Pas­sion Pro­ject

BMO vi­cepres­i­dent Mike Bon­ner nur­tures a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers with a mix of drive and em­pa­thy

BC Business Magazine - - Leadership - —S.N. ■

In busi­ness, the per­son lead­ing at any given point isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the one with the ti­tle and the cor­ner of­fice, says Mike Bon­ner, se­nior vi­cepres­i­dent at BMO Fi­nan­cial Group, who heads the bank’s B.C. and Yukon divi­sion.

“Lead­er­ship has noth­ing to do with the busi­ness card; it has noth­ing to do with your po­si­tion,” Bon­ner con­tends. “I don’t think you have to look very far to find ex­am­ples of lead­er­ship. I think you see lead­er­ship, good and bad, at ev­ery level of an or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

If any­one can rec­og­nize the hall­marks of a strong leader, it’s Bon­ner, who has worked jobs rang­ing from meat cut­ter to news­pa­per sales­man to bank teller. He’s also gained ex­po­sure to a va­ri­ety of busi­nesses through his 27 years in the fi­nan­cial sec­tor. “Lead­er­ship is about sit­u­a­tions,” says Bon­ner, who over­sees some 2,000 staff. “It could be a rob­bery, it could be some­thing un­for­tu­nate that hap­pens with a cus­tomer, it could be an op­por­tu­nity—but there will be a sit­u­a­tion today, and there is ev­ery day,” he warns, cit­ing last sum­mer’s wild­fires. “The needs of the team and the busi­ness will de­ter­mine what type of lead­er­ship comes out.”

Bon­ner de­scribes his own lead­er­ship style as a hy­brid, liken­ing his ap­proach to that of a me­chanic with dif­fer­ent tools for dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. He reg­u­larly reeval­u­ates how he leads; one re­cent in­flu­ence is the book Rad­i­cal Can­dor: Be a Kick-ass Boss With­out Los­ing Your Hu­man­ity by for­mer Ap­ple Inc. and Google Inc. ex­ec­u­tive Kim Scott, which preaches a bal­ance be­tween

em­pa­thy and di­rectly chal­leng­ing em­ploy­ees.

Bon­ner has striven for that bal­ance since child­hood. His fa­ther, who served in the in­fantry and later laboured as a fac­tory worker, taught him the value of hard work and be­ing or­ga­nized. From his mother, a home­maker ded­i­cated to com­mu­nity ser­vice, he learned the im­por­tance of em­pa­thy and con­nect­ing with peo­ple.

“They put me in tough jobs at a very young age, so I had drive to make sure that I could evolve and do bet­ter and to keep push­ing for im­prove­ment,” says the Chatham, On­tario, na­tive, who started work­ing at age nine as a corn de­tas­seler, pulling the flower from the top of the plant. “Whether it was school do­ing an MBA, or whether it was mak­ing money,” he re­calls, “I think my up­bring­ing helped me.”

Bon­ner com­pleted a year of train­ing as an elec­tron­ics en­gi­neer, but work­ing solo in huge ma­chines quickly lost its ap­peal. He later be­came a tu­tor with the school board in Chatham. “I’m a peo­ple per­son, so I guess I got it wrong with the guid­ance coun­sel­lor,” he quips. “I re­ally love tech­nol­ogy and sci­ence and engi­neer­ing, but I think that what drives me, re­ally hon­estly, is work­ing with peo­ple and try­ing to de­velop peo­ple.”

Fi­nally Bon­ner set­tled on fi­nance. Start­ing as a teller at a Royal Bank of Canada branch in Blen­heim, On­tario, in 1991, he was pro­moted to as­sis­tant man­ager, per­sonal bank­ing, within 18 months. In 2000 he landed at BMO, which gave him roles all over the coun­try, in­clud­ing Hal­i­fax, Calgary, Toronto and Windsor, On­tario. While ris­ing through the ranks, Bon­ner com­pleted an MBA at Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity in Hal­i­fax. He moved to Van­cou­ver in 2014 to take his cur­rent post.

Al­though some be­lieve lead­ers are born, Bon­ner doesn’t buy it. He ac­knowl­edges that there are in­nate lead­er­ship qual­i­ties, though. “Some­where along the line, you have to have the nat­u­ral grit to grav­i­tate to­ward lead­er­ship,” he main­tains. “It’s not for ev­ery­body, and it’s not about the pay­cheque, and it’s not about the ti­tle.”

Bon­ner sees those qual­i­ties all around him. Ev­ery month he hands out 10 to 15 busi­ness cards to peo­ple whom he en­cour­ages to take their ca­reer to BMO. “You’ve got to be a tal­ent master,”

Bon­ner says. “The mis­take that peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions make is they think [sourc­ing tal­ent] is an HR job.” But HR can’t do it alone, he stresses: “Ev­ery­body needs to have a tal­ent mind­set. Ev­ery­one needs to be on the look­out.”

That’s es­pe­cially true in the fi­nan­cial world, where high-tech up­starts threaten to dis­rupt BMO’S 200-year-old suc­cess story. Com­pe­ti­tion for tal­ent is fierce, and Bon­ner tries to as­sem­ble ag­ile teams from di­verse back­grounds. Be­sides fi­nance grads, his hires in­clude for­mer bar­tenders and baris­tas, and a ceme­tery sales­per­son. “You can teach fi­nance; you can teach bank­ing, tan­gi­ble tech­ni­cal skills,” Bon­ner says. “You can’t teach pas­sion, real fire-in-the-belly pas­sion to do what’s right for the cus­tomer.”

When Bon­ner thinks about life af­ter work, he gets philo­soph­i­cal. He says he wants to look back in his 80s with no re­grets about how he led his em­ploy­ees. Some have moved across the coun­try to work with him, some­thing Bon­ner takes pride in. Oth­ers have grown into lead­er­ship roles of their own. “How have I helped peo­ple ac­com­plish things per­son­ally?” Bon­ner asks. “That will be my true score­card as a leader.”

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