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The Ampersand November 2018 – An Olympic Sized Opportunity

October 31, 2018
**Editor’s Note:  On account of the thread by which our $2,000,000 plebiscite is hanging we decided to publish our November 1 newsletter on October 31. With our elected officials dressed up for Halloween as, well, politicians, we wanted to leave nothing to chance and get this message out before they entirely screw it up.  

 

Dear Friends & Colleagues,

 

Several years ago, we were invited, at the urging of a Board member, to meet the CEO of his company – let’s call him Ray – to present our credentials so that he might be suitably impressed to hire us to find him a much-needed General Counsel. At best, Ray was double booked and severely distracted the day we met; at worst, a wholly unwilling participant in a meeting he didn’t ask for. He allowed us 4 minutes to make our pitch (we thought we had an hour) and when he asked if that was doable, I confidently replied, “yes, but what will we do with the other three?”  With that, we got hired.

 

A couple days later came the kick-off meeting with the entire executive team.  Though we had more time this time, Ray’s mood was no bubblier.  As I dutifully explained our comprehensive search process and timelines, our weekly updating and thorough candidate assessments, our pre-screening methodology and post-placement onboarding, he interrupted me and said “cut the [sh*t]…if you’re any good, you already know who’s going to get this job so why don’t you just save us all a bunch of time and tell me.”

 

“But that would defeat the point of doing a search,” I politely protested. “I mean, the point of a search is to, well, search and even once we arrive at a shortlist, we still have to narrow to a finalist, negotiate salary and assume the offer will be accepted…I couldn’t possibly predict who will get the job, there are way too many moving parts and variab…”. “Shhh!” he snapped impatiently while raising a hand in the universal symbol that means ‘you should really stop talking now.’   “Process bores me. Advisors advise!  Have an opinion, man!” he admonished.

 

Then it got really weird. As if in some old spaghetti Western, he dramatically slid a pad of paper across the table, while his executive team nervously turned in unison to watch it screech to a halt right in front of me.  Then came the pen, which travelled via air.  “Now what yer gonna do is yer gonna write down the name of the person who’s going to get this job and Lynn over there, well, Lynn is going to seal it in an envelope and in a few months’ time, when all your fancy process is finished we’ll be where we should’ve been all along.  Whaddya say?”

 

“A rabbit will appear?” may have been a good answer. He was serious, so I obliged, scribbled a name, folded the paper, gave it to Lynn who tucked away the sealed the envelope like a PWC accountant at the Oscars. This was all very uncomfortable for we are hard-wired around here not to pre-judge or play favourites. It’s not our role to tell the client who to hire but rather to skillfully orchestrate a competition among several excellent candidates.  Yet, deep down, I knew he was right, and I did know who was going to get the job and, many months later, after running our full process, and after having Ray assess five stellar options, the name I wrote down, let’s call him Chuck, accepted the offer and remains in the role to this day. But, in the moment, rather than have an opinion, and simply tell Ray the name, I fell back on the urge to show process to justify value.

 

And this brings us to the incredibly thorough yet uncharacteristically tepid fancy process our city appears to be taking toward the 2026 Olympic Bid. Isn’t this a complete no brainer? Can’t we just skip all the fancy process and get on with it?  Apparently not. I’ll try to explain.

 

Picture a time of rising interest rates, a Trudeau as Prime Minister and a damaging energy policy plunging Alberta into a prolonged period of darkness. The year was 1981, seven years prior to hosting the 1988 Olympic Games. Yet, despite the anxiety of the early 80s there was little dithering, and certainly no plebiscite around whether to bid for the opportunity to host the Games.  In fact, back then, led by the late Frank King, who must be rolling in his grave at the sight of our current inability to get out of our own way, it was seen as a privilege, not a burden, to host the world.

 

Yet, here we are, less than two weeks from a plebiscite that will determine the course of our city’s history during my lifetime and that of my kids. The last plebiscite in Alberta was 1971 on whether we favoured province-wide daylight savings time (yes) and, the one before that, in 1957, on whether to approve additional types of outlets for the sale of wine, beer and spirituous liquor (again, thankfully, yes). Though we’re two for two in voting “yes” in this province,  voter turnout is typically less than 50% in civic plebiscites so assuming the trend continues we could wake up on November 14th with one-quarter of our populace influencing an outcome that would see us miss out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

 

-Winston Churchill

The trouble is we live in such strange and overly-simplified times that that one-quarter has a distinct advantage.  Complex issues are ground down into the absolute plainest level of grade 3 understanding (with apologies to 8-year old’s everywhere).  Our attention span has become so short, our tolerance for nuance so lacking that we can barely fathom a thoughtful approach to assessing, then solving, a problem which hasn’t been presented to us in 140 characters or some basic two-word phrase.  As we’ve seen south of the border, short and pithy beats detailed and informed most times.

 

While the Yes side inundates us with reason, data, statistics and fancy process to support its case – noble and well intentioned though it may be – it risks losing to the counterpoint brevity of #fakenews. The Yes side is battling a perfect storm of apathy, disinformation and an ethos that contrarian is good and conformity is bad, no matter the issue.  If bad news travels faster than good news, then fake news is a cheetah. As Mark Twain said, “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” Or in this case, its skates.

 

I’m not suggesting the No side isn’t telling the truth.  It’s just so much easier to say “I don’t want to pay for a two week party” than it is to say “The Games, 87% of venues for which are already in place and at which 2,850 athlete housing units will be built, all while injecting $4.4 billion in the local economy, creating jobs, prosperity and growth while re-establishing Calgary on the global stage, renewing critical sport infrastructure, building a much-needed field house and constructing affordable housing for everyday Calgarians and showcasing Calgary’s superpower of volunteerism and sense of pride and building a legacy for our children and future Olympic athletes while creating more jobs for Calgarians, $1 billion in local wages for local businesses and employees and producing more world class athletes and hosting the most world class sporting events of any city in the world which will continue to enhance Alberta’s reputation as one of the great sport discovery, development and excellence training centres in the world so please participate in the plebiscite and vote Yes.”

 

Compounding the problem, so concerned are our civic officials and community leaders at appearing to take sides, lest they bet on the wrong horse, and so determined are they to demonstrate thoroughness and diligence and rigour, that they are not only bringing a typewriter to a twitter fight, but they are contorting themselves like a pretzel to exhibit neutrality, objectivity and thoroughness.  In the process, their fancy process is so clinical and uninspired you would think we are contemplating bidding for the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association Annual Conference not an Olympic Games. Even the very Calgary 2026 committee has in its presentation slides the following bullet: “Calgary 2026 is NOT the YES Calgary team NOR are they the NO Olympics team.”

 

What?

 

Well, at the risk of having an opinion, I happen to think we should bid for the Games and think if we don’t at least try to be the host city (for while a “No” vote on November 13th certainly ensures we won’t, a “Yes” vote doesn’t guarantee we will), then we will have only ourselves to blame as years of uninspired malaise in our once vibrant city continues unabated.

 

I just think it would be a refreshingly bold and aspirational thing to do.  And I think what’s missing in the current narrative is passion and nostalgia and pride.  We’re so focused on the “how” we’ve forgotten the “why”.  Just listen to the excitement and optimism in this radio clip from the CBC archives from October 1981, nearly exactly where we sit right now; seven years before a possible Games, when Calgary was in much worse shape than it is today. Couldn’t we use some of that?  And read this analysis, written on the 25th anniversary of the ’88 Games about what exactly they did for Calgary in terms of putting it on the map.

 

I remember exactly where I was in February 1988, watching Boitano and Orser and Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsled team thinking what a great city Calgary appeared to be; one I might even one day want to live in (not an easy concession for a born and bred Edmontonian).  Sure, the speaking points and the process matter but for me it’s so much simpler.

 

I know it will cost money, and as I write, the tab is still being wrestled over, but since when have we become so pious about government spending? Just last week it was revealed the federal government landed upon a $20 billion windfall and squandered it all away with barely a peep.  Yet, of all the fiscal issues on which to find religion, it’s opposing an Olympic bid, and not one of the many countless other more wasteful and heinous pursuits that seems to have paralyzed our leaders who’ve allowed the process tail to wag the common sense dog.

 

Not hosting the Olympics will not save federal taxpayers any money. Ottawa will pick up 50 per cent of the public tab on the cost of capital expenditure on the Games for infrastructure that will stay in Calgary, including upgrading eight legacy venues that are now more than 30 years old, including the Olympic Oval, McMahon Stadium (which is an embarrassment), our bobsled and luge runs, etc. That money will never go back into general revenues to lower the debt.”

 

– Licia Corbella, The Gold Medal for Fibbing Goes to the No Side, October 24, 2018

 

I recently heard the Mayor say that Calgary is ‘defiantly open to the world.’  Really?  I suppose we’ve defiantly hosted the World Paddle Tennis Championships and the North American Rangers Support Association Conference but it feels to me like we’re ‘timidly considering maybe being open to the world, depending on who pays and what the plebiscite results are.’

 

I’ve had many recurring dreams since that day in the CEO’s office pitching for that General Counsel search.  One such recurring dream involves me slowly pushing my chair away from the boardroom table, walking up to him, sticking a finger in his chest and saying, “Chuck is going to get the f*%#ing job, that’s who!”

 

Yes, Ray, advisers advise. And this time, I do have an opinion.  And so should you, Calgary. When all your fancy process is finished I hope we’ll be where we should have been all along.  Whaddya say?

 

Regards,

Adam