Remarks by Rumina Velshi at the World Nuclear University Summer Institute 2023


July 27, 2023

Osaka, Japan

– Check against delivery –

Hello, and thank you for that welcome.

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.

Today, I’ve been asked to focus on the importance of a leader’s ability to relate – in other words, to speak and to listen. To engage and to connect. To build bridges and, when necessary, to take stands.

With that theme in mind, I’d like to share with you five pieces of leadership advice that may help you along the way – 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 – being aware of it… being open to it… and being committed to building relationships in any time of transition or transformation.

Change is the one constant that you will always confront – no matter how long you serve in a leadership role.

The pace of technological change, in particular, keeps accelerating.

Less than a year ago, very few of us had given a thought to the possibility of AI lending us a hand at work – let alone potentially replacing us in our jobs.

Today, we are curious – and perhaps somewhat anxious – about the practical implications of Artificial Intelligence in our lives and in our work.

We must never make the mistake of thinking our industry is immune to technological progress and its influences. It’s not.

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, new perils… and a sense of unease among the people you work with and lead.

Leaders need to be willing, able, and even eager to change with the times.

That means making sure we have both the right skills – and the right mindset.

Here’s one small but useful example.

One of our licensees produces medical isotopes in a research reactor.

They’re used at a medical facility located some distance away.

To eliminate the risk of delays due to traffic jams, the licensees are piloting a test case: delivery via drone.

Assuming that safety is maintained at all times, this is the kind of technological process that could bring meaningful benefits.

Leaders understand the importance of being open minded and forward looking –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 sector and your organization are heading over the longer term…

… and without allowing your team to become paralyzed with either worry or indecision.

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

It’s a key part of relating to your team.

Now… “clarity of vision”… what exactly 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 sector and beyond.

They know it from my words – but, more important, they see it in my actions… as a mentor, as an advocate, and as a voice for equity on a number of national and international bodies.

They know my focus is not fleeting.

And, as such, they understand that a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion must reside at the heart of our operations – as something that is fundamental to everything we do.

What better way to adapt to a changing world than to infuse our sector 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.

I’ll share another example on the importance of clearly articulating your vision.

My team at the CNSC 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.

As a result, our people are well prepared to oversee the safe, efficient deployment of new nuclear projects.

They are ready to face the future of the industry we regulate.

When you’re a leader, you must highlight the things that matter most to you.

As the old saying goes: When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

Once you’ve settled on your priorities, take the time to explain them clearly. Talk about them often.  

That clarity of vision will serve as a foundation of your relationship with those you lead.

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 intrude on that belief.

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 debate, discussion, and – on occasion – 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. A complementary way.

Now, if you’re like me and you don’t know a basketball from a beach ball, you may 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 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 feel proud.

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. But it’s a key part of relating to your team.

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 a team who sees their leader as thoughtful, accountable, and 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, especially 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 – which helps us to relate to one another. 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.

This was especially critical during the darkest moments of the pandemic.

Hope and optimism can be contagious in everyday moments.

And they can be a tonic in times of turmoil.

Your ability to relate to your team during the good times will only make it easier to do so during the difficult 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.

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 views. 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.

A truly positive and productive work relationship can’t be wholly dependent on geographic proximity.

It must be rooted in something more than face time and oversight.

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

Could our gesture of trust 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.

In the meantime, let’s not forget the 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.

Remote work gives us a huge edge in a highly competitive sector.

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 sector.

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 sector, 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 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.

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 take pride in 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 – the behaviour they allowed.

They permitted an environment that loudly proclaimed: Women are not welcome here.

We must always remember: Our decisions as leaders – even the smallest choices – 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.

Engaging with those you lead and those you serve, advocating for them, connecting with them – in essence, relating to them – can only lead you down the right path.

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 sectors.

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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