Keeping up with the pandemic times: Canada’s Top 40 adapts on the fly to maintain program momentum

Excerpted from the Financial Post:

Submissions were in and interviews were already taking place to determine 2020’s Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 honourees when, on March 11 of last year, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Within days, provinces across Canada issued shelter-in-place directives and non-essential businesses and services closed their doors to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of infection. “As we navigated those first few days of the pandemic and what the impact would be, the main focus was on the safety of family, friends and colleagues,” says Jeff Freeborough, managing partner, Toronto, executive search firm Caldwell Partners, founder of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. “These were exceptional circumstances and it would have been easy to push pause and not go forward with Top 40. But good news stories are important. As we learned about and better understood the severity of the pandemic, it quickly became clear having the program continue and celebrating leaders doing great things was even more important. The honourees could provide inspiration for all Canadians.”

Since its inception in 1995, Top 40 has recognized more than 800 outstanding Canadians who have gone on to establish themselves as change-makers and innovators both here in Canada and globally. They are entrepreneurs, doctors, scientists, executives, men, women, many from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities from across Canada. More than this, they are role models for the next generation, says Freeborough. The honourees for 2020, tasked with leading in crisis, rose to the occasion. “COVID was certainly the big story this year, and we did have to change a lot because of it, but the reason for Top 40 didn’t change, the purpose of Top 40, did not change,” says John Hughes, senior vice-president, private enterprise, at MNP, Canada’s largest accounting tax and business consulting firm serving mid-market companies and Top 40 presenting partner. Another thing that didn’t change: the key characteristics that define Top 40 honourees. “Top 40 honourees are adaptable. They are always looking to see what’s coming. They make decisions that will help them deal with today’s challenges but that will also sustain their organizations over the long term. They aren’t looking for a quick fix,” says Hughes. “Top 40 is about celebrating Canadian talent. This year it was also about demonstrating we are going to get through this and giving hope. This was an opportunity to show life does go on.”

The teams at Caldwell and MNP quickly transitioned to remote work and began assessing the challenges and opportunities and planning for different scenarios. Every Monday the Top 40 team connected to gauge the situation and keep the submission review process moving forward. Caldwell had already reviewed the nearly 400 electronic submissions and selected a shortlist of 100 nominees they were to interview with MNP. In past years, interviews took place in person. This year, they were conducted online using video platforms such as Zoom. To give themselves more time to understand how the pandemic would evolve, Caldwell and MNP made the decision to move the adjudication process from May to September with the hope the selection committee could meet in person. The announcement of the year’s honourees, which is also typically held in person at an event hosted by Top 40 partner Gluskin Sheff Associates in its Toronto offices, was also pushed forward to October. “By early April, we were starting to see many of our Top 40 alumni were innovating to contribute to Canada’s response to the crisis,” says Michelle Jursa, Caldwell Partners’ director for national leadership recognition programs, including Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. “They were making headlines and leading us through the crisis.” For example, siblings Ravinder and Manjit Minhas, cofounders of Minhas Breweries, received a call from regional health authorities to build up quickly diminishing reserves of hand sanitizer. Within five days, they received approval from Health Canada, shut down their facility and began producing hand sanitizer. They went on to help procure gloves, thermometers, face shields and face masks.

Jursa started a social media campaign to share the great things alumni were doing. On April 21, the Top 40 team launched a webinar series showcasing how Top 40 alumni were navigating the COVID-19 crisis. The first webinar featured epidemiologist Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research and professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. “He was able to make the science understandable and explain the virus, why it was novel, and put into perspective where we stood, why it was important to flatten the curve,” says Jursa. “People wanted context and to know what we could expect. We were able to ask questions and get the answers we needed.” Available to Top 40 alumni, sponsors and advisory board members, the series proved to be a silver lining, says Jursa. “We’ve done six episodes. They were interesting, educational and inspiring.” And a big hit. The Top 40 Alumni Leader webinars are now a new addition to the Top 40 program and will continue going forward, featuring a variety of topics.

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