Spelling out success for Canadian execs

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

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

The book’s results — which took three years to put together — are based on interviews with more than 100 Canadian CEOs. The volume delves into the 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 the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), 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 compared with other firms 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 of his company’s strategies is to treat 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.

A much smaller company is Dexit Inc. Today it has 65 employees, said CEO Renah Persofsky, but “from the very beginning we knew we were going to be a global company.” To succeed, Dexit needed to partner with other companies. But size isn’t everything. Just because a company is large does not mean Dexit will partner with it, she said. “We know that 70 per cent of partnerships fail.” Successful partnerships are more about locating a company with the “right fit” than finding one that is large and has global reach, she said.

Frank Maw, president of Motorola Canada, 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 eight-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 birds, designed for truly global communication, were launched at a time when cell phone calls were $3 per minute.

But Maw 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 future innovation. Iridium was the forefather of the concept of mass-produced satellites.

Maw said that 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 party doesn’t want those on 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 middlemen, he added. Motorola Canada, he said, is in the process of doing just this with one “very critical customer.”

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