Absence of Rankings

In the private sector, it’s pretty easy to know whether your organization is outperforming the others in your industry sector. It is easy to find out if you have better margins, or lower employee turnover, a lower costs structure or a better return on shareholder investment. Many private sector organizations are publicly listed companies that require transparency in financial performance and risk.  Many private sector organizations have articles written about their leaders, their techniques and their performance.  And, many private sector organizations strive hard to be included in published rankings that evaluate them on a multitude of performance metrics, including best performing, fastest growing, best places to work, and best corporate cultures.

As well, there are CEO learning forums like EO Entrepreneurs Organization, YPO Young President’s Organization, the MacKay Forums, TEC, Tiger Forums and many others that are all designed for CEOs of small, medium and large organizations to share their experiences, share performance data, and share tools and techniques with the sole goal of making each other better.

Does such a thing exist for leaders in the public service?

I know many public service leaders who join the organizations listed above, but they do so with a huge sense of guilt and consciousness, as they know that they are using taxpayer dollars to pay for the membership – a membership that includes a peer-to-peer platform for management education, leadership discovery, performance measurement sharing and implementation accountability.

Shame on them.  Shame on the President of the College, the General Manager of the Conference Centre, the Deputy Minister of the Department of Energy and the CEO of the Healthcare system for wanting to learn from the best, compare performance and techniques, and be accountable to one another for getting better. Shame on them for using part of their budgets for improving performance.

Madness. Madness I tell you.

We have dumbed down our public service, and we have done it to ourselves. We have scrutinized budgets, provided harsh opinion on expenditures, demanded lower salaries, and trashed public service leaders all over the front pages of the newspaper for doing anything slightly unusual.

We now live in an environment where elected officials condemn the actions of the administration, independent Boards of Directors are fired en masse. CEOs are held under “investigation” for months based on conjecture. Ombudsmen and whistleblower protection allow everything to be questioned. And senior executives have lost their privilege of an appropriate severance.

And what have we created? Not only a public service culture that is risk adverse, but also a culture in the public service which is scared to spend money on things that could actually improve performance. We have punitively and intentionally dumbed down our public service leaders to a level where all we should expect is mediocrity.

How sad.  How very, very sad.

You get what you pay for, I say. If you are not willing to pay a bit to take risks, to strive for performance improvement, to enable an award-worthy leader, then why would you ever expect to see anything different than what we are getting. Our current fascination with frugality is maybe constricting us to an era of underwhelming performance.

It’s time to bring out the rankings and allow our public service leaders to compete for awards, recognition and rankings. Yes, sometimes people roll their eyes at these accolades and dispute the methodology, the objectivity or accuracy of the assessments. I get it. But that cynicism should not stand in the way of the benefits, as I’m looking at the value of these awards and ranking for what they positively accomplish:

  1. They clearly identify the performance measures that matter, based on years of comparing company performance against one another;
  2. They objectively rank each company’s performance on individual measures, such that the company can learn areas of excellence and weakness, and what it will take to be best-in-class;
  3. They are often accompanied by an education and awards session for the finalists, where leaders can learn from leaders about how they achieved higher levels of performance;
  4. They allow organizations in a wide range of sectors to identify top performers, read about their stories, understand the leadership philosophies used to achieve the results, and compare their own organizations to the winners; and
  5. They allow the winning organizations to use these awards and rankings as badges of honor, to create pride within their own organizations and to create interest in potential employees who want to work for the industry’s best.

To improve performance, to be ranked, to show vulnerability, you have to put yourself out there – and that takes courage. Public sector leaders need rankings and forum groups, and they need them today.  Our public sector leaders need to start putting themselves out there, comparing themselves to their colleagues, making themselves better leaders, and improving performance.

That’s what we should expect of all our leaders, shouldn’t it?

Too Big To Function

Go back to early Chinese history, the Roman Empire, the writings of Karl Marx or Max Webster and you will find that bureaucracy has always existed. It exists at the family level with parental hierarchy. It exists in military regimes through command and formation. It exists in manufacturing plants with process and controls. And it exists in public service organizations through rules and risk management.

And it exists for good reason.

Traditionally, a bureaucracy establishes the most efficient and rational way to organize human activity through a series of standardized rules and processes deemed necessary to maintain order, control risk, limit irreverence and control messaging. It has been the administrative system that governs pretty much every large institution in our country. And until about 30 years ago, it was a relatively effective organizing mechanism and management structure.

But then our population curve and our technology adoption curve started to turn upwards, and our bureaucracies expanded to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracies instead of meeting the need of their customers.

And the criticisms heightened. Bureaucracies were frequently blamed for longwinded processes, slow decision-making, unnecessary approval steps, inflexible procedures, absence of creativity, lack of organizational personality, lack of individual empathy, convoluted practices, political interference, and the inability to empower front line staff to solve problems.

Bureaucracies are a control-based and rules-based operating system, like Microsoft, when really the whole world just wants to be working with Apple.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft will always exist and bureaucracies will always exist. Microsoft had its day in the sun, and bureaucracies have had their day in the sun. Microsoft loosened its control, and bureaucracies must loosen their control. Microsoft underwent an excruciatingly painful and costly re-inventive change process, and it is time for bureaucracies to do so as well.

Yes, it is time.

The fundamental tenants of bureaucracy are rules, process, hierarchy and control – the very essence of centralized conformist management theory – and the antithesis of creativity, innovation, customization and flexibility demanded by today’s informed customers.

Most bureaucracies follow a standard formula: policy gets announced by politicians, strategy gets set at the top, directors control risk, managers supervise a portfolio of projects, tasks are given to front line workers who deal with the customers, and administrative coordinators schedule and record the activities. The whole bureaucratic system is set up to control power and authority, centralize knowledge and decision-making, eradicate all risk and invention, trickle down responsibility without authority, govern through processes and rules, and discount any accountability for results.

No wonder bureaucracies are riddled with ego, drama, politics, blame, turf and a large dose of CYA (cover your arse). Although bureaucracies are the most rational means for carrying out imperious control over human beings, left unfettered, bureaucracies create a work environment where tremendous human emotion is channeled toward internal energy-draining survival activities as opposed to toward external facing services.

Control environments have the ability to completely emasculate public service motivation.

This background needs to be understood by our elected officials that want change to happen, but are stumped as to where to start. Change cannot start from within, from someone who grew up in the bureaucracy, as that is all they know. Perpetuating the status quo is in their best interest, especially if they are nearing retirement, and culture will always suffer.

This is the unfortunate reality for some of our cities, government departments and institutions these days. And that is why I am writing about it. The system needs a leadership and cultural overhaul – and we have a generational window to start making it happen.

More to come …

Where Credit is Due

Every time I tell the Edmonton story, from Hangzhou to Helsinki, from roundtables of 10 to audiences of 1100, people are fascinated how we evolved the Edmonton brand and engaged our whole community in the process. They ask, “How did you guys do it? How did Edmonton manage its way through the recession so well? How did you evolve the brand in such a short period of time? How did you grab the attention of the media? How did you rise so fast in the rankings?”

Every time I’m asked, I stop and give pause, and I share an important story that seems to be forgotten – a story that gives credit to those who took the risk to fundamentally change the face of our city.

Five years ago, our city was at an impasse. City Council was divided over whether a downtown arena would generate the economic benefits that were being claimed, and Edmontonians were divided as to whether a partnership with Daryl Katz could be trusted and whether it would be in the best interest of our city.

Five years later, we should all be celebrating. What’s been accomplished in downtown Edmonton is a model for public / private partnerships that has attracted envy from cities across North America, and has transformed the mindsets of local and institutional investors looking to invest even more into the Edmonton economy.

Edmonton has forever changed.

And, no one wants to change back.

The partnership between the City of Edmonton and the Katz Group sparked $5.5 billion in new investment, created over 30,000 new jobs, generated over $750 million in new taxes, increased residential density by 20%, added 15% more restaurants and bars, all while improving the brand and reputation of our city and the pride of Edmontonians.

And Daryl Katz delivered. What was originally a $100 million commitment (subject to commercial efficacy) in the Arena Master Agreement has now turned into more than $2 billion of personal investment in our downtown. And he kept investing in Edmonton while oil prices plummeted and margins were squeezed, building confidence in our city as we told this story around the world. Katz Group delivered the tallest tower in western Canada (Stantec Tower), the Edmonton Tower, the JW Marriott Hotel, Rogers Place Arena, the Winter Garden (Ford Hall) with excellence, and they continue to invest with more buildings planned in our near future.

Yes, these investments result in a return for the Katz Group, but they also carry significant commercial risk. The bigger winner in this partnership has been the City of Edmonton. With the ICE District development already at 75% of the original 20-year projection, and trending better than ever expected, the Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) has generated property tax revenue from new development and rising property values that has allowed the City of Edmonton to green light more than $230 million in new capital investment projects in the downtown core – a direct result of the arena partnership. That’s huge after only three years, and it puts the City’s investment of public tax dollars in the downtown arena project into a very positive view.

But we are not done. Downtown is not done. Edmonton is not done. Partnerships like these need to continue in order to accelerate our growth, to create a city that is built on excellence and to position us as an exciting city to watch. Additional partnerships are needed to continue investing in our public spaces, like a world stage Plaza in front of Rogers Place, public art on our streets or new hotels attached to our conference centres. Partnerships work, the CRL works, and they should form the foundation for the next phase of our downtown vision.

City of Edmonton and Katz Group is a partnership between City Builders. No party could have created what’s been created on their own. It took cooperation, trust, wisdom, vision and courage. And we need more as we keep growing.

So, as I reflect back on the past five years, on the shoulders which carried us through the recession and on the foundation which helped us shape our brand, I give credit to the City Builders behind the City/Katz Partnership, and I encourage us all to continue investing in, and honouring, these partnerships for years to come.

Let’s Talk Brand & Reputation

What are the first images that come to mind when people think of the word Edmonton? Are they images of festivals and events? Images of young entrepreneurs? Images of blue skies and river valleys? Images of Rogers Place and PCL cranes in the sky? Or are they images of a cold, isolated city? Images of an industrial town? Images of Gretzky crying while being traded? Images of big shopping malls?

Whatever images come to mind shape the Brand of our city.

What are the words that people use to describe Edmonton when you are not in the room? Are they words like young and energetic? Progressive and compassionate? Open and tolerant? A city of opportunity? Or are they words like tough and unsafe? Boring and uneventful? Dirty and slow? Unwalkable and unapproachable?

Whatever words are spoken form the Reputation of our city.

Many words and images have been used in the past to describe our city – words and images often left to others to contrive. And many have had negative associations because we never managed our brand, our reputation, our story with intention.

And we know now that if we don’t tell our story, someone else will … their own way.

So, we set out to change that. To take control of our brand and reputation. It started four years ago, under Mayor Stephen Mandel and has since been championed by Mayor Don Iveson. We needed to change the brand and reputation of Edmonton, and we needed to do it by telling our story … which is the summation of all our individual stories, past and present.

In fact, the Master Story goes back thousands of years, well before European settlers arrived. As the ice receded, this particular bend on this particular river is where various indigenous peoples gathered to trap, to trade, to learn, to heal and to celebrate. An isolated community, open to the elements, where people had to support one another in order to survive, to grow, to be entertained and to get ahead. It was a community with characteristics of being open, inventive, courageous and cooperative – the very brand characteristics that describe our city today.

Todd Babiak of Story Engine began doing the research into the Master Story. He was inundated with examples of how people came to our city, were welcomed here, took a risk and tried something new, only to find that they had the support of the entire community and that their journeys were filled with an unusual level of success. The Master Story was filled with anecdotes from Edmonton building the first Mosque in North America, to starting the first Food Bank when times were tough, to starting the first Fringe Festival in North America where theatre groups could test their productions before launching them across the globe. Stories of my alma matter, Procter & Gamble, using Edmonton as their test market for new products, to the PCL story, the Running Room story, the Booster Juice story, the Henry Marshall Tory story, the Cal Nichols story, the Karl Clark story and the Sandy MacTaggart story. Everyone he interviewed was filled with anecdotes that reinforced our Master Story and our brand promise that “If you have the courage to take an idea to reality, to make something, Edmonton is your city.”

And it’s a beautiful story. One that is unique to Edmonton. And one that we can sell around the world.

And we are all in the selling business. We need to constantly be communicating and positioning our city to attract the seven (7) drivers of economic wealth –investment, business, visitors, conferences & conventions, major events, talent/students and direct flights. These are the things that generate wealth, expand prosperity, provide jobs for our kids and improve our standard of living.

Each of the seven drivers has a different kind of target customer, each with different reasons for taking an interest in Edmonton.  From our same Master Story, we shape images and stories and value propositions into targeted campaigns to: (1) Create awareness about our city; (2) Allow them to experience our city; (3) Help them see the opportunity in our city; and hopefully (4) Encourage them to make a decision to invest in our city.

That’s the goal … whether it be an investor, an entrepreneur, a tourist, a meeting planner, a student, a professor, a family or an airline.

To shape those campaigns, we create a series of digital assets, stories, value propositions, presentations, wordmarks, brochures, trade show booths, promotions, advertisements, meeting agendas, introductions, blogs, tweets, Instagram photos, WeChats and Snapchats that are unique to each target audience and can also be used across different campaigns, and can be used by organizations, institutions and businesses in the region. That’s why you see the Edmonton Original campaign when you arrive at the Edmonton International Airport or the FIFA Women’s World Cup images in our international investor presentations or high-resolution photos of the ITU World Triathlon in the Stantec Annual Report. Unlike consumer product companies, we don’t have $100 million to build a brand, so we need to work as one and get more leverage for each marketing dollar spent.

And externally, the Finnish wood home manufacturer that we are trying to attract to set up North American operations in Edmonton becomes interested in our brand through various mediums. She gets familiar with our embracement of winter through our Explore Edmonton winter tourism campaign. She is interested in exploring Jasper because we’ve linked Beaver Hills Dark Skies with Jasper’s Dark Skies. She has an employee that graduated from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering, and loves Connor McDavid because she remembers Jari Kurri was once with the Oilers. Our images and stories all come together, self reinforcing, to build our brand and our reputation – consistently and with intention.

At EEDC, we have responsibility for telling the Edmonton story, globally. We do so with key partners like the City of Edmonton, our Regional counterparts, our Post-Secondary Institutions, Edmonton International Airport, Northlands, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce Oilers Entertainment Group and others to attract those seven economic drivers. That’s why we spend $1.5 million per year of taxpayer dollars on brand and reputation assets, stories and campaigns, leveraged 1:1 with industry funds, and work to generate between a 7x and 10x return on every dollar spent.

Sometimes we use wordmarks with a little Maple Leaf (see image at top of page) to help foreign customers make the connection between Edmonton and Canada. As Canada is currently the #1 Nation Brand in the world and our Prime Minister is out aggressively marketing our country for foreign investment, we would be crazy not to connect ourselves closely with it.

I’m not a fan of city logos and taglines. They are typically uninspiring, overpriced and look like they are done by committee.  And, at the end of the day 1/3rd of the people will love it, 1/3rd will hate it and 1/3rd don’t care, so I question the undertaking.

The wordmark used in my presentation this week is the one I use when overseas, typically in Europe, where target businesses have a growing interest in investing in Canada. I realized the power of the city/nation connection a couple of years ago, and had our internal graphic designer do up something I could put on my slides. The cost was nothing, and if it looks like the MacLean’s Magazine logo – oops, I didn’t realize they had a trademark on our country’s Maple Leaf.

Top-tier cities in the world are all one-word brands – Tokyo, Sydney, Paris, Berlin, New York, London, etc. – while second-tier cities need the nation name beside it – Melbourne, Australia or Manchester, England or Helsinki, Finland. If you introduce a third word, you have lost your customer. So, instead of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada as we have talked about ourselves for years, I use one-word which is Edmonton and simply connect it with the Maple Leaf. It works well for our foreign investment customers.

Our job is to get Edmonton on people’s radar as Canada’s 5th largest city, Canada’s youngest, fastest growing city, and Canada’s best city for their investment opportunity. That’s what we are, and will continue to be, focused on. While I appreciate all the range of comments on the Maple Leaf wordmark, we know it works for our target customers, so we will continue to use it as part of our overall story.

Structure Follows Strategy

It has been a long time since Alberta had a Ministry of Economic Development & Trade, and it is long overdue. The announcement by Premier Notley last Thursday brought cheers from many across the province, as we can now establish focus and resources towards our most pressing economic issues:

  1. Building a culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship in businesses big and small;
  2. Developing revenues, trade and investment from beyond our borders;
  3. Unlocking the value of our resource assets in mutually beneficial ways; and
  4. Leading an innovation system that is relevant and respected across Canada.

We have been talking about these four simple priorities for years as part of our provincial strategy; however, the ministerial structure never followed the strategy and past ministries lived through endless leadership changes and budget uncertainty.

This was a much needed change and, when led by a strong Minister, Deputy Minister and Premier’s Advisory Committee on the Economy, I believe we are now off to a great start.

The old models of economic development, diversification and innovation have not brought success or change, and I look forward to working with this new ministry to compete and win in today’s marketplace.

I am often hard on our government because I have high expectations. This is a timely and prudent move, and I compliment this kind of thoughtful stewardship.

I look forward to helping bring back our excellence.