Goodbye golf course networking, hello social network; the boomers make way

By Scott Simpson, Vancouver Sun September 14, 2012

VANCOUVER — Goodbye golf course networking, hello social network.

The Business Council of British Columbia on Friday took its first step toward building a youth movement, introducing a hand-picked group of young leaders who are being groomed to take custody of the council’s role as the voice of British Columbia’s mainstream business community.

The Next Leaders Council project has been quietly in development for a year, with support from the business council, Telus, RBC and Stantec. A group of 50 young entrepreneurs and executives is involved. Most were nominated from the ranks of 250 private- and public-sector organizations that belong to the business council.

Most are in their 30s and they’ve been identified by their respective employers as most likely to take up the torch from a baby boomer generation that is retiring, en masse. Sixty-six per cent of new job openings through 2020 will be due to the retirement of existing workers, and senior executives are part of that group.

An Ipsos Reid survey of business council members suggests that 81 per cent of members agree that young leaders should be more involved today, in decision-making, with 77 per cent suggesting the challenges they face will be more difficult than those they’ve faced in their own careers. Only about 40 per cent think young leaders are prepared for those challenges.

In recent years, the council has voiced support for the HST, condemned B.C.’s carbon tax, organized a half-day forum on B.C.’s opportunities in the oil and natural gas export sectors, and supported the Harper government’s controversial streamlining of the federal Fisheries Act.

However, “about 90 per cent” of the issues the BCBC deals with are non-partisan — such as ramped-up job skills and trade training initiatives, or building relationships with First Nations, council president and CEO Greg D’Avignon said.

The Next Leaders cohort, he anticipates, will deliver a fresh set of insights.

“That (Next) generation isn’t shy about sharing their point of view, and they are in the most positive way disruptive thinkers in organizations,” D’Avignon said, adding that many Next members are “already in senior positions in British Columbia making decisions.”

The policy recommendations to come out of Next are still in development. Council members anticipate that they will express a more “diverse” set of views and values than the more established members while staying focused on their mission — advocating for a robust economy.

“I don’t think I’m speaking out of school here by saying we want to change the face of the organization, ultimately, and we want to add a bunch of new faces to the organization,” Graham Senft, Next council chair, said in an interview.

“(The business council) is a little bit of an old-school organization, sort of a centralized business and policy advocacy organization. In ways of interaction and management and communication, it’s all quite formal and it’s all very much aligned with the sort of CEO-president or vice-president set.”

Senft wants Next to be open to a wider array of thinkers.

“Our generation, I think, is much more democratic in terms of how we communicate and how we interact. I think the organization itself has to change in terms of how it engages with its membership.”

When Senft was invited to serve as Next’s inaugural chair, he sought assurances from D’Avignon that the group’s work would be taken seriously.

“I said, ‘I’m honoured to do so, and very interested, but on one condition — that this not be seen or treated as the kid’s table, that this not be a secondary thing that the business council is doing, and not three steps removed from the actual operation and the real business of the organization.’

“It was very, very clear from Greg from the get-go, and from the senior staff and the board (of directors) itself that this is not a sideshow, that this is a core element of their governance and their engagement and communication with membership.”

Senft believes the Next project will help engage a generation that has been disaffected by both boomer dominance and the polarized, rancorous tone of debate in B.C. on prominent issues of public policy.

“We’ve got this generation, this cohort, that is typically far less engaged in traditional public processes or policy processes or forums – right down to engagement in voting. There is a sense that the system is broken, that they’re not connected, that they don’t have a stake.

“I think we’ve got a really great opportunity to leverage that existing capital, or capacity (of the business council), and really start to infuse it with the perspective and the energy and the demographic that is this cohort we are speaking to.”

Senft got drawn into Next through a leadership development program at the downtown Vancouver office of Stantec Consulting, where he works as a practice lead.

Stantec regional leader and vice-president Michael Kennedy recalls telling Senft that he had “the right attitude and the right DNA for the kind of leadership we need in the future.”

“What the whole (Stantec) program is all about is getting this next generation of leaders engaged in policy development, thought leadership, influence on how we start to drive the agenda — because we have interesting issues ahead of us in the next few years around energy usage, water usage, infrastructure development, the way communities are developed, climate change, housing affordability. These are issues that go right across politics,” Kennedy said.

The business council is describing Next as an “engagement platform” that will better serve a generation accustomed to multi-tasking, collaborative thinking, and a digital communications infrastructure that supports rapid access to information. The thought of a half-day business conference featuring a roster of high-ranking speakers expounding from a podium makes them antsy.

“They’re really hard to engage in the old ways,” Tom Syer, BCBC vice-president of policy and communications, observed. “I think if you do it right you can get them involved because they are civic minded. (But) we’ve got to find some different platforms and some different ways for them to intersect with the institutions that are (responsible for) public policy and policy broadly.”

That could mean video conferencing, or it could mean reformatting the business council’s customary information-delivery sessions to accommodate more accelerated forms of information sharing such as a PechaKucha 20×20 event. At a PechaKucha, a series of speakers have to present 20 slides, and have a maximum of 20 seconds apiece to explain them.

If you’re the boomer-aged CEO of a Fortune 500 company, that prospect probably grates against your perception of the esteem in which your audience holds you as you carry them through a 45-minute keynote address at a business luncheon. If you’re a Gen Y-aged CEO of a digital start-up, it’s more like an extended version of the pitch for cash that you’ve sweated dozens of times to fidgety venture capitalists and angel investors.

Note, the business council had its first brush with PechaKucha in December 2010, on the topic of the next generation of business leaders.

Senft was in the audience. “It was a really unvarnished and really open conversation that I think struck a lot of people in the room as quite unique,” he recalled. “Culturally it was more relevant to our cohort than some of the other events that are the traditional lunchtime rubber chicken sessions.”

Next council member Robert Bruno, senior vice-president of finance for Polygon Homes, said members of his age cohort believe in paying their dues on their way up the executive chain.

But, he adds, “We just believe in paying them faster than prior generations.

“There is a lot of old guard or certain institutional ways of doing things whereby it’s that same number of people who are always around the same tables and they’re influencing policy, and they’ve been doing that for a long time. That’s very disengaging for young people. We like to be heard but we also like to see things happen with our visions.

“With change in technology, and social media, and how quickly information is flowing from person to person, people are way more educated and moving a lot faster. I think the older generation has seen this and is more willing to let us speak our minds as part of the basis of a general policy. If not we will create our own forums for discussions. So rather than contributing to it, we can be very disruptive.”

Krista Edwards, a government relations adviser with Shell Canada, acknowledged a primary interest in energy issues — Shell is one of the major stakeholders in plans to develop a liquefied natural gas or LNG export industry in B.C.

“I bring the energy and political policy dynamic, but there are going to be other folks around the table that can bring an equal amount of stuff — we can all learn together,” Edwards said.

“I would say at least for my impression that there’s a huge hunger for knowledge. The members hear about things, they read about things in the news, but they don’t necessarily understand them.

“They want to be able get what I like to call 101s. Give me an energy 101 on what the impact is to the province, and do it in an hour. They want to be able to have someone live, someone they can ask questions to, and really ask some critical, good questions.”

Ted Lau of Ballistic Arts Media Studios will be a new kind of voice on the business council. Membership ranges from law firms and banks to co-ops and universities but neither small business nor the province’s booming digital media sector are represented.

Ballistic Arts, which Lau co-founded, has 10 permanent employees.

“A lot of the business council as well as the Next leaders council represented a lot of larger businesses in B.C. and didn’t really reflect the entrepreneurship that has been prevalent in our economy,” Lau said. “I felt it was important for the small business sector to be represented, and also for the tech sector.

“While we have traditionally been a resource-rich economy I feel that in order for us to compete globally in the future, the next century, it’s all going to be innovation. It’s all going to be our minds, and how we engage the world.

“Being a representative of the tech sector, if you will, it is important that we have a presence. Public policy is important to how government listens, how they shape policy, and being able to have a voice at the table is imperative.”

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