BMO Financial Group engaged Bonfire’s leadership development program to provide women at
BMO with a differentiated career development program aligned to our company’s equity
Karen Phifer, VP and Senior Talent Advisor at BMO, spoke with us about why the bank
chooses Bonfire to supplement its existing career development offerings. Karen’s portfolio at
BMO is focused on talent development – supporting the career trajectory of equity-deserving
BMO talent in the U.S. and Canada. An accomplished human resources leader and trusted
advisor, Karen is passionate about empowering and developing talent that grow representation
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What made BMO decide to adopt a program specific to women’s leadership
BMO is a long-standing advocate for gender equity. We are committed to removing
barriers for women’s empowerment, championing economic advancement, and
promoting an inclusive society. BMO’s multi-year strategy, Zero Barriers to Inclusion
2025, is focused on three pillars: colleagues, customers and communities. More
specifically, for colleagues, BMO remains committed to providing access to
opportunities and enabling professional growth, particularly when it comes to gender
equity and representation of people of color. As part of this DE&I program, we partnered
with Bonfire to support women with the professional development to grow into
BMO has its own Institute For Learning and other career development resources that
delivers colleagues 1.8 million hours of learning. Our relationship with Bonfire
contributes a valuable perspective that addresses women’s empowerment and building
How is Bonfire different from other leadership programs?
I think Bonfire is more about growing one’s innate ability to cultivate skill sets within.
You’re not just taking tests and learning content. It’s more about your own personal
purpose, learning more about who you are, developing your personal brand and finding
your voice. The participants learn the tools to nurture and express those leadership
traits within themselves.
Managers have shared that they can see a marked difference between the women who
participate in Bonfire. There’s a difference in the way they approach their career and
their life. They develop confidence in the value of their voice, their perspectives, and
their experiences. Over time, we see that confidence organically embed itself within
their professional and personal DNA.
How do you decide which employees are good candidates for Bonfire’s program?
We started out with a pilot group and feedback from those participants helped us clarify
who would most benefit from it.
It’s really based on where each individual is in her career & professional journey and
understanding what are her short- and long-term career goals. We look for participants
who are ready to address any development or competency gaps they need to fill for
We also want to ensure that the women opting in know what they’ll be getting from the
Bonfire experience, and that they are excited to invest the time in themselves to grow
beyond their comfort zones.
We’ve also had colleagues raise their hand and say, “Oh, I’ve heard about all the great
things happening in Bonfire. Can I go?” That then becomes a 1:1 career conversation
with their manager for sponsorship into Bonfire.
What kind of metrics can you share about BMO’s experience with Bonfire?
We measure the success of the program both through talent advancing into new roles
and certainly through retention. Since we started offering the program in 2021, over 400
women at BMO have been through the program (about half from Canada and half from
the U.S); 12% of them have been promoted and 7.5% of them have moved laterally into
new career paths within the bank. We have also benefitted from a 96% retention rate of
It’s been a short period of time so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing Bonfire’s impact
to the representation of women at senior leadership roles at BMO.
How has BMO’s participation in the Bonfire program grown so far?
It’s gaining steam through word of mouth. Some women who have gone through earlier
on and were promoted are now putting their staff through. That’s been a testament to
the success of the program. I’ve been told it’s easy to see who in a room is a Bonfire
How has the workplace changed for women over the course of your career?
Since I started my career, the work environment has changed very much. Earlier in my
career, companies didn’t have gender equity goals. That wasn’t really something that
was talked about, and leaders were not held accountable to it. Today, we know the
value of a diverse workforce and their representation in senior leadership is undeniable.
Diversity works from a return-on-investment and a revenue perspective.
How does BMO support women while they are participating in the Bonfire program?
We host an orientation session with managers who have direct reports in Bonfire.
Managers need to see examples of how their support of the women in the program will
benefit everyone, to know they will get a return on that investment. We talk about
protecting time on people’s calendars, although that is so much easier said than done.
We ask managers to give the participants permission to block out time and turn off their
phones so they can do the course prep.
We’ve seen that participants get out of Bonfire what they put into it, so we want to make
sure they get some time away from their day-to-day. We know that a lot of people have
so much on their plates right now, and even if they’re working on the course during
evenings or weekends, they’re still finding value and benefit to participation.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the participants?
The feedback has been strongly positive. Some of our colleagues have told us that
Bonfire was life-changing for them. The graduates are finding that it empowers them to
find their voice and have confidence in the value of their experiences. Some people who
are a little bit more senior have said, “I wish I would have had this earlier in my career.”