How are losing your mother, BC Hydro, and the power of noble ideas connected with strategy?

Posted by on Apr 6, 2011

I delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral last weekend. My remarks focused on what can be learned from someone whose life was guided by humanistic principles and enriched by finding the good in others. If I could connect people’s everyday experiences with aspirational goals and noble actions, I thought, couldn’t I nudge the bar just a little higher for the 100+ who attended?

Thinking about it reminded me of the vital role aspirational goals and noble actions played in the evolution of BC Hydro, where I was asked to propose for a consulting assignment in 1988. New Chair and CEO Larry Bell hoped to transform Hydro from a staid Crown Corporation to a modern, dynamic and responsive customer-focused organization.

I took a big risk at my interview with Blair Trousdell, Hydro’s new head of Organizational Effectiveness. I outlined what I saw as a golden opportunity – the weakening of the three main social anchors of western society – family, neighbourhood and church. If Hydro provided a work experience that replaced parts of those waning anchors, I said, they could capture the hearts, minds, and discretionary effort of an entire workforce.

Fortunately, Blair had the same vision. He engaged me to work with his team, which would quarterback and facilitate the transformation Larry Bell envisioned.

Blair’s remarkable team did the equivalent of moving mountains, engaging the energy and passion of Hydro’s 5,000 employees and managers. The change effort blossomed from one small department’s project to a life-changing experience for many of Hydro’s people. 3 years later, in 1991, Hydro had begun a powerful and irreversible transformation, and was recognized for it by winning the prestigious national IPAC award for innovative management in the public sector.

One of the keys to this was the power of noble ideas. As Chair and CEO, Larry Bell inspired the people of BC Hydro, partly through his lofty vision of BC Hydro’s role in the Province, and partly through his unstinting and visible support for the internal changes required to make it happen.

After Bell left the organization, the government changed, and the newly elected NDP hired a new Chair/CEO whose tenure I can only describe as a disaster. But employees at all levels had bought into Larry Bell’s vision and the “fresh air” the transformation had brought into the company. After people have been engaged in pursuing a noble idea at work, they don’t easily give it up.

Despite a series of new Chairs, reorganizations, privatizing parts of the company and a host of other missteps that would have broken the spirit of many organizations, today I can still see and feel the effect of the original vision. It’s most apparent to me in the ways those who were part of this transformation internalized the company’s stated values of teamwork, integrity, innovation and commitment.

Hydro’s initiative for engaging and mobilizing its workforce was right for its corporate strategy and its time. I’m not suggesting it’s right for your organization, but there may be worthwhile lessons in it if your business has a noble mission, leaders who genuinely believe in it, and who think there is a competitive advantage to be gained by deeply and sincerely engaging employees to create loyalty and tap discretionary effort.

I guess some of you may be wondering why writing my Mom’s eulogy brought this to mind. Quite simply, the way the eulogy was received helped me to reconnect with the importance of noble ideas in our lives. Many people approached me after the memorial service to say how moved they have been by the ideas I had spoken about. Those ideas were the guiding principles of my mother’s life.

People really want and need to be part of something they feel is worthwhile, even noble. It motivates and brings out the best in them. It must be genuine, of course, but if you can do this within your organization, you’ll reap the benefits in far more ways than just on the bottom line.

Copyright 2011 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc.



  1. Gee, Rick, very moving. I think you’ve captured the difference between the kinds of “values” that somehow have become just so much plaque-ware and the “values” that clearly you saw in your mother and that stand the test of time, not least of which in business.

    Wasn’t it Peter Drucker who said that good manners make a company run? Well, perhaps good values make them succeed, and in the long-run.

  2. Darren, I like your differentiation between plaque-ware and real values. BC Hydro’s values statements sprang from sentiments that were alive in the hearts of many employees or they would have been received cynically. I think this is the most important distinction between genuine values and plaque-ware. I have seen this differentiation at work in many other organizations. When the “official” values are significantly out of step with what people care about, they’re more likely to be a negative factor than a positive one.