Magnificent Men! Leadership Lunch
President & CEO, ATB; Chair, Alberta Royalty Review
February 5, 2016
Dave Mowat has served in three chief executive posts and used his training and instincts on the boards of prominent Canadian organizations including Visa Canada. Today, Dave serves on the boards of STARS, Telus Community Foundation, MasterCard Canada, Alberta Blue Cross, and the Citadel Theatre. In 2012, Dave led the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region as its Campaign Chair.
Mowat has recently concluded his role as Chair of Alberta’s Royalty Review. He was chosen for his ability to lead and inspire as well as his depth of knowledge of the many aspects that need to be considered when looking at Alberta’s royalty framework.
Join us and learn the ways Dave Mowat has led and inspired Albertans in banking and in the community. He will also share with us his strategies which garnered him accolades such as Alberta Venture’s Business Person of the Year and an Honorary Bachelor of Business Administration degree through SAIT.
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here.
It’s a pretty exciting time in Alberta these days – only because we’ve added fear and uncertainty into the definition of exciting. Two things one knows for sure is that no one knows how low oil prices will go or what prices are going to do. Our advice is prudence. We’re talking to all of our customers about preparing for some rocky times. We also have to remember there’s lots of grey hair in this province. We’ve been through this before. The thing that is a little tougher this time is that technology has caught up to our need for energy in the world. My generation was brought up believing energy is a scarce resource – it’s not. Technology has found a way to get it out of the ground in amounts that meet or exceed the world’s capacity to use them. We’re not going to see those demand-constrained prices in the future.
What’s better this time is that we’ve never seen interest rates this low in the history of Canada. This gives companies more staying power. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to show us red ink and it doesn’t mean it’s not going to be an awful time in terms of employment; what it means is companies will survive because they have the ability to weather through it.
The other piece is that there is way more equity than there’s ever been in Alberta. As our chief risk officer said, “We came off a tenth year of a four-year cycle.” There’s a lot of equity built up in Alberta. That’s what you need to weather times like this. It’s time to be ready and react, as opposed to panic. The challenge will be to not over-react as we go forward.
We sometimes forget the energy you feel in Alberta comes from the people who are on the ground, not from the oil in the ground. We wouldn’t have the oil sands here if it weren’t for some of the people who puzzled through some of the challenges and took risks. Horizontal drilling still defies logic as far as I’m concerned. It had to have been one clever mind who figured out fracking before anyone else. The challenge is doing things others don’t think can be done is really what Alberta is about.
That challenge alone is what attracts people to Alberta. We need to focus on building our future with those brilliant minds – the people we can attract and the people who are already here – complete with their dirty fingernails and their Saskatchewan work ethic.
We can’t slip into a commodity mentality and count on the stuff in the ground always being there and always being valuable. Trying to explain the energy of Alberta is quite a challenge and it takes your mind in all kinds of different directions.
When I was asked to talk about leadership, I was drawn back to the days before Google, when I was an eight-year-old boy with my best friend, Bobby Staples, in the alfalfa fields behind our house. We were two boys staring at the sky and sharing a bow and arrow that we had bought together. In a real way that field and those arrows and that bow kind of helps one get a handle on what the energy of Alberta is all about.
What we ended up doing is lying on the ground with our bow and arrow. If you pull it back. you can shoot the arrow straight up – keep in mind, this was before safety and toys were spoken of in the same sentence – it’s quite something to see it wobble straight up. At some point it actually stalls, it tips over and it starts coming straight back to earth.
At eight years old, I was obviously showing a tremendous grasp for physics because we were relying on the fact that it wouldn’t come down in the exactly the same spot. Our Plan B was to just roll over and let it thud beside us. Plan C was to make sure we had a Stars Helicopter somewhere near by.
As it turns out, we did a lot of growing up in that alfalfa field and I think I learned a lot from that scene. As a boy we learned that 32 feet/sec2 is very real when the arrow is coming down. So is fear. But so is laughter and friendship. It’s as real as the smell as alfalfa and the feel of Alberta under your back.
If you want to laugh about an arrow missing you, you have to have shot an arrow. If you want reward, you need to take a risk. That field taught me about physics, energy and the energy of uncertainty – and for good measure, an instant of being terrified.
There have been great lessons that I’ve learned from others in my 30+ years of banking. The most obvious one is we underestimate the power of leadership. We become enamored with things. We want new products, new systems, new processes, but it’s really leadership throughout an organization that enables you to do and accomplish things you could have never possibly imagined.
This room is full of people who are smarter than I am on leadership, and there are libraries full of books on what it takes to be a leader, but in my sense of it, it boils down to three things; One is you need to create a vision that you want your company, your team, or your government to achieve. Nobody wants to work for someone or something that doesn’t have a vision. Two, after you’ve established that, you need to explain to every single person on your team what their role is in making that happen. Ultimately, the third thing is you need to invest in the tools so they can do their very best work.
It all sounds pretty easy. But if it’s that easy, then why don’t we have terrific leaders sprouting up everywhere? My sense of it is there is an element of DNA involved. We accept the fact that not all of us can play music and we accept the fact that we have different hand/eye coordination and athletic ability. I think if we can extend that and accept the fact that some people have a DNA for leadership, we can then find them. We can put them in our leadership roles and get them the tools and the training to hone and expand their leadership instants.
I think the reason that doesn’t happen all the time is it’s hard to do. It’s subjective. It’s hard to spot leadership talent. If you’re testing, it’s easy to say draw me a picture, play a violin, write an IQ test. It’s harder to quantify someone’s leadership skills.
The first step is actually believing that leadership is important. I don’t say that lightly. We talk about leadership as being a soft skill. Leadership is way more difficult than calculus, yet we sully it with this idea that it’s some soft thing, opposed to the rules of calculus. Way too often we’re willing to be seduced by those relatively easily obtainable skills. Calculus is something you simply learn, and you have it. Whereas leadership is something like rowing a boat. Rowing a boat doesn’t take much effort at all, but as soon as you stop rowing, the boat stops. Leadership is something you have to be attentive to all of the time.
Sometimes we’re guilty, especially in business, of filling leadership positions with our best sales people. We make our best teachers Deans and we make our best technology people CIOs. Any correlation to their success in leadership positions is mostly luck. The skills you need to be a great programmer have nothing to do with leading a team of programmers and running your entire technology department.
What I am 100% sure of is the sheer act of saying I think there are three attributes of leadership and let’s try and measure them, and let’s try and measure people’s success who have those three attributes. I think the sheer act of doing that will get us better leaders than we had before. We’ve given those three attributes names.
The first attribute is about being a connector: This is someone who believes in people. They have a knack for getting people to do their best work. Plus, they create opportunity by introducing people. When you think of where innovation comes from, it’s not very often one person sitting in a closet figuring something out. Most of the time it’s a couple or a team of people who inspire each other to do something they couldn’t ever figure out alone. You’ve met this kind of person. They’re the person who believes they get better results by engaging a team around them. By definition, they’re the person who doesn’t believe they’re the smartest person in the room. When you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’ve just limited what you think you can do. Different skills and variations and combinations of people can produce something you couldn’t even think of or dream of by yourself.
The second one is a translator: It has nothing to do with second languages. You’ve met this person… well I’ll give you two people. There’s a person out there who is super smart, they’ve explained something to you and by the end of the explanation, you’re tired. You still don’t understand what they said. There’s another person who explains something and you get it, just like that. These aren’t examples of good people or bad people. The first person explained it to be factually correct and complete. They’ve left no detail uncovered. There’s probably an element of showing you how smart they are. The second person’s explanation is designed to have you understand it. Many times we talk and our goal is not for to have people we understand, our goal is to show people how smart we are or to be completely correct on a subject. This idea of leaders having the ability to contextually explain things so people really understand what they’re being asked to do is how great teams are built.
The third element is people who are hungry: This doesn’t mean someone who is a corporate climber. It’s the drive that comes from the constant assumption that things can be made better. It’s the simplest things in life – we have people who work on our front line that design our forms so that some mucky muck somewhere can used them every day and they can make them better. There are lots of people who just use those forms forever. Then there are other people who have this assumption; they’re not trying to be smart or anything else, they just believe that things are there to be made better.
You can imagine if you had all three of those traits, a translator, a connector and someone whose hungry you’d have a team where things can get done where you could never really imagine before.
When I look for places to work and things to be involved with- I look for these three elements. I don’t really care if I’m the boss or I’m working for somebody or if I’m working along side others, it’s just more rewarding If you can put those kind of leaders inside our organizations, we can create the ability to inspire people and have them do their very best work. That’s when we become more efficient, that’s when we have more innovation, that’s when we create value – whether it be at a non-profit organization or at a business.
So if you believe that, I believe the very first thing that all of us can do is to jealously protect every single leadership position we’ve got. You have your different measures and you have your sense of what makes a great leader so don’t do anything other than put someone who would be a great leader in these positions. I think we will be amazed at the productivity and efficiency we can move our business to.
Let’s go back to that bow and arrow experiment and draw the analogy to Alberta. We’re a province with some pretty powerful arrows to shoot. Like those boys in the field, I don’t think we fully appreciate what those arrows are capable of. Nor do we spend enough time thinking about how to aim those arrows. We’ve got the hang of shooting them, but we haven’t aimed them at anything in particular and it’s pretty much locked in where they land sometimes.
We have plenty of Alberta arrows, but let me speak to three of them: One is energy and the environment, the other is education, and the third is civil society.
I deliberately put energy and the environment together, because these days you can’t just talk about one or the other – it’s not just energy without environment. It’s environment without energy. Fossil fuels are burned in some form to create the vast amount of the world’s energy and it will be that way for a long time. With all the debate around fossil fuels, it’s really hard to know what to believe. I’ll give you one thing that you can take to the bank. Tomorrow the world will need more energy than it used today. The day after that, it will need more energy. The total demand for energy in the world will rise with populations and standards of living. We don’t even air condition or light half the world at this point.
As Albertans, every time we think of oil and gas, we need to replace those words with energy in all its forms. Our customers buy oil and gas from us, but what they really want is energy. Any business that really works well doesn’t just understand its product, it understands what the product does for their customers. Until you understand that¬, you can’t understand what your customers really use it for and what they can use to substitute. Until you get there, you will always be at a bit of a loss to understand how much your customers want to buy and how much they’re willing to pay. Any good business with any good product understands those two things for sure.
The most important thing is without that understanding, you won’t understand disruption until it’s too late. To understand this is to understand how we need to cope with the future.
The beauty of energy in Alberta is that the good Lord has already gone around and passed out all the oil and gas. We were standing in exactly the right place. The beauty with renewable energy is you don’t have to be in the right place. You just have to figure it out. That takes money and brains – both of which we have a good supply of in Alberta. Becoming just as proficient in developing all forms of clean energy as we are in drilling oil and gas out of the ground is totally within our control.
Unless we’re talking about hockey, it never seems very Canadian to say we can be the best in the world. If we set our minds to it, you tell me why we couldn’t be a leader in all forms of energy, technology and the production of everything leading to energy.
Some of the largest oil and gas companies in the world don’t call themselves oil and gas companies anymore. They talk about being energy companies. They’re beginning to diversify themselves. It doesn’t matter what shape that diversification takes, our best strategy in Alberta is to match that pace or exceed it. If you imagine 20 years from now that Alberta is a leader in renewable energy and we have some of the biggest fossil fuels in the world – in poker that’s called a royal flush. We have everything in terms of energy. If the world’s energy sources can bee seen as random arrows or sheer luck, we see energy – not just oil and gas, as our arrow and aim with mastering every source of it, Albertans can get paid every single time a car starts, a furnace starts, a bicycle is made, no matter what source of energy goes into it.
The next arrow is education I don’t think you need to be an economist to know GDP and education are highly correlated. We can invest in a great education system which then produces people who will create a rich community both in traditional wealth, as well as arts, democracy and innovation. It’s that virtuous circle that starts to feed itself. If we set our sights on an education system that has outstanding teachers and is flexible and diverse, we can draw the best in every single student that enters. If you give me the smartest ten kids in the class, I can do amazing things with them. However, we have everybody who lives in Alberta and we need to find the best in each of them. It’s not some mamsy-pamsy kind of goal. That is how you get 4,000,000 plus Albertans enjoying what they do and contributing to the province.
My third arrow is civil society and all the non-profit organizations that operate in our community. That’s where cc4ms comes in. To have a community that is rich in all the ways that I’ve talked about, we need three things: We need government, we need business and we need a vibrant civil society. It’s kind of like that old three-legged milking stool. When all three legs are exactly the same length, it’s an amazingly strong and stable stool.
We need government to have the vision and the strategy to create a playing field which has all the legal and regulatory frameworks for us to operate. It needs to tax us fairly and redistribute wealth to provide for the public good. We need business to generate wealth by creating value that people and organizations will pay for. This will create jobs that expand and challenge people’s abilities. Business certainly play a part in creating strong supporting roles in communities as well.
The third leg of the stool is the one we don’t spend enough time with. We need non-profit organizations to focus their time and energy on their mission of serving the people who they deliver value to and create self-esteem for. Our opportunity in front of this is to support non-profits so they’re not a poor sister to business or a poor sister to government. They can draw the best of all of these worlds in their non-profit organizations so they may evolve into enterprises with leaders that are every bit as good as the people who are leading our business and our government. With those people and that support, we can be transformational in creating services in our communities. Organizations like cc4ms play that role in a way that no government or no business could possibly do. One is not better than the other. We need three things. We need business, we need government and we need the civil society.
It’s always intrigued me, this concept of non-profits, especially as they evolve into social enterprises. A non-profit social enterprise can not only deliver on the mission of what they set out to do, but they can also offer employment and services to the very clients that they seek to serve and in some cases actually grow to the point where they can be generating income to support the very cause that they’re in.
I’ll just tell you a quick story about a place I’ve visited. It’s called San Patrignano and it’s in Italy. It’s a heroin and drug addiction facility. San Patrignano houses 1,500 heroin addicts with the average stay being four years. The founder of San Patrignano understands nobody wants to be a drug addict. He believes the heart of the problem is self-esteem. If you can rebuild self-esteem, you can move past some of the problems people have. Part of this is having a job or a trade, or being good at something. Clients are put in groups to learn a trade. There are all kinds of trades that they teach people. The budget is $85 million a year. All of the money to run the place comes from the businesses which the residents are running.
It’s quite an amazing place. The only reason I bring it up is we can do things that are spectacular and almost unimaginable. You just have to have the vision and you have to build the support for civil society. It’s one man’s vision, but it’s obviously spread. They’re a small community right now and it’s a remarkable place. I’m not saying we should have San Patignano here, but what I do point to is that when we get the right leadership and when we spend the time supporting government and that end of civil society, I think we can do things that we wouldn’t ever imagine was possible.
Before I leave, there’s one more thing I wanted to mention. There is something called ATBcares.ca. If you were contemplating making a contribution today, you can go through this site and ATB will add 15% on to everything that comes through.
Thank you very much for having me here today.