Dave Mowat on leadership, honesty and kyboshing corporate jargon

Jamie Bay | June 21, 2017

Between meetings, travel, and leading Alberta’s largest financial institution, Dave Mowat finds a moment to sit down and share his wisdom on leadership and communications with us.

For the past ten years, Dave has been ATB’s president and CEO. During this time, he’s worked to make his company loved and respected by all Albertans by placing a significant importance on putting his team members first. The results speak for themselves.  

In 2017, ATB placed second in Canada’s Best Places to Work, and Dave was ranked by Glassdoor as Canada’s Highest Rated CEO, receiving a 99% approval rating. Glassdoor is an organization that allows employees to anonymously tell the world what it’s like to work where they work. Dave earned his place based on how employees feel about his leadership.

The thing that sets Dave apart as a leader, and especially as a CEO, is his humility. When I take a seat in Dave’s office, it becomes apparent just how humble he really is. His office is no more than five by five feet, just enough space to fit a small desk and two chairs. There’s nothing special about it. It’s utterly approachable and welcoming: much like the way Dave is with his employees. He works hard to remove barriers to communication, and no matter who you are or what your role is, you’re always welcome to have a conversation with Dave. “What I try to do is dispense my position as quickly as possible,” Dave says. “To have a good conversation, you just have to make people feel comfortable.”  

When asked specifically abC:\Users\E80035\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Outlook\RMIRZFLI\FullSizeRender (004).jpgout the role of communications in leadership and how to ensure success, Dave stresses the importance of being honest and genuine. “I think being a leader has a lot to do with being authentic. You have to be prepared to be open and a bit vulnerable,” he explains. “There are lots of times you may feel being honest isn’t the right thing, but it’s a very contrived situation when the truth isn’t the best answer.”

Uncovering people’s true feelings in the business world, can be difficult, especially when you’re the CEO. “I think a big part of getting clear opinions from people is in the selection process. As soon as you have a bunch of ‘yes people’ around the table, you’ve completely limited the company, and it will never be more than something that you can think of.”

To encourage open communication, Dave spends time helping team members to not only speak up but to also disagree with him. If an idea is suggested during a meeting that isn’t popular, Dave believes it’s always worthwhile to thank that person later for inviting a discussion that wouldn’t have taken place otherwise. “There’s unlimited potential for an organization that condones free thought. We can build on ideas and think of things we’d never come up with on our own.”

Dave also challenges the “banker” stereotype when it comes to the way he communicates with both customers and team members. “In this day and age, talking in a way that people are used to hearing—like the way they speak with friends and colleagues—is what stands out. We’re so used to hearing jargon from corporations that’s so mired and politically correct. For myself, I can’t pay any attention to the words when I’m reading that type of communication. I think what makes you noticed is just being forthwith and speaking the way that you’re comfortable speaking with yourself.”

Being an advocate of honest and open communication, Dave admits there have been occasions where he’s slipped up. “Humour is one of the ways I try to dispense my position and reduce tension. Every once in a while I’ll say something to be funny, and it may be taken the wrong way. But I’d much rather deal with the repercussions of making a mistake in what I meant to say than spending time crafting a fib.”

So what exactly does being a leader mean to Dave? “As the leader, you have to explain not how, but why we’re doing something, so everyone is clear on their roles and what the group is trying to achieve. The leader’s job is to continually talk with people and be clear about the goal.”

Dave’s quick to point out that we tend to over-manage our companies. “Lots of times, people mistake the management of tasks as leadership. That’s not it at all. People will self-manage their functional tasks. Communications of what the goal is and the strategies of how to achieve the goal—that’s leadership,” he describes. “If you make this clear and you’ve got the right people, the results will happen.”

Another observation from Dave is that leaders sometimes believe that because they’re in charge, they should solve every dilemma that comes their way. “If you start collecting all the problems, you can’t possibly manage them all on your own. One of the rules I have for myself is sharing every problem I have with at least one person. It’s a good way to relieve my own stress, and it gets the organization solving problems instead of myself.”

Lastly, Dave adds that being a great leader involves being vulnerable enough to show others your imperfections. “As parents, we always want to be perfect, but the real relationship comes when kids see we’re humans too. The same thing happens with leadership. Learning from your mistakes is valuable and not as awful as we tend to think it is. If you’re genuinely trying to do the right thing, people will see that.”

Jamie Bay is a Cause Marketing & Social Impact Manager at ATB Financial where she manages several philanthropic campaigns and programs and contributes to the company’s corporate social responsibility strategy. Jamie is passionate about cause-based marketing and its ability to strengthen an organization’s reputation while also contributing to the community. In addition to being a member and blogger for IABC, Jamie also sits on the Board of Directors for Momentum Walk-In Counselling and is on the communications committee for ATB’s New Opportunities for Women network. You can find Jamie on LinkedIn here.

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