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Leadership Caution is sapping the energy from Canadian innovation

Shopify, whose chief platform officer is Harley Finkelstein, had difficulty raising cash until it became an e-commerce success story.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada has all of the tools necessary to become a global leader in innovation, yet has a long way to go before fully realizing its potential.

Such was the mantra at the Bigwin Group's recent CEO roundtable, which gathered a number of Canadian business leaders to talk about the barriers and opportunities that exist for Canadian entrepreneurs.

The keys to unlocking Canada's economic future include embracing change, supporting entrepreneurialism, accepting failure as a necessary step toward success, celebrating winners and providing every Canadian with an opportunity to rise to the top.

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"I think that as Canadians, we wait too long to applaud the winners and back them. That's the fundamental issue," said Michael Serbinis, the CEO of League, a digital health and wellness startup, and co-founder and former CEO of Kobo.

Mr. Serbinis pointed to Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce success story that initially had difficulty raising capital, to illustrate the systemic problems preventing local entrepreneurs from becoming global leaders. "Now people are throwing money at [Shopify], but where were these people when this brilliant idea was first born?" he asked. "That's the issue I have with venture capital in Canada."

Mr. Serbinis went on to say that Canada's venture capital system promotes a philosophy of safety and incremental growth as opposed to risk and exponential success.

"In the U.S. the attitude is, 'Succeed quickly or fail quickly; we don't want this middle ground.'" he said. "In Canada, failure is simply not an option, and if you fail as an entrepreneur, that's it. No VC [venture capitalist] will ever talk to you. Whereas in the U.S., if you fail as an entrepreneur, come on in, because we know you've learned an important lesson and won't make the same mistakes twice."

Jonathan Goodman, partner and co-leader at strategy consultants Monitor Deloitte, said it is this fear of failure that causes Canadian companies to be more reactive to change than the beneficiaries of it.

"Many Canadian executive teams or boards systematically underestimate the risk of the status quo, and overestimate the risk of doing something different," he said. "It doesn't matter whether we're ready for it – and by the way, Canadian companies aren't – but it's going to happen. We have to be more comfortable with risk and we need to change if we're going to win in the future."

Bob Ramsay, CEO and founder of the long-running speaker series Ramsay Talks, and moderator of the roundtable discussion, believes Canadian businesses need to adopt an attitude similar to that of our Olympic athletes following the "Own The Podium" campaign of 2010.

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"Canada moved from an 'It would be such an honour to finish fourth' attitude to winning more gold medals than any country ever has in the history of the Winter Olympics," he said. "That is what we need to do more of."

Mr. Ramsay argued that Canadians are often too modest to boast about our successes, before discussing some underpublicized areas where Canada is already a leader. He pointed to the fact that the University of Toronto is home to one of the world's top five law schools, that the Princess Margaret Hospital has one of the world's top five cancer research centres, and that one in four winners of Canada's Gairdner Awards for biomedical research goes on to win a Nobel Prize.

"Canadians, we get in our own way by being apologetic about everything; our own humility gets in the way," said Vikas Gupta, CEO of mobile game development company Big Blue Bubble. "We're world class in so many sectors, yet we have this tendency to constantly say 'sorry' even if we are No. 1. We need to get over that."

While Canada has already emerged as a global leader in sectors like health care, education and energy, our apprehension toward risk and unassuming acceptance of the status quo may undermine those accomplishments.

"Some of our industries need to be shocked into awareness of a changing world," said Tom Rand, the managing partner of Arctern Ventures, formerly the MaRS Cleantech Fund, a privately backed clean-tech venture capital fund. "I think they've been asleep for a long time, and really have no idea what's coming."

Looking at the success stories of those around the table, embracing change is ultimately what will drive Canada's success in the future.

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"As diverse as you are – and we do try for diversity – the common element here is openness to change," Hart Hillman, CEO of the Bigwin Group and host of the event, said in his closing statements.

"There are some governments who want to supercharge that change, grease the skids, make it as easy as possible, and there are others throwing hurdles wherever they can. I wonder, as we sit at number 14 out of 17 on the OECD nations for innovation, where we're going to go from here."

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