investment of time and energy in listening to employees, being responsive, flexible and innovative in responding to the needs of employees, and in modelling a different vision for workplace culture and norms. Leaders are also going to need to ensure that every employee understands how their work contributes to the organization’s goals and strategy, and be transparent about every aspect of the business – including (and especially) its financial performance.

On that note, the worst mistake any leader could make would be to adopt the attitude Elon Musk conveyed about requiring Tesla workers to return to the office or consider themselves to have been terminated. Musk’s message basically says, “I don’t care about anything that matters to you. You’re required to show up, shut up and do what you’re told to do”. In a hot labour market, that is a recipe for employee exits on a major scale. 

In a post-COVID world, where the business operations have changed significantly, what is important for evolving and shifting mindsets that support organizational transformation and growth? 

The key to evolving and shifting mindsets lies in the need for leaders to be nimble, innovative and responsive to the changing realities of the workplace and the increased options that employees have in a rapidly evolving economy and labour market. I would say that leaders would do well to learn about and embrace the principles of human-centred design to rethink their approach to organizational transformation and growth. Human-centered design teaches us to put people at the center of decision-making, whether it’s about product design or organizational structures.

What is your approach to building resilience for an organization dealing with adversity and managing risk?

I build resilience by being honest with my employees about the realities in which we operate. We talk openly and regularly about our financial position, the big opportunities and challenges ahead of us and how we might respond. We talk regularly about our culture and our needs as individuals in a professional service business where our people are the product. We also talk regularly about risk, in particular the amount of calculated risk we’re willing to take to move our business forward. We put a risk lens on everything we do. But we also engage in these conversations regularly to ensure that we’re able to respond quickly and nimbly to potential adversity.

The right leader plays a crucial role in an organization’s success. What tips can you share to help organizations find the right leaders that help their businesses advance?

Organizations need to spend a lot more time thinking about their employer’s value proposition. When a company has an open position, it’s selling a product (the position) to a market (candidates) who usually have options to choose from. If you want to find the right leader, you need to be very clear about what makes your company a great place to work and you need to be very clear about the kind of leader you need for this phase of your company’s lifecycle. 

There is a lot of talk about retention and recruitment lately, with many people leaving their jobs or seeking out better options. What can employers do to improve their retention rates and overall employee satisfaction?

There is no one size fits all solution. Compensation and benefits are one factor. Flexible work arrangements are another. Many employees are stressed about the cost of living, especially in major urban centers. Employers need to look at what they can do to remain competitive in their compensation practices. They also need to be a lot more flexible about allowing employees to work remotely. Another thing employers should consider is to invest in professional development and training. The research shows that investments in professional development pay off in increased employee retention, engagement and productivity.

Tell us about RealizeU, your new subscription-style, multidisciplinary educational leadership platform recently launched by Realize Strategies. Who is this program for, and why should they take it? 

RealizeU is primarily designed for two key markets: emerging and established leaders in purpose-driven organizations and new board members. We found over the years that many of our clients, particularly non-profits and social enterprises, struggle to find professional development programs that help their people learn both functional skills as well as the skills needed to carve out a distinct competitive advantage in today’s market – innovation, design thinking, strategic performance management. We’ve also found that many new board members struggle to understand their role and how to approach it from a practical standpoint. Many governance training programs are either very focused on frameworks or legal duties. We saw the need to create a program that equips directors to focus on the most important governance issues, such as strategy, risk and financial governance.

The real value of RealizeU is a hands-on practical training that can be applied in the workplace. We’re building out a larger certificate program that will give learners a final project focused on a need in their organization. We believe this will make RealizeU unique and highly valuable to leaders. As noted above, we know that professional development creates higher levels of employee retention, engagement and productivity. This is one of the key selling points of our program. RealizeU will be valuable to any new manager in any SME, whether non-profit or for-profit and we encourage interested leaders and board members to reach out for more information or to learn more online!

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