“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” reads a Biblical proverb. Several Atlantic Canadian business leaders and CEOs appear to take this adage to heart. They carve precious time out of crowded calendars to attend personal development courses, university classes and enrichment seminars with their peers. But they’re at the top of their game already. Why do they bother?
“It’s not a question of why, it’s a question of why not. I believe we owe it to ourselves and to the organizations that we work with to try and be as good as we can be,” says Stephen Lund. The athletic president and CEO of Nova Scotia Business Inc., an organization that works directly with companies to expand business in the province, uses a sports analogy to explain his point of view. “Look at a guy like [Nova Scotia native and captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins] Sidney Crosby–the best player in the world is still the hardest worker. He’s a model, not just for sports people, but for everybody. If a guy like that is so driven and so committed to being the best he can be for himself and for his organization, that’s a model for all of us.”
As a business executive, Lund has taken specific training programs focused on finance, venture capital and sales training. But he says his most inspiring educational experience came during his first course at the prestigious Harvard University.
“I’m coming from Nova Scotia going into the pinnacle of an educational setting and it’s very intimidating . . . But I quickly realized that I felt every bit as competent as anybody else in that room after the first day. It gave me a real sense of confidence, [I felt] I didn’t have to be intimidated and I could hold my own wherever I go.”
It’s a feeling Corey Miller recognizes well. He characterizes it as “putting fire in the belly.”
Miller is CEO of Miller Tirecraft and president of Tire Valet. He’s also a member of the Young Presidents Organization, an international group of successful young executives. YPO held a national conference in Halifax last fall that Miller says sold out a year before the start date.
“I think as Maritimers, we tend to be a little hard on ourselves, not give ourselves the credit we deserve. Having a national conference like this gives us the opportunity for idea exchange and kind of fires everybody up. It makes you think, ‘yeah, you know what? We can do this. We can be a world leading economy. We can launch businesses that don’t just serve people from other countries or regions, but that lead people.'”
It’s at gatherings like the YPO conference where the “iron sharpens iron” adage kicks in. Attracting a cadre of international business executives, the combination of classroom learning, experiential events and networking leads to a cross-fertilization of ideas and entrepreneurial endeavours.
“You’ll see someone from China who has launched something from scratch with this great idea that’s come out, and you think, ‘wow, I can do that,'” says Miller. “You get to sit down with people all over the world. They could be from the Middle East, they could be from China, they could be from South America, and you get to compare notes and share ideas.”
The networking that goes along with the learning can lead to new markets for Atlantic Canadian products. “If I wanted to, say, do business in China, because of the international network I’ve built up and the folks that I’ve met, I could easily pick up the phone and call a YPO-er in China and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about visiting, could you introduce me to a couple of people?’ And it would literally be that simple,” says Miller.
Robert Zed, president of Zed Events, chair of Zed Group and Compass Canada Healthcare, and a leader in fundraising, strategic consulting and event management, was also a member of YPO. At age 50, he “graduated” to the World Presidents Organization. Through membership in these groups, which he terms his “most important personal development”, he has been able to scrub into and observe activities in a hospital operating room, spend a day in Dorchester maximum security prison and go to sea for the day with the Canadian Navy. He may be flying in the cockpit of an F-18 in June. “How fun is that going to be?” he enthuses.
While he is an admitted fan of experiential learning, Zed points out it’s not just for the gee-whiz thrills and bragging rights. “A lot of the time people think of education and they think of didactics in a classroom. I just think it’s so not that. [Through my experiences with WPO] I see a whole different world, I see how people interact. I just get a whole different perspective.” And when what you do for a living includes fundraising for the IWK Health Centre Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, those personal experiences with inmates suffering from mental illnesses at Dorchester or in watching surgeons wield a scalpel in the operating room can inform and give credence to your efforts in a way that relating a dry recitation of facts to an audience of potential donors never can.
Lund says that with all the scheduling pressures facing CEOs, it’s important to analyze the value of potential educational opportunity.
“You don’t want to do something just because you want to go and tick a box. You want to do something because it makes you better. How you use your time is so critical,” says Lund. “You can take very specific executive programs that are really focused on you, the individual, and learn about yourself and how to grow yourself. There are other courses that are meant to be strictly organizational. To me, I think you need to do a bit of both.”
There is also an emphasis on pursuing education not only to keep up to date with the latest business theories, but to learn and become comfortable with rapidly changing technology. “It really has changed the art and science of doing business. What I learned 25 years ago is not relevant today. The technology in the world in which we compete is completely different. It’s important to stay current,” says Zed.
And part of staying current may mean getting out from behind the desk in the corner office and putting boots on unfamiliar ground for awhile. “Meeting people from around the world makes me realize that we can compete with the world, but we need to be exposed to the world. We live in a global economy and we’ve got to get away from insular thinking. We’ve got to be exposed to the world, or it’s going to leave us behind,” says Lund.
Zed agrees. “The smart guys are looking out and seeing how small the world really is,” he notes.
While all three of these CEOs operate in very different business spheres, it’s obvious they all have one thing in common–a passion and love for learning over and above what’s required to do a job. And maybe making the effort to expand and increase their knowledge is exactly what has moved each to the top of his game.
“In a perfect world, you’d be learning something new all the time. The reality is, it’s difficult. You really have to be committed to doing something like this,” says Lund.