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donna kennedy-glans

Alberta is the midst of determining its next frontiers, including diversification of energy and away from energy. Nowhere is this being felt more than in the province's boardrooms.

In Alberta, the energizing force behind a corporate decision to pursue new frontiers has often been internal. Frequently, the organization's own employees, contractors and supply chains came up with good ideas about how the company's values could be better defined, better communicated and, most importantly, better implemented. Companies that reached these new frontiers were largely fuelled by the energy of their own people.

Consistent with this respect for the role of individuals in defining and manifesting core values, I gathered a small, non-partisan group of Albertans last fall for ViewpointsAB to conduct a check-in with citizens of our province to understand what they were thinking on our go-forward energy and climate-change choices.

ViewpointsAB's assumptions: First, we do not know what anyone is thinking unless they tell us; and second, there is likely a broader – or perhaps more nuanced – range of opinions outside the polarized extremes that are often most visible, especially on climate change. In response to our invitation, half a million Albertans shared their viewpoints over four months.

Not surprisingly, energy issues in Alberta proved to be a very sensitive topic for discussion, with a lot of anger, shame and shaming, and frustration emerging in these citizen dialogues. But I was surprised by the number of corporate employees who shared some great ideas on energy and climate change, although on the condition of anonymity. Why anonymously? These employees were afraid their viewpoints could be at cross-purposes to their employer, would be offside top-down mandated approaches to corporate communication or would incite critics.

For companies with oil, gas and coal assets, the level of aggression by outsiders – people questioning their practices, and even existence – reached fever pitch during the climate-change negotiations in Paris last December. Certainly, it is difficult to remain constructively engaged with critics who see the world in black and white. And, admittedly, many employees in Alberta fear for their jobs right now. Notwithstanding, I was shocked by the prevalence of this muting of internal corporate voices, and the implications.

More than ever, Alberta's companies need people who can take on the challenge of innovation and finding better ways to develop and use non-renewable energy.

In 2005, I co-authored a book encouraging decision-makers to lead their companies "beyond compliance" with rules and laws. After the Enron scandal in the United States, corporate managers were overwhelmed by new reporting requirements, often lapsing into reactive compliance mentalities that, I argued, compromised their potential. Why were managers content to manage corporate values to a "vanilla" standard in a marketplace where consumers and investors look for unique?

It was tricky, attempting to divert already weary corporate attention from compliance to beyond-compliance thresholds. But for many of my corporate clients – most in the energy sector – new frontiers were reached.

Like a lot of Canadians, I am attracted to the drama of U.S. politics. A researcher from the University of Massachusetts recently released a poll postulating that Donald Trump's electoral strength has been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. "Authoritarians" were defined as people who obey, rally to and follow strong leaders, and respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. This definition could well have applied to some of the people I spoke with last fall, who were working on the inside of Alberta's companies.

Yes, there were many outsiders – communities and critics – demanding more from companies. And, yes, regeneration of a company's values was stimulated by these external expectations: advocates seeking more transparency, more sustainability, more accountability, more respect for human rights and indigenous rights.

Alberta has amazing resources and talented people. To reach these new thresholds, we will need decision-makers who want to know what their people are thinking, and who will figure out ways to draw out their ideas. Based on the thousands of conversations I had with corporate employees this past fall, I can vouch: The anonymity of these individuals is not a sign of their indifference or lack of good ideas.

We need people who can set frontiers well beyond compliance with the status quo.

Donna Kennedy-Glans is co-founder of ViewpointsAB, a former associate minister for electricity and renewable energy, and former vice-president of Nexen.

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