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The Ampersand February 2018 – Swing and a Miss

May 1, 2019

Last month Amazon announced, to no one’s surprise, that Calgary was not going to emerge victorious in its bid to have the giant online retailer’s next headquarters in our city. By any measure we were a massive underdog. Except, I’m sure, in the opinion of the team at Calgary Economic Development who wouldn’t have bid if they didn’t think we could win. Still, for a city that loves to win but has grown accustom to losing – losing its voice in Ottawa, losing the Grey Cup two years in a row, losing over 100,000 employees from the workforce, losing thousands of businesses, 10 of which resided on the street where I work, and possibly losing its NHL hockey team– this was just another kick in the…


Ballplayer Michael Jordan, still the greatest to ever play basketball in my mind, once said “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  And that is why we need to keep bidding, pitching and fighting bears, real or perceived.


To me, pitching is like loosening the lid on a jar; it doesn’t feel like you’re making progress with each attempt and, practically speaking, you’re not. But eventually, pop, you break through. You weren’t actually loosening the jar prior to breaking through for a lid is either on or off, a binary proposition like winning or losing; you simply found a better grip, a different angle and a little more strength. Simply not opening the jar, however, is never an option.  That’s what’s great about aspiration; it forces you to try, to figure stuff out and, eventually, to succeed.


And that’s what was so great about the Amazon bid. Not that it was “good practice” or that “the global attention it received will help attract other companies come to Calgary,” as we’ve heard so often in the days since the defeat.  No, it was great for the simple reason we did it in the first place.  The very act of pitching was a positive endeavour, one about potential and growth and opportunity and aspiration. After three years of shrinking, tightening, reducing and decreasing we finally did something that was about building, growing, reaching and expanding. Unlike the quip offered by a friend of mine during a lengthy distillery tour we once shared in Scotland, whereat he offered to the rather verbose guide that we were “less interested in the process, than the product,” I believe in this case the very act of pitching was more important than the thing we were pitching for.


Frankly, I’m not even sure how we would have pulled it off had we won.  Just as I’m not sure how we’d host an Olympic Games in 2026 if we bid and win that.  But I’ll guarantee you one thing: we’d figure it out. Industrious cities with resourceful people figure stuff out but if you don’t even put yourself in a position to have to figure it out, you’re doomed. I remember the first search I got handed on my first day at Korn/Ferry International 10 years ago. It was for a Chief Geophysicist for one of Canada’s largest independent oil and gas producers. I had no idea what a Geophysicist was. We worked in an open concept so I had to whisper when I called an oil and gas friend and quietly ask “hey, real quick, what’s a Geophysicist?”


It would be far more discouraging if we, as a city of doers who, recently more than ever, have been repeating the slightly hollow refrain of prairie ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, had chosen not to even pitch concluding somehow that that would be better than pitching and losing. I’m sure no Major League ballplayer steps into the batter’s box planning on failing. Just as I’m sure we’ve never pitched for a piece of work that we didn’t think we could (a) win; and (b) hit out of the park once we had it.


Which brings us to today, 1246 Opportunities later.  Recently, we were one of 11 firms to have been invited to respond to an RFP for the CEO Search for the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. Eight firms responded (three didn’t even pitch!? Please!) and, as we always do, we threw our hearts into our written submissions and, upon getting short-listed for an in-person interview, we threw our hearts into that too. After having won the search, I learned that some of the losing firms called to express their surprise at the Board’s selection; that we were apparently “quite the underdog” story.  Really? That was news to me. We were there because we belonged and, this time, we won. Next time we’ll probably lose. And that’s okay. As Da Vinci said, “to be a winner you must want to win but must know of the chance of losing and must not fear of it.


Don’t worry, Leonardo, we don’t fear losing; we just hate losing.  But what we hate even more is not even trying.  So, Calgary, keep stumbling from failure to failure but please don’t lose your enthusiasm. And don’t lose your aspiration.  It doesn’t look good on you.