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Leadership in the time of COVID: CPAs tell their stories

The pandemic posed unprecedented hurdles to organizations of all sizes. Here are some of the unique situations senior leaders have faced—and how they responded

Diverse group of businesspeople having team meetingFor many organizations, the pandemic required a total rethinking of the services they provided, and how (Getty Images/Tom Werner)

Every day, organizations are facing new leadership challenges as they continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19. From coping with changing government requirements to delivering on new customer demands, they are making decisions at speeds that would have been unheard of just a little over a year ago. 

Here are some of the unique challenges and circumstances leaders have confronted so far—and some of the lessons learned—as seen by CPAs serving in senior roles in a variety of sectors, from health care to the federal public service.* 


Unlike other crises, the onset of the pandemic was not a single event that could be dealt with in isolation, so a different mindset was required to deal with it, says CPA Colleen Purdy, CFO and VP of corporate services for Alberta Health Services (AHS). 

She notes that, in the past, Alberta has had a couple of tornadoes and large fires that required quick responses that might have lasted three weeks or a month. “But, with the pandemic, the response needed to be ongoing,” says Purdy. “Also, it affected the whole province, the whole health care system—not just one part.”


The need to be nimble is a theme that runs through all COVID-related experiences and TELUS was and is no exception. CPA Claudia Roszell, VP risk management and chief internal auditor at the company, points out that her team had already begun to communicate actively with management about this emerging risk months before it appeared on the radar for most. “We are used to unprecedented change, so this was a case where we were again showcasing our ability to anticipate and make decisions quickly,” she says.

Similarly, CPA Arun Thangaraj, associate deputy minister at Transport Canada, says the pandemic highlighted “some of the best of the public service” in terms of how it responds to very complex situations. “Early on, we realized that the speed with which the pandemic was unfolding was going to outstrip our capacity to deliver needed services unless we were bold enough to make very informed evidence-based decisions. So that agility really helped in the response.”


Given the sheer size of the federal public service and the fact that it is so dispersed across the country and around the world, managing its needs is a major task even in normal times. But as Thangaraj notes, the pandemic created a critical management challenge.

“We needed to serve the public while nurturing a workforce that was going through very rapid transition,” he says. “We had to become digitally enabled, roll out new tools, and serve the public while at the same time being very conscious of the very unique situation the public service was and is in.” 


Given the speed at which decisions had to be made, it was critical for the finance team to really know the business. As Thangaraj explains, “You cannot pivot unless you really understand what the business objectives are.”   

The need to be risk-savvy was also top of mind. “The pandemic introduced a whole new set of risk parameters,” says Thangaraj. “And as I said to staff, ‘You don’t drive a car using your rearview mirror.’ You to be very forward looking at what the new risks on the horizon might be.” 


For AHS, as for many organizations, the pandemic required a total rethinking of the services they provided and how. “We needed to look at what we didn’t already have, such as assessment centres and testing. And we needed to prepare for what might be needed,” says Purdy. “So there was a lot of pivoting that needed to be done, a lot of resources that needed to be redeployed to those new areas of service, a lot of decisions that needed to be made about what services we could put on hold.”


Paradoxical as it might initially seem, being physically apart meant building closer connections between leaders and employees. As Purdy puts it, “The transition to remote work really helped us as leaders understand our people as whole people. With Zoom meetings, you see into people’s homes and that in turn created a greater sense of family.” Thangaraj agrees: “Maybe that virtual connection created some openness in terms of thinking how we can support each other.” 

The events of 2020 also shed light on the significant social inequities—including anti-Black racism—that exist both here in Canada and internationally. And this added to leaders’ awareness of the need for inclusivity. “Leaders are much more multifaceted now,” says Thangaraj. “We realize we cannot make good decisions quickly if people don’t have an adequate voice.”


Just as the pandemic brought a greater connection with employees, so too it brought  an even greater emphasis on an organization’s responsibility toward society and the planet.

As Roszell explains, “Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is going to be key in the future, and TELUS has had a tremendous focus on social purpose for years. For example, it has established the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation and has community boards in all the regions where we operate.” 

At AHS, social purpose is taking the form of a movement from illness to wellness. “It’s the notion of prevention—of seeing what we can do for people before they need the acute care system while still making sure the hospitals are there when you need them,” says Purdy.


It’s perhaps not by chance that the cumulative effects of the pandemic may bring enduring changes to the entire notion of leadership. 

“The leader of the future is going to be very different in terms of what we thought they would be several months ago. And I think you’ve seen that in the public sector, private sector and not-for profits,” says Thangaraj. “All organizations will require a shift in leadership as we move forward. Personally speaking, I think I have changed for the better because I am more aware of the interconnectedness between the internal and external facets of our organization. And I’ve got a much better sense of how fragile all the things we took for granted really are.”


Interested in honing your leadership skills? Tune into CPA Canada’s six-part video series, Future-focused leadership insights, or join us for the annual The ONE conference + Expo with an exciting new format and new speakers being added regularly. The theme for 2021 is “Succeeding in a new reality.”

Also, find out more about how CPAs can contribute to ethical decision making in an era of complexity and digital change by viewing an international, virtual roundtable event recording (available on demand) featuring Charles-Antoine St-Jean, CPA Canada’s president and CEO. You can also share your experience on ethical leadership by participating in our online discussion with guest moderators Brian and Laura Friedrich on our digital engagement platform.

*This article is inspired by a panel session at The ONE last year entitled “Leadership stories: navigating unprecedented change.”