Remarks by President Rumina Velshi at the World Nuclear University Summer Institute


July 21, 2022

– Check against delivery –


I want to begin by saying to each and every one of you: Congratulations!

I’ve been reliably informed that this is a group of talented individuals – with leadership aspirations and, more importantly, leadership capabilities.

I have every confidence that the nuclear industry will benefit from what you’ve learned here this summer –and that you’re now better equipped to continue along your own leadership journey… and better able to make a meaningful contribution through your work.

I’ve had the good fortune to be a leader in this industry for quite some time now. As we celebrate your upcoming graduation, I’d like to share with you five pieces of leadership advice – the sorts of things that I wish someone had told me when I was moving into positions of leadership and influence.

I’ll start by talking about change. Because this is the one constant that you will always confront – no matter how long you serve in a leadership role.

We live in a time when the pace of technological change keeps accelerating. The status quo is in an almost perpetual state of transformation.

Think about the sentences we say now. Sentences that would have made no sense even a decade ago: "I’m going to Uber to my Air BnB and binge-watch some Netflix." The way we listen to music – reinvented. The way we take photographs and preserve our memories – totally different.

We can’t make the mistake of thinking our industry is immune to these influences. It’s not. All around us, we see changes underway.

A societal shift toward clean energy alternatives. In the nuclear field, innovative new research and infrastructure development. The introduction of drones. The use of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. The emergence of cybersecurity threats. And on it goes.

A changing world opens the door to ingenuity – and better ways of building and doing things. But it can also open the door to new challenges and perils.

Leaders need to be willing, able, and even eager to change with the times. To face new challenges head on without delay or uncertainty. That means making sure we have both the right skills – and the right mindset.

Leaders look forward. They understand that in the nuclear industry, looking forward means preparing your organization today for technology that will be emerging years from now.

It’s a question of balance – maintaining a focus on the current issues of the day, without losing sight of where the industry and your organization are heading over the longer term.

It will therefore be incumbent on you as leaders to ensure that you, your teams and your organization develop and commit to a culture of career-long learning. Make it a priority.

Lead the way by ensuring that your own skills and knowledge remain current. You can’t risk falling behind – or you will wind up being every bit as obsolete as a piece of technology that’s had its day.

My second piece of advice for you: As a leader, it is essential that you both possess and communicate a clarity of vision.

Now, what does that mean? I’ll start by telling you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind. You absolutely can. Evolving circumstances and new information can lead us to different conclusions. I’ll talk more about that in a moment.

It also doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice  or solicit the opinions of others. You absolutely can – and should. Only the weakest and most insecure of leaders cling to the idea that they alone have all the answers.

What it does mean is this: The people you lead need to know what you stand for. They need to know your values and your priorities. And not only do they need to hear you express those priorities and values – they need to see you work to advance them.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. The people who work with me at the CNSC know that I am a passionate advocate for gender equity – in our industry and beyond.

They know it from my words – and from my actions as a mentor, as an advocate, and as a voice for equity on a number of national and international bodies.

What better way to adapt to a changing world than to infuse our industry with new energy and new perspectives – and ensure it is attracting the best and brightest of all genders?

When we empower women, everyone benefits. When we exclude, or fail to open ourselves up to part of the population, we fall short of our potential.

And that imperative extends across the widest range of diversity and inclusion priorities. We will always do better – as an organization and as a society –  when we allow everyone to participate to the fullest extent of their abilities.

My team at the CNSC also knows that I am squarely focused on ensuring that our organization is prepared for the emergence of SMRs. I have repeatedly made this a point of emphasis.

And because people are exposed to this clarity of vision, they will be better prepared and better able to respond to future issues related to the safe, global deployment of SMRs.

They understand that the “imperative to prepare” stretches across the organization. And they know that because they hear it coming from the top – because I’ve made a point of sharing my views and my vision time and again.

When you’re a leader, you must prioritize. It’s like the old saying goes: When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Once you’ve settled on your priorities, it is essential that you take the time to explain them clearly and repeatedly. That clarity of vision will help ensure a widespread understanding of the need to act.

My third piece of advice for you as you continue along your leadership journey: Do not fear the strength of others.

I’ve been around long enough to know that there are essentially two kinds of leaders.

One assumes that she knows best – that she knows all – and, consciously or subconsciously, she builds an executive team that will not threaten her delusion.

The other leader has the confidence and the wisdom to surround herself with smart people.

People whose strengths complement her own – even if that means more debate, more discussion and even sometimes more disagreement.

If you’re a sports fan, you might think of your fellow executives as players on a basketball team. You can’t win with five people possessing the same set of skills and doing the same thing.

Yes, each player must be talented. But ideally, each should be talented in a different way.

Now, if you’re like me and you don’t know a basketball from a beach ball, you perhaps prefer to think of your executive team as being like an orchestra.

Violins are lovely, but we don’t want or need 95 of them. The whole collective effort works best when talented people with different skillsets come together to make beautiful music together.

And if you happen to be the conductor, you should never feel overshadowed or intimidated by this assembly of ability and excellence.

You should lead them with confidence. You should help them achieve their potential – as individuals and as a group.

And when the audience starts to clap in appreciation, you should turn and take a bow – and then gesture to the orchestra, so they receive the praise that they deserve.

My fourth piece of leadership advice for you: Have the courage to admit your ignorance and your mistakes – and the strength to adapt to changing trends and realities.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, of course.

No one looks forward to admitting an error. And it’s easy to get caught up in old ways of thinking – and continue to move forward as though you were on autopilot.

As a leader, you will need to make tough decisions. You’ll have to explain and defend those decisions. And sometimes, you may need to change or apologize for a decision. That takes courage.

But the reward is that your team sees a leader who is thoughtful, who is accountable, and who is always ready to take responsibility for her actions.

That sends a message about personal character. But hopefully it also sets a tone across the organization. The goal is for other leaders and managers to adopt the same spirit of candor and humility.

In my current position, I work very hard to convey my belief that every member of my team is valuable – and every opinion is worthy of consideration, even if it challenges the status quo.

In fact, I make it clear that my door is open to anyone who wishes to raise a concern.

I believe in trying to be as transparent as possible as a leader.

You can’t share everything, of course.

There are matters of delicacy and privacy that will always demand discretion.

But as leaders, we can share our thinking.

We can explain and justify our decisions, when doing so might allow members of our team to better understand and appreciate the nuances of a situation.

And we can show that we are human. We can admit to making mistakes or having second thoughts.

The goal, as I see it, is to make sure that your team stays engaged – and is always thinking and analyzing, assessing and reassessing. There should be an ongoing ambition to get it right, even if getting it right requires a change of course.

Doing what we’ve always done – just because we’ve always done it that way – is a recipe for decline in an organization.

As leaders, we need to stay curious and openminded. We must show the way. We must set the tone.

At the CNSC, I often remind my colleagues: As a regulator, we exist to protect people from risk – not from progress.

We don’t want to be a bottleneck that prevents good work from being done – and innovation from being achieved.

And that means that we ourselves must stay current, must stay agile, and must be willing to change what we’ve always done, if that’s what the times demand.

Setting the tone also means establishing an organization’s emotional tenor.

In my role, I strive to create an environment of hope and optimism across our organization. And this has been especially critical during the pandemic. Hope and optimism, I have seen, are contagious and it is imperative that leaders exude optimism even during challenging times. 

My final bit of advice for you today: Focus your leadership efforts on strengthening relationships – by building and preserving a sense of trust.

Building trust can be hard because, for a leader, it will sometimes require the surrender of some element of control.

The best example I can give you also happens to be a very current example.

With the onset of the pandemic, we were put into a position where many of our people worked from home.

We were not alone in this, of course.

But we embraced it. We did our best to help employees with the transition. We provided flexibility. In other words, we did our best to adapt.

And what we found – somewhat to our surprise – was that our productivity actually went up.

So, when the time came to consider a return to the office, we paused.

We consulted with our employees. We asked for their view, their preference. We talked to our managers.

And in the end, we decided to allow most people to continue to work from home, if they so desire.

You can call this a leap of faith on our part. I prefer to think of it as a gesture of trust.

I see Elon Musk on Twitter, talking about how he’s grown weary of this “work from home” stuff and wants everyone back in the workplace.

Personally, I believe a truly positive and productive work relationship can’t be wholly dependent on geographic proximity. It has to be rooted in something more than face time and oversight.

Our employees have shown that they are capable of doing their work efficiently and effectively in a different way than we would have thought possible.

And now we have the opportunity to strengthen those relationships by expressing our trust in employees who wish to continue to work from home.

Could it backfire? There’s always a chance. But that’s the risk you sometimes need to take as a leader.

If this experiment falls short, it will be incumbent on me as a leader to adapt – to take what I have learned and adjust our policies accordingly.

But if it works – if our trust is rewarded and our employees continue to perform admirably in this new arrangement – then we will have won their appreciation, and our relationship will have been made even stronger.

And let’s not forget the potential benefits of a work-from-home culture – not only in potential cost savings, but also in opening up the talent pool to include people from all across our country.

Finding and keeping talent is an essential task of any leader. That’s especially true in a time of change and innovation.

At the CNSC, for instance, we need to make sure we have the staff and expertise in place to validate the innovative work that comes before us.

But the principle applies across the industry.

The best people have the ability to choose where they work. And, by and large, they tend to gravitate to places that have the best reputations.

In other words, building a culture of trust provides you with an advantage in attracting and retaining top talent.

And trust isn’t just important within our organizations.

More than any other industry, nuclear relies on building and maintaining a relationship of trust with our fellow citizens.

People need to be confident that nuclear plants are operating safely – and are well-protected in the event of the unexpected.

We can and we must engage with local communities, Indigenous peoples, and the public at large to reassure them their safety is our first and last concern.

The facts are important – but it’s about more than facts. It’s about communication. It’s about reaching out to people and making a connection.

And that becomes so much easier when your team is aligned and when a culture of trust exists across your organization.

By way of conclusion, I want to tell you a little story.

I began my career in nuclear more than 40 years ago.

I can still remember walking into the nuclear station near Toronto. It was a rather jarring experience.

On the walls and workstations – photos of naked women, even some pornography.

In the change room – not a single protective suit in my size. Nothing for a woman. Even the underwear came only in styles and sizes made for men.

I tell you this for two reasons: First, to illustrate that a lot has changed across our industry, and so much of it for the better. So, we can be grateful for that, even as we continue to strive for true gender equity.

But more importantly, I encourage you to reflect on the fact that there were leaders in that nuclear station. And this was the tone they allowed – one that conveyed that women were not welcomed in the nuclear facility. This tone which – while in keeping with the broader culture of the time – should not have been allowed.

So, always remember: Our decisions as leaders – even the smallest ones – have consequences and impacts. They ripple out from us. They reach far and wide.

We help set the tone. We help shape the culture. And we bear the responsibility for any shortcomings.

I am proud to have worked in this sector for more than four decades. But I am even more energized and excited about the future – the opportunities that await, the potential that is yet to be achieved and, of course, the achievements of the people who will lead the way.

This era of innovation and change will bring challenges – as it has brought challenges for so many established industries.

But this also can be a period of enormous progress and tremendous satisfaction for those who lead us.

I look forward to seeing the impact you make.

Thank you.

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