Canadian business leaders must
TORONTO—Canadian business leaders could do a better job of communicating the benefits of innovation and changing the way an organization has always comfortably done business, said Benson Honig, a professor at Hamilton, Ont.-based DeGroote School of Business.

“If we don’t rock the boat, we’ll just continue what we’re doing until the boat starts to sink,” said Honig at a panel discussion on business innovation.

Part of changing that entrenched corporate culture of playing it safe is to celebrate failures as much as successes, because a failed project will be a valuable learning lesson in what went wrong, said Honig.

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Adding to that, Eric Gales, president of Markham, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada Co., said business leaders must condition employees to take risk and encourage ideas that could reap competitive advantage. At Microsoft Canada, Gales said the corporate culture is such that employees are pushed to embrace failure.

“There must be a level of trust in our organization that you’re not going to get fired,” said Gales.

That said, parameters should be in place to ensure the right amount of risk is taken, not the sort of “crazy risk” that caused the economic meltdown in the first place, said Gales. “It has to be commensurate with the business you’re in,” said Gales.

Another panelist, Peter Aceto, president and CEO of Toronto-based financial institution ING Direct Canada Inc., said his leadership approach to fostering innovation is a corporate intranet where employees are encouraged to share ideas. Aceto makes a point of reading and responding, on the site, to every idea posted.

“I’m getting feedback every single day from our employees all the time,” said Aceto. “It’s very deliberate. It’s time-consuming. It’s like hitting this little wheel over and over again. And, over time, it really starts to spin and gain momentum.”

Aceto recalls fearing, at the height of the financial meltdown, that Canada’s culture of business conservatism would be reinforced. But, in the aftermath of the crisis, Aceto said he’s observed the financial sector making strides to change how they’ve traditionally operated.

“That’s a good example of a group of Canadians who are getting it,” said Aceto.

Information technology, too, plays a role in driving business innovation. But while technology is easily attainable to all organizations, Gales said what counts is how the technology gets applied to the business. “You have to invest in it and connect it to value,” said Gales.

Canadian leaders must also operate out of their comfort zone by thinking globally, rather than just directing efforts primarily nationally and to the U.S., said Honig. The greatest asset that Canada has, he thinks, is the human capital pool of diverse cultures that will be injected into the next generation of business leaders.

“That is an absolutely perfect situation for a global economy,” he said.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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