March 2015


Serda Evren – team builder extraordinaire

One of the most challenging years in Serda Evren’s life taught her to look hard at herself, find the value in everyone, be open to people, and have fun. It was a very productive eighth grade.

“Leadership is about making decisions and sometimes you have to make tough decisions but you make them full of heart; you make them with emotion but you don’t let your emotions make the decision,” says Evren, who recently added a North American communications mandate to her role as Vice President of Communications and Philanthropy for MasterCard Canada.

When she was 13, Evren’s parents emigrated from Istanbul to Toronto, and suddenly the outgoing and full-of-life teen was the odd girl out. “We moved, leaving home and friends, for this completely new place at this critical age,” she remembers. “English wasn’t my first language, I wasn’t into New Kids on the Block. I was bullied and teased, but I realized you either make it or you don’t, and I decided to make it.”

That experience during her formative years made her realize the importance of seeing people for who they are, and understanding who she is. As she has advanced in her career, she has built on that philosophy to include helping others understand what they are good at. “I thought of myself as a generous, thoughtful, loving person and all they saw was a new kid. I wanted people to see who I really was, and that motivated me to always try to see people for who they truly are.”

Life became better, thanks in part to Evren’s practice of reading the newspaper aloud every day, cover to cover, to practice her English. By grade 10 it was flawless, and she was also a master of current events, which launched her passion for politics.

The University of Toronto was even better. She ran for the student union office, and in third year volunteered for the federal Liberal Party. With two years of volunteer service and a brand new political science degree under her belt the Liberals offered her a paying job. Thus began several years of long hours, lots of travel and sometimes living out of a suitcase. “The biggest gift of politics, other than the opportunity to change the world, is the people you meet. You work long hours in the trenches, you share beliefs, living together, travelling together, not eating or sleeping well. These people are your lifeline, and you form life-long friendships.”

Working in Federal and Provincial politics during the Jean Chretien and Dalton McGuinty administrations and a 14-month stint in Washington, DC, where she interned with Representative Congressman Anthony Weiner (yes, the “sexting” congressman) gave Evren insight into what makes a good leader, and a bad leader. A big part of that is surrounding yourself with the right people. “You can be a genuine, incredible, person, but if you’ve surrounded yourself with the wrong people it’s not going to work.”

Building a good team requires recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses. It requires some thoughtful introspection. “You have to spend time on yourself to be self-aware. You have to really understand yourself… your strengths, weaknesses, motivators, demotivators. If you’re not self-aware how can you possibly build an effective team around you?”

That also means finding your purpose. She advises: figure out the value you bring, what you’re really good at, and harness it. Deliver on it every day. Show up every day to make the team or the organization function better.

One thing Evren’s team – and her bosses – will tell you is that she is fun to work with.
“Let’s have a good time. Let’s build something together we’re proud of, so you feel good about what you’re doing.” She is not a stickler for hierarchy. “It kills spirit and inspiration,” she says. “There have to be lines because you’re not doing the same job and don’t have the same responsibilities but … I’ve seen people who put 100 steps between them and junior staffers and there’s no reason that needs to happen. I’d rather be building the bridges, being collaborative.”

Her goal is to build inspired teams – where everyone has a purpose and a role in making something better, and making a real impact. “It doesn’t have to be something huge, like reinventing PR. It could be that at a moment in time you brought forward an idea that shifted a strategy or changed a perspective.” It also means she doesn’t have to pretend to be good at everything. Leaders who succeed in building teams of people with diverse skills create successful departments or functions.

“I have never had an ‘end goal.’ I believe in letting opportunities find me. Who knows what the future holds but if I help people find and develop the value they bring, that’s something that helps those individuals and the organization for a long time, and I call that success.”

Humility over hubris will fix the TTC

There is a systemic issue that has plagued the TTC for decades.  Historically the TTC has lacked strong leadership, with CEOs being fired every few years,  few of them have had the time or inclination to tackle the managers or hold them accountable for their actions.

Last week a few columnists and politicians hinted that CEO of the TTC, Andy Byford, was to blame for the Spadina extension overruns.   Like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland who shouts “off with his head” they wanted a simple solution without understanding the complexity of the problem.  The TTC’s main mandate is to deliver good service efficiently and Mr. Byford has done exceptionally well on that front, despite inheriting an organization with a long history of poor accountability and mismanagement.

Consider the recent auditor’s report that found the TTC had not been monitoring the use and maintenance of its non-revenue fleet going as far back as 2005. Take a closer look at the report and what becomes obvious is the systemic issues that CEO Andy Byford has inherited.   The auditor’s report demonstrated that accountability has not been part of the TTC’s culture for decades. To expect our new CEO to do a complete overhaul of the system in under 5 years is ludicrous.

It’s easy to criticize when it comes to failures, but much harder to understand what caused the failures.  The real challenge facing the TTC is to change the culture of entitlement and unaccountability that fills the management ranks. But Byford has taken action. He’s reviewed the TTC infrastructure department, fired those responsible for the Spadina extension overruns, and admitted that he needs help and that the TTC infrastructure department can’t handle the project. Not only did this take balls, but it took humility – exactly the trait needed to bring real change to the TTC.

Mr. Byford’s firing of the Spadina extension project managers not only tells Toronto he’s taking action but it has sent a huge message to all TTC employees –  that no matter how high ranking someone is, they will be accountable for their actions.  This is a message that many TTC employees, frustrated with the lack of accountability and the attitude of entitlement within TTC management, needed to hear. In Byford, TTC now has a leader with humility, who is determined to give the public the best service possible while at the same time weed out the hubris that will always cause an organization to fail.

Where does the TTC infrastructure department go from here?

The answer is obvious to those who work in the industry — the contractors and engineers — who have worked with the TTC in the past and now refuse to even bid on most TTC projects, to those who have spent the past decade quietly complaining to anyone who would listen, about the ineptitude of the TTC infrastructure department.  The solution the contractors, tradespeople and engineering firms suggest is to turn all the large transit projects that TTC has in their plans over to Metrolinx.

Metrolinx is the provincial transit body responsible for building transit infrastructure – most recently, the Union-Pearson Express (delivered on time and on budget).  Under the leadership of CEO, Bruce McCuaig, Metrolinx has steered its large projects through Infrastructure Ontario which has developed an efficient process (with a 97% success rate) to manage big infrastructure projects.  Add to this the fact that McCuaig has attracted some of the best in the field, and the humility that McCuaig brings to his role as CEO of Metrolinx and it is easy to see why so many in the industry see them as the great solution to Toronto’s infrastructure problems.

A partnership between Metrolinx and the TTC is the best solution for Toronto. It would allow the TTC to focus on delivering excellent service efficiently, while at the same time deliver the expertise that Metrolinx has to all our future transit expansion plans.

A letter from Jerusalem

*From the Archives March 2000

By Barry Allen

The Jews are in Israel because it is the ancestral home of their people. To call modern Israel a colonist regime is the simplistic propaganda her enemies resort to when they want to pander to the leftist sentiments of Western intellectuals. Colonists come from somewhere else (their original home), and take over another people’s land. That’s what the English and French did in North America, the Spanish and Portugese in South America, the Dutch and Germans in Africa, and so on. Israel is not like that. Jews have come back to their original home, a land from which they were expelled time and again by invading would-be colonists — Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Turk.

The establishment of the State of Israel by the UN in 1948 is one of the few really decent things to come out of the dismally disappointing twentieth century. It did not have to make refugees of the Arab population. They were offered a state of their own, on half of the territory, and they turned it down, calculating that they could expel the Jews by force and have all of Mandate Palestine for themselves. They were wrong. They lost the war they started. They tried again in 1967, and again in 1973, and lost each time.

Usually, when aggressor nations start wars and lose them, they accept defeat and negotiate a settlement. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict this familiar expectation is inexplicably suspended. Instead, the Arabs now use a cynical combination of terror and faithless negotiation to try to win everything they lost, three times over, from wars they started.

Even more inexplicable is the support this perfidious tactic wins from the world community. In the eyes of much of the world, Israel can do nothing right, and the Palestinians can do nothing wrong (or very bad). They are under occupation, so, of course, they may resort to terror and refuse to compromise in negotiations. The Israelis won wars they didn’t start, and have prospered and become faithful Western allies. So, of course, they must be in the wrong.

Palestinians have reasonable claims against Israel. If they would only press their reasonable claims, they could get a deal. Instead, they stick to the same uncompromising, maximalists demands that cost them their own state in 1939, 1948, and last summer. The present Palestinian leadership is either unable or unwilling to do what it takes to get a real agreement. All they know how to do is repeat the same old demands — demands, in effect, that the Jews abandon the land they defended in three wars, and turn it over to those who lost the wars they started.

Israel deserves the world’s support. Anyone who thinks a rock is not a lethal weapon should stand in an open place and be a slingshot target. Those outraged (from a comfortable distance) at fatalities when Israel Defense Forces encounter rock-throwing gangs (often shielding gunmen) should try, not just aiming for, but striking the legs and not the upper body of a running youth trying to throw a rock at their face. Those shocked that Israel should target known terrorists for preemptive liquidation probably don’t put their children on bulletproof school buses every morning in countries where terrorists deliberately target not just civilians but children on the way to or from school.

The tanks were loud last night. A lot of artillery falling on the Arab Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Jala. The morning newspaper carried a photograph of a distraught Arab woman standing amid the ruins of her blasted home. It is sickeningly sad. But it is simplistic, irresponsible, even morally offensive to blame Israel.

Why were the tanks firing? Because for five months that house and others have been sniper nests, firing on Jewish homes, and enforcing a reign of terror on the neighborhood across the valley. Is artillery a disproportionate response? Unfortunately, a stiffly-worded letter to Arafat would achieve no more than to lighten the mood in his Gaza office. What else, exactly, is Israel supposed to do? What would you want your government to do if the people across the street began to shoot into your living room every night, or snipping at your children as they boarded the bus? If their response to efforts at negotiation was to demand that you pack up and leave so they could have your house?

Tomorrow I leave Israel after a four month stay, traveling first to Egypt, then elsewhere in the Middle East. People here say I’m leaving at the right time. Almost everyone expects the situation to worsen, and soon. I would stay if I could. Since I can’t, I write this letter instead, to urge readers to press past the simplistic and often grossly one-sided media coverage of the intifada. Ask yourself whether Israel isn’t right to defend itself against terror. Ask what you would do if your children’s lives were on the line. And whether the Jews do not have as good a claim as anyone to return to their original home from the longest diaspora of refugees in the history of the world.