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Six “Wicked Questions” Every Leader Must Ask


Competence, Character & Leadership …
We are not the first to suggest leadership needs to be defined in a more robust and all-encompassing manner. In fact, we believe the definition of what constitutes great leadership is not static, but rather needs to evolve with the times and the particular challenges posed by a specific moment or era. In this sense, leadership is something that can only be judged by the relevance of the person (or persons) to the particular stage on which they perform and the unique context within which they have been asked to lead.

All leadership is, so it has been said, situational!

In my book “Straight Talk on Leadership” (Wiley and Sons, 2013), I introduced the eight transformational leadership competencies I believe are required for the times in which we live. The good folks at Western University in London (Crossan, Gandz and Seijts) offered up their ten “Dimensions of Leadership Character” and the two together give us a very good model with which to evaluate the nature of leadership today.

This powerful combination of character traits and leadership competencies offers a roadmap to those who wish to examine not only their own fitness, but the fitness of the leaders below them. No worthy leader should shy away from holding themself, and others to the very highest of standards and asking the tough, “Wicked Questions” needed to accurately assess how competent they are.

Power of Wicked Questions …
We have always been fascinated by the magical art of asking “Wicked Questions”, those questions that do not have an obvious answer. In fact, we would go so far as to suggest great leaders know how to craft wicked questions, and it is their ability to do so that marks them as truly unique individuals.
At their very essence, wicked questions are questions of exploration or discovery.
Wicked questions are used to expose the assumptions which shape our actions and choices. They are questions that articulate the embedded, and often contradictory assumptions, we hold about an issue, a problem or a context. Unlike everyday questions, wicked questions do not have an obvious answer, and their value lies in their capacity to open up options, expand the scope of inquiry and surface the fundamental issues that need to be addressed, rather than the symptoms which often mask or distort the truth.
On the following pages we offer up the questions we believe leaders must ask themselves, and then act upon, no matter what the ugly truth reveals. To play on the famous quote by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a situational leader if ever there was one), the ability to answer these questions is “Not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Are We Really Clear Headed? …
We can all be blinded by distraction and deafened by noise, but the true test of a leader is their ability to rise above all of that and, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”. When a leader allows their cognitive abilities to become impaired, for whatever reason, they lose the crucial ability to accurately orient themselves, and their organization, in both time and space. As a result, their judgment can be seriously flawed and, even worse, they may not even realize it until it is too late.
Leaders must possess the strength of character, and depth of competency, to avoid this trap. They must force themselves into asking the wicked questions to seek the truth and ensure the validity of their thinking. They cannot rest until they have punctured every half-truth or bias that may have crept into their thinking over time.

Leaders must be wide awake and hyper alert. They must possess a combination of:

Contextual Intelligence (CQ) – sensing subtle shifts and predicting their implication
Ambiguity Intelligence (AQ) – living comfortably with uncertainty and not knowing

Transcendence – appreciative, inspired, purposeful and future oriented
Humility – modest, reflective, continuous learner, respectful and grateful

Are We Using The Right Lens? …
Our perspective on an issue, or on a challenge, or on people is what ultimately shapes the conclusions we reach and, therefore, the actions we take (or don’t take). If we get the initial frame wrong, then we will very likely make the wrong assumptions, and they will fog up the lens through which we look at the situation. We will end up drawing the wrong conclusions based on a faulty premise – or an outright distortion of reality.
Our mental models are powerful, often invisible, prisons that can trap us into a belief system that is both inaccurate and dangerous. When leaders allow themselves, or their organizations, to twist and distort the reality of any given situation, they become complicit in a chain of events that will almost always lead to failure. Leaders must be at their best when things are foggy or vague, and they must have the balance just right between what is fair and just, and what is required to alter old, tired mindsets in order to unlock the potential found in a new way of thinking.

Leaders must be vigilant, calm and rational. They must possess a combination of:

Strategic Intelligence (SQ) – deep insight , clear foresight and peripheral vision

Justice – fair, equitable, proportionate, even handed and socially responsible
Temperance – patient, calm , composed, self-controlled and prudent

Have We Been Totally Honest? …
It’s very easy to tell little white lies, we all do it from time to time. Some are simply innocent lies, with no malice or ill intent, and some are lies of convenience, designed to get us out of an uncomfortable or tight spot. No matter how we cut it, honesty is a practice rooted deeply in our character, and it is either a covenant we keep with ourselves, or something we allow to roam at will, depending on the situation.
We consider candour to be the ultimate lubricant for a high performing organization because it assumes the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line, and beating around the bush is nothing more than waste and inefficiency. The trouble is, most people have a limit to their candour. In critical situations, they allow themselves to hold back from telling the truth for fear of recrimination or some form of backlash.

In our view – the worst truth is still better than the best lie!

Leaders must be humble and authentic. They must possess a combination of:

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – ability to know yourself and connect with others

Integrity – authentic, candid, transparent, principled and consistent
Learning – open, aware, informed studious and inquisitive

Has Our Culture Evolved With The Times? …
Some people believe an organization’s culture should remain static, preserved in a pickle jar and never allowed to change over time. They believe their culture is somehow a guarantee of continued success, or an anchor in a storm, or some other colourful metaphor that suggests the past is a harbinger of the future. While there may have been a time when this was more true than false, the fact of the matter is – times have changed.
Cultures need to evolve with the times, and the continued relevance of your organization may very well be determined by whether or not your culture has allowed new oxygen to creep into the lifeblood of what it believes and how it acts. At its core, culture is the way things get done, it’s what people believe and how they choose to work together. It is not determined by the organizational chart, or hierarchies of control and authority, but rather by what people think and do on their own, when no one is watching.

Leaders must have an eye for talent. They must possess the combination of:

Talent Intelligence (TQ) – capacity to spot, develop and release latent talent
Collaborative Intelligence (COQ) – connect with and work comfortably with others

Humanity – considerate, empathetic, compassionate, magnanimous and forgiving
Accountability – takes ownership, accepts consequences, conscientious, responsible

Have We Banished Complacency? …
The well-known author and business guru Jim Collins once said “The enemy of great, is good”. He was right – but he may not have gone far enough because complacency still remains the silent killer of organizational effectiveness. Perhaps it is sheer laziness, or maybe it is fatigue, but leaders everywhere are guilty (at some level) of allowing their organizations to drift into a repetitive pattern of subdued mediocrity.

Harsh words, perhaps, but with more than a little truth!

As complex social structures, organizations cannot be managed solely, or even effectively, through a dense set of policies and procedures. The human element will always come into play and, like water, it will find its own natural level, regardless of how it may be contained by a set of structures. Leaders must be the energy source that fights back against the dark forces of complacency, and they must do so by continually agitating, stretching, challenging and provoking.

Leaders must disrupt and disturb. They must possess a combination of:

Decision Making Intelligence (DMQ) – ability to frame problems and resolve issues

Courage – brave, determined, tenacious, resilient and confident
Resourcefulness – able, imaginative, adroit, able to deal well with difficult situations

Are We Breaking New Ground? …
Yesterday is the land of nostalgia, while tomorrow is the land of opportunity. Since we will be living in the future, whether we like it or not, a leader who is not thinking fast forward is leading their organization backwards in time. While breaking new ground is hard work, full of risk and peril and with no guarantee of success, it remains the only way to move ahead and, in the process, remain relevant.
Over the broad sweep of economic and social history, progress has been marked by the brave pioneers who were driven to the future by the allure of its promise, not the comfort of its certainty. Progress is a necessary part of evolution, and adapting to new conditions is what ultimately allows us to prosper and grow, both personally and organizationally. Leaders, above all others, must be the ones to challenge convention and stir the pot of discovery to ensure their organizations move forward. They must discard the shackles of convention and embark on a journey into the unknown.

Leaders must be brave and curious. They must possess a combination of:

Innovative Intelligence (INQ) – ability to inspire, imagine and invent new solutions

Driven – passionate, vigorous, results oriented, takes initiative, strives for excellence
Determined – resolute, purposeful, unwavering, undaunted and tenacious

Steps to Take :: Actions to Consider
It is our strong conviction that the times in which we live change the very nature of the leadership we need. In a world as fast-paced, demanding and ever changing as the one we find ourselves in today, we believe leaders need to be more open than ever before to new mindsets and new possibilities. To quote the author Marshall Goldsmith “What got us here, won’t get us there”.
As such, leaders have to master the stubborn paradox that has always been part of leadership, the ability to embrace new ways of thinking while being guided by a set of character traits and virtues that provide balance in the midst of chaos and confusion.
Here are some things to help get you started.

Abandon Perfection as the Goal
In a world that is fundamentally imperfect, populated by less than perfect people, the very pursuit of perfection may be a cruel form of flawed logic. In fact, one can argue that arriving at a state of perfection is what actually inhibits you from getting better, doing more, or inventing something different. Give imperfection its rightful place.

Focus on Asking Better Questions
We all like answers, but the thing that actually moves us forward is questions, questions that challenge what we believe and what we have come to accept. The ability to ask “Wicked Questions”, the kind that disrupt, and stretch us beyond our own boundaries, are the gold dust of success.

Keep Things in Constant Flux
The role of the most senior leaders of any organization is not to keep things in check and under control, it is exactly the opposite. Great leaders thrive in the midst of chaos, and even create it as a means to push their organizations forward. They realize that keeping things in motion, and allowing ideas to collide (sometimes violently), is the best way to remain agile and opportunistic.

Tinker and Experiment Continually
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is what all great leaders, in today’s environment, must have in spades if they wish to guide their organizations forward toward sustainable success. Complacency, in all its forms, must not be allowed to put its evil hands around the neck of the organization and choke the ability of people to innovate on a daily basis. Innovation is a free spirit and a restless soul, it cannot become institutionalized.

Honour Your Rebels
In times like this, your best friend may very well be the crazy person you always feared in the past. The person who seemed just slightly off kilter, the creative deviant, the slightly twisted thinker who might have always been the one to challenge you. Today, you might want to keep that person close to you, and give them the immunity of the court jester to say what they think and to think outside of the box.

The Predictable Passages of Organizational Transformation

CdnMgr Spring 2015cover_Page_1

Navigate the future:
The predictable passages of
Organizational Transformation
In an orderly, predictable, safe and sane world, the
very thought of a leader embarking on a journey of
fundamental organizational transformation would be
considered radical, if not irresponsible. On the other hand,
given the environment we have experienced in recent
years, and will likely continue to experience for the
foreseeable future, ignoring the need to transform could
be considered an act of serious neglect by any responsible
The considerable challenge, as always in times of
great uncertainty, lies in how the leader weighs the risks
and opportunities while, at the same time, determining
the right moment.
• If things are going well – you may not wish to tinker,
let alone transform
• If things are going poorly – you may have already lost
your best chance for success
Bottom line, survival has always been dependent
upon our ability to adapt to circumstance. In this way, the
business world is no different from the animal world,
except you might assume the more intelligent species
would be better at transformation and adaptation than
they really are. Transformation, which is several degrees of
complexity up the food chain from traditional ‘Change
Management’, is something very few do well.
In my view, this is in large measure due to the fact
most leaders have a less than complete understanding of
the transformational journey and the various stages,
phases or passages they must navigate in order to be
successful in their transformational efforts. In this article I
will attempt to describe the process and share insights on
the predictable hurdles along the way.
My experience with large scale transformational
change suggests there are three distinct phases to the
transformational journey, and nine very distinct and
predictable ‘passages’ which must be navigated. The first
phase is what I call the ‘Getting Ready Phase’.
In this stage, the body of the organization is already
well aware of the challenges it faces, and some people
have already begun to sense that something is wrong. In
fact, those at the more junior levels often spot the signs
first. They are typically much closer to the customer, and
much more aware of the obstacles and barriers that are
getting in the way of delivering on the value proposition.
They see the gaps in vivid techno colour, but they feel
powerless to effect change, or even catch the attention of
those further up the organizational pyramid. They begin
to hunker down for bad news and bad times.
Eventually, the leaders above begin to sense the issues
for themselves, although they almost always lag in their
awareness. Slowly, they begin to examine the evidence
which suggests things are not going according to plan.
The first reaction is almost always to reject the need for
large scale change and, instead, try to put a short-term fix
in place to buy themselves time. They debate amongst
themselves the reasons for the difficulties, but they are
typically more interested in attributing blame than they
are in addressing the roots causes which lie deeper below
the surface.
Assuming the organization, and its leaders, come to
appreciate the messages being telegraphed by the ‘faint
signals from the periphery’ suggesting transformation
may be required, they move on to the very difficult stage
of agreeing on the diagnosis.
Almost every business leader talks about the insidious
Doug Williamson
Spring 2015
nature of organizational silos and the challenges of
achieving alignment. These are the two evil step sisters
that, over and over again, cause organizations to languish
in mediocrity or die in painful agony. Despite how
damaging these issues can be, it is always surprising how
difficult it is for otherwise capable and decent leaders to
come to terms with abolishing these well-known selfimposed
barriers to sustainable high performance and
serial success.
Coming to terms with reality, no matter how painful
that reality may be, is something leaders must find the
strength to do. Getting the organization to rally around a
call to action and calibrate on the need to transform takes
time, energy, determination and strong character. Giving
people at all levels the truth, and trusting they will
respond in kind, is an act of leadership courage and it
provides the fuel to carry on with fierce resolve and
unwavering determination. It is at this point the
organization will experience the first of two big ‘dips’ in
the transformational journey. To quote the author Seth
Godin, these dips are the necessary rite of passage we
must go through on the journey to excellence and high
performance. They must be embraced as part of the
journey, which is not a straight line, but rather a choppy,
uneven and turbulent progression.
Phase 2 is the ‘Beginning to Perform Phase’ of the
transformational journey, and it also has three distinct
passages. Leaders often make the mistake of believing
they can muscle their way through this phase and, by way
of sheer will and determination, force the organization to
speed up and get to high performance in a much shorter
period of time than it really takes.
This is a fundamental flaw in judgment which has
caused many a good leader to fail, and many a good
organization to crash and burn.
Every successful journey begins with good planning
and preparation. In the case of organizational
transformation, this is about planning and preparing for
the surprises, setbacks and struggles you will experience
along the way.
Preparation, in this sense, is not about eliminating or
even mitigating all the risks and trying to chart a certain
path. It is the exact opposite! It is about developing
mindsets, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that will allow
you to cope with the ‘curve balls’ which you will face. Too
many leaders believe they must control the process in
great detail when, in fact, the focus should be on
preparing people to be tenacious, resilient and adaptive
to ongoing change.
This is the half-way point in the transformational
journey. The people have committed, the leadership team
has calibrated, and the organization has been primed and
prepared for the journey – including the inventible dips it
will encounter along the way. Culture and values have
been cemented deep into the organizational tissue, and
the vitally important and influential middle management
group has been galvanized. Now the real work begins!
Human nature is a truly strange and unpredictable
beast. Amongst our many quirks is a tendency to want to
get past the bad as soon as we can in order to get back to
the good. In organizational transformation, this human
trait needs to be tempered if you want the breakthroughs
that are possible in true transformation. Simply put, you
have to avoid the desire to declare victory too soon!
True transformation takes time and, while you
certainly want early success, you need to be careful to not
overplay those successes and think they are guarantees
that you are safely on the road. The fact of the matter is,
those early successes are probably just bringing you back
to a baseline you should have been at in the first place.
The truly great transformational leaders know the
hard work needed is much more than simply gathering
the low hanging fruit. They tap into the positive energy
flow, but they use it to push ahead, harder, faster, bolder,
resisting the tyranny of complacency at every turn.
It has often been accepted as gospel that people hate
change. The trouble is that is just not true, but instead an
unsophisticated form of popular folklore. The truth of the
matter is that people hate the emotions triggered by
uncertainty and fear. As a result, there is a base human
response to the passage through the Early Success stage
that creates a tendency to plateau. People want to coast.
To put it another way, they want a rest from the fearless
pressure of the uncertainty monster and they pause for a
time-out that can last for quite a while if you are not
At this point, leaders of the organization on a
transformational journey need to pay very special
attention to the organizational pulse. They have to sense
the early signs of an emerging plateau and get ahead of
it. The narrative within the organization needs to change
and, truth be told, some changes in key people will very
likely have to be made.
Senior leaders must take careful and objective stock
of their people and their capacity to shift into a yet higher
gear. The skills and aptitudes needed from this point on
Spring 2015
will change, and wise leaders play it differently. Rather
than slowing down when a corner approaches, they shift
gears and accelerate into the corner. This decision is what
allows the organization to catapult ahead, and avoid a
prolonged drift sideways.
We have now entered Phase 3, “The Determination
Phase”. This is the portion of the journey that will either
allow the organization to realize its true potential, and
reap a dividend on its transformational agenda, or enter a
period of decline and probably death.
Organizations that have been successful in navigating
this part of the journey have all tended to go on and
achieve a level of sustainably superior performance that
most others can only envy from a distance. This is rarified
territory, and it can only be claimed by those who have:
• Taken the long view and avoided short-term
• Operated according to a clear set of values and
guiding principles
• Honed their Talent IQ and really learned how to get
the most out of people
• Banished complacency from every single pore of the
• Transformed who they are, what they have to offer,
and how they go to market
• Evolved ahead of the curve rather than having the
future catch them by surprise
Organizations that embark on a transformational
journey are taking a risk. They know the path to success is
not a straight line and there will be setbacks along the
way. In a world filled with turbulence and uncertainty, it is
safe to assume that, at some point, the resolve of a
transforming organization will be tested by an event not
of their own choosing, and most likely occurring at a time
of great inconvenience.
This crisis, whether internally or externally generated,
is a true moment of reality for the organization, and will
determine whether the heavy lifting done up to that point
has helped the organization develop the new muscles
necessary to break through.
As the organization survives the crisis, it emerges
stronger, more confident and more capable of tackling the
last leg of the transformational journey. This is the same
type of boost a spacecraft gets as it rounds the moon and
catapults back toward earth. The energy created is used as
a supplementary source to help the organization propel
itself forward.
You know that wonderful feeling of relief when the
wheels of your car grip the road in the midst of a snow
storm, and allow you to avoid getting stuck. The traction
phase of organizational transformation creates the same
feeling. The leaders gain a stronger sense of imminent
success and the body of the organization responds in kind,
putting its shoulder to the wheel.
Traction allows everything to just seem easier and to
come more naturally. The barriers, burdens and hurdles
seem to melt away, and the organization picks up speed as
it feeds off its newly cemented confidence. This is the
moment you have worked for and, while not without its
own perils and hard work, it takes place within a new
climate of focused commitment and fierce resolve.
Savour this moment as the reward for all the hard
work done along the way but, rather than coast, put your
foot to the floor and accelerate.
The organization deserves a reward for all its efforts,
trials, tribulations and hard work. The leaders have taken
their people through a difficult and tumultuous journey.
The prize at the end is an organization that is running on
all cylinders, with good balance, sound perspective and
growing capability. The fundamentals have been tackled
to the ground and the people, policies and processes are
all delivering as hoped for. The organization has become
a smooth running engine, and now the task changes once
again as it enters the final passage.
Sustaining success is hard work!
While it may be the end of the transformational
journey, it’s not the end of the hard work. The work may
be different, but it is equally challenging and by no means
is sustainable success guaranteed. It must be earned and
re-earned everyday day, in every way, by every person.
Keeping the organization on its forward trajectory
requires constant care, attention and fortitude.
The leaders must be vigilant like never before. They
must remain alert to the tell-tale signs of moving
backwards. They must continue to make big changes on
many fronts, but the energy required should be less and
the ease of execution should be greater. Staying in a good
place means staying alert to the slow re-emergence of bad
The decision to embark on a truly transformational
journey should not be taken lightly. The leaders must
commit to seeing it through and must understand there
are predictable passages they need to navigate along the
Spring 2015
way. Promises should be few, and guarantees abolished.
No transformational leader can allow ego and bravado to
take control of them, their actions or their words. The
promises should only be about the hard work that lies
ahead and the reward at the end of the tunnel. Realism
and truth must become the order of the day and the
touchstone for the behaviour of leaders at all levels.
The leaders can and should lay out the broad strokes,
but avoid the temptation to offer the fine detail to those
who cannot exist inside the cloud of uncertainty and
ambiguity. The leader should set the compass heading,
but avoid handing out the detailed road maps that many
people will be demanding. The leader must appeal to
heart over head.
Here are some things to think about, as you begin to
consider what’s next.
Your first task is picking the team. There is a huge
difference between the operating team you may need to
keep the business running, and a transformation team
whose job it will be to reimagine the future. The skills and
aptitudes are different but, most significantly, it is the
mindsets and attitudes that are different. The leader must
draft wisely, and from all levels of the organization, when
putting together a truly whole brained, cross functional
and cross disciplinary group of advisors and agents.
Your first act of courage will be to trust the coalition
with an open, honest assessment of where the
organization currently stands and the obstacles and
imminent risks it faces. The leader must be willing to pull
back the veil and call things as they really are. There can
be no room for obfuscation or gilding the lily – it’s the
straight goods, raw and ugly, that must be put on the
Members of the guiding coalition must be given a
clear choice – join the battle or step aside. This must truly
be a coalition of the willing, and the willingness must be
to break the old model apart and start with a blank sheet
of paper. There can be no room for biases, sacred cows or
antique paradigms. The task must be undertaken as it was
in the movie Apollo 7, where the entire mission was about
getting the ship back to earth no matter what.
Decide what really matters and what will have the
biggest impact. Do the hard work first and forget about
the pseudo benefits of ‘low hanging fruit’. The journey
will not be determined by early wins, but rather by new
choices about the stuff that really counts. Strip away the
excuses. Face the demons. Tackle the wicked problems
that for too long have been acting like sludge in your
organizational engine.
Take control of the narrative. Lead from the front and
talk to the organization in real terms, appealing to
emotions and setting expectations realistically. Offer to
accept any help that anyone can offer and recruit
volunteers to the cause. Remember that your words will
carry extra meaning, and that words matter. Pick those
words that will resonant in their simplicity and common
sense. Don’t embroider the edges, present the facts in all
their dirty glory and, most importantly, offer hope while
promising hard work.
Doug Williamson is CEO of The Beacon Group and author of the book
Straight Talk on Leadership. He specializes in organizational and
leadership transformation, working with senior executives, their teams
and their organizations around the world. Feel free to contact Doug at or tweet him @bluntleader.

The Art of Strategic Thinking

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By Harrell Kerkhoff
Maintenance Sales News Editor

In today’s business climate, the old way of doing things to stay relevant as a company is antiquated. Incremental change is no longer good enough to survive, let along thrive.
This has required leaders to radically shift their thinking, according to The Beacon Group President & CEO R. Douglas Williamson, who presented “The Art of Strategic Thinking” during an educational session at the recent ISSA/INTERCLEAN® North America 2014 in Orlando, FL.
Williamson discussed how company leaders can combine their strategic intelligence, with their contextual intelligence, in a suite of leadership competencies that will position them to be front-runners in today’s new order of business.
This “new order,” in large part, was brought about by the Great Recession that started in 2007.
“Business always has been, and will continue to be, about choices. Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad choices. Prior to 2007, you could pretty much get away with making (average) choices. Now, the quality of your choices needs to be better,” Williamson said. “The tolerance margin for error is less, and the stakes are higher.”
For business leaders, today’s strategic thinking process is different, and far more critical, than strategic planning. In fact, due to an uncertain business climate, many strategic plans are useless.
“It’s important to think about the way you need to run an organization, and the way you need to think about strategy, given the world that we are living in today. We have never seen this world before,” Williamson said. “If you are leading an enterprise, or putting together a sales or business plan, you have to do a better job at the input end of the equation in order to remain relevant in this world. The input end centers around how best to imagine and think about your business and opportunities.
“Ask yourself, ‘At this moment in time, do I need more planning or do I need more thinking?’ Do you honestly believe that you can plan the future when the future is as uncertain and turbulent in business as it is right now? I will argue that planning is NOT what you need. Planning is a science in a predictable world. Strategic thinking is more art; and the environment that we are working in today requires you to become an artist.”

It’s A Different World
When it comes to today’s business, the old adage is true — life used to be simpler. However, according to Williamson, when looking at the long economic and business history of North America and around the world, “The train is going in one particular direction. There is no reason to believe that this train is going to do a u-turn and return to the old ways.”
Williamson discussed the evolution of business reality, stating that the way of conducting business from the end of World War II through the 1960s was quite simple.
“There was a more rationale environment in place back in those days. Business remained pretty predictable through the 1970s, when you could still use a ‘sane’ business plan,” he said. “The complexity started in the 1980s to the point where we are now, in 2014 — a very irrational market with tons of ambiguity.
“If this premise is correct, and everything you have learned about how to run your business in previous eras is outdated, you need to ask: ‘What does this crazy world look like? And, what is the appropriate response given this crazy world?’”
To thrive in today’s business climate, it’s more important to improvise, according to Williamson, such as what great jazz artists do, compared to the go-by-the-book philosophy found with classical musicians performing a piece written by Ludwig van Beethoven.
“Look at the business environment that we are all now in. It’s important to adjust. You may not like it, or be able to master it, or be comfortable with it, but the current environment dictates the music (jazz) — in this case, the music of business,” Williamson said. “This is one way to understand the difference between strategic thinking (jazz) and strategic planning (classical music).”
When it comes to today’s business climate, dealing with complexity is a way of life. This brings several truisms to contemplate: The world is not a simple place; no one wants to be led by the simple minded; turbulence is a permanent new reality; and, leaders must be able to make sense of things.
“Complexity is going to remain with us. If you are not able to think in laser beam clear terms through all of the complexity, you are not likely to be able to make good choices and decisions. You will make bad decisions slowly, rather than brilliant decisions quickly,” Williamson said. “It’s important, however, to not get freaked out by the complexity from a mental standpoint, but be able to simplify what you see around you and create a story that is digestible.”
In today’s uncertain and ambiguous business climate, he added, it makes no sense to spend a lot of time collecting facts to prove a particular point, when the uncertainity around any particular point is so huge.
“You can spend 40 hours next week trying to build the perfect plan, or the perfect business case, and collect all the facts you think you need to support your argument. In reality, all you have done is waste at least half your time,” Williamson said. “Now, I understand that is scary, because it’s not the world that most of us grew up in. But, you have to understand the context of our times.”
He added it’s impossible, when running a business today, to lock down absolute perfection.
“If being right is what you are all about, than being right is a prison. It’s a prison of the mind. You can’t operate a business in an ambiguous market when you have to be right all of the time. You will lock yourself into a mental model that is a prison,” Williamsons said. “We now live in a business world that has evolved. The new mind-set venturing forth goes into uncharted territory.”
The classic breakdowns in business occur when there is a breakdown in skills, processes, structure and/or strategy, Williamson said. However, the biggest failure in business comes when the quality of the thinking about a proposition is not good.
“In today’s market, where everybody can find free information over the Internet, hire good people and buy blueprints, the one area that you can control the most, over your competitors, in your market space regards the quality of your original thinking. The rest of these are commodities,” Williamson said. “Thinking is not a commodity. It’s the one area where you still have room to create unique advantages for your business.”
According to Williamson, breakdowns in strategic thinking occur when a company sets its hurdles too low, when the point of view about an opportunity and the competition is too narrow, when the scope of ambition is too cautious, and/or when the nature of change is incremental or transactional.
“You could survive in the 1950s through the 1980s by setting low hurdles, but this is not the world we operate in today,” he said. “When your hurdles are set high, your point of view is wide, your scope is ambitious and the nature of your changes is transformational — all of sudden different options present themselves.”
He added, “The most important part of strategic thinking is how to best frame opportunities that are in front of you. If your frame is too small, then all of the potential opportunities outside of that frame aren’t even in your wheelhouse. If you frame it larger, then all of sudden more opportunities emerge. It’s true that these opportunities may come from the fringe and bring with them additional risks, but they can also bring more reward.
“Shrinking ambition in order to better digest it is a tendency among many business people. Unfortunately, every time we shrink ambition, we lose something in terms of the upside,” Williamson said.

A Brawl Is Brewing
As different economies continue to come out of the Great Recession, which Williamson said brought unparalleled pain and destruction for many small- and medium-size companies, a “brawl” is brewing among survivors in the global business world.
“Do not assume that a return to growth in the economy means things quiet down. In fact, it’s the opposite,” Williamson said. “The minute confidence goes back into the economy, we are going to see unbelievable turbulence in the corporate and business environment.
“Why? Too many businesses have to make up for too much lost time. It’s going to be a foot race among those who can quickly seize new opportunities. This is a premise, and I don’t have a crystal ball, but it’s a point of view.”
He added that the best time to plan for war is during peace.
“There is a saying in my field, ‘You pick up bad habits in good times and good habits in bad times.’ So, the question for business people is, ‘What have you learned, and how has it altered your thinking?’”
Williamson compared the upcoming business landscape to the “hurry-up offense” in football.
“The really dominate players in every sector — from jan/san to high-tech to health care — are going to be running this type of offense. That is why planning isn’t as important as having a quarterback and wide receivers who are able to improvise at the line of scrimmage,” he said.
According to Williamson, he is not alone in this way of thinking about the future. There are major organizations that see similar challenges and opportunities ahead.
“Are (these organizations) going to be 100 percent right on everything? No. Are they going to be 80 percent right? Yes. Are they going to be directionally perfect? Probably,” he said. “The great businesses of the future will suck up all the intelligence they can find about the external environment, because that is what they need to ensure they will remain relevant. If your company fails, God forbid, it will be because you didn’t think about your business in the right way.
“The bottom line is, the future just doesn’t happen to us. All of that mess (from the Great Recession) was predictable. If you had looked at basic economic trends, you would have known things were over-heated. The very few people who said, ‘Be careful,’ didn’t get listened to. This failure led to carnage.”

The Generalist Is Back
In today’s complex business world, there is strength in numbers. However, those numbers must include the right kind of thinkers.
“The world has changed. It is no longer about the depth of a person’s experience. Rather, it’s all about the breadth and diversity of his/her experience,” Williamson said.
He added that the shelf life of a specialist is getting shorter. When building a winning team in business, it’s more important to find people who possess “an experience repertoire.” This is going to be of more value to a company than someone who has a deep resume of just selling certain products or doing certain things.
“The good news is, the generalist is coming back. Having those broad generalists onboard is now more important,” Williamson said, “This should be to the advantage of small and medium-size businesses. Most people in these companies are, by nature, generalists. This is only good, however, if they can properly think about the future.”
According to Williamson, there are certain forces and pressures in place that can influence a business. This includes new and existing competitors, customers, suppliers and companies that serve as complementors. One of the greatest forces and pressures placed on a business, however, is what he referred to as “organizational blinders.”
“Be wary of the things you believe to be true. Be wary of traditional thinking. Be wary of the ‘yes’ people in your organization. Be wary of anything that looks like a blinder, because there could be one or more people out there who have a different view,” Williamson said. “The way to navigate turbulence today is different than in the past. The old approach to weathering a storm will not work.
“There is an evolution in thinking. For example, the traditional business view is to not attack your enemy, while the new view is to attack your enemy and go right into its wheelhouse. Be brave enough to knock them off their pedestal. Do not, for a minute, believe you can defend your space (in business). What you can do, however, after properly thinking it through, is become hyper-competitive and go right into the face of your competition.”
He added the new view of business also states:
n Everything is in motion and flux;
n Learn to take advantage by moving quickly;
n Embrace full frontal hyper-competition; and,
n Create disequilibrium and change.
In running a business, Williamson said both operational and strategic leaders are needed. Operational leaders are skilled at managing currently invested resources to help gain market share and profit. Strategic leaders, on the other hand, are skilled at identifying and selecting future markets in which to invest resources for future growth.
“Being an excellent operator will not create the same advantages as 10 years ago. The real differentiating advantage comes from the strategic side of the equation,” Williamson said.
He added that those who follow the “strategic planning” path to the future are taking the stance that they are smart enough to figure the future out. Meanwhile, business people on the “strategic thinking” path recognize that they can’t figure it all out and admit their imperfections. To compensate, “they must operate more like a jazz quartet.”
This involves a new way of thinking about business, and not being afraid to disrupt the marketplace.
“If you can put the ball into play when your competitors least expect it, you will then have an advantage. You can either play on the defensive side of the field, or go to the offensive side with the hurry-up offense,” Williamson said. “Ask yourself, ‘What does the environment require of us as an appropriate response. Can we project into the future? Can we connect the dots? Can we get to the opportunities first? Can we overcome the hurdles?’
“The biggest hurdle you, as a business person, have to overcome is cognitive. Don’t become an organization wedded to the status quo. Find ways to outthink your competitors.”
To help with this, it all goes back to business leaders surrounding themselves with the right kind of thinkers.
“Old-way thinkers aren’t going to help you today. You need some really ‘off the wall’ thinkers to at least test your way of doing things,” Williamson said. “Remember, you can have a real brave idea and then taper it back, or you can have a pipsqueak idea that doesn’t go anywhere. I would ask you to think big, go crazy, and then taper it back if you must. You are still ahead of the alternative.”
Williamson recognizes the fact that it’s hard for a lot of small- and medium-size business owners to have a wealth of advisors. However, there are still people to be found who can help a company make “strategic thinking” businesses decisions.
“It’s possible to have an advisory council in place. This can be a loose network of people who are able to help you think about the future. If nothing else, spend two hours on a Sunday researching one of the future society organizations that can be found on the Internet, or start reading a different magazine or website to exercise your brain. This can all help improve fresh thinking.”
Thinking differently about business, for example, can lead to significant changes when putting together an annual sales plan.
“I think there is a series of metrics that we tend to use too much when it comes to something like a sales plan. This includes market share, which I feel is retrospective,” Williamson said. “What is new in business is predictive metrics. If you read about data mining and analytics, it’s all centered on predictive information. Instead of focusing only on share of market and year-over-year sales growth, what business people should be more interested in concerns their share of opportunities.”
As for the years ahead, Williamson sees a period of great ambiguity and uncertainty in the business world. Victory, he said, will go to those who can think about, reimagine and redefine the scope of future opportunities.
“I choose to see this as an unbelievably exciting time to be in business. I can’t imagine a more opportunistic time, provided that companies are built for the kind of ‘white water’ that is ahead.”

The Beacon Group is a Canadian-based leadership and strategy development firm. It has clients spanning a cross section of industries and geographies.
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Wrap Your Business in the Flag

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Wrap your Business in the Flag

Canada is a ‘wonderful’ brand that can be leveraged by organizations competing on a global stage
– a realm where too many homegrown firms are failing

By Liz Bernier

We already know Canada is a name that inspires pride and recognition around the world. But what we might not know is this: It’s also a potential brand — one that’s been consistently underutilized by Canadian organizations.
That was the central message author and consultant Doug Williamson delivered at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.
“I want you to understand that this brand — this wonderful, well-regarded, credible brand called Canada — is under-leveraged around the world,” said Williamson, president and CEO of the Beacon Group. “We haven’t done a very good job of taking the brand called Canada and wrapping it around our companies and having them go out to explore the rest of the world.”
The country is falling further and further behind, he said. The opportunities are endless but the vast majority of small and medium-sized Canadian companies are not competing on a global stage — 77 per cent of our trade is with the United States of America.
“We suffer from a deficit of ambition. We’re not hungry enough. Now, I’m not talking about the big banks that have been very successful internationally or the big insurance companies that have been successful internationally or the large resource companies… there’s no question that we have a number of very successful multinational corporations. But they are in the minority when it comes to the Canadian business landscape,” he said.
“One of the reasons we are where we are is that we’ve had it way too easy in Canada… in fact, our good fortune of residing just north of the U.S. market, and our good fortune in fish, minerals and farming, has meant we’ve been able to be very successful up to this point — more by good luck than hard work.
“The fact is, we’re amateurs when it comes to the global environment.”
The competitive landscape has changed and we can’t afford to continue to underutilize our national brand, said Williamson.
And this isn’t just a challenge for large corporations.
“(It’s) Canadian businesses in Moncton, Saskatoon, Kamloops, Brockville… because they’re the real face of Canadian business — it’s not Bay Street. And out there, the pain in middle-market, middle-sized companies is significant,” he said.
“In every other country that’s successful today, the engine for growth is their mid-sized companies. But we don’t have enough of them, we’re not diversified enough.”
There’s a huge transformational challenge facing Canadian business in all sectors and companies of all sizes — and we have to come to grips with, or at least have a willingness to acknowledge, the fact that we need to have that type of major transformation, said Williamson.
“We can’t be successful in the future by doing what we’ve done. What got us here won’t keep us here,” he said.
“I’ll just ask you to think: Are we hungry enough? Are we ambitious enough? Why don’t we play business the way we play hockey? Why are we afraid to go into the corners with our elbow up when we have business internationally, yet we admire that when we play hockey?”

Hidden Champions

If we really want to overcome this ambition deficit, we need look no further than “hidden champions,” said Williamson.
“These are companies you’ve never heard of, who have over a 50 per cent market share, who by definition are twice the size of their competitor, and who have dominated and continue to dominate a niche,” he said. “Over 80 per cent of them come from small countries.”

Leadership Lessons

One of the first lessons we can learn from these hidden champions is around the importance of leadership, said Williamson.
“They’re all led by executives who have a very fierce resolve to change the world. They have a deep, deep desire — they’re patriots, and they are tenacious. So tenacity is key.”
These organizations also have incredibly high performance standards, he said.
“They are really tough on their people, they deal quickly with underperformance and they treat their star performers in a very special way. They understand a simple rule of economics: Fair does not mean equal.”
These companies operate in a highly decentralized manner, putting accountability firmly on the shoulders of executives. They’ve decided to dominate a niche and, as such, they have incredibly crisp focus — they know exactly what they’re good at, said Williamson.
Another common characteristic? These organizations are incredibly driven.
“They have lofty ambitions. If you go and visit some of these companies, you’ll discover that their expectations for growth are in the 20-to-25-per-cent-a-year range. When you look at Canadian companies, it’s almost as if we’re afraid to set the bar too high for fear we fail — so let’s set the ambition bar low and at least we can make it. That’s not a trait of a hidden champion,” he said.
Hidden champions also have a “glocal mindset” when moving internationally, said Williamson.
“When they go to a country, they don’t send bucketloads of expatriates… they try to be part of the local community and they represent themselves that way,” he said.
“The vast majority of hidden champions are from small towns, not big cities… and there’s an issue there that’s interesting, because they understand community. They understand family, they understand roots in the community, they understand common sense, they understand practicality.”
Innovation is another key trait behind these organizations’ success.
“They’re serial innovators… they’re the ones that kill their own products and reinvent before they allow a competitor to kill their products. And it’s the difference between a Sony and an Apple,” he said.
Related to innovation, there is also the necessity of “going with the flow” and being comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
“In the world we live in today, there is no executive or company that is smart enough to predict the future. So if you’re not building a resilient organization, an adaptable organization, an organization that can go with the flow, you’re not going to be set up for success,” he said.
“It’s time to rethink the game.”

Lessons in Team Leadership From Sochi

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Sports are a passionate obsession for some, and a total mystery to others, but when the Olympic Games roll by, even the marginal spectator can feel the “buzz” the rest of us feel all the time. Buried deep in the nationalistic pride of the Olympics are some practical lessons we can take away to apply in our less glamorous day to day roles as leaders in the organizations for whom we toil.
Business leaders are often guilty of looking for the “secret sauce” to serial success when they would be much better advised to just apply some of the common sense lessons about teamwork, passion and personal accountability we see from athletes. The simple fact of the matter is, we have allowed machismo and intellect to overpower the subtle advantages provided through heart, effort and passion.
The so called “soft side” of leadership has been forced to take a back seat because too many leaders are afraid to admit the old recipe no longer applies in a world where fundamental changes in society and technology have leveled the playing field like never before. It’s wake up time!
We need to embrace some of the valuable lessons from Olympic competition and begin to apply them in the organizations we lead. The lessons about selfless team play, the lessons about heart and determination, and the lessons about effort.

Drafting a Winning Team

Seldom is success a solitary effort. Even in those sports which appear to be individual in nature, there is a background team of trainers, nutritionists and psychologists – all of whom contribute. In business, the same can be said, but seldom is the same degree of care and discipline put into developing the “right” business leadership team.
It’s all too common to hear complaints (sometimes verging on adult whining) about lack of alignment and inadequate collaboration as the source for under performance. Why do so many leaders seem mystified by the mechanics of team work, and fail to understand they control their choices and, therefore, the outcomes?
Let’s look at some facts:
 Teams are built through hard work over time
 Teams require clear roles and responsibilities to succeed
 Teams need to understand the “decision rights” within the team
 Teams are based on a mix of individual and collective accountabilities
We have largely failed to make the science of building a winning team a critical leadership competency. Instead, we continue to rely upon broken systems and practices that lead to teams that are set up for underperformance from the get go.

The Importance of Meticulous Preparation …

Success comes from a combination of different sources, typically a cocktail that includes equal parts hard work, effort, timing and luck. The first two ingredients set the groundwork for the moment when opportunity presents itself and the organization and its leaders swing into action. In sports and business “getting ready to win” is as important to ultimate victory as playing the game itself. Despite this, leadership teams rarely prepare in the way they should.
Just ask yourself the following questions:
 How much practice time does your team allocate?
 How well organized and planned are the practices you do hold?
 How much do you work on perfecting your “special teams” and “plays”?
 How fit is the team, and what are you doing to improve the level of fitness?
It might seem like a throwback to the values and beliefs of an earlier age to suggest that hard work matters, but the truth is – it does!
Successful teams prepare to be successful and, while there is nothing glamorous about the preparation phase of the journey to victory, the gold medal winners know there are no shortcuts. The gruelling, boring preparation is all part of putting yourself in a position to excel when it really matters.

The Role of Culture …

A study of serially successful winning teams will quickly and convincingly reveal the importance culture and chemistry play in ensuring victory. These are not mysterious secrets locked deep in an underground vault. Simply put, they are the basic, common sense rules of success.
Culture matters, despite how often it is ignored or dismissed by leaders who look down their nose at the “soft skills”, and prefer instead to puff up their egos with macho locker room banter about the value of the “hard stuff”. It is disturbing to witness the naïve talk of leaders who refuse to accept that success occurs within a context, and is the direct result of time spent creating the “winning conditions”. Success is the outcome – culture, chemistry and the other “soft skills” are all part of the inputs.

Garbage in – garbage out!

The external market conditions, the pace of technological change and the nature of societal and demographic change all conspire to make organizational culture an even bigger and more important priority than ever before. Leaders need to revisit their understanding of what culture means and the role it plays. Some common myths need to be punctured.
 The myth that culture is something HR looks after – wrong!
 The myth that culture is about employee engagement – wrong!
 The myth that culture is linked to compensation and benefits – wrong!
 The myth that culture is elusive and cannot be proactively shaped – wrong!
It’s time to grow up and place the elephant of culture on the leadership table.
Heart as Human Jet Fuel …

We seem to have come to the mistaken belief emotion has no place in the workplace and must be banished. This absolves too many leaders of the need to hone their skills of managing emotions, both their own and those of their teams. It provides a convenient excuse behind which some leaders hide. In the process, it deprives their organizations of a source of positive energy that can be put to very good use.

Emotions matter – in both business and sport!

In fact, emotions, including passion, drive, competitive spirit and determination, are all necessary ingredients for success for any endeavour in which there are obstacles to overcome and challenges to meet. If you disagree, then ask yourself why both the American men’s and women’s hockey teams wilted under the pressure of important games in the recent Sochi Olympics.
 Were they less talented? Not likely.
 Were they less prepared? No, they were not.
 Were they less well coached? Very, very unlikely.
They wilted because their heart was not as big and their emotions were not as well channeled – especially when they met some adversity along the way.
Heart matters – especially when you are tested.

The Power of Determination …

There are several important behaviors which leaders can leverage to get things done, to drive change and to overcome obstacles. However, the subject of determination, as an essential leadership trait, has not been studied in the way it deserves. The most important insights in this regard come from the work of Dr. Angela Duckworth at The University of Pennsylvania and her research into what she calls “grit” (and others might simply call determination).
Professor Duckworth has identified an important breakthrough in our understanding of performance and what distinguishes one person over another. She reminds us that “smarts” on their own are not enough to drive success. The “grit” she talks about is something that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it!
Associated with “grit” are the twin concepts of self-control and conscientiousness.
Dr. Duckworth describes “grit” as the tendency of a person to sustain interest in, and effort toward, very long-term goals. Self-control is described as the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.
This powerful combination of personal attributes is what allows some people to push harder, strive higher and remain committed in the face of adversity. In today’s world of short-term thinking and endless distractions, these traits are perhaps the answer to managing some of the stresses we feel. They speak to the character of the leader and, while hard to measure empirically, they represent the intangibles that separate good from great, and success from mediocrity.

Lessons from Adversity …

Setbacks are a part of business life – some would argue a necessary part, if you believe we learn more from our failures than our success. Setbacks come in all sizes, shapes and forms, and they tend to present themselves at the most inopportune and inconvenient of times. Leaders can’t prevent surprises and setbacks, no matter how hard they try or how many processes, policies and procedures they put in place. Leaders are much better advised to build organizations that can bounce back from adversity quickly, rather than pretend they can erect walls to prevent setbacks.
Resilience is a positive organizational trait, and you can build resilience into your organization in several different ways. The most important of these is instilling confidence in people that they will not be punished for their errors of either commission or omission. We can go even further and suggest that since mistakes and setbacks are inevitable, you should make them sooner rather than later in order to provide valuable learning and insights that can be built into the organizational architecture.
To face adversity is to face the world as it is – imperfect, random and oftentimes paradoxical. Leaders who hesitate or, even worse, freeze in the face of adversity, are not likely to succeed in the long-term, because they create organizations which lack the resilience necessary to carry on. The author Seth Godin refers to these moments as “dips”, which represent the necessary tests along the road to success and serve to separate the worthy from the pretenders.

Steps to Take. :: Actions to Consider

Canadians all across the country once again felt the pride of Vancouver 2010 as they watched Sochi unfold on their TV screens and web browsers. They marvelled at the success of athletes from all of the various winter sports (captured in the Twitter hashtag #we are winter), whether they were Canadian or otherwise. But, as always, we reserve our biggest boasts for hockey.
We can honour all athletes by taking away lessons which can be applied in business just as well as they can on the snow or the ice. Lessons born not from academic textbooks, but rather lessons drawn from the well of common sense.
The following are just some of those lessons.

Build Teams of Leaders
We have become infatuated with the cult of the superstar leader, the hero, the mythical men and women of unbounded charisma. The best organizations, however, focus on building a pipeline of leaders who know how to play on teams and who respect the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.

Get the Chemistry Right
Too little attention is paid to the importance of chemistry when building teams. The collective result is what matters, and a team of A players does not always win over a team of B players who play with heart, pride and passion.

Practice Hard – Practice Often
Greatness does not just happen, it is built and earned through hard work and the constant search for mastery, which come from deep within. The great players always take practice seriously and, yet, in business, it is always the solitary superstars who refuse to practice with the team and see it as a waste of their time.

Focus on Potential
There are not very many superstars who are born – the majority are made! They evolve over time, based on a certain innate capability, but it has always been baked into them by parents, teachers, coaches and life experiences. Business leaders need to stop looking for the Sidney Crosby types and, instead, look for those who have the potential, but who need someone to help release it.
Hire for Heart, Grit and Determination
IQ is overrated as a determinant of success! At best, it is no more than one third of the total success equation, sitting alongside EQ and Character. Those leaders who perform best under pressure, and within the fog of ambiguity, tend to be those with more grit and determination than those with a fist full of degrees.

Commit to Learning from Setbacks
You can tell when a leader lies or misleads. One of the most heinous lies is about how mistakes are treated in the typical organization. The gap between rhetoric and reality in this domain can be huge and, while the spoken word says “stick your neck out and take a risk”, the daily code is the exact opposite and only the CEO is blind to the reality.

Do you have the two skills required to lead your business into the future?

We are living a world of change like never before. The forces of change are coming at us in wave after wave with increasing fury and in totally unpredictable ways. Some leaders are simply overwhelmed by what they face. Others are stunned by fear and others still are unsure what to do. In each and every case, leaders are facing the need to transform rather than tweak – and yet very few are equipped for the task at hand.

Making sense of the world in which we live, decoding it and then shaping it in ways an organization and its people can better understand and willingly accept is the first challenge facing the transformational leader.

Read my full piece for the Globe and Mail here.

Excerpt from ‘Straight Talk on Leadership’ in the Globe and Mail

Check out an excerpt from my book, Straight Talk on Leadership: Solving Canada’s Business Crisis, published in the Globe and Mail. It details the difference between leading by compass or by map, a foundational lesson to transformational leadership – the type of leadership desperately needed in Canada.

Interview with the North York Mirror

Check out my interview with the North York Mirror, where I express my frustrations with Canadian business and Canadian business leaders.

Interview with the Globe and Mail

Yesterday, I had the chance to speak to Darryn O’Malley of the Globe and Mail to discuss my book, and reflect on 30 years of experience in the industry.

Read it here.