A. Leadership Capacity

6. Harbourfront Centre Case Study

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The following case study profiles Harbourfront Centre’s effort to develop Change Management Capacity as part of its sustainability program.  The document provides an honest and detailed account of all aspects of the organization’s experience.

A. The Challenge

In 2007 Harbourfront Centre’s CEO and Board of Directors decided to begin thoughtfully addressing our sustainability.  Initially, the goal was to develop a strategic plan and the capacity to intelligently take action across departments and over time.  The CEO was very mindful of the risk of being labeled ‘green washers’. He also recognized that the leadership and expertise needed to realize our goal was not available internally.  With these challenges and constraints, how was the CEO to get the program off the ground

B. Capacity Building

The critical actions outlined in the Leadership Capacity section of the Refocus Guidebook include:  Assembling a Leadership Team, and Developing a Program Vision. Let’s review Harbourfront Centre’s experience attempting to carry out each.

1. Assembling a Leadership Team 

i.  Program Champion

Without someone with the capacity to lead the program internally, for months the CEO explored the field of sustainability experts and consultants, but none appeased his concerns.  Each had an area or areas of expertise, although none seemed fully capable of developing the kind of comprehensive and well-integrated strategy the CEO had envisioned.  

Rather than hiring a sustainability expert, he chose an unexpected course of action:  A traditional management consultant without sustainability expertise was hired.  This individual was valued mainly for his methodical approach to breaking down challenges and experience managing organizational change.  Having worked with Harbourfront Centre before, he was also trusted for his ability to effectively collaborate with leadership.  This consultant’s lack of sustainability expertise was perceived to be a strength because he was naturally oriented toward seeking the opportunities that served the organization’s best interest, rather than carrying a bias toward a particular area or areas of sustainability.  

ii.  Program Sponsor

The CEO initiated HFC’s effort to sincerely and strategically address the organization’s sustainability, and so acted as the Program Sponsor from day one.   He would serve as a program advocate, using his influence to enlist the support of others and hold the Champion and others accountable.

iii.  Senior Supporters

The COO was formally added to the Leadership Team and the Directors of Finance and Development were added peripherally to regularly support the Leadership Team on an as needed basis. 

iv.  Securing Leadership Support

The CEO engaged all other Directors in early efforts to define and develop the program.  Some were very naturally supportive while others were mandated to get behind the program, in some cases with specific roles and responsibilities.



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Change Management Team

A passionate, committed and influential leadership team is constructed.  This group includes several senior executives and possesses advanced leadership capacities.

A capable and senior program champion is supported at a distance by some senior leaders who have little vested interest in the program’s success.

A mid-level employee that lacks advanced leadership capacities is assigned to the program with little support or involvement from senior staff.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  The Harbourfront Centre Leadership Team’s strengths included the fact it was well defined and had the CEO’s full support.  While the Program Champion was wisely selected for the advanced leadership qualities and change management skills he possessed, the fact he was an outsider was much less than ideal.  The Champion lacked an intimate knowledge of the organization’s key players, internal politics, culture, etc. that an internal leader would more readily possess.  Further, he held a lack of influence and credibility with other leaders at Harbourfront Centre as most had no pre-existing relationship with him.

2. Developing a Program Vision

At the onset, the Leadership Team wasn’t clear what exactly we wanted to achieve.  We didn’t even know what would be or would not be possible given our constraints as a charity.  As a first step, we decided to research other organizations; some destinations similar to ours, which had been addressing sustainability for some time.  Regardless of what was being publicized, we learned that organizations were mainly undertaking one-off projects and really struggling to figure out how to tackle sustainability in a meaningful and strategic way.

i.  Defining How Broad the Scope is

In response to our research findings, we started to play with the idea of creating a model.   Harbourfront Centre is an arts and culture charity at its core, but is quite entrepreneurial and houses several business units, in addition to the fact that we operate a 10-acre site on behalf of the City of Toronto.  As a quasi-municipality, business, and charity all rolled into one, we had a unique opportunity to develop and publicly share a sustainability model because the breadth of our operation would make it universally applicable.  With 17 million annual visitors, we also recognized we had a tremendous opportunity to engage the public.

ii. Participation in the Process

To support the idea of creating a publicly-oriented model sustainability program, we felt it important to engage a several key organizations that would have a vested interest in our success.  In 2008, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, a group dedicated to supporting innovation toward reducing city greenhouse gas emissions, was the first that immediately took to our idea, supporting us with a small grant.  We next engaged the City of Toronto, Toronto & Region Conservation Authority, Sustainable Buildings Canada as well as several neighbouring public destinations similar to Harbourfront Centre.  The shared interest in our direction led to a large roundtable meeting, facilitated to establish a clear and powerful vision for our sustainability program.  The outcome was ambitious and well-beyond anything we would have considered adopting up front:

“Harbourfront Centre will take a leadership position through the greening of our site in a manner consistent with our artistic diversity and cultural roots.  This should result in the development of transformational model leading to aggressive and intelligent improvements, and in doing so; Harbourfront Centre will engage constituents through programming, education and becoming a source of inspiration to all.”

The group agreed the importance and attractiveness of our program would be greatly amplified by our commitment to creating a publicly shared model.

iii. Defining Program Objectives

Further to the program vision defined, our Leadership Team turned focus to establishing objectives.  To begin, we kept things simple by defining three general objectives it was our intention to fulfill on each year.

Operational Efficiency:  To address our internal impact by finding efficiencies and reducing resource use.

Innovation:  To be creative and develop new capacity that would serve other organizations.

Engagement:  To positively affect and engage stakeholders, whether employees, visitors or otherwise, through the improvements we make.



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Engagement Plan

An ambitious vision applicable to the entire organization is crafted with input from across a variety of areas and fully supported by all senior staff.

A vision is developed by a smaller group of leaders that is focused on the areas of interest related to sustainability that are most important to those involved.

A narrowly defined vision statement is adopted with little to no support from senior staff.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  The vision created was wildly ambitious.  While it did not involve consultation with staff beyond a group of key internal leaders, it included representatives of a variety of outside organizations committed to sustainability; this attracted support and sprung the vision into life, creating a sense of accountability that went far beyond our organization.

3. Overall Results



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Overall Results

There is a clear direction and immense support for sustainability to be addressed.  Individuals from all areas feel a part of the vision created and are motivated to ensure they contribute to its realization.

It is apparent to staff that sustainability is a priority for some areas of the organization to pursue.  Those who are passionate and care are excited to contribute, while others do not engage and/or remain apathetic. .

Staff see sustainability as an area of little importance that has likely been addressed out of obligation rather than sincere interest. They do not buy into the vision created or believe it will make a substantive difference.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  From aback, the leadership capacity developed was very solid.  The CEO and COO were both fully invested; a Champion was secured with the skills needed to manage a complex and transformational program; and a vision was defined that set Harbourfront Centre on a course most organizations would hardly even consider pursuing.   Looking more closely though, there was a lack of connection to the whole organization.  With an external consultant posing as Champion and not involving the staff in the process of defining the program, it was not clear how the program would be introduced to the rest of the organization and what the reaction might be.

Case in Point:  Establishing Program Partnerships

The following story illuminates a real, exceptional and unexpected outcome that would not have been possible had we not focused on effectively building leadership capacity.  Although the capacity developed had weaknesses, the benefit of working toward the standards of Refocus Sustainability Program Model made many outcomes possible that would not have been through conventional approaches.

1. Background

We could have started our sustainability journey by undertaking one-off projects.  Focusing on our leadership and vision established a solid foundation and continued to attract the interest of a variety of organizations. Excited by our vision and its potential to enable many more organizations was the City of Toronto’s Energy Efficiency Office.  In 2009 the City offered to finance a full-day design charrette (a multi-disciplinary, collaborative planning meeting) to help us get our program off the ground.  The City hired Sustainable Buildings Canada, a reputable and experienced facilitator of design charrettes, to prepare for, organize and facilitate the event.  Individuals with a wide range of expertise from across sectors and industries were invited to participate.  While we learned a great deal about what it would take to fulfill on our vision, we also realized how much more complicated a challenge this would be than simply convening a large group for a full-day meeting.

2. Leadership Capacity Considerations

An engineering firm that participated in our design charrette presented us with a lucrative opportunity.  Internat Energy Solutions Canada (IESC) is a company originally from France, made up of specialized, sustainability focused engineers and energy experts.  IESC had spent years gaining experience in the most advanced markets in Europe and beyond and had just expanded to Toronto. 

IESC offered to partner with us by managing the technical aspects of our program; from project planning and prioritizing to audits, financial modeling, carbon accounting, project management and employee training.  This was ideal as we had almost no technical expertise available to begin.  To help overcome our financial limitations, IESC was willing to spend several months working with us pro bono.  The goal was to build a strategy defining how we would fulfill on our vision.  They believed we could use what would be a unique and exceptional document to secure special grants and incentives needed to continue our partnership and start taking action.  Our leadership capacity significantly influenced IESC coming forward, which we examine more closely below.

Program Vision:Having newly established an office in Toronto, IESC was looking for a showcase project they could leverage to demonstrate their leadership within the Canadian marketplace.  They were invited to the design charrette organized by Sustainable Buildings Canada.  It was the vision Harbourfront Centre had created that enticed them to participate and contribute their expertise.  More specifically, our commitment to developing a replicable model and having already engaged many of the most prominent organizations that were developing the sustainability industry locally, appealed to IESC.  Getting involved presented the opportunity to showcase the full extent of their expertise and to be widely exposed. 

Leadership:  Soon after attending the design charrette and meeting with the Program Champion, IESC delivered their proposal.  They could see their expertise and partnership would be highly valued by the Program Champion for the potential that could be unlocked.  IESC also learned the CEO and COO were both directly involved and invested in the program, meeting with them several times to discuss partnering.  The leadership capacity in place gave IESC confidence it was worthwhile to invest the very substantial amount of in-kind time needed to get the program off the ground. 

3. Outcomes

Agreeing to collaboratively build the proposed strategy alone was a huge commitment as it demanded Harbourfront Centre provide IESC with access to much of our internal data, documentation and employees, and necessitated that we continued down the path to be outlined in our strategy if we successfully secured financial support.  It was critical that the CEO and the right technical partner were at the table in addition to a Champion with the capacity to inventively design a working relationship that appeased everyone’s concerns.  In May of 2009, a formal partnership was agreed to and the program was launched in the same month.

IESC brought with them ADEME:  The Agency of Environment and Energy Management of the Government of France.  ADEME had been developing tremendous capacity that enabled organizations to more effectively address their sustainability in France, and they partnered with Internat Energy Solutions, which was founded in France, to further their efforts.  With an interest in sharing the capacities developed abroad, ADEME was keen to join IESC in supporting Harbourfront Centre’s sustainability program and became an invaluable program partner.

IESC diligently worked with us to develop a comprehensive program strategy.  The final product captured the interest of the Ontario Trillium Foundation.  OTF is one of the largest grant makers in Canada, awarding approximately 1,500 grants each year to community-based not-for-profits and charitable organizations that help create vibrant and healthy communities.  The quality and perceived potential of our proposal secured a large two-year grant, solidified the financial foundation of our program and OTF as a critical partner that has continued to support our efforts.

4. Conclusion

In retrospect, the community support attracted, partnerships established, and funding secured were entirely a product the leadership capacity developed.  It would have been easy to loosely commit to being more sustainable and initiate isolated projects as resources might permit.  Investing the time and energy that was required to secure a Program Champion with the necessary skills and defining an exceptional program vision opened up a pathway and potential that simply wouldn’t have been imaginable at the onset. 

5. Discussion Questions

  • Why was the CEO most comfortable selecting a Program Champion that had strong leadership skills and a lack of technical knowledge? Did this make sense and how?
  • What did involving outside groups in creating a vision contribute? What might have been different had a simpler approach been taken?  How may this have influenced the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s choice to financially support the program?
  • What about Harbourfront Centre’s vision sparked such strong interest among outside organizations?
  • How did the leadership capacity established influence IESC’s interest in proposing a risky partnership?


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