The Ivey Interview: George Cope

George Cope Bell Canada

Before spearheading the transformation of Canada’s oldest and largest communications company in 2008, the President and CEO of Bell Canada and BCE Inc. had made a name for himself as an entrepreneur, innovator and builder of high-performance teams. George Cope (Ivey HBA ’84) has successfully launched four next-generation digital communications networks and helped build two successful start-ups. BrookTel, a first-generation cellphone retailer, was sold to Bell Cellular. Clearnet Communications, the most successful wireless start-up in North American history, went public in the mid-1990s and was acquired for $6.6 billion (the largest transaction in Canadian telecom history) by Telus in 2000, when Cope became CEO of the combined company’s wireless division. In this issue of IBJ, Ivey’s 2013 Business Leader of the Year talks about how his competitive spirit, faith in teamwork, and support from friends, family and Lady Luck contributed to his success as a leader.

IVEY: George, did you always want to be a leader?

George Cope: I never thought specifically that I wanted to lead, but I knew from sports that I loved to compete. The competitive dynamic of business is actually what attracted me to leadership roles in the private sector. In public companies, you keep score and track performance just as you do in sports. As a young adult, I found that inspiring. I wanted to see if I could build a team that can beat other teams. Many of the lessons learned playing basketball with the Western Mustangs in Alumni Hall are certainly applicable to this day.

IVEY: When did you first realize you were a leader?

GC: I recognized I had leadership skills during my early sports and school activities. Before Western, the Mustangs and Ivey, I was captain of my high school basketball team and also student council president. You certainly need a set of skills to lead people in situations like that, but I don’t think I was thinking specifically in terms of leadership then. Nevertheless, early successes in sports and school built my confidence, and it’s absolutely critical for a leader to have confidence. I gained confidence whenever coaches and others with authority confirmed I was moving in the right direction, which I believe set the stage for eventual leadership in business.

IVEY: Sports gave you more than just confidence and a desire to compete, right?

GC: Absolutely. Without the relationships I developed through sports, my entire career would have been completely different. In the early 1980s, David Simmonds, the father of a friend and fellow basketball player named Gord Simmonds, hired me to help lead a wireless distribution company called BrookTel. We built it into a market leader and sold it to Bell Canada. Then we created Clearnet, where the technological prowess of Gord’s brother Bob Simmonds was instrumental. Bob now serves on the Board of BCE. Wade Oosterman, another guy on our high school basketball team, and an Ivey MBA, has been involved with every business I helped build and is now president of Bell Mobility and Bell’s chief brand officer.

IVEY: At BCE, you took a 130-year-old company and fundamentally changed its cost structure and culture. What prepared you for this challenge?

GC: When I was in my early 20s, many so-called experts didn’t think wireless was going anywhere. But I was lucky enough to be working directly in that space and realized the opportunity. After BrookTel was bought by Bell Cellular, now known as Bell Mobility, I became a 25-year-old president of a Bell subsidiary overnight. As a result, I gained valuable insights into the business world and leadership concepts at a really young age. I closely watched the behaviour of people in leadership roles and learned how boards operate. This was an important learning experience and provided a good grounding in an important part of the telecommunications industry. I was still in my early 30s when I became president of Clearnet, which really supercharged my leadership learning. We went public in 1994 and raised almost $4 billion in less than six years. I remember trying to raise money to start the company, doing road shows around the world. Today, investors want you to be young and look like the guys from Facebook. But back then, a lot of people said we were too young. It really was a great experience because I came to understand leaders need skills well beyond your own to build something successful. I learned the importance of building a team with a variety of skill sets. At first, you resist the idea because people with different skills aren’t like you. They don’t have the same approach or experiences. But that’s exactly what’s required to achieve success. You have to add complementary strengths to your own if you want to be successful because you can’t build an organization with sheer passion alone. After Clearnet was bought by Telus, I became head of the company’s wireless unit. Telus was much larger than Clearnet, where most of the team was concentrated in a few locations. So a question emerged: How do you assume the leadership role when you cannot necessarily be physically present everywhere? At a small company, you can walk around and shake hands. You can talk to people in the cafeteria. That is not practical at large companies. So I learned the importance of communicating in different ways, using various channels, while ensuring consistency of the message. This is important in increasing understanding and confidence across the organization.

IVEY: What unexpected challenge came with the move to BCE?

GC: Bell is quite unique in Canada. Generally speaking, if our competitors do something big, it’s going to make headlines in the business sections of major newspapers. If we do the exact same thing, it’ll be front-page news. In other words, simply being Bell offers a great benefit, but it’s also always a potential challenge. I don’t think people can understand the true impact of the brand unless they work here.

IVEY: Do find running a major corporation as exciting as building a business?

GC: Bell is one of the top Canadian brands and driving that brand forward in a fast-changing industry is a great responsibility. I feel like an explorer in this industry right now. There are so many things to be discovered. What is the future of Internet protocol television? What is the next thing Apple or Google is going to dream up? How big is wireless really going to be? How can we take advantage of these opportunities? Bell is a most exciting place to be and constant change is key to that.

IVEY: What was the priority when you started drafting a Bell transition plan?

GC: I wanted to give a consistent message of change and opportunity to 55,000 people. It was important to build confidence in a better future for Bell and enable execution of a marketplace strategy to achieve it. But the layers of management remained extreme. When I was appointed CEO, Bell actually had 11 layers from my office to the customer. I doubt many global organizations have that many. So we took three levels of management out in six weeks. It was probably the most radical restructuring ever done in Canada. The focus then and since has been improving the customer experience at every level.

IVEY: Was the board supportive?

GC: Yes. The directors asked all the right questions about what we were doing. They wanted to ensure the glue would hold. How did we know the transformation would work? The answer is that we expected to be 10 per cent wrong, which means we were going to be 90 per cent right. And we would fix the 10 per cent. We formulated a clear strategy and people were not allowed to spend time on things that weren’t relevant to success. It was focus, focus and focus, and it worked.

IVEY: How have you benefited from mentors?

GC: I had a great leader who coached me in high school and instilled confidence in me. He told me I could do whatever I wanted to do, including play university sports. When you grow up in Port Perry, a small Ontario town of about 3,500 people, that’s not really what your head tells you. David Simmonds was also very influential. When he put a 23-year-old version of me in a leadership role at BrookTel, he said, “You have a business degree, now go run this.” Not many people would take such a chance on a young kid. He further built my confidence while teaching me a lot about the industry and running a successful business. The support of my wife has also been critical. We’ve been together since our early 20s and I don’t think I could have successfully executed any of my leadership roles without her counsel. Her only agenda is to think about what might be the right thing for the organization and the chosen strategy, and I find it important to have someone to broaden my thinking in any given situation. I also learned from my parents. My late father, for example, influenced my willingness to take risks.

IVEY: How did you become comfortable taking accountability?

GC: I think a big part of it is having a good track record and confidence. It’s about pitching more strikes than balls, getting things more right than wrong. Reflection also plays a role. You need to develop a set of beliefs about what is the right thing to do.

IVEY: What was the best leadership advice you ever received?

GC: One thing that resonates the most in all my years in business is a term I learned from David Simmonds – calculated negligence. If you’re going to be successful, you have to know what not to do, even  when it involves things other people see as important. You have to differentiate between what’s most important and what you can actually risk letting become a problem. An outside consultant might say, “My God, that problem needs to be fixed now!” I might agree, and at the same time point out that the problem is number 977 on the list of 4,000 things that need to get fixed. I think my transition from the entrepreneurial start-ups to running BCE has been successful thanks to an ability to understand what falls into the category of calculated negligence. It is really hard to lead if you don’t have perspective on what really matters most.

IVEY: What have you learned about building trust and learning to trust others?

GC: Teams drive everything in business, so the most important thing in a leadership role is having the ability to absolutely trust the people with whom you’re working. I am proud to say I have never had a direct executive report quit – ever. And to me, that is the result of my desire to build strong and unified teams. Once you know you have a person’s trust and vice versa, you can give him or her so much more to do because you’re both working in the same direction. But if you think someone is working against the team, or not fully committed to it, it doesn’t work. It does not matter how skilled people on your team are if they’re not working together toward the same goal. People who work for me today, or who have worked for me in the past, will probably tell you that it is great to have established my trust. But it’s actually a lot tougher to work with me once you have that trust because my expectations go up. Accountability increases because I put everything into team relationships. Delegation is the only way to build companies in my industry. But trust is required before you can effectively delegate.

IVEY: But you can’t delegate where the buck stops, right?

GC: Right. While the leadership team plays a huge role in major decision making, the leader is always responsible for the final decision and must take responsibility when outcomes are disappointing. Our plan to unite Astral Media and Bell Media was eventually successful, but I insisted that I was the one out in public taking the heat when our original bid fell through. It was my duty, not the head of our media division, to explain what happened and how we would move forward.

IVEY: What do you find hard about being a leader?

GC: Being “on” all the time is tough. A few years ago, my long-time assistant told me, “People say you’re really grumpy these days and you’re not smiling in the elevator.” I don’t know what was going on in my life. Maybe that morning my wife and I didn’t get along. Maybe the kids were late for school. Who knows? But I do know you have to acknowledge the fact that employees might be watching wherever you go. If they see you in a coffee shop, they may not say hello, but they will observe, so you cannot behave at less than your best, even if you’re having a tough day. You’ll be judged, and rightly so. You’re the leader.

IVEY: What have you personally experienced as a barrier to learning?

GC: Time is a barrier. I was president of a company at an early age and things never really slowed down for me. My wife and I also raised a family. Hence, I never really had the time to head back to an academic institution to refresh or listen to other people’s perspectives. But my experiences in business, and the associated wins and losses, have enabled me to be educated in a way that now allows me to give back. I enjoy talking to business school classes, gaining the perspective of the next generation of leaders while offering them the benefit of my own experiences.

IVEY: Would you point to Bell Let’s Talk as an example of corporate leadership?

GC: I would, because no other Canadian company had previously embraced the cause in such a significant way, despite its universal impact. Mental illness affects every Canadian in some way. One in five will confront the disease personally at some point in their lives and we all know friends, family or colleagues affected. Half a million Canadians miss work each day because of a mental illness, and the overall economic impact on our national economy surpasses $50 billion annually. Yet the stigma around the disease meant that few corporations would touch the issue. Bell decided to take the lead, building a clear strategy based on four pillars – anti-stigma, care and access, research and workplace best practices – and raising the profile with programs like Bell Let’s Talk Day and Clara’s Big Ride for Bell Let’s Talk with Olympian Clara Hughes. We’ve made a commitment of more than $62 million to the cause of mental health already, the largest ever by a corporation in Canada by far. On the workplace pillar, we’ve not only developed our own internal programs, such as mental health training for every manager in the company, we’ve been working closely with corporate Canada and every layer of government to drive awareness and action, and develop new mental health workplace standards. Mental health is an issue that was crying out for attention and action, and someone had to take the lead. Since then though, we’ve been blown away by the level of support and partnership we’ve seen across every sector.

IVEY: How has your leadership evolved over time?

GC: As we discussed, I was very fortunate to have had some early successes in sports, school and business. That can narrow your focus. Arrogance can build. When you are young and successful, it is easy to believe that you know it all. Wisdom does come with age. Older leaders with more experience can better reflect on what it takes to be a better leader and a better person. The intensity with which I conduct business has not changed over time, but my broader thinking about what success means has. And I think that makes me a better leader.

IVEY: What do you see as a common leadership mistake?

GC: Sometimes we promote an individual who is not yet ready for a new position. No one ever says I’m not ready, so it is easy to derail careers by over-promoting people. I have made that mistake and it can be a painful experience. As the leader, it is your fault, but it’s the other person who may lose their job as a result.

IVEY: What advice do you have for young leaders?

GC: First, if you’re going to be a leader, don’t narrow your focus by surrounding yourself with people like you. You need exposure to a range of talent and perspectives. Second, if you can’t delegate, you’re done. Third, learn to turn it off. I can go to my cottage on a Friday and just enjoy the weekend. Unless an issue emerges that threatens to burn Bell down, I tell my people to leave me be. My wife would say I compartmentalize things. Some people can’t do that, but I know I would burn out if I did not have that skill.

IVEY: Anything else?

GC: Focus on playing your position. Too many people are constantly challenging their roles. They don’t actually do the job they’re supposed to do. When I first got to Bell, it was quite a culture shock. People believed that if they were in a job for more than 12 or 18 months, they were limiting their careers. I interviewed VPs and they would say, “I’ve been in the job for 14 months and I’m looking for a new role at the company.” They wanted to be fast-tracked, to move from job to job as evidence that they were progressing. I kept wondering, “Don’t you want to see your projects through? How can I know if you’re good if you’re not making any money by your third year? How can you know?” People can push too hard at their own agenda and that can make it hard to view them as part of the team. I responded by explaining that in your first year in a role, the company loses money on you. The second year, we break even. The third year, the company may make money. And in your fourth year, please come see me. Suddenly, no one was talking about their next roles.

Parts of this interview were adapted from Gerard Seijts’s new book Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership.