Q&A: Telus president and CEO Darren Entwistle on overcoming competition, unstable economies and personal loss

Once again, the telecommunications company is at the top of our annual list of the 100 biggest companies in B.C. by revenue

Let’s start at the beginning. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

While I initially had hopes of becoming a professional hockey player, clearly my skill did not match my aspirations.

Who had the biggest influence on young Darren Entwistle?

I always admired my father, not only for his sound paternal advice, but also for his wisdom in managing everyday challenges and embracing our responsibility to make the world a better place. When I was younger and beginning my career in telecommunications, my father shared an important lesson about how to create the circumstances to contribute to our society. He said, “Embrace technology as a way to enhance our quality of life, but do not forget that it is not, and it never will be, a substitute for authentic human compassion.”

You lost both parents to cancer at a relatively young age. How have you dealt with and tried to overcome that?

You learn to process and encapsulate the loss, but you never get over it. I would trade everything, in a heartbeat, to have my parents and sister back. Cancer is a vile disease and I look forward to human ingenuity and technology advancements, including AI for Good, defeating this illness.

How did your university years shape you?

I completed my undergrad in economics at Concordia, after which I obtained an MBA in finance from McGill and a diploma in network engineering from the University of Toronto. All of my alma maters are near and dear to my heart, as they gave me the tools to succeed and bolstered my career ambitions. The experiences one enjoys throughout an academic journey become foundational to the concept of continuous learning, preparing you with the insight, acumen and curiosity to pursue your career, and, importantly, to make meaningful contributions at a local, national and global scale.

And what about having kids. How has that changed you? Or has it?

Like most parents, I think that having kids makes you think more about future generations. By way of example, the importance of protecting, nurturing and restoring the planet our children will inherit, and making safer, stronger, more giving communities for the benefit of our next generation of leaders.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Working slowly is a particular aggravation of mine. As I move closer to retirement, I feel a greater sense of urgency to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves and tend to become more impatient in respect to getting things done in a timely fashion.

Speaking of which, Telus certainly hasn’t worked slowly since you joined in 2000. What have been some of your biggest successes there? What are you most proud of?

It has been a remarkable journey over the past 23 years, as Telus has evolved from a regional telephone company serving Western Canada into a global communications and information technology leader. What I am most proud of, however, is the amazing Telus team that brings our achievements to fruition. Our team is the most engaged on the planet, and it is thanks to their passion and expertise that we are able to put our customers and communities first while delivering world-leading operational, customer service and financial results for the benefit of the many stakeholders we serve.

Indeed, as a result of our team’s efforts, we are the leading social capitalism company in the world, transforming health care; improving food outcomes; enabling connectivity in even the most remote regions of our country; bridging time and distance with our technology to reduce carbon emissions through our virtualized communications services; and helping those citizens most in need of our support in communities around the world through volunteerism and philanthropic investments.

How about the other side of the coin. Are there one or two decisions you’ve made over the years that you regret?

I do not believe in having regrets, as we learn more from failure than we do from success. As a leader, it is important to take calculated risks, and, if unsuccessful, to leverage the learnings as building blocks to future success. Show me a mistake-free environment, I’ll show you an innovation-free environment. Risk, mistakes and positive change are mutually inclusive; how we build cultures that embrace this axiom is key. Indeed, I have learned over the years that the positive impact on a company’s culture is even more profound when you recognize an individual or team for exemplifying organizational values in pursuit of a laudable goal that was ultimately not realized.

This type of action truly distinguishes elite leaders, building a culture of innovation owing to a courage and conviction to treat today’s mistakes and disappointments as tuition value and learning opportunities for tomorrow’s successes. This belief is woven into the fabric of our culture at Telus, where one of our core values is to embrace change and innovate courageously, within a voracious, continuous learning and improvement environment.

What does Telus do better than its competitors?

Our Telus team has an unmatched performance culture, epitomized through our relentless focus on our Customers First priority, delivering global-best customer experiences. We also have an unparalleled dedication to our global leadership in social capitalism, giving back more to our communities—with our hearts, our hands and our philanthropy—than anyone else. Furthermore, we boast a highly differentiated asset mix from Telus Health to Telus Agriculture & Consumer Goods and Telus International—to not only drive positive operational and financial results, but also to address today’s most pressing social challenges and improve human and social outcomes around the world. This is possible thanks to Telus’s wireless and wireline networks, which rank amongst the best on a global basis, consistently earning global accolades from independent, third-party organizations. This includes being named number one for the speed, quality, user experience and expansiveness of our networks from global analytics companies: U.K.-based Opensignal, U.S.-based Ookla, U.S.-based PCMag and Canada-based Tutela. This is important, as reliable networks are the backbone of digital economies and societies, enabling positive outcomes for us all. Telus’s global-best networks ensure that everyone can stay connected to what matters most, including health care, safe and healthy food, online education, friends and family and remote working… all with the accompanying environmental benefits. Telus is also a world leader in brand value and resonance; the $10.3 billion Telus brand ranks as one of the top 10 most valuable brands in Canada by Brand Finance.

You mentioned Telus Health. Do you think eventually we’ll get to a point where the Telus model is accepted by both the government and the public as being a positive for our health-care system? Are we there already?

Telus Health is committed to revolutionizing access to health care and we are doing this across a wide spectrum of services, including our mobile Telus Health for Good vans, which are reconnecting people experiencing homelessness to critical health support; to our MyCare service that is helping support 800,000-plus British Columbians who do not have access to a family doctor; to our mental health care support for employers who want to help their employees; to our innovative pharmacy solutions that are providing Canadians with fast and reliable online access to prescription medications and refills and so much more. We know our unrelenting drive to innovate in this space and to solve unmet needs sometimes challenges the status quo; we also know that our customers and patients are grateful for the support they receive from Telus when and where they need it. We are partners with government and are committed to working together to improve health care and outcomes for the communities we serve.

How have you dealt with overcoming adversity in shaky economic conditions, whether it be 2008 or now?

An unpredictable or unstable economic environment is not easy to navigate; however, we have numerous levers at our disposal to ensure we overcome any adversity that comes our way. Disruptions also bring opportunities that you have to seize to accelerate beneficial change and keep ahead of your competitors. While we have weathered many storms, we have a proven track record of success. When looking back over the 20-year period from 2003, Telus has generated an impressive total shareholder return of 1,372 percent, surpassing the TSX by 925 percent and the MSCI by 1,139 percent. This story is consistent: we have delivered globally, leading shareholder returns over the past five, 10 and 15 years as well. Regardless of the landscape, our priority will always be our team, our customers and our communities.

What are the qualities you look for in a potential employee?

Our Telus values accurately reflect the qualities I seek: a belief in putting customers and communities first, an ability to embrace change and innovate courageously and a desire to grow through spirited teamwork.

How would you describe the workplace culture at Telus?

The high-performance culture at Telus is the best in the world. Others can try to imitate our products and services, but a unique and genuine culture of caring cannot be replicated. Importantly, Telus is committed to fostering equality of opportunity, building a diverse team and creating a workplace where our team members feel a strong sense of belonging.

What still excites you today about running Telus?

The opportunity to work with our passionate team members keeps me motivated, energized and excited to get out of bed in the morning—I truly believe there is not a better place to work or a better team to work alongside on the planet. When you are answering opportunities in respect of some of the most important challenges facing our planet, from human health outcomes and food security to bridging digital divides and income disparities to leveraging technology advancements to repair our environment… you feel blessed to have this role and these responsibilities. Doing this work with people you love and care about is quite the bonus.