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Serial entrepreneur Richard Branson. Executives like the fact that he has an energetic mentality for going into new industries and changing things. (PHIL McCARTEN/REUTERS)
Serial entrepreneur Richard Branson. Executives like the fact that he has an energetic mentality for going into new industries and changing things. (PHIL McCARTEN/REUTERS)

The New Executive

Eight people who inspired innovative Canadian leaders Add to ...

A look at what skills future business leaders need to have to tackle the challenges of an ever-shifting marketplace.

Thinking outside of the box inherently requires original thought, but it helps to have role models to show how it can be done. Corporate innovation often requires inspiration. It can come from across the hall, across town, across the world and across industries. Encouragement to change, to bring people together, can come from anywhere.

The Globe and Mail reached out to Canadian executives across regions and industries to find out who inspires them to innovate in their own workplaces.

The executive: Bernard Letendre, president of Manulife Investments and University of Toronto judo instructor, Toronto

The role model: Sensei Raymond Damblant

I’ve been doing judo for 36 years and he was my coach and mentor for 32 – and still today when I go to Montreal. When I was a kid, I saw a judo instructor who could do cool things. It’s only later on that I started realizing that he was a very successful person beyond the mats. He helped run the Olympics in Montreal and was competition director for judo in Los Angeles, but he never said anything about those things. I found out on my own. That had an impact on me – the humility of a person. A lot of things flow from that.

You can go to some dojos with a culture of intimidation. He fostered a very friendly culture in the dojo. Your training colleagues are your friends, and you happen to toss them around. He would not tell us what to do; he would offer suggestions. He would offer advice, show us how to do things. You put all these things together, the kind of culture he was fostering, which I try to bring to work. Innovation cannot be commanded. You’ve got to let people explore and make mistakes and collaborate in a friendly environment. If you have all those things, that’s when you’ll get the best of people, the most innovation, the most creativity.

The executive: Jayne Watson, chief executive officer, National Arts Centre Foundation fundraising body, Ottawa

The role model: Peter Herrndorf, CEO, National Arts Centre

Peter is a unique leader; we can have passionate debates about projects, but he never holds a grudge. He’s unbelievable – turn the page, move on. He’s also the happy warrior. People who are naturally happy tend to be good leaders because they’re really a glass-half-full kind of person. He has an amazing capacity to motivate people from his own forward-thinking perspective.

He brought the organization, which had been through a lot of turmoil, a simple mantra: We’re going to focus on excellence, and we’re going to live up to the “National” in our name. To be really good, and not just for Ottawa, for the country. Good leaders distill what their vision is, and Peter has been very good at that in terms of a way forward for the organization. That’s why we all enjoy working for him.

He was a guy who said, “We’re not just going to rely on our parliamentary subsidy – we’re going to make people understand that philanthropy is a part of the success of this organization.” It was pretty innovative at the time for a federal agency. He was the first out of the gate. Most national cultural agencies are in the fundraising business now.

The executives: Mike Darlington, CEO, and Ari Paunonen, chief operating officer, Monstercat entertainment company, Vancouver

The role model: serial entrepreneur Richard Branson

Mr. Paunonen: He started his business as a record label and called it Virgin because they didn’t know what they were doing, and that’s exactly what we did. Virgin Group is now a conglomerate with 300 companies under the name, and he’s transferred his ethos to each of them. It allowed him to create more influence and change the world. We can really relate to that – we’ve started more businesses, and our own venture arm as well. We’re down a similar path.

Mr. Darlington: He has an energetic mentality for going into new industries and changing things. He’s had his fair share of companies that didn’t succeed, but the organization has tried to take risks differently. That’s very powerful for me, because eventually Monstercat isn’t just going to be a record label, or even a media company. And I love the fact he doesn’t take things too seriously, even though he’s one of the more powerful people in the world. He lives on his own island and kite surfs every day. I don’t ever want to be a suit. I want to inspire people to do more, as well.

Mr. Paunonen: We just haven’t attempted any world records ourselves.

The executive: Ratna Omidvar, executive director of Ryerson University’s Global Diversity Exchange, Toronto

The role models: civic entrepreneur David Pecaut and Wendy Cukier, Ryerson’s vice-president of research and innovation

The first rule in innovation is to break the rules. Both have taught me to break the rules. David Pecaut was the best mayor Toronto never had. He was an incredible networker. He listened to people and connected them to each other in a way that was so powerful. He taught me the magic of, when there are intractable situations, you bring all the stakeholders to the table and find the place they agree to move forward.

Dr. Cukier is laserlike in her focus. When she wants to get something done institutionally or societally, like with gun control or diversity, she marshals the resources in a different way. She doesn’t convene roundtables – she’s the leader who strives forward and others follow. From both of them, I’ve learned different approaches, both of which I continue to value a great deal. They each had the DNA of inclusion in them, and exercised it differently.

The executive: Steven DeNure, president and COO, DHX Media, Toronto/Halifax/Vancouver

The role model: Mike Evans

There’s no question there’s been massive change in our business, from the way people create new programs to the way distribution systems have been disrupted. Mike Evans is a doctor who has done a deep dive to figure out how to explain some very basic health-care issues to as wide an audience of people as possible.

So many people I know would go to key leaders in business. That’s not where my thought process took me. What Dr. Evans has done is created a series of whiteboard videos about key, common, everyday health issues. He’s demystifying the mysteries of medicine and health care, and using videos that are short, concise, funny, and using a disruptive distribution system, primarily YouTube, to get them out to people.

We’re really an aggregator of kids’ content. DHX has certainly been at the forefront of figuring out how to monetize content for alternative distribution platforms around the world. The intersection here with our business is that you can create inexpensive, great content, distribute it on YouTube and get a large audience.

The executive: Michael Emory, president and CEO, Allied Properties REIT, Toronto

The role model: Ian Gillespie, CEO of Westbank Projects Corp., a regular partner of Allied

There’s a deep desire on the part of the educated public for truly authentic experiences, and for a sense of community in an intensifying urban environment. One of the things design can do is help create that sense of community in an environment that’s becoming progressively more vertical.

Having worked with Ian, what I admire is the incredible innovation he brings to building design, both in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of practical efficiency. In the case of Telus Sky [in Calgary], the actual facade of the building that has been designed will become the public art installation, with a system to create an evolving set of images.

We, too, have demonstrated a degree of innovation in design, first in terms of restoring heritage structures in a way that’s consistent with their past, and finding innovative ways to add new structures to existing structures. QRC West [in Toronto] is an example where we’ve brought innovation in a way that’s appealing to the community and our customers.

The executive: Eric Boyko, CEO, Stingray Digital Group Inc., Montreal

The role model: Charles Sirois, serial entrepreneur and early Stingray investor

My biggest inspiration since I was a kid is Charles Sirois. Here’s a guy from Chicoutimi, [Que.,] who grew up and became almost No. 1 in the world in the telecom business. He ran a small pager business and in a very quick time bought pager companies across Canada, then sold that business to Bell, started BCE Mobile Communications, then he moved into Téléglobe.

He was the first one to believe in pagers, the first one to believe in mobility in Canada, then built underwater lines for international calls. He showed that a little entrepreneur from Chicoutimi can become a world leader in the telecom business, all before 40 years old.

What he did is bold. He had a lot of aggressiveness, entrepreneurship. One thing he brought in terms of culture, we call it les trois fs. You need to have faith, fun, and le foin – money. You make sure that your staff have faith in your company, have fun, and make money. It was a big expression of his.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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