Man standing in front of a white background faces camera while wearing a navy, pin striped suit, white dress shirt and a red satin neck tie.
Image courtesy of Martin Thompson

Corner office dreamers, take note. When you move into a CEO role, be prepared for massive demands on your time, your energy, and your focus.

“Until you take the job, you don’t truly appreciate how many demands will be placed on you from people who want your input on how things are running,” says Martin Thompson, CEO of RSA Canada. “It becomes imperative to learn how to make good decisions and quickly figure out the best use of your time.”

Thompson faces a challenging journey to lead one of the oldest insurance companies in the country. With roots dating back to 1833, RSA Canada’s group now includes Roins Financial Services Limited, Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Company of Canada, Johnson Inc., and more.

In October 2016, Thompson’s climb up the corporate ladder continued with his move into the position of CEO, right at the time of a major sea change within his industry.

“There are many external catalysts at hand today,” he says. “We’re realizing that other companies are competing in our industry – banks for example- and they’re giving our customers alternatives.”

In such a paramount era of change for legacy companies like RSA, how does a CEO manage to focus their attention on the right things?

Thompson believes there are several important questions you need to answer and skills you need to develop.

“As you look at your diary, ask yourself: am I driving my agenda or is my agenda driving me? If other people start to drive your agenda, they’ll drive your focus, too. You have to be in control of that.”

Mastering the art of saying “no” is another crucial skill to staying focused. As CEO, you need to be crystal clear in terms of your goals and objectives or else you can be moved off course. “When there is a choice to say yes or no to an opportunity, and you realize a yes will detract from one of your core priorities, you can and must say no, without hesitation.”

Effective delegation is another critical competency for successful chief executives.  Thompson recommends asking yourself this question: “Am I the only person who can make this decision or complete this task?” If the answer is no, you need to bring in the key individuals to make the decision and draw up and manage an action plan to move forward. If the answer is yes, you need to have compelling reasons for taking this course of action, since the CEO should only be involved in the most strategic elements of the business.

Delegation is not just important for the CEO. “One of the most rewarding aspects of delegation is empowering someone else to make decisions for you” because this sets your team up for success in the future.

However, delegation alone is insufficient. Leaders also need to ensure they equip their teams to succeed.  “My ultimate goal is to efficiently supply our team with the tools and direction they need to go and deliver the kind of performance we demand.”

In today’s environment, there are rapid technological advancements, which provide innumerable opportunities to change your core business practices. “I think it’s easy to look out and copy what everyone else is doing; things that appear to be new, novel or different.” This leads to another important question: How do you know when it’s the right time to invest in a new technology or practice, or if you’re being swayed by a bright, shiny new object?

Thompson believes it is through listening closely to your customers and their experience. “After much research, we discovered that our customers wanted to open up further digital communication. As a result, in a span of six months, we’ve gone from 0 to 17,000 chats per month, which is enormous progress.”

How does he ensure that customer experience stays top of mind?

One critical practice, according to Thompson, is to focus on three or four key priorities per quarter. To do this, he meets with his executive team once a month to ensure they’re all on the same page.

He also conducts a weekly huddle with his executive team to review RSA’s performance on rising customer expectations. Instead of simply tracking customer service, they learn specifically where it’s lacking and then figure out what they need to do to fix it.

“On a strategic level, I make sure our team understands that meeting the changes in our customers’ needs is critical,” he says. “Failing to do this is the biggest strategic risk we face.”


  • Craig Dowden, Ph.D.

    Certified Positive Psychology Coach and best-selling author of "Do Good to Lead Well"

    Craig Dowden, Ph.D., a certified positive psychology coach, is on a mission to share evidence-based leadership principles. In particular, he is passionate about sharing the science of leadership, team, and organizational excellence with the people he serves. An inspiring and thought-provoking executive coach and an award-winning keynote speaker, Dowden partners with clients from diverse industries and sectors, who benefit from his drive, passion and insight. Dowden prides himself in providing world-class content to his clients. To date, he has interviewed over 65 CEOs of top North American companies, including McDonald’s, IKEA and VIA Rail. He has also interviewed widely known best-selling authors and TED speakers, including Marshall Goldsmith, Daniel Pink, Adam Grant, Susan Cain, Barry Schwartz, Marilee Adams, Adam Bryant and Doug Stone. He routinely integrates these conversations and insights into his client work. Dowden combines the key learnings from these interviews, along with evidence-based principles from the fields of psychology, leadership and organizational excellence in his best-selling book, Do Good to Lead Well: The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership (ForbesBooks, Feb. 8, 2019). The book outlines the return on investment of the six pillars of positive leadership – self-awareness, civility, humility, focus on the positive, meaning/purpose and empathy – and provides a practical and engaging roadmap showing how executives can effectively demonstrate these behaviors within their day to-day leadership practice, for their benefit, as well as for the benefit of the teams and organizations they lead. Called “ideal reading for people who want to make a positive impact in their organizations” by best-selling author Daniel Pink, Do Good to Lead Well is resonating with top corporate executives and international thought leaders, with endorsements from best-selling authors and top-rated TED speakers such as Adam Grant and Marshall Goldsmith, as well as over 20 CEOs of leading organizations. Dowden shares his views and expertise through articles published regularly in business and HR publications including the Financial Post, HR Professional, Canadian HR Reporter, Canadian Manager, the Huffington Post (U.S.) and Psychology Today. Dowden was recognized as one of Ottawa’s “Forty under 40” business leaders by the Ottawa Business Journal, a select group of individuals who “exemplify leadership, entrepreneurship and community building.” He will be a regular contributor to in February 2019 upon publication of his book. Dowden received his Doctorate in Psychology with a concentration in Business from Carleton University and completed his Bachelor of Science in psychology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He currently lives in Toronto. For more information, please visit