Bell Canada’s Mary O’Hara Connects the Workforce to Learning

Mary O’Hara, vice president of people development for Bell Canada, takes a holistic approach to the learning curve for Canada’s largest communications company. Pride, trust, intuition and more lead to performance excellence.

Name: Mary O’Hara

Title: Vice President, People Development

Company: Bell Canada Enterprises


  • Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning Gold Award recipient in 2004 for Bell Canada’s Virtual Leadership Centre.
  • Brandon Hall Excellence in E-Learning Gold Award recipient in 2003.
  • More than 70,000 registrations achieved in 12-month period, representing more than 14,000 individual users to Bell Canada’s online curriculum. This resulted in productivity and cost savings of more than $16 million.
  • Recognized in Executive Development Association (EDA) Best Practice Benchmarking on Integrated Talent Management at Bell Canada.

Learning Philosophy:
“Learning in an organizational context has to be intimately linked to the business strategy. When there is rigor in that integration, and there is a philosophical point of view that exists that all parts of an organization need to understand the business priorities and be attended to in a unique and relevant way based on both their needs and those of the business, then magic can happen.”

As vice president of people development for Bell Canada Enterprises Corporate Services, Mary O’Hara is thoroughly concerned with things such as pride, trust, intuition and conversations about the fundamental beliefs in an organization that will lead to performance excellence, talent management and accelerated organizational capability. O’Hara’s holistic take on the learning curve at Bell Canada is inculcated with a focus on leadership that she believes will maintain the 125-year-old company’s top position as Canada’s largest communications company.

O’Hara began her career as an HR generalist and subject-matter expert in compensation and benefits in the packaging and printing industry. There she was exposed to different business segments and some training work. Later, she joined an entrepreneurial, family-owned company called Cott Beverages. Cott quickly evolved into a public company operating in 13 countries worldwide, and O’Hara was able to explore the gamut of HR functions including compensation, relocation, immigration, talent, performance and labor relations. She then joined the operations organization at Bell Canada, helped integrate several business units and launched a spin-off company. Her eight-year tenure at the company, three of which she has spent as vice president of people development, has helped grow specific business acumen, as well as a general understanding of how to make money and connect with the right people in the right place at the right time, acting in the right way.

“From a mission point of view, we are about accelerating the organization’s capabilities and ensuring that we make a strategic investment in our people that will position Bell in a way that’s distinctive and successful in the marketplace,” O’Hara said. “In particular, we believe that leadership is the centerpiece of the change that we are experiencing in our industry, in our company and, generally speaking, across North America and beyond in terms of disruptive technology, innovation and competitiveness, etc.”

People development at Bell Canada has several accountability contact areas, including organizational excellence, leadership excellence, performance excellence and career excellence. “We design and deliver learning and development programs that cut across the enterprise, but we focus on transformation types of programs,” O’Hara said. “We really work to reinforce the desired company culture through all of the products, services and activities that we get involved in, and provide general coaching in our areas of expertise.”

These transformation programs begin with interactive and sincere discussions about Bell Canada’s commitment to build core leadership competencies at all levels of the organization in order to achieve desired business results. “We’re working particularly on the issue of pride, and pride has a lot to do with trust in leadership and confidence in the direction that the company is taking,” O’Hara said. “We’re spending a lot of time helping people better understand what is pride, and how you, as a leader at the front line and at various levels of the business, have an accountability to build pride, instill it, motivate employees and encourage an emotional commitment to the business and to the company. We believe that it is a learnable leadership capability. It’s a little unconventional in that it focuses on a neck-down conversation as opposed to a neck-up conversation. Tapping into your intuitiveness and understanding your orientation—is it self-oriented or is it others-oriented? When you have a better sense of those kinds of things and the impact that you can have, you get alignment. You build support networks amongst your colleagues, get results and create new habits.”

Bell People First is a transformational program operating on the fundamental premise that it’s better to first look within the company and give people an opportunity to reskill when they are in declining parts of the business, moving individuals to growth businesses where possible. “We have targets around that annually,” O’Hara said. “Through the pride initiative, we’ve tried to identify individuals who exhibit the types of behaviors that are pride-building both locally and institutionally, and get those individuals to pay it forward by creating communities of practice and expanding that network in our business.”

Bell Canada has other transformational initiatives for performance excellence, involving change management, development planning and assessment processes. O’Hara said these have to be instilled in the business along with leadership so that the “what” and the “how” align. “There has been a real absence of conversation in organizations in general around the performance required to get to particular results,” O’Hara said. “What is it that we need to see and hear from you? What are the indicators that we would see and hear in the system to know that you’re really nailing those outcomes in the way that we want to nail those outcomes?”

The “whats” are outcomes to achieve and the objectives that will take you there. ‘How’ is the performance required to get to those results, but O’Hara said there is no magic-bullet solution to address these critical challenges. “It requires intensity and consistency of focused communication—dialogue about the fundamental beliefs that are lined up in your organization,” she explained. “It’s about assessing talent against a different benchmark that says your brand is about more than the results you deliver. Your brand is also about how you deliver those results, and that gets taken down to an individual level. If you were to look at our senior leadership team, our executives, in the last couple of years we’ve spent an enormous amount of time and effort really being clear around the behaviors specific to those executives who are leading the transformational change in our business, assessing them against those attributes and helping them to develop very specific individual plans to close gaps and bring strengths to a level of excellence.”

Additionally, O’Hara said the rest of organization must develop one rallying point to anchor everything to leadership-edge attributes, such as partnering, simplifying, creating outcomes and having a winning mindset. “Every single person in our company is evaluated on those leadership-edge attributes, and they form 50 percent of your performance rating,” O’Hara said. “They’re inculcated into our annual performance cycle and linked into our annual incentive program. We’ve also done a lot of work specifically inculcating that set of attributes into our leading curriculum and building that into action learning—the dialogue that we have very specifically in those leadership programs, communication and coaching skills so that others can learn how to teach others these kinds of behaviors.”

This holistic, integrated talent management strategy or people strategy flows directly from Bell Canada’s business strategy. “That’s the hinge pin,” O’Hara said. “The business strategy is really about transforming the company, fundamentally changing the way that we operate.”

O’Hara has made definite changes. Nancy Nazer, director of organizational development for Bell Canada Enterprises Corporate Services, was a part of people development before O’Hara became a vice president, and can point to specific programs implemented since she joined the team, such as Leadership in Action, which launched in January 2004. “Mary has played a key role,” Nazer said. “It has been her vision to establish this program and many other initiatives, such as Leadership Essentials, but this one has been getting quite outstanding feedback from our employee base. The target audience is manager/director-level employees. The design of the program was Mary’s insight: to combine and use a model of Bell leaders teaching other leaders. Every month she’s very engaged in kicking off these sessions. It’s a two-day forum. She’s there teaching the various components in combination with other experts that we bring in who have expertise in areas such as coaching, change management and shifting mindset. We also engage other Bell executives who come in and share their personal leadership stories. The program is not just designed to shift awareness. It’s to shift behavior, and when she starts the sessions she really reinforces the ‘how’ we need to get there, the behavioral changes we need to make, and not just focus on the end results. How do we push people to the edge and take them to a different level of awareness to shift their mindset and bring about change in the organization?”

O’Hara and her team measure high-impact programs, with specific objectives for behavior and business impact. “In leadership, we correlate behavior change tools like 360, look at that in relation to individuals who invested in training education and action learning experience,” O’Hara said. “Are those people seen as strategic or next-generation talent? How does that correspond to the 50 percent of their performance assessment that’s anchored back to how they’ve gotten things done? Is there change in their 360 data? Are the people around them seeing differences, and are we as an organization feeling those people any differently?”

O’Hara’s next projects will introduce and reskill the Bell Canada workforce to utilize Internet protocol (IP) technology, as Bell grows and rewrites the company’s cost structure, and changes the expense profile. Bell Canada will push a customer-focused attitude to force the organization to be clear, have the right people in the right jobs at the right time, anchor leadership- edge attributes, integrate talent management and performance, and ultimately accelerate growth. “It’s about being sure that where you’re investing absolutely flows from your business strategy,” O’Hara said. “We’re clearly being smart about taking an integrated approach. We’re certainly maximizing e-learning. We’re definitely leveraging competency management and being sure that we’re matching skill development and resource allocation, but we want to have the right balance of knowledge, skill and behavior. It’s not an isolated view; it’s a holistic view to leverage learning for business impact.”

—Kellye Whitney,

May 2005 Table of Contents