Why RBC CEO Dave McKay sees lifelong learning as the foundation for success in a digital era

Even at the age of 18, working in a low-profile co-op position within the IT department at RBC Financial Group, Dave McKay had deep and unwavering conviction that he would one day rise up to become CEO of Canada’s largest bank.

Actually, that’s not true at all — and thank goodness for anyone mulling a career change and wondering if they have the skill sets they need.

McKay, who has held the top spot at RBC for four years, was featured in a fireside chat recently at the Toronto Global Forum, which focused on the talent needs employers have today and what it means for tomorrow’s workforce. McKay suggested this is an area close to his heart because, many years ago, he found himself questioning some of his own educational choices.

“I was going to become a computer major,” he recalled. “In year two, I switched to a business major . . . I streamed to where my true interest was.”

Ironically, McKay started as a programmer in COBOL, a language that continues to run large mainframe computers in some organizations but which has largely been succeeded by more modern alternatives such as JavaScript. McKay acknowledged that if he were still coding today, he’d likely have to upgrade his skills, something he is actively encouraging across RBC’s 85,000-person team.

“You can’t rely on a four-year program,” he said, wondering aloud about the idea of a two-year up-front postsecondary program that would be supplemented by two additional years’ worth of classes delivered over 10 years. “We need a new infrastructure based on retraining and lifelong learning. We have to build flexibility in the workforce.”

Even though he didn’t stick with programming, for example, McKay said he’s well aware that RBC is being swept up in the forces of digital transformation, which are forcing large groups of the bank’s employees to consider how they make use of corporate training dollars.

“Initially there was a lot of consternation and fear,” McKay said, adding RBC “gamified” the process by creating a game modelled on The Game Of Life board game to help employees explore their potential career paths. “Honest dialogues are really important as you’re bringing in new skills, retraining where you can and helping those who need to move elsewhere.”

While a number of RBC staff might opt to pursue web development, there are other options. In fact, McKay said there will be a range of disciplines the bank needs to draw upon as it strives to meet the expectations of those who are now accustomed to accessing financial services on mobile devices and interacting with organizations on social media rather than trekking into a physical branch.

“We’ve always been an industry that’s banked out,” McKay pointed out. “As we look to rebuild the bank around the customer, you need design skills, behavioral economics, anthropologists. We have to bring these skills in.”

McKay thinks about these issues not only as a corporate leader but as a father, adding he advises his children to be prepared to continue studying no matter what kind of jobs or industries they initially work towards.

“What to study, where to go, where are the jobs . . . we’re breaking down the silos of traditional career paths and we’re going to have to get a lot more flexible and resilient as the world changes,” he said.