Leadership lens: Rod Phillips

28 May 2015

Leadership lens: Rod Phillips

Chair of Postmedia

Rod Phillips is currently the Chair of Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper company. More recently, Rod was the President and CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), where he launched the modernization strategy of the $6.8B revenue agency. Prior to OLG, Rod was the President and CEO of Shepell.fgi, leading the growth and eventual sale of the workplace health and productivity company to Morneau Sobeco for $322M. He also served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Mel Lastman during his first term as leader of the newly amalgamated City of Toronto.

Rod currently sits on the boards of Discovery Air Inc, Data Group Limited and the newly listed Special Purpose Acquisition Corp (SPAC). Active in his community, he is Chair of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance and the TELUS GTA Community Board. Rod is also a member of the board of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and was Vice-Chair of Mayor John Tory’s Transition Team following his election in 2014.

Tell us about your early years growing up. Were you in any leadership roles at a young age?

Growing up in the suburbs in the 80’s, working at the local pools was a great job for a teenager. To be a manager, you had to be willing to change the chlorine gas tanks at the pool. I think that I was one of the few who would do it so I got to be a manager. As they say, leadership takes courage.

How, if at all, did your parents influence your leadership style?

In our family, expectations were clear and support was consistent – win or lose. You only failed if you didn’t learn or gave up. Our family was a safe place and haven to learn and to grow up. As a leader, I work to be consistent and provide a safe environment that lets others meet their potential.

When you were at Western/UWO for your undergraduate studies, did you have an idea what you wanted to do for a career?

No. I wrote the LSAT and GMAT and even the Foreign Service exam. So, it’s safe to say I wasn’t very clear on my career track. I eventually did complete an MBA, but that was after some time in the working world where I developed my interest in business and an understanding of what makes an organization work.

How did you land the role as Chief of Staff to Mayor Mel Lastman?

That’s a funny story. I was working at KPMG in Toronto in 1997 and I received a phone call from Paul Godfrey, then Publisher of the Sun newspapers. Paul was building the team to lead Mel’s campaign for Mayor and had heard about my volunteer efforts in provincial and federal elections. I eventually said yes, but only after Paul committed to Bill MacKinnon – the KPMG Managing Partner at the time – that he wouldn’t call and ask me to be the Chief of Staff if Mel won. When we won, Paul had Mayor Mel make the call to Bill, who was of course entirely good natured about the whole thing.

It was fascinating to return to the City of Toronto as part of Mayor Tory’s Transition Team last November, 15 years after serving as the first Chief of Staff in the newly amalgamated city. You don’t often get to see first hand what worked and what didn’t a decade and a half later. The city has come a long way from those early days, thanks to the efforts of many hardworking people.

Over the eight years you were President and CEO of Shepell.fgi, the business grew significantly. How do you recommend CEOs manage in a high growth environment?

Shepell.fgi’s growth as a business tracked the need for thousands of employers to improve workforce productivity and control health-related benefit costs. We created new products and grew our existing business lines by anticipating and responding to the pressures on our customers. That kind of growth also means your systems need to scale to keep pace. Knowing when and how much to invest in the people and the infrastructure to support growth are make or break choices for the CEO and their board.

For three years you led the OLG, a multi-billion dollar crown corporation. How does leading a government agency differ from a traditional business?

Operating a gaming monopoly has the advantage of limited competition. But in global, digital markets even the monopolists’ advantage is fleeting. The prevalence of online gambling and the success of cross border and destination casinos meant the management team and board needed to modernize OLG’s business model by injecting private management and capital.

The biggest difference, however, is how your shareholder judges risk and return. When the government is your shareholder, return is measured on more than the economic value created. Periodic changes in government leadership mean that expectations for any of these variables can change overnight, adding a type of volatility uncommon to a profit motivated enterprise. All of this impedes value creation in the traditional private sector sense and is why some of the best business people have trouble making sense of government.

What are some of the leadership lessons or career advice that you have learned over the years?

Mentors matter. Choose them carefully and don’t forget to return the favour.

What is your priority when you hire?

Experience is important put passion matters more. Given the requisite credentials, there are few things that can’t be done with the proper motivation and very little that gets accomplished without it. Judging what really motivates a potential hire and how that fits with your organization is any hiring manager’s biggest challenge.

You serve on many boards. Which of them is the most interesting?

With the acquisition of Sun Media, Postmedia has been the most involved for the last year. The injection of new equity and the significantly expanded publishing footprint resulting from the acquisition has given our exceptional management team an improved platform in a challenging industry.

The most interesting board right now is INFOR Acquisition Corp., a newly listed public company seeking to identify and close a midmarket acquisition over the next two years. Response from investors has been quite positive and we are on track to raise over $200M. While the SPAC structure is well established in the U.S., this is only the second in Canada. It is a great board and I am looking forward to investing and working along side some truly accomplished entrepreneurs and investors including Brian Gibson, Bill Holland, Steve Hudson, Neil Selfe, Steven Small and Richard Venn.

Last question: What do most people get wrong about you?

I don’t really like 7:30am breakfast meetings.