September 25, 2020
“Choose to be different”, “Do it on purpose” and “Don’t let the old man in”
As I prepare for yet another attempt at retirement, I find myself frequently reminiscing about the incredible journey I have experienced since becoming CEO of Propel in October 2017. To be sure, it has been one of the highlights of my professional career. The following questions also come to mind. What have we accomplished? What could I have done better?
What have we accomplished?
When I was appointed CEO, the Propel Board of Directors mandated me to reset the positioning and value proposition of the organization. The Atlantic Canada innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem had evolved considerably since Propel was founded in 2002. Community and university incubators and accelerators had emerged throughout the region. Most were offering services similar to what Propel had been offering since its inception. It was clear to me that Propel needed a bold new vision in order to sustain and enhance its impact on the regional economy.
A book authored by Propel Board Director April Dunford entitled “Obviously Awesome” contains two quotes which characterize my mindset as I tackled the challenge of charting a new course for the organization.
“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different”
- Prof. Michael Porter, Harvard Business School
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose”
- Dolly Parton
I spent the first two months of my tenure as CEO consulting with over one hundred “thought leaders” and stakeholders in the innovation and entrepreneurship space. Some patterns began to emerge in the advice I received that shaped my thinking about how to “choose to make Propel different”:
- the vast geography of Atlantic Canada and low population density of most communities where entrepreneurs reside, poses a significant challenge in ensuring access to accelerator services for tech entrepreneurs on a cost-effective basis
- founders of tech ventures have diverse needs that are constantly changing as their ventures evolve
- most tech startup failures can be attributed to poor performance in market development and sales execution
- there is a need for greater collaboration among regional ecosystem players to reduce duplication of resources and maximize impact.
With the help of the talented and passionate Propel team, the advice I received was translated into a compelling strategic plan that was approved by the Propel Board of Directors in January 2018. For the next several months our team focused on designing, testing and validating an innovative accelerator model featuring three pillars:
- virtual delivery of accelerator services to founders at their location
- a customized experience for each of the founders we serve featuring best-in-class proven content and methodology, dedicated one-on-one coaching and virtual access to mentors, experts and role model entrepreneurs
- a high degree of focus on, and accountability for, market development and sales execution.
We had figured out “who we would be” and our team committed to “do it on purpose”. We launched Atlantic Canada’s virtual accelerator in September 2018. The results to date have been very impressive. We have helped many founders determine if their solution has a clear path to success and several of the tech ventures we have supported are showing great upside potential. Propel is well positioned to successfully pursue its mission “to be a leader in fostering the growth of successful global technology companies headquartered in Atlantic Canada”.
What could I have done better?
It is my view that Atlantic Canada is under-achieving relative to the assets it has to drive innovation and entrepreneurship. We have ample resources supporting entrepreneurship but the many nodes in the ecosystem are not as well connected as they could be through greater collaboration. I decided to make it a priority to provide some leadership on this issue during my tenure as CEO of Propel. However, I must confess that until recently, my leadership could be described as more about “words” on collaboration as opposed to “actions”. This all changed when the pandemic crisis hit. Recognizing the fortunate position Propel was in as a virtual accelerator, and the challenges other accelerators and incubators were facing by having to close their doors, the Propel team saw a need to step up and help our community partners. We quickly launched a project to provide them access to our online platform so that they could continue to serve their clients virtually. While there remains much to be done to improve regional collaboration, I am hopeful that Propel’s recent actions will be a catalyst for greater sharing of assets, as opposed to duplication of assets.
Passing the torch!
This is the right time for me to pass the torch to my successor, Kathryn Lockhart, a very bright, talented and energetic young woman with an impressive professional track record. I could never have imagined when Kathryn was a student of mine at UNB, that years later she would be selected by the Propel Board to succeed me as CEO. The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges and threats to the social, economic and environmental well-being of our country and the planet. The need for innovation and entrepreneurship has never been greater to find the solutions that will sustain and enhance our standard of living in the future. The Propel team has built an asset that is showing great promise in its capacity to grow enduring businesses. I am confident that Kathryn is the right leader to find the best opportunities to leverage this asset for even greater impact. And as a proud father of three entrepreneurial daughters, I am delighted to see the growing influence of women as leaders in the Atlantic Canada ecosystem.
Personally, I am looking forward to the next chapter in my life. I will be guided by some advice offered by renowned actor and director, Clint Eastwood when he was asked on his 88th birthday how he keeps going. He said “I just get up every morning and I go out. And I don’t let the old man in.”
While I will cherish having more personal time to enjoy family and friends and outdoor activities, I learned from my previous retirement that I need a sense of purpose “to keep the old man out”. I am certain there will be ample opportunity to continue to contribute and defend against the anticipated interventions of “the old man” without compromising my new lifestyle.
My sincere thanks and best wishes to the Propel team, the Propel Board of Directors, Propel’s funders and all of you in the ecosystem that have made a contribution to my incredible journey in this role.