Leadership: BMO’s Mike Bonner nurtures a new generation of leaders with a mix of drive and empathy

In business, the person leading at any given point isn't necessarily the one with the title and the corner office, says Mike Bonner, senior vice-president at BMO Financial Group, who heads the bank's B.C. and Yukon division."Leadership has nothing to do with the business card; it has nothing to do...

Credit: Gina Chong/Butter Studios

The head of the bank’s B.C. and Yukon division is always on the lookout for talent

In business, the person leading at any given point isn’t necessarily the one with the title and the corner office, says Mike Bonner, senior vice-president at BMO Financial Group, who heads the bank’s B.C. and Yukon division.

“Leadership has nothing to do with the business card; it has nothing to do with your position,” Bonner contends. “I don’t think you have to look very far to find examples of leadership. I think you see leadership, good and bad, at every level of an organization.”

If anyone can recognize the hallmarks of a strong leader, it’s Bonner, who has worked jobs ranging from meat cutter to newspaper salesman to bank teller. He’s also gained exposure to a variety of businesses through his 27 years in the financial sector. “Leadership is about situations,” says Bonner, who oversees some 2,000 staff. “It could be a robbery, it could be something unfortunate that happens with a customer, it could be an opportunity—but there will be a situation today, and there is every day,” he warns, citing last summer’s wildfires. “The needs of the team and the business will determine what type of leadership comes out.”

Bonner describes his own leadership style as a hybrid, likening his approach to that of a mechanic with different tools for different situations. He regularly reevaluates how he leads; one recent influence is the book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by former Apple Inc. and Google Inc. executive Kim Scott, which preaches a balance between empathy and directly challenging employees.

Bonner has striven for that balance since childhood. His father, who served in the infantry and later laboured as a factory worker, taught him the value of hard work and being organized. From his mother, a homemaker dedicated to community service, he learned the importance of empathy and connecting with people.

“They put me in tough jobs at a very young age, so I had drive to make sure that I could evolve and do better and to keep pushing for improvement,” says the Chatham, Ontario, native, who started working at age nine as a corn detasseler, pulling the flower from the top of the plant. “Whether it was school doing an MBA, or whether it was making money,” he recalls, “I think my upbringing helped me.”

Bonner completed a year of training as an electronics engineer, but working solo in huge machines quickly lost its appeal. He later became a tutor with the school board in Chatham. “I’m a people person, so I guess I got it wrong with the guidance counsellor,” he quips. “I really love technology and science and engineering, but I think that what drives me, really honestly, is working with people and trying to develop people.”

Finally Bonner settled on finance. Starting as a teller at a Royal Bank of Canada branch in Blenheim, Ontario, in 1991, he was promoted to assistant manager, personal banking, within 18 months. In 2000 he landed at BMO, which gave him roles all over the country, including Halifax, Calgary, Toronto and Windsor, Ontario. While rising through the ranks, Bonner completed an MBA at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He moved to Vancouver in 2014 to take his current post.

Although some believe leaders are born, Bonner doesn’t buy it. He acknowledges that there are innate leadership qualities, though. “Somewhere along the line, you have to have the natural grit to gravitate toward leadership,” he maintains. “It’s not for everybody, and it’s not about the paycheque, and it’s not about the title.”

Bonner sees those qualities all around him. Every month he hands out 10 to 15 business cards to people whom he encourages to take their career to BMO. “You’ve got to be a talent master,” Bonner says. “The mistake that people and organizations make is they think [sourcing talent] is an HR job.” But HR can’t do it alone, he stresses: “Everybody needs to have a talent mindset. Everyone needs to be on the lookout.”

That’s especially true in the financial world, where high-tech upstarts threaten to disrupt BMO’s 200-year-old success story. Competition for talent is fierce, and Bonner tries to assemble agile teams from diverse backgrounds. Besides finance grads, his hires include former bartenders and baristas, and a cemetery salesperson. “You can teach finance; you can teach banking, tangible technical skills,” Bonner says. “You can’t teach passion, real fire-in-the-belly passion to do what’s right for the customer.”

When Bonner thinks about life after work, he gets philosophical. He says he wants to look back in his 80s with no regrets about how he led his employees. Some have moved across the country to work with him, something Bonner takes pride in. Others have grown into leadership roles of their own. “How have I helped people accomplish things personally?” Bonner asks. “That will be my true scorecard as a leader.”

What’s a common myth or misconception about leadership?
If you just let people gravitate and move into the direction they’re naturally going to go, they’re going to show you honest leadership, true leadership. It’s not about the hierarchy or the org chart; I think that’s the most common misconception about leadership.

What was your biggest leadership mistake?
An early leadership mistake is you want to make a difference. You really want people to know that you got promoted or you got the job because you know what you’re doing. When in fact, most people know that. You got promoted because of skill or attitude/aptitude seen in you or experience; some of it’s technical. I tried to prove myself too fast, and I should have proved myself through my actions, not necessarily what I said but what I did.

What three things would you tell a young person who aspires to become a CEO?

1. Be patient. You’ve got to hang in there, and don’t be in a race to move through a position too fast, and you should learn everything you can from the position you’re in. Max it out—so what if it takes you another 10 or 12 or 24 months? You don’t ever want to go back to that job. 

2. Be realistic. You’re good at many, many things, but you’re not good at everything, and you don’t have to be. Everybody’s got different types of experiences, skill sets; learn when to pull those in. It’s OK. You don’t have to win everything.

3. Be strategic. I’m talking about very early on developing strategic and critical thinking muscles. Try to understand micro and macro thinking, and try to migrate your thinking between what you’re going through at your level, in your role, and what the macro environment might be.