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Tending to the cultural heartbeat

By PostMedia 7 May 2024 6 min read

There is a common saying amongst leaders that culture eats strategy for breakfast. That concept is alive and well for Curtis Stange, president and CEO of ATB Financial, and a top CEO for 2023 in the Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture Awards program.

“Alignment between the two is critical, because culture is the heartbeat of the company,” he says. “It’s reflected in everything we do as we drive to perform.”

Established in 1938, ATB Financial has grown from one branch in Rocky Mountain House to become the largest Alberta-based financial institution, with assets of $60.2 billion. Today, ATB Financial’s more than 5,000 team members serve over 800,000 clients through 280-plus locations with personal, business, agriculture, corporate, investment banking, and wealth management services.

For Stange, culture and people have always been the foundation of the financial services industry. “The industry has changed meaningfully over the years. What has never changed is that it’s a people business, both internally and externally. This is especially relevant today when we find ourselves operating in a world that is volatile, uncertain, and complex.”

He says he is fortunate to have been able to work with leaders who instilled that thinking early in his career. “I have learned over the decades about the importance of agility and predictability. You need both. In a world that is so fast-paced, and where team members are being asked to deliver high-quality projects in short periods of time, they must also have an environment of stability and know exactly what is expected of them. Leaders who set clear direction and recognize the importance of going slow to go fast are likely to have higher-performing teams.”

There has also been a significant shift in “quotients” that define leadership, he adds. “During hiring in the 1980s, organizations focused on a leader’s intelligence quotient. In the 1990s and early 2000s, that shifted to the emotional quotient, recognizing the importance of transparency and authenticity of leaders connecting with teams and developing relationships. That has continued to this day.”

Now it is the adaptability quotient that drives successful leadership today, he says. “AQ connects to the nimbleness organizations need to have and the cultures they have had to develop over the years.”

Stange has applied those lessons during his time with ATB Financial — even more so since assuming the role of president and CEO in 2018. Not only has the Alberta crown corporation achieved the best financial results in its history under his leadership, it has also garnered a multitude of best workplace awards in the province and the country — accomplishments that he gives full credit to his leadership team for. One of Stange’s first projects as CEO was forming a strategic leadership team to develop a 10-year plan (known as ATB’s Path to 2030), ignited by the organization’s Purpose: We exist to make it possible.

In 2021, the leadership team, together with team members, created the ATB ID, which is comprised of four unique traits (or values) and a series of supporting behaviours that team members are encouraged to live by every day: One ATB, Client Obsessed, Driven to Perform, and Champions of Belonging. In 2022, ATB also launched a new brand promise publicly called Powering Possibility.

Along with those initiatives, the leadership team expanded team member support and training, as well as diversified services and advanced technology innovation. In fact, Stange was recognized globally as one of the Top Financial Technology CEOs of 2022 for championing the way technology enhances and automates the delivery of financial services, among numerous other accolades.

Curtis Stange with ATB inclusion council.

Diversity of thought is also an integral part of ATB Financial’s success, he adds. “Our strength comes from the unique abilities and perspectives we each bring to the table. I have begun to understand and leverage that over the years and work with the team to foster an inclusive workplace where all team members can thrive.”

As part of that, he has championed the organization’s team member networks. The networks form an inclusion council which hosts events, increases awareness, and provides learning opportunities and support to team members across a variety of marginalized communities.

ATB has also invested in robust leadership and development programs, including more recently in its Pivotal Leader DNA program, a robust six-month executive leadership experience designed to help leaders master the skills they need to lead ATB on its path to 2030.

Investment has also been focused on mental health leadership training. “It has really accelerated leaders’ confidence to lean in and talk to team members about what’s on their minds,” says Stange.

Leadership is not the only initiative under Stange’s watch. He makes a point of being front and center for all team members. When he first became CEO, for example, he conducted a cross-province listening tour to ensure he listened to what his team needed, notes Joan Hertz, the board chair, ATB Financial. “This speaks to his commitment to caring about what the team thinks, before forming his strategy and plans for the company. ATB has always had a reputation for a very strong culture of caring and connection to Alberta; however, this did not always connect to results. Since Curtis took over as CEO, we have seen our culture of caring and connection flourish, while also adding the element of performance and accountability for results. This has all been driven by his leadership.”

Stange and the leadership team also conduct ATB Culture Day events for new hires, where they personally discuss ATB’s purpose, culture, and strategy. In addition, he hosts a weekly all-company livestream called Fridays in 30, where he shares his thoughts, news and encouragement, as well as opens the floor to any questions from team members.

Curtis Stange with ATB Financial team members.

Other programs the leadership team has supported include Everyday Heroes, an online reward and recognition platform allowing peers to recognize each other for their work. From those recognitions, on an annual basis, a select group of team members are chosen to join the President’s League as the company celebrates the best-of-the-best for personally bringing ATB’s strategy to life and living the ATB ID.

Stange has also been a passionate advocate for mental health, serving on multiple boards and advisory committees, and incorporating mental health support initiatives into the company.

One particular point of pride for Stange is ATB’s external recognition as a great place to work. “We have ranked in the top lists eight years in a row in multiple performance areas. Those awards are pretty proud moments for all of us.”

ATB Financial is living the purpose and making it possible, he adds. “We balance our success over four stakeholder groups: team members, clients, community, and our shareholder. We’re not only one of the best places to work in Canada, but our clients also look favourably on us because we deliver a ton of value to them and their communities. That’s a priority and a focus of our cultural agenda.”

“What sets Curtis apart is his unwavering commitment to building an exceptional workplace culture,” says Wayne Chiu, founder, The Trico Group of Companies. “Curtis’s exceptional leadership has not only propelled ATB Financial to new heights but has also left a lasting impact on the financial industry and the communities it serves.”

Stange has always maintained that purposeful and profitable companies are more ambitious, attract the best talent, inspire richer innovation, make quicker decisions, are more trusted, and enjoy greater client loyalty. “If you lead a company in terms of the why (our purpose), the what (our strategy), the how (our values), and the who (our brand as an organization and powering possibilities for our clients), we are able to deliver value in unique and personal ways and achieve meaningful results.”


From the April 18, 2024 edition of Financial Post. Produced by PostMedia and shared with permission.

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