Spelling out success: Book uncovers how Canadian execs pulled it off

It’s compelling, it’s comprehensive and it’s about Canadian CEOs…the successful ones that is.

A book released last Thursday – on lessons learned by some of Canada’s most innovative and intrepid CEOs – is appropriately titled Success. For the book records and reviews the strategies adopted by company executives that got them the results they sought.

The volume delves into business approaches used in everything from the automotive industry (where execution is often a bigger differentiator than innovation) to the retail space (where innovative products drive store traffic and high profit margins).

Author Barry Gander, vice-president of CATA (Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance), said it’s important for Canadian executives to learn new leadership skills to prosper in what is an increasingly competitive global environment. Traditional business skills such as risk evaluation are less sought after than softer people skills such as mentoring, he said.

For a company such as CGI Group Inc, the Montreal-based IT solutions provider, the transition to a knowledge-based economy has been less of a struggle than for others because of the company’s focus. “What we sell is knowledge and know how,” said company president Michael Roach. “Our assets take the elevator every morning.”

One strategy his company uses is to treat its employees as owners. “When was the last time [you saw] someone wash a rental car,” he said. “We believe someone who owns a firm will pay more attention.” By matching stock purchases, fostering a mindset of satisfying customers and not bosses, and creating a fairly decentralized business structure, CGI has been able to grow from one employee to 25,000 in less than three decades.

Frank Maw works for a company that has had a tougher time transitioning to a knowledge-based economy, in part because it is still a large-scale innovator, and innovation comes at a cost. Every innovation will not be a home run, he said. “We could talk about 8-track, but that is a short story,” he said, referring to the company’s less than successful foray into that audio format. Its Iridium satellites were also a failure. The 66 low orbit satellites, designed for truly global communication, were launched at a time when cell phone calls were $3 per minute.

But Maw, president of Motorola Canada, said the company’s 77-year track record is really one of success, where agility was the key. Though a product or idea may fail, it is not in vain since the underpinnings go on to help other innovation. Iridium was the forefather to the concept of mass production satellites.

Maw said from a leadership perspective it is important to be able to react quickly to customer concerns. Though admittedly the calls seldom come directly to him, he is there if needed. Often with outsourcing, the middle doesn’t want the ends talking to each other, he said. But with large customers, if there is a problem “you have to do it yourself” instead of relying on the middlemen, he added. Motorola Canada, he said, is in the process of doing just this with one “very critical customer.”

The book’s results — which took three years to put together — are based on interviews with more than 100 Canadian CEOs.

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