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Brock McDonald-Building the System Around Your Strategy

By Anthony Taylor - September 14, 2017

In this episode of our Strategy and Leadership Podcast, Brock McDonald, the CEO of the Recycling Council of BC, joined us to chat about strategic planning, team building, establishing partnerships and leading initiatives within a non-profit environmental organization. Brock has worked with the Recycling Council of BC since 2003 where their mission is to minimize and eventually eliminate waste. 

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During our interview, Brock chatted with us about:

  • The importance of strategic partnerships between different organizations, especially when working with limited budgets. 
  • Understanding what motivates your team and what their values are. This can help retain employees, foster their growth, and create alignment with your people that will help your organization reach its goals. 
  • Learning the benefits of employee retention, such as increased profits, years of accumulated knowledge, and better service for your clients and stakeholders.
  • Making it a priority to understand what's going on both within and outside of your industry that may have direct or indirect impacts on your organization. 
  • Looking at strategy as an agile process, rather than a static document.
  • Flattening internal hierarchies and the positive benefits of communication that follow. 


Full transcript below:

Anthony Taylor (AT): Today I am joined by Brock McDonald, who is the CEO of the recycling council of BC. Brock, how are you today? 

Brock McDonald (BM): I’m great, Anthony. How are you?

AT: I’m doing fantastic – A beautiful day. The sun is shining. It’s a great summer so far, so I’m very happy. Thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about you, and what you do for recycling council of BC, and what your day to day looks like?

BM: Sure. I’m the CEO. I started with the council in 2003 as a communications director and took over as the slash EDCO in 2006. The Recycling Council of BC is Canada’s longest standing council. We’ve been around since 1974. Our primary mission is that of waste minimization, the elimination of waste. I lead the team that works towards that. We provide British Columbians primarily with information about their options in their communities to avoid waste, to recycle, for waste minimization, disposal, that type of thing.

We have three platforms to do that. We have the recycling hotline. We have the Recyclopedia, which is an online system, and then we have our free phone apps that are GPS based. People can use those to find the locations convenient to wherever they happen to be. That, in a nutshell, is what we do.

AT: Very cool. You’ve been the CEO of the BC Recycling Council for 11 years or so; is that right?

BM: Yeah. That’s true. 

AT: Our listeners are managers or leaders of strategy. What are the two or three best practices that you have, that you found worked best for leading strategy with your team, and within your organization?

BM: I think my first approach is to take a systems thinking perspective on things. Unless you’re aware of all the potential balls in play, you risk unintended consequences, and those could be disastrous. I take a systems thinking approach, and we like to build collaborative alliances. We’re a small organization, so we cannot do everything our self.  We have limited resources, so we work with other like-minded organizations that have similar goals, and we work with them.

AT: The systems thinking piece, one thing that stuck out was the unintended consequences. Can you tell me a little bit more about what systems thinking looks like to you, as a manager?

BM: Sure. For instance, some of the advisory committees I sit on, one of the things I do emphasize with them is when they’re doing their strategic planning, when they’re trying to do long term, continuous improvement, you have to take a systems thinking approach. You have to know all the balls in play, because you aren’t necessarily in control of every aspect in your environment. There is legislators. There is competitors. There is other entities that can have an influence on what happens in your system. You have to be involved enough in the system to know what that looks like.

Remember, it’s not what you don’t know. It’s what you don’t know you don’t know. You can look at something and say “I don’t know what this metric’s going to be right now,” or “I don’t know what this trend might look like in six months,” but if you don’t know there’s a trend happening, you can be in real trouble.

One of the things that we do is we engage with other organizations: local governments, provincial governments, like-minded non-profits, industry stewardship associations, and we work with them in a number of different capacities. We partner and create collaborative alliances. That way, it gives us more intel and insight than we normally would have, and it gives us a better strategic perspective and viewpoint than we would normally have ourselves.

AT: Got it. Ok, so yeah. Your organization itself, and as a non-profit, you have the internal workings – everything you have going on, and then you also consider everything that’s going on outside of your organization. What I think is particularly interesting about that, from a partnership approach, you recognize where you have your limitations, whether that’s time, money or people, and instead of looking at it as an obstacle, you look to other organizations to see where you can partner up to take advantage of that. I think that’s a really good insight for other people.

BM: For instance, the one that comes to mind for me is the National Zero Waste Council. That was initially an initiative by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, lead by Metro Vancouver. Its members include businesses, and governments and non-profits. Quite early on, we determined that a circular economy was the best strategy to follow to meet the goals that we shared. 

My counterpart from Alberta Recycling Council, Christina Seidel, her and I lead the circular economy working group. What we do with that is we try to build a network of organizations, companies, across Canada to try to transition towards a circular economy, to meet our overall arching goal of a long-term waste reduction through a circular economy.

It follows a hierarchy. We recognized that quite early. That’s what we’re doing. We couldn’t have done that on our own necessarily. We reached out to big cities like Toronto and Montreal, and levels of government at the federal level, and companies like Dell, huge companies for instance, that have incorporated circular economic business models into what they are doing world-wide.

We wouldn’t have had that ability if we hadn’t partnered with the National Zero Waste Council, so we’re quite happy to lend our time and our expertise to do that, because it lends itself towards the mission’s objective.

AT: Absolutely. That’s so key that you put that on here. On your website, it says that your vision is “A world without waste.”

BM: Exactly.

AT: The mission is “Facilitating the exchange of ideas and knowledge that enable efficient solutions to eliminate waste.” It sounds like your vision and mission are aligned with the activities that you’re taking to move that forward. Can you speak to that a little bit?

BM: Exactly. There’s a lot of like-minded organizations that may articulate that differently, or have different motivations. For instance, an industry stewardship association that would collect post-consumer paint, or post-consumer garbage containers, something like that, they’re mandated under a regulatory structure to provide regulatory compliance for their brand owners.

In the beverage container instance, that would be the Coca-Colas and the Pepsis of the world. Well, that may be their primary motivation, the regulatory compliance, but they’re still working towards waste reduction, so we’re working towards that goal with them. Where we can align our goals, we do so. We’ve actually done some very interesting projects with organizations like that.

For instance, we wanted to create a series of PSAs, but you know, we’re a small organization. We don’t have the budget to do that, so they helped sponsor a movie trailer competition called Trailer Trash. That’s what we called it, Trailer Trash. Film makers made these short, little films that were formatted like movie trailers, with a specific thing in mind. It was about beverage containers. Why are there 300 million missing beverage containers, and how can we make sure that they get to the depot?

Some of the films that were created by local filmmakers and students were just absolutely amazing. I mean, top notch, high level, high production PSAs that we’re now still using. Actually, in one instance, the countries of Netherland and Spain contacted us and asked us if they could use this particular film and dub in their languages to spread that message. It was a very successful thing that had some global impact.

AT: That’s awesome. That sounds like it all started out of figuring out what you need to do from a priority perspective to fulfill your mission, even if you had limited time, money and resources.

BM: Exactly. We have to be quite creative sometimes, so if a strategic alliance can help you meet a goal and further your mission, and you’ve got an organization that has a larger budget than you and has mandated to do specific things, and you can help them by giving them some creative input to allow them to see that as well, that’s clearly a good example.

AT: Yeah. There’s a lot of organizations that we work with. Many of our listeners are managers and leaders of SMEs, so obviously not always flooded with cash and not unlimited resources, so when going through the strategic planning process, there’s a lot of opportunity to be creative and say “Ok. Focus  on the end, and then what are some of the things we can do to make that work, and what would that look like?” It sounds like you have done that, and it probably gives some ideas to other non-profits on how they can fulfill on their mission.

I really want to ask you more about strategy and performance, because I think that would really fall right into what you were talking about, the circular economy. Before I do that, did you have another best practice, a really on the court example for our listeners?

BM: Well, you know, one of the things we look at in our organization is it’s not CEO centric in terms of its strategic planning and strategic mission. We look to everyone as leaders in our organization. Many initiatives that we come up with are staff driven. A number of years ago, we had an issue where we were literally losing staff on a regular basis to organizations that could provide greater salaries, better benefits, room for advancement, and advancement in career in other ways.

We decided to do an internal process to change the culture in our organization, to one that was more of a mentor and learning organization. What we did was we got all our staff together. We had them identify five values that they felt they brought to the organization. We identified that and we saw what the common values were. We built a framework of common values. They created their own internal mission and vision statements from that, and we flattened the hierarchy. We dropped the internal silos, like policy, communication and that sort of thing, and started to provide operations through a project management system, where one person would take the lead and others would join in on the project.

What that allowed us to do was develop skills, have people mentor and teach people other skills, and to develop skills that they normally wouldn’t have been able to do. What it did was it created an atmosphere where people had a much more fulfilling employment experience at RCBC. As it turned out, it really had a high impact on our employee retention. Where we were losing maybe a couple of people a year to other organizations, we haven’t lost anyone in the last couple of years.

We have an accumulative institutional memory with the council now, of our core person management team, of about 60 years. With our five line staff that provide frontline information service, I think it’s around 27 years now, combined, of service. It’s really made a huge difference. When you’re an organization that relies on its level of information to provide to the public, institutional memory like that, and that level of expertise, is just the ultimate level of importance to maintain.

AT: I can see how that would be extremely valuable, especially when the core part is education, both internally and process wise. I have a few questions. You mentioned you have four management team, five frontline employees. When you were going through this, I don’t want to call it a process reorganization, but was that how many employees you had, under 10 at the time?

BM: Yes.

AT: Ok, perfect. How long did instituting that program take you?

BM: It didn’t take that long. We were able to facilitate the process that started it, the identification of shared values and the mission and vision statement, in an afternoon. I facilitated that. We worked together, and then once that was in place, we decided we would then initiate a project management system. We started with our annual conference, and then it extended to communications.

For instance, if you happen to go to our website, or our YouTube channel and look at our FAQ Fridays, we have about 50 or so in the can now, that was a staff initiative. They had determined that there were these frequently asked questions that people would come up with on certain topics. Whether it was organics, whether it was one of the stewardship extended producer responsibility programs, there was these set of questions that people regularly had.

They decided to develop these under 60 minute short videos that would answer those questions, and they started doing that about a year ago or so. Now, like I said, there’s 50 in the can. It’s been a great process in that now the staff have taken that initiative, and they’re developing these new communications tools that we’re weaving into the thread of our social media.

AT: That’s awesome. In addition, they’ve taken it on and they have ownership with it, and it’s creating huge value, and fulfilling your mission.

BM: Absolutely.

AT: What I really got out of that, and what we offer at SME Strategy as far as facilitating those meetings and encouraging people to get employees engaged, that’s right in line with what we do. What did you have to do … I got the point that you had the meeting, and you talked about the vision and mission, but what was the key part that you put out there that really got people to want to engage and to want to create their own vision for the future of the organization?

BM: Well, you know, being a non-profit, it’s a little bit different than being a for profit organization. Generally speaking, when you work for a non-profit, you have some alignment already with the mission, whether it’s Reporters Without Borders, or Ride for Cancer, or the Recycling Counsel of BC. In our case, the staff that tend to want to work for us, they are interested in waste reduction. They are interested in the environment, and that’s been their focus.

You already have a core set of values that are aligned with the organization, and when you allow them to use their own creativity, and take ownership of things, and include them in the process of developing strategy, and then tactics to achieve those goals, it makes an immense difference. It really is empowering for the staff.

AT: Yeah, and then they want to be at work, and they want to contribute, and they’re excited.

BM: Absolutely. We regularly communicate. We have an open communication system. When I said that I flattened the hierarchy, and we dropped those internal silos, that was a huge, huge measure. Our staff are in constant communication. They bounce ideas off me. I bounce ideas off them. We have regular communications meetings. I’m always keeping them and they’re always keeping me up to speed on what’s going.

They’ll gain insight and information from different sources than I do. In case of the line staff, they’re talking to the public directly. I’m more along the lines of talking to other leaders in organizations. It varies at different levels of the organization, so we’re always looking at the strategy. Everyone knows what our strategic plan is, that we want to promote the circular economy as a means of eliminating waste, so whenever an opportunity presents itself, we talk about it. It’s an open communication policy where we’re all on the same page. It is helping us move forward.

AT: Excellent. You have a small team, so it might be workable or more workable, but I’ve seen these same sort of initiatives be brought up in 100 people, 200, 300 people organizations. It’s just a matter of how you deploy it, how you scale it, and how you move it forward. Obviously, some of the benefits that you got, higher engagement with staff … I can probably assert that your execution and getting your plan done moves up.

There was employee retention. If you’re talking about two or three staff members a year, that’s 100, 150 grand, maybe more that goes right back to your ability to deliver services. One of the things that people don’t necessarily realize when they look at planning, and I’m sure that you’ll probably be on my side of this one, that yes, it can take time to make it happen, or you have to have a concentrated meeting about it, but the results in your case sound like they speak for themselves, in terms of the bottom line and top line benefits to getting your team engaged in doing this kind of planning process.

BM: Well, I’m the first to admit that I’m very fortunate in that. Because it’s a small team, and because we’re all like-minded and have a similar value set, that process was easier than trying to do it with an organization that has multiple locations, multiple divisions, and they’re maybe not as focused on that singular mission of eliminating waste. I’m very fortunate in that sense.

One of the things that I think any organization can apply to their strategic planning is the ability to be agile. It has to be an organic, living plan, because as you move down the path, opportunities present themselves. Challenges present themselves. You want to be able to take advantage of opportunities by applying something from your toolbox of tactics that you have, or if a challenge presents itself, you’ve got to make a decision whether or not you’re going to meet that challenge head on or bypass it. In some cases, it’s a lot easier to jump over something or take another path, than trying to overcome a challenge that may be unsurmountable.

AT: Absolutely. How often do you do that kind of planning with your team?

BM: The planning goes on an ongoing basis, really. We have our long term, five-year plan, that we developed. We keep it going, so it’s all a matter of every day operations, really. We emphasize flexibility. There are things that work, and they continue to work, but sometimes you have to look for something else. For instance, developing the PSAs through the Trailer Trash, was an opportunity that presented itself through a creative idea.

We have our platforms of hotline, Recyclopedia, and our phone app, but we never decided to, for instance, drop the hotline once the Recyclopedia came along, and we didn’t drop the Recyclopedia once the app came along. We decided that those tools had their place and we would use them simultaneously for various applications.

AT: I got that. Within all of that, looking at the comprehensive program, looking at everything as a system, incorporating your team into the process, what are some of the risks that you would recommend to avoid in the planning process? One of them was obviously being agile, or not being agile. Any other risks that you would mention, saying “Don’t do this if you want to have a successful strategic plan?”

BM: Yeah, sure. Following along with that, don’t lock yourself in. Obviously. Be able to pivot and take advantage of situations, and realize that your organization’s got limitations, and develop those alliances to help you overcome those shortcomings and resourses. That would be one.

You also want to have a clear difference between strategy and tactics. Tactics, like I said, is a toolbox, where strategy is that overarching plan that you’re working towards. The tactics are going to be how you get there, and that leads into board management. In an organization such as ours, that has a board, and we have a policy governance board, sometimes your board can be populated by folks who are more operational in their thinking, in their own careers.

You do have to have a little bit of caution and provide some leadership, between your board chair and your chief of staff, to make sure that the folks that are involved in the strategic planning process realize that it is a strategy that we’re working towards, and tactics are more of an operational side of things. They can be discussed so they’re aligned with the deliverables at the end of the day, but you have to make sure that you’re focused on the strategy and not the tactics.

AT: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll take this opportunity to plug our new book called, Alignment, and it speaks to what you’re saying, taking from 30,000 feet, looking at the vision of really where you’re wanting to go, so in your case a world without waste, and then moving down from your mission statement, how are you going to accomplish your vision, and then moving into the strategies and tactics. In our book, we go over the entire process and look at who fits in what space.

You’ve done a really good job of getting your employees, even your frontline employees, who in some organizations, people would just concern with the tactics. You’ve actually embraced the vision with them, so that everybody is on the same page. The strategy, culture and people, everybody’s on the same page (Which is also the title of the book, very subtle there).

The clear separation of the vision being the high level stuff, and the tactics, which are on the ground stuff, and it sounds like you’re an advocate of having both. Without one, the other doesn’t work.

My last question here is, is there anything else that you would recommend to a CEO or a manger, who is leading strategy and wants to lead strategy successfully with their team. 

BM: Well, you know, I’ve really found that the combination of team work and communications, for me, has served the organization well. It’s leading strategy - When you’ve got members of your team that are all leaders in terms of strategy, then that effort, make sure that you’re on the same page, on the same path. When I think about this, I think about a couple of quotes from Ken Blanchard and Henry Ford, in fact.

Ken Blanchard said “It’s a matter of none of us are smarter than all of us.” The more brains you can get in the room, in other words, the better off you are. Of course, Henry Ford said “Coming together is a beginning, and keeping together is progress, but working together is success.” That for me is key, because success is a process; it’s not an event. You put your process in place, and you work with it, and you’ll see success.

AT: Fantastic. Yeah. Work together, get everybody communicating, sharing ideas, breaking silos down, and empowering everybody to win and be successful sound like it’s been the key to your success.

BM: It’s worked pretty well, but I feel fortunate to have the type of people that I work with, and the level of talent. It’s very fortunate. You almost make sure that you realize and acknowledge that you’re blessed with the amount of people that support you, because that’s what it is. It’s a group effort.

AT: Absolutely. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Where can people get a hold of you, or learn more about the Recycling Counsel of BC?

BM: Our website is rcbc.ca. You can look up our Recyclopedia there or download our app. My contact information is on that website. We’re quite often asked by folks to provide them with information on how they can be more sustainable, and waste less, and we do that anytime. I’m quite happy to have anyone contact us and talk to them, or steer them to a person within our organization that might have the expertise that they’re looking for.

AT: Fantastic. A lot of great resources available there, and I think it’s more important than ever now, to have a world without waste. Thank you so much for being here today, Brock. It’s been a real pleasure.

BM: Thanks, Anthony. I really enjoyed it.

AT: This has been a Strategy and Leadership Podcast. My name is Anthony Taylor, and today I’ve been chatting with Brock McDonald who is the CEO of the Recycling Counsel of BC.

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