Darryl White, CEO of the Bank of Montreal
Published by Speaking of Business Podcast on
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Goldy Hyder: Welcome to Speaking of Business, conversations with Canadian innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders. I’m Goldy Hyder, President and CEO of the Business Council of Canada. Today, I’m speaking with Darryl White, CEO of the Bank of Montreal, also known as BMO. Before I sat down with Darryl, I talked to a lot of his friends and colleagues. They all described him as a generous and thoughtful leader with a fierce competitive edge. As you’ll hear, he became CEO at a time of intense disruption in banking, while facing incredible adversity at home. In this wide ranging interview, he shares his outlook on competitiveness, global trade and the role of purpose in business. I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation.
Goldy Hyder: Great to see you, Darryl.
Darryl White: It’s nice to see you, Goldy.
Goldy Hyder: Thanks for doing this.
Darryl White: Happy to do it.
Goldy Hyder: Friday afternoon, that, too.
Darryl White: I’m always happy to talk to you, any afternoon.
Goldy Hyder: Well, we’ll see how you feel about that at the end of it all. Why don’t we start at the beginning. You’re one years old, as you were born in Scarborough and you moved to Montreal, so really you’re a Montreal-er at heart.
Darryl White: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Goldy Hyder: Take me through-
Darryl White: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Goldy Hyder: … the early days of growing up in Montreal, growing up in Quebec and talk about your family.
Darryl White: Well, I’m happy to. I had, what I thought about, then, and I think about now, as a fairly typical and great childhood. I grew up in a great family. I was the son of a school teacher mother and a father who worked in an industrial supply distribution business, a successful business based out of Montreal, and grew up doing what kids do. I was having a great time at home and playing sports and doing my best in school.
Goldy Hyder: What kind of sports did you play?
Darryl White: I wasn’t particularly great at any of them so I decided that diversification was the best thing to do, so I played lots of sports. But when you grew up in Montreal in the ’70s, one team tended to win the Stanley Cup a little more often than anybody else and so-
Goldy Hyder: Ouch.
Darryl White: … having that experience, h-
Goldy Hyder: Everybody else out there says, “Ouch.”
Darryl White: … having that experience, I’ll tell you, when you’re young and you don’t know any better, you expect that that’s what’s going to happen all the time, so you end up having a great time watching the Canadians in the ’70s and expecting that there’s going to be another Stanley Cup every year, so at some point, you probably convince yourself that you’re going to end up there yourself, but, of course, those things-
Goldy Hyder: Well, you did, right?
Darryl White: … don’t happen.
Goldy Hyder: You ended up as a Director of the Montreal Canadians board.
Darryl White: Well, I did in a very different way.
Goldy Hyder: Can’t play on the ice, you might as well play in the boardroom.
Darryl White: You got it. You got it.
Goldy Hyder: Let’s go back to, as you were growing up, lots of interesting things going on in Quebec. I mean, the FLQ crises would have happened. We’d been dealing with the whole sovereignty and Sovereignty-Association struggles. I mean, you were just a kid through all this, but any memories of that and I mean, how were you feeling at that time?
Darryl White: I was just a kid, so I can’t tell you that the way we think about these questions today is the way you think about them as a kid, but you asked me the question, “Do I have memories?” Actually, I do. I have vivid memories. I remember, in the communities that we lived in, people would spray paint on the wall, “Yes or no,” and that would be they’re way of advocating for the referendum vote that we had. And so, I remember, at the time, understanding a little bit about what was going on and asking questions about why these things were going on, and you do end up having profound memories of the experience. And also watching, having grown up in an English middle class family, but going French school-
Goldy Hyder: Right. You’re perfectly bilingual, right?
Darryl White: Yeah. Yeah, once in a while you find you could dust up a little bit, but for the most part, that’s true, and the reason that’s true, by the way, is because my parents had the foresight. They didn’t have to. They sent me to, not an immersion school, but a fully French school, so I grew up with kids from English mother tongue households, French mother tongue households, and you start to, very early, again, not really appreciating what’s going on at the time, but you start to understand that there are very different perspectives on the same issue. And that’s what that conversation was about, is about today, less so, but it’s also what Canada’s about, isn’t it? You start to learn that there are very, very different perspective. People can come from different perspectives as a result of their heritage or as a result of what their own parents think or believe or want. And so, yeah, I mean, you asked me the question whether I have memories of that. At the time, I probably thought that was just normal and happening everywhere-
Goldy Hyder: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Darryl White: … around the world, but it was really interesting that it was happening where I was and those memories are pretty vivid.
Goldy Hyder: Well, I’ll return to that. What did you want to be when you grew up? Say, you’re 12 years old. What were you thinking of doing with your life?
Darryl White: Oh, well, I think, like every 12 year old in Montreal, at the time I was-
Goldy Hyder: Starting center?
Darryl White: … Well, yeah, starting center? That would have been pretty good, but that wasn’t in the cards.
Goldy Hyder: Right. So, what was your first job?
Darryl White: My first job that anybody paid me for?
Goldy Hyder: Sure.
Darryl White: The first time I got-
Goldy Hyder: Those are usually the good jobs.
Darryl White: … The first time I ever got a paycheck, I was an orderly in the Montreal General Hospital. So, I was on point for everything from the medial jobs to responding to emergencies in the hospital and dealing with whatever needed to be dealt with. It was great. It was fantastic.
Goldy Hyder: All right. So, how does a kid who wanted to be the starting center for the Montreal Canadians end up as the CEO of the Bank of Montreal?
Darryl White: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t have a clear answer for you. I can tell you that I got into this business almost by accident. I didn’t really have a full appreciation of what I was getting into. I got into the business in the investment banking side of the business, and when I was finding my way into the workforce, I would say to a whole bunch of people, “I really don’t know what I want to do because I’m interested in sales. I’m interesting in finance. I’m interested, to some degree, in law and public policy, and in human behavior,” and that’s quite a range. And I did have somebody, one day, say to me, “You might want to try this investment banking advisory work.” So, I gave it a try and then I asked people I worked with then, “How do you succeed?”
Darryl White: And on fellow I worked for said, “If you’re hard-working and you’re loyal and you put the client at the center of everything you do, good things will probably happen.” And that’s something that I’ve always remembered and I put those guidelines around most of my tasks through the course of my career and here we are, but I can’t tell you it was because of any grand design, per se.
Goldy Hyder: I think this is a quote from you, but it reflects precisely what you may have just said, that as a CEO, you feel that you’re a part-time financial expert, a part-time accountant, a part-time lawyer, a part-time psychologist, and a part-time coach.
Darryl White: I think that’s exactly right. You’re always on. The pressure’s always on, but you do have to have the agility to move through that range of tasks and skills and values, and you have to do it every day.
Goldy Hyder: Is it lonely at the top, as they say?
Darryl White: No, I don’t think it is. I actually think that-
Goldy Hyder: Really?
Darryl White: … occasionally, a decision might be lonely because if there’s an impasse on the team, somebody has to call the shots and it’s a democracy until it’s not, but it’s not lonely at the top most of the time because, in my case, I have the benefit of an amazingly supportive board. I’ve got a management team that works around me that I’ve cultivated and worked with very carefully. We don’t agree on everything, but we have a very close and regular rhythm that we work through problems on. So, I would say, 90% of the time, the answer is, “No,” and then occasionally, you got to make a call on your own and that’s when it can be. But that’s not the norm.
Goldy Hyder: Do you struggle with those human decisions impacting people’s lives?
Darryl White: Talent decisions are the hardest decisions to make. If I think back to mistakes I’ve made, the largest ones are almost always around people, whether it be the wrong person in a certain chair or the wrong person, period. So, yes, how you develop people, how you develop your team, how you work together as a team, that’s really hard. And I think people talk about that a lot. I would say to you, over the course of my career, if there’s something that you just can’t invest enough in, it’s the file that we’re talking about, you and I right now, because the textbook doesn’t really get you there. The finance textbook’s really clear. There’s an answer. And on the issue of great talent management, I would say I spend more time on it than I do on anything else, and at the same time, the answer to your question a few minutes ago, is yes, it is something you always struggle with.
Goldy Hyder: Right. Now you’ve only been at this as CEO since 2017, late in 2017, I believe.
Darryl White: Yeah, it’s been 18, 19 months. Yep.
Goldy Hyder: 18, 19 months. You added the title, CEO, to what you were doing at BMO. When that happened, anything change for you? Did you look in the mirror the next morning and think, “Holy cow. I’m the CEO of Bank of Montreal”? How did you change as a person that day?
Darryl White: We spent a year with me in the COO position, which, in some ways, was training wheels. I would encourage this, by the way. It’s not the only ways to do things. There are other ways that could work for other organizations, but, for us, it worked very well. And I think that prepared me extremely well for the job, so I didn’t feel like the day my business card changed, that at midnight, I was walking into some complete unknown or worse, some abyss. But I’ve got to tell you, at the same time, your instinct to ask the question is right. It is different because everything that I’ve just told you says that you’re prepared, but there’s some cold shower element to it, right?
Darryl White: One of my peers said to me, “You think you know a lot about what a cold shower feels like. That’s great. But when it happens, it’s actually still pretty jarring, isn’t it?” And it is a little bit jarring, but when you prepare well, you skip that and you just get to work, and you get to work and you start to get the job done. And I like to say I love my job most of the time, and I do. I really do. I love my job most of the time, and there are times when it’s hard, and there are times where you wish you were doing something else, but that’s life.
Goldy Hyder: Starting center.
Darryl White: You have gone through that, too. Yeah, I don’t think that’s coming back.
Goldy Hyder: So, what has surprised you, stepping into this role?
Darryl White: For almost 25 years at this company, there were a lot of corners of the bank that I didn’t have direct exposure to. I had some familiarity with, some passing, some more deep, but intuitively, one might think, that there are big differences across the organization. You might think that, with an organization that has 50,000 people operating in 30 countries around the world, having built businesses sometimes organically, sometimes by acquisition, that you would find really different cultures or really different answers to questions when you go around and do your listening tours and ask, “What’s going well and what can we do better?” And when I went around and did that and spend, effectively, the first six months of my mandate, I was, I would say to you, Goldy, almost shocked at the consistency of the responses. “These are the things that are going well. These are the things that we need. These are the things that would go better.”
Darryl White: And that would be the same if I was in the Midwest of the U.S. or in Western Canada or in Europe or in a business that we acquired two years ago or a business that we’d been building for, in our case, our bank is 202 years old. And you’d think that it would be different and it’s not. So, my learning and my surprise was organizations have identities, don’t they? They really do. They take on identities, and this can be good and it can be bad because if it starts to go the wrong way, and the culture of the place spools itself up as an echo chamber, you have a problem to deal with. If the identity is a positive one and it’s values based, then you have an opportunity, actually, and particularly, in the day and age that we’re in and we can communicate more effectively and more quickly using all the channels that you have.
Darryl White: So, my big surprise was, “Wow. We have such an amazingly consistent world view and culture,” that the job is to figure out how to grasp it and figure out how to monetize it and make sure that you don’t allow any snowballing to take over because it can so easily.
Goldy Hyder: Well, we’ll come to the issue of disruption, but before I go there, you used a word, identity. Unfortunately, for you, you and I have a lot of common friends who know you very well. And so, I asked them about you.
Darryl White: Unfortunately for me.
Goldy Hyder: Yes, unfortunately for you. So, I asked them about you.
Darryl White: What lies did they tell you?
Goldy Hyder: Well, here’s the interesting thing. It’s like the bank. There’s a great amount of consistency on the range of people that I spoke to about you. And they said, “You will never meet a nicer guy. He’s just a genuinely good guy, but there’s another Darryl White, and he’s an intensely competitive guy.” And I was thinking about this. It’s kind of like an enforcer in hockey. Many enforcers are mean on the ice but they’re, many cases, the nicest people you’ll meet off it. How do you reconcile that dichotomy that, at least people see in you? Maybe you want to challenge that, but this is what people said about you.
Darryl White: I’ll take that. If that’s the assessment, I’ll take, it. I would say, I’ve always been a big subscriber to a value’s based system that says you play within the rules and you absolutely maximize your chance of winning within the rules. And so, I don’t have a view that competition and being a nice guy are at odds. I think that they’re completely aligned and that’s what I talk to my team about. We have rigorous discussions around our purpose as an organization, the work that we do for communities or customers or employees and aligning people around doing the right thing, and that’s not just popular. It’s actually real.
Darryl White: But at the same time, we have a job to do to compete against others and to deliver for our shareholders and, yeah, if that means that I can be a nice guy and competitive all at the same time, I think your research is fine. I’ll take that all day long.
Goldy Hyder: So, let’s move, as I said, to the actual disruption that banking is facing, and it’s not alone. There’s a book by Lou Gerstner, the CEO of IBM when probably you and I were students, and it was called, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Can BMO dance?
Darryl White: Yeah, it can. It can. As I mentioned earlier, Goldy, BMO’s 202 years old, so, in some respects, you can come to that question with the point of view, and I can assure you, some people do come to me with this point of view, and say, “Well, you have to understand, Darryl, that this is an institution of 202 years of finally tuned process and procedure and you’ve got to make sure that-
Goldy Hyder: Don’t mess with it.
Darryl White: … you understand that that’s the wiring and that wiring can cause you to go at a certain pace.” On the other hand, you mentioned fintech a couple minutes ago. By the way, I think fintech has been such a beautiful thing to motivate the financial institution’s space, writ large, has caused us all to be better. It’s caused us all to have our own fintech incubators and to get stronger. And this next comment I’m going to make is not just about fintech but it’s about innovation and challenging the past while honoring the past.
Darryl White: For example, when a group of us got together and said, “It’s taking us 30 days,” imagine this, “30 days to approve a small business loan.” So, you have a small business in Canada, the engine of economic growth in Canada. You need a half a million bucks, and we say to you, “Thank you. You’re package is complete. You’ve given us everything we need. We’ll be right back to you in 30 days.” Well, a couple bad things happen then, right?
Darryl White: First of all, it’s horrible customer service. Secondly, you actually end up getting the wrong customers because the good ones will self select to somebody who can do it in less than 30 days, which was pretty much everybody. So, we said, “Enough with 202 years of finely tuned procedures. Let’s figure out if we can take 30 days to 30 minutes.” And we did. We took it from 30 days to 30 minutes. So, that’s just one example. And you do that by having cross-functional teams at work with risk people and technology people and business people. You put them on it and you say, “We’re going to have a 10X outcome here, not just a marginal outcome.” So, we’re doing that type of work all-
Goldy Hyder: Driven by customer.
Darryl White: … driven by the customer need and the customer satisfaction. We’re doing that work all across the banks. You asked me, “Can BMO dance?” BMO can dance, and it is starting to dance. It just needs-
Goldy Hyder: Is it slow dancing or jiving or what’s it [crosstalk 00:16:48]?
Darryl White: Well, I don’t know what kind of dance it is, but one of the things I’ve learned is it just needs a good DJ, right? You can’t expect, necessarily, the machine to start moving all by itself, but when you get the right group of people on the dance floor and you get the right song playing, the answer’s, “Absolutely.”
Goldy Hyder: And you make some beautiful music. That great.
Darryl White: You sure can.
Goldy Hyder: So, one of the areas we explore, given who our listenership is, is leadership. So, let’s pivot to that. How do you define a successful leader?
Darryl White: The leaders that I’ve respected through the course of my career, have never been the prototypical command and control, paint-by-numbers leaders. It’s never worked for me, frankly, from a followership perspective, and so, when I look to what I think are great leaders today, they are collaborative, clear, able to set a north star and get people aligned to it, but not because, “I’m the leader and I said so,” because there’s a reason for it, there’s a purpose. We’re going to debate it. We’re going to understand it. We’re going to shake hands. In fact, we’re going to shake hands and have a blood pact that we’re going to get there together and, at the same time if things change circumstantially, if they weather patterns change, we’re going to get out an umbrella and we’re going to change some of the decisions that we’ve made. But we’re going to work together on the problems and that’s the way I’ve always been motivated as a follower.
Darryl White: I like to believe, on my best days, that’s the way I lead as well, and fundamentally, I think this is a really important question you’re asking because I think you’re asking the question that just goes way beyond business. Our little bank is not the prototype for your question. I think the world needs a lot more leadership. But, by the way, what I didn’t say and I didn’t intend, is it’s not just a bunch of people giving each other hugs and singing Kumbaya. Clear direction, clear outcomes, but how do we get there with the benefit of the team’s work. That’s the hardest thing to do, but it always drives the best outcomes.
Goldy Hyder: Well, we’ll come to the world because I’m saving the good stuff for the end. Surely, though, there may have been incidences in your life where you’ve had to make that decision contrary to the advice that you received. You’ve had to, not necessarily pull rank, but assert a decision because you had to be accountable for it. How do you manage when that happens? You know that you’re going against the grain, but it’s the right thing to do.
Darryl White: It’s very seldom that, when you have a group of people who are subject matter experts, that you’ll make a decision, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll have to make a decision if you’ve solicited the opinion of five people, and all five people said the same thing and you’re going to say, “Nah, I don’t think that’s the answer. I’m going-
Goldy Hyder: Let’s say it’s two-
Darryl White: … in a different direction.”
Goldy Hyder: … two and you’re the fifth.
Darryl White: But that’s what happens, right?
Goldy Hyder: Yeah.
Darryl White: If it’s two-two and you’re the fifth, to me, you have to go back to, “What’s the question we’re trying to answer?” One of the most difficult things that I think happens when teams try to solve problems is people go in the direction of the question they think they want to answer or they may have an agenda or they may have a proclivity or they may have a certain bias that they’re not even aware of. And when you are the split vote in a decision and you do have people who have different points of view, to me, you always have to recoil and ask yourself, “What are we trying to solve?” And if you’re very clear for yourself on what you’re trying to solve, and then you marry that up against what you’ve stated already as your objective, whether it’s for your family or your company or your country or whatever, then you can come to that decision a lot more clearly.
Darryl White: I find it gets really foggy when you don’t step back and say, “What are we really trying to accomplish here and does the decision of those two people further it or does the decision of those two people further it?” And then you can make your call. At the end of the day, you have to be accountable for your call, right?
Goldy Hyder: So, what keeps you up at night? Standard question, I know, but-
Darryl White: Two teenagers.
Goldy Hyder: Two teenagers?
Darryl White: Yeah, that’s what keeps me up at night, and a younger one to follow them along. Other than that, I actually sleep, I do, I sleep pretty well at night.
Goldy Hyder: I’m told you go to bed at 10:30 at night? Is that really true?
Darryl White: That is true. That’s a-
Goldy Hyder: 5:30 a.m. wake up?
Darryl White: … let’s just say those two numbers are approximately true.
Goldy Hyder: Approximately true.
Darryl White: It depends on the day or what time zone I’m in, but I give that my best shot. And, yeah, I, seriously, I do sleep pretty well. I worry about things just like you do, and another one that’s at the top of the list, and I think it’s at the top of a lot of people’s list, is cyber threat. And it’s not like I can solve any of that in the middle of the night, any night, so I go to sleep, and I wake up in the morning and we all work on it again, and there’s a whole list of things that you could spend a lot of time worrying about, but that’s a scary one these days.
Goldy Hyder: So, if you could go back in time and give your self a piece of advice, your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Darryl White: Breathe.
Goldy Hyder: Breathe.
Darryl White: My younger self-
Goldy Hyder: Sounds like a good recommendation.
Darryl White: … and my current self, and probably your current self, and probably a whole bunch of other people that you and I know. I would say, “You do need to take time to reflect. You do need to take time to breathe, as I said earlier, and that can manifest itself in small things and big things. Small things. Take that hour a day and figure out how to get your head out of the moment-to-moment work and decisioning. Make sure you take that vacation. I could have done a heck of a lot better job at that if I go back. And I always think about the fact that, on the airplanes, they always say, “If anything bad happens, God forbid, you make sure you put the mask on yourself before you put it on the other person because you can’t help others unless you take care of yourself.” So, I think we do have to remember that because we’re not going to be any good at these jobs if we don’t do that.
Goldy Hyder: That’s sound advice. Thank you. I mentioned the Montreal Canadian’s board of directors. What are learning from that and how does sports and business take the issue of leadership? Are there similarities?
Darryl White: Oh, there’s lots. There’s lots. I mean, it’s not just a guilty pleasure. It’s very interesting. First of all, I think it’s a fantastic franchise with a great leadership team and I’m privileged to be able to hang around, but you asked about similarities. Of course, I think there are lots, from competition to strategy, team building, as we talked about earlier, protecting a brand, figuring out how to work through more than the P&L, but the value system around the P&L. I think there’s all kinds of similarities.
Goldy Hyder: Now, I read that the bank investor calls and others, they focus in on productivity, and the productivity challenges of the bank. I would argue that Canada has productivity issues as well. Why do you think that’s the case and what can you do about it and what can we do about it?
Darryl White: I think that in the case of the national file, we have a responsibility, as business people, to assist our elected officials with productivity, and I think we could, collectively, do a lot better job of it. I think we have a lot to be proud of, but we also have an opportunity to influence policy and to help with process. And I’ll give you one example, Goldy.
Darryl White: It was amazing to us. We were scratching our heads at how unlikely it is that a small or medium sized business in Canada will turn its gaze to export markets. It doesn’t make sense. We’ve got great products. We’ve got great processes, and the federal government actually has pretty good-
Goldy Hyder: Support.
Darryl White: … support, and you could call it technology, to assist in the export development of a small business.
Goldy Hyder: Is that just laziness? What is that?
Darryl White: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s laziness, though. I do think, in some cases, it’s a lack of awareness, or it’s a lack of-
Goldy Hyder: That there’s a world out there beyond the United States?
Darryl White: No, but there’s a path to get there. There’s a path to get to that world-
Goldy Hyder: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Darryl White: … because it feels foreign and it feels exotic and maybe I shouldn’t even try. And so, as businesses, what can we do to help? As big businesses, what can we do to help little businesses? So, we said, in this case, “Well, we have this thing called distribution. We’re in just about every community in Canada with business bankers. The federal government, to go back to it, actually has a product, so they have a product and we have distribution, and why wouldn’t we put these two thoughts together and promote the federal government’s product through our distribution?” So, that’s exactly what we’re doing, and this is not, in and of itself, going to change the productivity challenge in Canada, but I think if all of us, as business people, started to think about, “How can we plug into this equation?” either through influence on policy or practical solutions on outcomes like this one, we start to make a difference. Where we don’t make a difference, is just by sitting back and throwing stones and saying, “We have a productivity problem.”
Goldy Hyder: Right.
Darryl White: ”Somebody else fix it.”
Goldy Hyder: It’s critical to our economy. It’s critical to our own growth as a business to get these SMEs to diversify because the diversification strategy government has is not just about the large entities.
Darryl White: No.
Goldy Hyder: Many of these companies, certainly the business council members, are already global.
Darryl White: The large ones have figured it out and have the sophistication and the resourcing, in fact, to do it. What we need to do is get the-
Goldy Hyder: Take them by the hand.
Darryl White: … the small businesses, which by the way, represent 90% of the employment growth in the country… This is where we should be investing. So, if we can take them by the hand, as you say, and help, we should do that, but it’s not government pointing this way and big business pointing this way. We need to hold hands and do it.
Goldy Hyder: Now, you and I were in Davos together back in January, and I think one of the takeaways from this year’s session was the realization that while the business community has largely moved on, 10 years later, from 2008, a lot of the public hasn’t. There’s still a lot of anger about 2008, and that is really the source of so much angst, and the protests we see from the yellow vests and the rise of the right and Occupy a little while ago. What can we do to speak to people’s angst and demonstrate to them that, “We hear you.” We, as in business, what can we do?
Darryl White: First of all, I think it’s critical that we do because I think that the rise of the populous opinion that says that establishment is bad, that big business is bad and that it is not anywhere near a noble pursuit to go and try and attach yourself to, whether it be, government or big academia or at worse, big business, and, Oh my, God, a bank.
Goldy Hyder: And worse would be a bank.
Darryl White: I think this is really dangerous. I actually do think it’s very dangerous because you and I could analytically figure out, in about five minutes, what the world would look like if these institutions went away, and it would be horrible. It would drive people into poverty and it would have outcomes that would be catastrophic in so many cases, but nobody really wants to hear me say that. And so, I think, as a business community, we have a responsibility, in fact, to do a much better job explaining the virtue of what we bring to the communities. And at the business council, you and I have so many colleagues who do so much great work for the communities, whether it be in philanthropic work and the money they give or the development of people or the pursuit of the diversity agendas or the development of communities that we invest in and we try and rise up, not just by throwing paychecks, but literally investing by having sleeves rolled up and fingernails dirty.
Darryl White: I think we have a responsibility to do a much better job fixing the brand of big business and if we expect that somebody’s just going to figure it out because they’re going to go and do a case study or someone else is going to come along and do it for us, we’re foolish. And I know we don’t, but I think we have a responsibility to speak up, but to speak up in a way to say, “We hear you. We understand why you’re angry. To some extent, that is justified, but look at all this, and this is what we’re here to do, and if it weren’t for global trade, the world’s poverty level would be approximately twice what it is right now.” Now that’s analytically proven. Who’s talking about that? Nobody’s talking about that.
Darryl White: And if people just get up, people like you and me get up, and talk about their own product or their own service or their own share price, and have nothing else to say, we’ll not solve this problem. In fact, it’ll get worse and I worry about it a lot.
Goldy Hyder: And short term-ism is part of that problem, right? Between businesses and government focused on their quarterly cycle or their electoral-
Darryl White: Or their election, yeah.
Goldy Hyder: … cycle, how can we and business and government work together to provide that leadership because I think we’re missing the vicious cycle of this. All that anger and all that angst being spued out against big business and elites and all of the institutions, you’d destroy, as you just said, all of that. Forget the angst. You’re going to have a lot a lot worse problems to deal with and yet, business and government is going to be asked to solve that problem, too. What can we do to prevent it from becoming that?
Darryl White: It’s a big challenge. First of all, not talking to each other is a problem. And so, for the most part, I would observe, we do a good job, big business and government, talking to each other, but certain times, we just go back to our corners, don’t we? And we’re guilty in business and government’s guilty in government, at times, of that. But we also have to recognize that in short bursts, you talk about short term-ism, we could actually be at odds in this conversation because if a government is focused on election and if the popular opinion is not aligned with business, government may not be that interested in a conversation that’s supportive of big business from a public narrative perspective.
Darryl White: And so, I think this is something that you have to take a long view on. I think we, collectively, have to take a long view on how do we ensure… facts matter a lot, and how do we ensure that there are better facts in the hands of government, in the hands of business and academia, by the way as well. I think that part of the triangle is really important and I think the ability of some, not many, but some can poison a well. Some academics to poison the well on this conversation isn’t productive, and I think we, at business, have a responsibility to make sure that facts are better understood.
Goldy Hyder: You just referenced earlier community and social good. There’s been a lot of pressure mounting from your shareholders and others, such as Larry Fink at BlackRock and Jamie Dimon and just the pressure that’s coming now to say, “We have to do a better job on purpose.” I think we agree that’s a great thing or it’s a good thing. What are you doing about that at the bank, specifically?
Darryl White: Okay, so when people talk about profit and purpose being at odds, I think that’s hogwash. I think it’s absolutely absurd because we can’t further a purpose without the profit because we don’t have the funding, and we can’t get to the profit without the social license to operate. So, here, you asked me specifically, what we talk about here is growing the good in business and life. What does that mean? We have a responsibility to grow. We have a responsibility to surround it with what is good in our bank, with our customers, with our communities, with our shareholders, with our employees, and we say that’s not just in business. It’s in business and it’s in life. And so that means we take all of this very seriously. We don’t believe that it’s anywhere near at odds with our responsibility to shareholders to deliver the best outcomes that we can, and we challenge our management team every single day on how those two concepts can coexist. And we’re going to get louder on this. We’re going to get a lot louder.
Goldy Hyder: On what kinds of issues?
Darryl White: On community issues. When you look at the work that we’re doing, for example, in Toronto, on inclusive economic growth, which we’ve sponsored in a very active way, not just with dollars, but with people. We’re convening tables of business leaders. We hope to literally raise the standard of living of communities as a result of this, business-led. We’re not doing that because the 20 business leaders that I called to come around that table expect that they’re going to end up with more customers as a consequence of it, but if they have a healthier community, they certainly have a better prospect for their own children.
Darryl White: We’re doing it in other ways through the promotion of inclusivity for minority groups, the promotion of the gender agenda, which we are so far advanced on, but we have so far to go.
Goldy Hyder: That’s really important to you. I know that, personally. Where does that come from?
Darryl White: I have two daughters and I do believe, if I go back to the early part of my career, and I look at whether or not the opportunity for somebody who was doing exactly the same job as me and performing in exactly the same was the same as mine, and I don’t believe it was. I think that there were just too many obstacles and too many barriers and the fact that the men were outnumbering the women by such a substantial margin back then, and I’m going way back, made it really difficult. I think it really made it very difficult. And so, yeah, I do believe that the best person should have the job, but I don’t believe that, mathematically, that outcome should ever end up being at the senior level of an organization really skewed because how can it be that people enter an organization and the ration is 50/50, but by the time you get to the top, it’s 85/15 which, by the way, is generally the statistic that you would have seen up until a few years ago.
Darryl White: So, I’m pretty proud of where we are. We’re not done yet. By the way, we’re at 40% of our senior leaders in the bank are women and we’re well over a third of our board of directors, and we’ve got more work to do on it. So, yes, yes, I’m pretty proud of that but, as I said, we’re not at end of job.
Goldy Hyder: Where does climate change fit into this? I mean, you hear about it every day. It’s smart policies. It makes for good business. What’s BMOs outlook on the impact of climate change?
Darryl White: Yeah, it’s probably the issue of our day, and when you look at the impact on businesses, plural, it’s not something that might impact business in 5 to 10 years. I mean, it’s already there. And we see it in so many ways. We have, in our asset management business, we have funds based in Europe that are entirely predicated on figuring out ways to mitigate climate change, attract dollars, attract investments against it. So, it’s real, and it’s a big challenge. We’ve been carbon neutral here for a very long time, and we are trying very hard to direct dollars, large dollars, towards sustainable finance and sustainable energy. So, we have a role to play. We’re not bystanders watching this. It’s a big deal, as you know.
Goldy Hyder: We talked about the world, as I said. It’s really complicated out there these days. You were recently talking about China. You were talking about trade and USMCA. Your bank strategy, largely growth, is occurring, a big part of it is occurring in the United States. What advice do you have for those who are trying to make sense of this world and getting ready to enter a workforce and getting ready to contribute? How would you go about doing that today in a place that’s just so messy?
Darryl White: Yeah, it is messy. And, well, let’s go the U.S. first and then we can come back to China if that makes sense. I’ve said this before, Goldy. I think the Canadian, U.S. trading relationship is the most successful trading relationship in the history of modern commerce. It’s in balance, goods, and services. Fundamentals. I’m a big believer that, over time, fundamentals prevail, and I think that relationship, over the course of electoral cycles and economic cycles, will always be as strong as just about any in the world. That’s a prediction I’m very confident in, and, like any good family with cousins who like each other most of the time, there are going to be some spats once in a while. But over the course of time, it’ll stick together, and it’ll be extraordinarily strong and both countries will benefit from it as they have for a very long time.
Darryl White: When you get outside of North America, of course, it’s a more complex equation, but I would say, at the end of the proverbial day, I believe, there as well, that fundamentals do prevail. And people will act in their mutual best interest ultimately, after having gone through a process to get what they finally can convince themselves is the best they can get for themselves. And if you go to trade agreements with China, for example, I’d predict that we will have a trade agreement with China. I won’t tell you when, and I won’t tell you how. I think there’ll be lots more volatility between now and then to get there, but I think we absolutely will. When I say, “We,” I’m speaking for the Americans here.
Darryl White: And I think that we’re probably at peak disruption right now in terms of the reversion against globalization. I think what we’ll see over the course of time is a return towards a globalist agenda, but we’ve got to get through this, right? And it’s going to take a little bit more time, and it’s going to take some parties to eat a little bit of crow and then we’ll be on to the fundamentals, which will drive the outcomes.
Goldy Hyder: Same for China?
Darryl White: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely same for China. China’s been such an important trading partner of Canada’s, well, since diplomatic relations were restored in 1970, and it’ll continue to be, in my view, but we’ve got a period here that we’ve got to get through to get that back on track. And so, when I look at China, when I look at the U.S., I don’t think, in five years from now, we’re going to be looking at a situation where we’re all sitting in a corner, sucking our thumbs. I think we’re going to look back and say we’ve solved some problems and we’ve moved on.
Goldy Hyder: All right. As we come to the end, let’s just do a quick rapid fire on some of these very quickly, just so that I can get them out. How do you relax?
Darryl White: I-
Goldy Hyder: You don’t, it sounds like.
Darryl White: … You take that long pause.
Goldy Hyder: Yeah, exactly.
Darryl White: I was trying to figure out whether there’s an answer to your question. No, I try-
Goldy Hyder: Who’s going to call you out on the answer?
Darryl White: … I try to get a little bit of exercise in everyday and-
Goldy Hyder: But you’re not a marathoner? You haven’t climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro like all-
Darryl White: Nah, no-
Goldy Hyder: … all these other CEOs tend to do?
Darryl White: … I’m not that serious.
Goldy Hyder: All right. Good.
Darryl White: I just try and get a little exercise in everyday-
Goldy Hyder: All right.
Darryl White: … and I try and hang out with family and friends-
Goldy Hyder: Well, you look great.
Darryl White: … as much I could.
Goldy Hyder: You look great. How do you learn?
Darryl White: Asking a lot of questions.
Goldy Hyder: What gives you the biggest rush?
Darryl White: Solving problems with a group of people.
Goldy Hyder: How do you manage stress?
Darryl White: Get to the gym.
Goldy Hyder: Okay, now I saw this as the answer already, but you were asked [Habs 00:39:22], Leafs, Raptors.
Darryl White: TFC.
Goldy Hyder: Yeah, what is that? Where does that come from?
Darryl White: Well, look at the name on the field, man.
Goldy Hyder: I suppose.
Darryl White: It’s fantastic.
Goldy Hyder: All right. Look, I want to get to a subject I think is important, and that is that the perception that people have is, “What could possibly be wrong in this guy’s life?” Anybody I meet with in our membership, it’s, like, “Surely, to goodness, they’ve had a straight line up. It was easy to get to where you got to. There was not adversity in your life.” Yet, I know that to not be true. You’ve been through lots of things in your life.
Darryl White: Yep. Nobody’s had an easy go. In my case, I’ve been profoundly impacted by an early death in the case of my brother. Cancer took my, arguably, closest friend. My wife had cancer last year. She had leukemia.
Goldy Hyder: Well, I met her and you introduced me to her and she spoke to me about that. That’s the reason I’m asking you this question.
Darryl White: Yeah, for 10 months and we had the scare of our lives there, and she’s in great shape right now, so it’s fantastic.
Goldy Hyder: What did you learn about yourself through that?
Darryl White: Well, when I said to you earlier, one of the things that I, in particular, and I think many people ought to do is breathe, is you get a lot of perspective because there are a lot of problems that we try and knock down every day and we tend to think that they’re big problems. When you have a problem like this, you know what a big problem is. And so, you focus all your attention on solving that big problem as a team. I would tell you, in our case, our family unit ended up being better off for it as we came through it as a team, and then you go back and look at all these other problems that you previously thought were-
Goldy Hyder: Monumental.
Darryl White: … burning fires, and they’re not. They’re embers.
Goldy Hyder: Sure.
Darryl White: They’re embers that you can put out on your own. So, it does teach you a lot about perspective.
Goldy Hyder: She told me you were unbelievable through all of this and that you were a rock, and that it happened at a time when you were literally taking on this role. Really, how did you do it?
Darryl White: Oh, well, it was-
Goldy Hyder: I mean, you have the kids at home. She had to be a way a lot.
Darryl White: Yep.
Goldy Hyder: Right?
Darryl White: You have to do two things. You have to establish your priorities and then you have to figure out what your support model is to get behind those priorities, and these are times where, in a bit of a geeky way, your business training comes into play because you develop a plan and you figure out how to execute it. So, I knew right away that my priorities were to be with her, and she was hospitalized for 33 nights, consecutively, and I was there, she reminds me, every night but one. And so, what did I do to accommodate for that? You have to figure out what your support model is at home and-
Goldy Hyder: Family.
Darryl White: … we had family and friends and people who could take over and help us with lots of driving and things like that. We have three young kids. And at work, I ended up, I was two weeks completely away from work, but with a phone nearby, and I had an unbelievably supportive executive team and board through that period. And then, for the two weeks that followed, we were very lucky where we live in Toronto, and the resources that we have. I was back and forth to a hospital with a two kilometer distance, one point to the next, so it was all, in the end, quite manageable. And then we went through seven months of treatment on an inpatient basis after that, and you’re called to action so you figure out how to juggle, but if you don’t know what your priorities are in the first place and you don’t know how to line up your support model behind it, we wouldn’t have done a very good job.
Goldy Hyder: Day one, your day ended after you had done a full day. I think you had done media. You’d met your staff. You’d met your clients, and then you went to parent-teacher interviews. How do you do the work/life balance-
Darryl White: Man, you are-
Goldy Hyder: … or what some people call work/life [crosstalk 00:43:10]?
Darryl White: … man, you are well researched. You have some scary sources. You know what? You have very good people to support you, right? And I think that the ability to stay organized and stay focused. You have to have great people supporting you. I’m very fortunate in that. I have a great staff. And, Goldy, it’s the same in your job. I know it. You have to say, “No,” to a lot of things because of you were-
Goldy Hyder: No, what’s that?
Darryl White: You have to say, “Absolutely-
Goldy Hyder: I hear you.
Darryl White: … not,” to a lot of things-
Goldy Hyder: Yeah, I hear you.
Darryl White: … because they demand exceeds reasonable human supply by a factor of 10, some weeks by a factor of 100. So, you have to really understand where your priorities are and what you’re not going to do.
Goldy Hyder: Now, you mentioned your late brother, and I saw you describe him as a role model for you. Tell me why?
Darryl White: Because he had an ability to bring people together and to bring an element of compassion and empathy to just about any situation that he walked into that I really had never seen, and still haven’t seen in very many people.
Goldy Hyder: Do you mind if I ask what happened?
Darryl White: Sure. You can ask what happened. It was a tragic accident, actually. My brother was a pilot and he was flying a plane in Africa and that plane didn’t make its journey that day.
Goldy Hyder: So, last week, a very similar thing happened to a Canadian pilot in Honduras. How hard is it for you to have to relive it, given how often these things happen?
Darryl White: You never get over these things, but you learn to live with it. So, you think about all the other benefits of your life and whether you’ve been able to take something positive out of it, but I don’t think anybody who has gone through things like this could ever say to you, “Yeah, I’m over it and these things don’t come back.” They don’t come back. You just figure out how to live with it.
Goldy Hyder: Well, something tells me he’s living through you. I bet you he’s pretty proud of you.
Darryl White: Well, that’s nice of you to say.
Goldy Hyder: All right. You may or may not know this, but we end our podcasts with a little word game. I say a word and you say the first thing that comes to mind.
Darryl White: Oh, I don’t know this. This sounds like fun. The first thing that comes to mind?
Goldy Hyder: The first thing that comes to mind.
Darryl White: All right.
Goldy Hyder: Quebec.
Darryl White: Home.
Goldy Hyder: Banking.
Darryl White: Fantastic.
Goldy Hyder: Disruption.
Darryl White: Important.
Goldy Hyder: Leadership.
Darryl White: Critical.
Goldy Hyder: Debt.
Darryl White: Reasonable to a point. That was more than one word.
Goldy Hyder: That’s all right. Everybody cheats on this one. Charity.
Darryl White: Undervalued.
Goldy Hyder: Trump.
Darryl White: Entertainment.
Goldy Hyder: Family.
Darryl White: Most important thing of all.
Goldy Hyder: Canada.
Darryl White: Wonderful place.
Goldy Hyder: Well, you’re wonderful. Thank you for doing this.
Darryl White: Terrific. Thanks, Goldy.
Goldy Hyder: Thanks, again, to Darryl White of BMO, for sharing his story on this episode of Speaking of Business. Subscribe now for more conversations with Canada’s top innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders. Search Speaking of Business wherever you find podcasts or visit speakingofbiz.ca, that’s biz with a zed, to join our email list and follow us on social media. Until next time, I’m Goldy Hyder.
Darryl White is CEO of the Bank of Montreal. Before Goldy sat down with Darryl he talked with a lot of his friends and colleagues. They all described him as a generous and thoughtful leader with a fierce competitive edge. He became CEO at a time of intense disruption in banking, while facing incredible adversity at home.
In this wide-ranging interview he shares his outlook on competitiveness, global trade, and the role of purpose in business.