Honor Roll: Quest for Results

BMO Financial's Rose Patten plays an active role in helping the bank become more strategic.

Sunday, October 2, 2005
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Rose Patten, senior executive vice president for human resources and strategic management at BMO Financial Group -- one of Canada's oldest and largest banks (established in 1817 as the Bank of Montreal) -- says one of her most important contributions at the bank began with a blank piece of paper.

That's where Patten drew up the plans five years ago for the Office of Strategic Management, an organization within BMO consisting of about 26 staffers who work with leaders from all 20 of the bank's business lines to help them find ways to operate more efficiently and effectively. Today, the OSM serves the bank both as its in-house consultancy and as an incubator of talent, nurturing high-potentials who often become leaders.

The office exemplifies Patten's strong desire to help her employer find better ways of doing business, matched by a firm conviction that such ways exist, and all it takes to find them is teamwork, organizational skills and putting the best talent where it needs to be.

"Rose sets very high standards and is strong on personal accountability for herself and others," says Tony Comper, BMO's president and CEO.

In addition to creating and overseeing the OSM, Patten -- who reports directly to Comper -- has overseen initiatives at the Toronto-based bank that include an overhaul of its executive-compensation policies, the creation of a widely praised diversity model, an organizational-redesign effort that led to a sharp reduction in management layers and a renewed focus on talent management. It's for these and other accomplishments that Patten has been named to Human Resource Executive's 2005 HR Honor Roll.

Banking on Talent

Patten, who has held leadership positions in HR and operations throughout her career, was happily overseeing the creation of the OSM five years ago when the CEO asked her if she'd be interested in heading up the HR department. Patten declined the offer.

"My response was 'been there, done that,' " the St. John's, Newfoundland native says.

Two years later, however, she had a change of heart and accepted a second offer. "Through my work with the OSM, I saw firsthand how business issues and people intersect and how the business strategy is so dependent on effective talent management," she says. "I saw how HR could impact the organization."

Patten's work at the OSM included a major project that took an in-depth look at every business unit within BMO Financial to determine whether it was profitable and, if not, whether it was feasible for the bank to focus on making it profitable or simply get out of that particular line of business. Ultimately, the bank decided to exit several lines of business.

"It was an incredibly exciting project to be working on -- it really exposed me to the inner workings of the business," says Patten, who last year was named one of the "25 Most Powerful Women in Banking" by U.S. Banker. When she assumed leadership of the HR department (while retaining oversight of the OSM), Patten brought with her the same sharp focus on efficiency and results she'd used at OSM.

Although the Canadian banking marketplace has long been dominated by six or so large banks (BMO among them), their hegemony is threatened today by new innovations -- including online banking -- that have given consumers greater choice. As a result, BMO is competing more fiercely than ever for customers in the Canadian market while focusing on growing its U.S.-based businesses, including Chicago-based Harris Bank and Harris Nesbitt, a mid-market investment and corporate bank. Patten understood the bank's success will depend on its ability to attract, develop and retain talent and provide that talent with a clear understanding of BMO's objectives.

Upon assuming the HR leadership reins, Patten consolidated the department's succession planning, career development and executive-staffing functions into one portfolio called "talent management," which was tasked with identifying and nurturing talent throughout all levels at the bank.

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Patten also led a top-to-bottom revamping of BMO's succession-planning process from one in which individual business units conducted their own evaluations of potential leaders to one that brings managers and executives from all business lines together in roundtable discussions to focus on the bank's up-and-comers. The discussions add perspective to the succession-planning process and make them less parochial, she says.

"One of the things I've learned is that people assume they know what new leaders should look like, and they don't spend enough time assessing the environment and what the particular organization is going to face within the next five or 10 years," says Patton, recent head of the University of Toronto's presidential search committee. "I've also discovered there's a bit of an overemphasis on personality traits and an under-emphasis on proven skills."

Open to All

Patten has also emphasized diversity at the bank, something that she, as the first woman to ever serve on BMO's executive committee, feels strongly about. Under her leadership, BMO was the first financial-services firm to enact a model linking diversity and workplace equity to the company's business objectives. Today, women hold 33.7 percent of executive positions at BMO, up from 9 percent in 1991.

Meanwhile, minorities hold 9 percent of executive positions at the bank, a 23-percent gain from five years ago. Patten is currently leading a new initiative, called Above and Beyond, which seeks to shape BMO's diversity strategy for the next 10 years by identifying potential issues as well as best practices that can be replicated.

Patten has also overseen changes to the bank's executive-compensation structure to ensure executive gains are tightly aligned with shareholder value.

Last but not least, she recently added a question to BMO's annual employee survey that rates managers on adherence to ethical decision-making.

"We want to know right across the organization the degree to which employees feel their managers are 'walking the talk' with regard to ethical behavior," she says. "It's a vocal way to say 'values matter around here.' "

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