Leadership in multi-sector partnerships is growing in importance. Effective partnerships among business, government and academe are increasingly the key to getting important things done.
Industry depends on new knowledge, good education, and government programs that share the risk of R&D and spin off innovation into commercialization. Industry and government use public-private partnerships on major projects. Universities and industry become partners in research to solve industrial problems, with government agencies providing some of the funding and much of the quality control. Government and universities become partners in policy research and the education of those who will write and implement the policies in our future. And the list goes on.
Partnerships are not easy. They take much time and effort to set up, and can be difficult to maintain. And it often happens that some of the individuals who developed the partnership are reassigned, or change jobs, or retire, and the relationship between their organizations risks being neglected. This leads me to my first point: to have a robust and effective partnership among organizations in different sectors, leaders need to know about it and support it. But why should CEOs care? An obvious reason is that they think that the partnerships are in the strategic interest of their organizations. But that requires much more than casual knowledge of the partner.
Which brings me to my second point: the CEOs of partnering organizations are more likely to take a personal interest in the partnership, and do well at it, if they have had personal experience in the sectors involved. A strategic view of the partnership will come more easily if that experience was at a very senior level.
And that brings me to the last point: trust. Trust is essential to making a partnership work. In the case of a CEO who has been a leader in the partner sector, the complaint from the working level that “those guys always want…” might be met by a reassuring response from the top, “I understand that. I remember that when I was there we always needed….” It is easier to understand something similar to one’s own experience, and that’s a good basis for trust. There is an old proverb about really knowing a person only if you have walked in their shoes. This is empathy born of personal experience.
Many influential Canadians have had CEO-level or near CEO-level experience in two sectors – for example, Paul Tellier and Michael Sabia in government and industry, Arthur Carty in government and university, and Ed Clark in government and business. Two sectors are good, but three would be better. And there the examples become sparse. I can think of only two Canadians who come close: Angus Bruneau and Pierre Coulombe, each of whom has had very senior experience in two sectors and significant but lower-level experience in the third. I would love to hear from the readers about more Canadians who fill this bill.
Two names from history come to mind as well: C. D. Howe, who taught civil engineering at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, ran a company building silos in the prairies, and was “Minister of everything” in the King government from the 1930s to the 1950s; and the father of US science policy, Vannevar Bush, who was dean and VP at MIT, the head of the US science and engineering research effort during World War II, and a founder of Raytheon Corp. (Incidentally, both Howe and Bush were born in the US, and educated as engineers at MIT. Does that tell us something?)
We need more such people. I believe that even a handful could make a big difference in Canada. They haven’t been emerging spontaneously, so they need to be cultivated. And the place to start would be a list of those who have already had successful CEO-level experience in two of government, business and academe. Head hunters and selection committees take note!
And what might we call such people? I’ve taken to using a quirky label, “Three-legged people,” since they have a foot in each of three sectors. But I’m open to better ideas.
Tom Brzustowski is RBC Professor with the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.