A Look Back with Darwin Smith
What was the most memorable teaching moment?
Gavin was my partner and we were teaching in the English speaking class but there really was not one guy that spoke English extremely well. The make up the class was very interesting. There were various ages and backgrounds. What was a really interesting commonality was the lack of exposure to the rest of the world. The Internet was not as prevalent back then; it would be interesting to see how this has changed. Perhaps because of this, business principles were different, very different. For example Lululemon pants for $70 was very strange concept to them; it didn't make sense.
Who was an interesting individual that you met during the program?
The host was the most memorable, she spoke English well and you can actually have a well sustained conversation. She showed great hospitality and hearing about her story, day to day life was interesting and what her aspirations were beyond just hosting us.
Tell us about an unforgettable cultural experience that you were not expecting.
What stuck out was that almost everyone person you met had a "Russian Soul."" The Russian Soul is a short hand for some sort of cultural outlook that was stoic... This outlook did affect a lot of the entrepreneurship especially given that we were in the middle of the nowhere so it was even more difficult. There more many successful entrepreneurs but they tend to be more pessimistic or perhaps realistic? There was always this sense of self-demoting.
Are there any skills that you gained through LEADER that you still use today?
The whole act of getting up and doing a case and facilitating a conversation is something I still do all the time and doing it through LEADERS definitely helped me develop those skills more. Using "International English" language is also a very important skill that you learn to pick up. We often carried on long sessions and used complicated language. In Russia everybody had a certain proficiency but they would lose it if you used too much slang and they wouldn't understand.
Are you still entrepreneurial today? And if so how do you keep an entrepreneurial spirit while working in a corporate environment?
For sure, being at a pretty small office that is entrepreneurial it is very apparent. When I was in Bangkok I met the head of a company that was growing at double digits, something that is rare to see for big corporations in North America, but his ambition didn't stop there. He wanted to triple the size of his company in 12 years. We don't have that level of ambition in Canada. We often don't think BIG enough and daring enough. Perhaps it's because in corporate Canada and US there are more shareholders and quarterly reports with objects that needs to be met.
However for the start-ups in North America, as a mentor our role is often to try to quantify and fact base things. However the most successful entrepreneurs do not always operate like that. They have ambitious goals and plans and you, as a mentor, need to foster those ideas and encourage that dream.
Darwin Smith graduated from the MBA program at Ivey and is one of the founding members of the BCG Calgary office. He focuses his practice on energy and industrial goods clients helping them with corporate strategy, corporate development, marketing and sales, and operational excellence. He is a P. Eng in Alberta and has a mix of engineering, operational management, and consulting experience.
Darwin participated in the LEADER program in 2004 and travelled to Nizhny Tagil, Russia.
A Look Back with David Wood
How different was the culture in comparison to the Canadian way of life?
I could not believe how entrepreneurial they were. Reminisce of communism stuck around long after the wall came down, which is one of the reason why I believe these people were so entrepreneurial. They completely understood how business worked: bartering, supply and demand, setting prices. So when I was teaching my classes, the skills had came as second nature to them.
Typically, the common working man would hold two jobs. The first would with the government; this helped subsidize credits to pay for their car, food, etc. The latter would help pay the bills consisting of black market activity. Here transactions of goods and services were conducted in exchange for cash in something nicknamed the "shadow economy". Overall, it was a poor time for the people and companies because of the lack of government support, corruption, and an unstable financial system.
What was the hardest hurdle you had to overcome while you were teaching?
The students were wonderful. Everyone would always be tentatively jotting down notes and entirely involved in the course. Albeit, it was a few days in when we finally realized, half the class were paid assistants who were ordered to take notes for their executives. We didn't know what to do! We didn't want to upset these people and cause a commotion with our students. In the end, I remember we created a new separate certificate of completion, which was addressed to the executives who had their assistants sit in on the classes.
Did you make any sort of international connections when you were abroad?
I became good friends with one of the translators, who was quick to arrange a tour at a locally owned appliance factory. Given my previous work experience in factory operations for a global manufacturer of home appliances, I was happy to oblige.
When I first stepped foot in the factory, I could not believe what I saw. The factory was producing something like 300,000 units annually with over 2,000 employees. Not only were they producing half of the quantity they should be producing with twice the employees, the quality was an absolute disaster. It was clear that no one had invested a penny since the 50's or 60's. The worst part was that this was the standard in Eastern-Europe, yet no one knew any better. What they thought was just a small problem, was going to take a lot more time and effort than I could provide.
Can you tell me about a story about you and the other LEADERites?
I will never forget the train rides through the city. Out of nowhere, large men who were accompanied with these small children would come onto the train and disperse themselves amongst the riders. The children, not older than the age of 7 maybe 8, would pull at your clothes, ask for money and even look to pickpocket travellers. The Russian Mafia and organized crime was very much a real thing going around. It was not only a different time, but it was a completely different culture. We had some scary moments where we were glad we were Canadian.
What's one piece of advice you could give to a new LEADERite?
The biggest piece of advice I can give a future LEADERite would be to be as flexible as possible. I would start a day with my teaching plan, and at times would have to throw it right out the window within 5 minutes. Business in the developed world was just so different.
I still remember the class asking me, "How much cash should businesses keep on hand, and how much do they keep in the Bank?" The class laughed. It was then I discovered that "Bank" in Ukraine was short for "Bankruptcy", because so often Banks would go under and steal their money. Money was either kept in their business, or, under mattresses and in floorboards.
Overall, I learned more from the students than they did from me. I was just 21 years old and I was teaching business professionals! The LEADER Project was by far my greatest HBA experience.
David Wood is a Lecturer in Operations Management at The Ivey Business School as well as a graduate of both the HBA and MBA program. He has spent many years in industry as the Director of Sales & Marketing in the US and then VP Manufacturing before becoming President for W. C. Wood Company, a global manufacturer of home appliances. David has had extensive experience in international business, mergers and acquisitions, and currently sits on several corporate boards. He has also worked as a consultant to medium and large corporations in strategic planning and operational restructuring.
David participated in the LEADER program in 1997 and travelled to Kiev, Ukraine.
A Look Back with Chris Albinson
Tell us about LEADER's early history.
So the idea for LEADER really started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. An East German Ambassador came to Ivey to speak in the auditorium about the problems that the East would face with the transition to a market economy. These had already emerged as a result of big policy shifts like Glasnost and the like. I was sitting with the other founding members, Scott, Robert and we had approached Paul. We though, if the Germans were going to have problems 40 years out of a market economy, the Russians will have enormous problems 70 years out of the Soviet system. We started in Moscow at the Moscow State University, School of Management.
What materials did you work with?
I was a Business 020 teacher for two years (now known as the Business 1220, introductory business course at Western). We started with the original Ivey framework and then stripped it down for the time that we were teaching there. I was in charge of curriculum, and we were also working to translate the materials.
Can you talk a little bit more about the curriculum and how you adapted it to your students?
The class consisted of a highly divergent audience. There were lots of "middle managers", which made for a compelling teaching experience. The problem was that the curriculum had to be adapted, as many of these students were already familiar with some of the concepts we were teaching.
Where did you travel?
For the first two years, I didn't actually go anywhere. I had an established co-chair position and I was really just overseeing a lot of LEADER's operations at the time. I made sure that we were communicating with sites, developing our curriculum, and made sure that all of our materials were prepared.
In 1993, I travelled to Mongolia. This is kind of "The Lost Story" with LEADER, as we didn't publicize it too much that we actually travelled to Mongolia. On a trip, I had met someone at the World Bank Group (WBG) about market development in South East Asia. Our contact had asked Chris to come to Washington to discuss what the LEADER project had been up to. Eventually one thing led to another and we were invited to bring 6 instructors to Ulan Bator. This really only turned out to be a one year gig. We were unable to continue the relationship as staff changed within the WBG.
At that point in time, things were very difficult. The times were turbulent with the collapse of the USSR. For example, the Minsk team visited Vilnius to see if a potential teaching partnership could be pursued. They actually went when the Black Berets were butchering people. They burned customs posts which were claims of the Baltic republics' independence from Moscow.
What were some of the early mistakes that LEADER made?
Starting out as such a new organization, we encountered so many things. The thing is, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Choosing the right people was a struggle. It was difficult to teach with translators - something we've never done before. It was an uncomfortable environment, as these were students from such diverse backgrounds in a political context that was changing so quickly. How do we provide value to these middle managers? This was a question we'd often ask ourselves.
Back then, we'd have multiple LEADERites in a site teaching simultaneously. When we went to Moscow, the LEADERites would meet at the same bar. We'd discuss our ideas and go through the learning process.
Tell us about a student that you remember.
This is tough. Okay, there was one student. So, the Soviet industry was renowned for its efficiency. It also had perverse incentives. Often, the government would just make a decree for what was demanded. They would say, you have to make 1000 truck tires per month - regardless of whether this is how much people needed. Labour was also in disarray. There was horrific alcoholism at the time, which affected the average life expectancy of workers. In general, managers had a limited ability to change and affect this environment.
LEADER's teaching had to change to focus on whats relevant to these managers. For example, if these students had no dollars to spend, what's the point of talking about investing in marketing? It really constrained what kind of solutions we could pursue. We had to get creative.
One woman was super bright. She started by taking waste product from Soviet factories and use Western technologies to refine and reuse it positively. There was so much waste, from those tire factories for example, that was literally just being thrown out after the collapse. She would clear $400,000 in profit in a week. She was an example of a great student as she basically came into the program and came out starting a really business. What we taught was directly relevant and applicable to what she was doing.
Chris Albinson is a Co-Founder and Managing Director of Founders Circle Capital investing in leading private technology companies primarily by providing liquidity to founders, employees and early investors. Chris helped grow four start-ups most recently as Chief Strategy Officer for Digital Island, and was a General Partner at JPMorgan Partners, co-heading the technology venture capital practice. Chris believes strongly in building a community to support entrepreneurs, co-founding the C100. He is also an advisor to numerous start-ups.
Chris was on the founding LEADER team in 1991, and taught in Mongolia in 1993.
A Look Back With Mark Gilbert
As Executive Director, you were responsible for a lot with the LEADER project. What were some significant changes in your year?
This marked a year of significant change: we launched 3 new sites outside of our historical core of Eastern European locations by building partnerships in Haiti, India and Tanzania. This expansionary year helped change the direction of the Leader Project through a renewed focus on working with entrepreneurs.
To reinforce our entrepreneurial focus, after much debate the Executive Directors and Advisory Board made the tough decision to drop one legacy site (I can't recall what the name was! It was a Russian site!). The teaching team conveyed our tough message in person during the final days of the project delivery.
What is something you wish you could go back and tell yourself before you went away with LEADER?
I think many people will give an answer about how they wished they were more prepared, whether it be for the culture, climate, food, for teaching or for coaching. However, my advice to all future LEADER Project participants is that there is only so much you can prepare for; one of the best parts of the experience is being overwhelmed with such a different environment, being thrown curve balls every day, and learning to adapt and adjust! Sometimes you just have to go along for the ride!
What would you say is the single most important thing you learned with the project?
Many people will come out of an intense MBA or HBA program with a new sense of confidence - even some swagger. However, coming out of the LEADER Project brought a whole new level of confidence, one which I don't think I would have achieved without that experience. You are really and truly thrown into an uncomfortable environment with little knowledge about the students you will be teaching, their backgrounds, and their education.
You will likely begin to stress days before departing upon the realization that you've only really delivered a handful of cases or lectures - and now you're travelling to a foreign land to deliver 3 weeks' worth. The students will have high expectations of you and will expect to walk away from your program with some significant learning and coaching. You arrive at the site and are constantly challenged to perform by the students, the faculty, and by your own high standards. As the program goes on, your confidence and that of the team grows as you get to know the class and become comfortable being the centre of attention every day.
You travel back to Canada afterwards and reflect, and at some point will almost surely have that "I did that" moment. Without having a job locked up after school, the LEADER experience gave me the confidence to talk to anyone at any company, always with the foundational confidence that "I did that".
Mark Gilbert was a graduated from the Ivey Business School's MBA program and currently works with the Bank of Montreal (BMO) as a Commercial Account Manager. In 2012, Mark co-chaired the LEADER project along with three others. He was responsible for the project's expansion into Tanzania, Haiti, and India. Mark was featured as a Future Leader in Ivey's inTouch magazine for his efforts.
Mark participated in the LEADER program in 2012 and travelled to Bangalore, India.