Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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December 14th, 2014

Meistersigner’s Hans Sachs as Leader

Narrative

I watched the Met’s wonderful production of Meistersinger yesterday. In addition to the program I was aided by my Berkeley colleague Michael O’Hare’s teaching note on the opera’s lessons about leadership and innovation. I look forward to Michael posting his thoughtful and original ideas about Meistersinger on his blog.

The character who most impressed me is Hans Sachs, the acknowledged leader of the meistersingers’ guild and the main protagonist. Sachs displays humane and mature leadership in several ways.

When the knight Walther presents his first song to the meistersinger’s guild, the other members criticize Walther for breaking the technical rules of singing and want to silence him before he can complete his song. Sachs is more open-minded and stands against all his colleagues in wanting at least to hear Walther out. In that he reminds me of the architect in Twelve Angry Men, the one juror willing to stand against all the others and, with an open mind, assess whether the accused was guilty.

Though Eva, the love interest in the opera, is passionate about Walther, because her father has promised her to the winner of the meistersingers’ competition, she may not be able to marry Walther. Her worst nightmare would be to have to marry Beckmesser, who of course desires her and who is a technically competent, if unimaginative, singer. Eva is attracted to Sachs, even though he is considerably older, and Sachs, a widower, is definitely taken with Eva. Sachs is thus Eva’s risk averting choice. Sachs, recognizing Eva’s preferences, influences the situation (by coaching Walther and hindering Beckmesser) so that Walther will win the competition, and the couple will be united. Sachs’s actions in this context remind me of Rick in Casablanca, who renounces his love for Ilsa so that she remains with Victor Laszlo.

In the last scene of the opera, Walther wins the song competition and wins Eva – his real prize. He announces that he isn’t interested in membership in the meistersingers’ guild. Sachs admonishes him and explains the importance of artistic creation to German identity. He sings that even if the empire crumbles, what will maintain German identity are its cultural achievements. This I take as evidence of a clear understanding of what was, from Wagner’s point of view, the big picture. And that too is an important leadership trait. (I recognize that this is a conflicted discussion given Wagner’s personal narrative, the subsequent unfolding of German history, and the (mis)appropriation of Meistersinger by the Nazis. That said, at the time of composition, when Germany was coming into being as a political state, Wagner’s emphasis on the importance of cultural identity strikes me as laudable.)

In Sachs we have a portrait of responsible leadership by a mature adult – open-minded in his assessments; generative, to use Erik Erikson’s term, in advancing the interest of the next generation, even at a cost to himself; and capable of seeing the big picture for society as a whole. There is much to be learned from him.

I close on a personal note. Commentator Rene Flemming (on whom I’ve long had a major crush) mentioned that Wagner intended to write Meistersinger as a short diversion from the Ring Cycle, but it ended up taking him seven years. The orchestra was conducted by James Levine, from his motorized wheel chair. What they have in common is persistence, a key word in the title of my latest book.

My current book project on narratives about private sector managers is taking longer than I expected. Perhaps I’ve bitten off more than I can chew (the idiom used in Sinatra’s My Way). Wagner’s answer, and Levine’s, is persistence.

 

December 8th, 2014

Practitioner Perspectives on Encouraging Public Sector Innovation

Innovation

Last Friday I spoke at a public sector innovation conference in Minneapolis sponsored by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. The conference attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd of 200 participants from state, county, and local governments.

I will report on an executive seminar that I led for a group of 25 agency heads and politicians representing governments of all sizes.To stimulate discussion among that group I presented a list of 13 ways to build an innovative public sector organization, which built on the OECD’s recent Call to Action (http://www.oecd.org/innovating-the-public-sector/innovation-imperative-call-to-action.pdf). Here’s the list:

1. Leaders must encourage and support innovation

2. Creativity training for public servants

3. Sponsor an innovation award

4. Gather and publish performance data both within the organization and publicly

5. Make government data bases available to the public

6. Use social media to engage the public

7. Establish an innovation lab

8. Establish an innovation fund

9. Allow departments to keep at least part of cost-savings resulting from innovation

10. Seek external (foundation) funding to support innovation

11. Run explicit experiments and pilot projects

12. Protect public servants associated with “failed” innovations from being blamed and shamed

13. Change rules that prevent innovation.

Here are some of the views that caught my attention. They are expressions of what has or hasn’t worked or might or might not work for the individuals who participated in this discussion.

Leadership: There was strong agreement that leaders should encourage and support innovation. But one participant admitted it might hurt his chances of reelection.

Innovation Awards: One participant said that applying for innovation awards is one more administrative task and that it is necessary to pick and choose which awards to apply for. Innovation happens even if innovators are not recognized.

Government Data (points 4 and 5): Some Minnesota governments are already producing and making public a great deal of data. Sometimes choosing different time periods for presenting the data can lead to different conclusions. Participants would like to see data that focuses on results and outcomes, that is up-to-date, and that is analyzed so as to lead to public conversations about the policy problem, rather than about the data alone.

Social Media: There was recognition that social media could be an effective way to tell a government’s story, especially regarding successful initiatives, but the challenge is to develop skill in doing it.

Innovation Funds: One financial manager thought it would be difficult to develop criteria to choose from the projects applying to such a fund, and that departments should fund innovations internally. On the other hand, a local government manager described how that government used a revenue stream from a particular fee as a de facto innovation fund.

Foundation Support: One manager described foundations as the venture capitalists of the public sector, mentioning that it was important for the public sector to provide foundations with a menu of choices of smaller projects that could be piloted with foundation support. Local foundations as well as larger nationally-prominent foundations can play this role.

Experimenting: There was strong agreement on the value of experimenting. The challenge is how to communicate that government is undertaking an experiment and to show the rationale for the experiment. One participant from the educational sector noted that every adult considers him or herself to be an expert on the public school system and parents often say that they don’t want their children to be part of an experiment.

These were observations from a discussion about public sector innovation by a sample of public officials in one state in one country. Hopefully the OECD’s Call to Action will stimulate widespread discussion – and action – to advance public sector innovation.

 

December 1st, 2014

More Student Stories: Seneca’s “Because it Matters” Campaign

Education, Narrative

While recently riding the subway, I saw Seneca College’s ads. Like York University’s, which I wrote about a month ago, these too are based on students’ stories. The first line of the ad I saw was “Drove,” the second “Bus to Survive” and the third “Herself to Succeed.” In those seven words was a very succinct summary of Michelle’s story.

I looked Michelle up on Seneca’s website: becauseitmatters.ca. Michelle has three children and was laid off from what she described as a dead-end job in the health sector. She drove a bus for 18 months to pay the bills and is now enrolled in Seneca’s behavioral sciences program, training for a new career in special education.

The website includes eight other stories of current or recent Seneca students, with pictures and first and last names. The stories are all presented with headlines (another reads: Changed. A Thousand Diapers. Her Future), two sentence summaries, and three hundred word narratives. The stories have some common themes: personal adversity before coming to Seneca; determination and persistence to overcome adversity; support from faculty and staff at Seneca, sometimes through personal accommodations; and progress towards a career goal. Two of the students are valedictorians now at work in their intended career, others are heading towards university programs, and others are doing well at Seneca. These are all heroic stories, with the individual as protagonist and with Seneca as indispensable supporter and facilitator.

The two things that impressed me about the ads I saw on the bus were that the format of the headlines — Verb. Subject A. Subject B – which provided a summary of the overall story but whet my appetite to learn the details, and the URL becauseitmatters.ca, which I think is a great title. Delving deeper into the stories, I emerged with admiration for the tenacity of the individuals depicted.

As a professor in the university system, I’m not very familiar with the college system. I imagine that many of the students in the college system face challenges such as those encountered by recent immigrants, single parents, and people near the poverty line. I’m not sure what Seneca’s objective is in running these ads: to increase the applicant pool, improve public funding, raise the college’s profile, or elicit donations.

Regardless of the specific objective, I think the story-telling is compelling. I reiterate the point I made about York University’s “my time” campaign. An effective way for an institution to tell its story is by creatively telling the stories of its clients’ challenges, hopes, and dreams.

 

November 20th, 2014

Recognizing the Independence of Independent Review Committees: A Budget Proposal to the Minister of Finance

business, Government

Following from by recent blog post making the case that independent corporate overseers are not employers, members of two independent review committees have written to Finance Minister Oliver urging him to include in the forthcoming federal budget a regulatory change that would ensure that members of independent review committees are recognized by the Canada Revenue Agency as self-employed individuals, rather than as employees of the mutual funds family they oversee. The complete text of the letter and names of those who have signed it are below. I encourage readers to comment indicating their willingness to sign the letter.

Dear Mr. Oliver:

Recognizing the Independence of Independent Review Committees: A Budget Proposal

We are writing with a proposal to be included in the 2015 federal government budget, namely recognizing the independence of independent review committees (IRCs) for families of mutual funds. Independent review committees have been established under the Canadian Securities Administrators’ National Instrument 81-107 to review transactions that could involve potential or actual conflicts of interest. This regulatory framework puts great importance on establishing and protecting the independence of IRC members in several ways. IRC members must have no material relationship with the manager of the mutual funds family, the investment fund, or entities related to the manager. The manager cannot unilaterally dismiss an IRC member during his term: that requires a special meeting of the unitholders. IRC members’ fees are paid by the unitholders of the mutual funds rather than by the manager. The independence of IRC members is essential to the integrity of mutual funds as an investment vehicle because unitholders need assurance that their interests are not being sacrificed to those of management, or that unitholders of some funds in a family are not being favoured over unitholders of other funds. Independent review committees were created to hold management accountable in a manner that provides these assurances.

IRC members are in the practice of reporting their income from service on IRCs as business or professional income. Recently, the Canada Revenue Agency has begun to challenge this practice in several cases by ruling that IRC income should be treated as income from employment in service to the manager of the mutual fund. This ruling is based on the contention that membership on an IRC is an “office” as defined in the Canada Pension Plan Act (RSC 1985, c. C-8). This ruling is being appealed within CRA. If the appeal is over-ridden CRA will likely move to require all mutual funds managers to treat payments to IRC members as employment income.

In our view, the CRA is making a fiction of the independence of IRCs. If IRC members are to do their jobs properly they cannot, by definition, be employees because if they are employees they cannot at the same time be independent of their employer, which is the foremost requirement of any IRC member. By treating IRC members as employees, CRA can influence the mindset of both fund managers and IRC members to start acting like employees taking their direction from the manager, rather than professionals exercising independent judgment. For example, as self-employed professionals IRC members can deduct from their IRC fees expenses they think appropriate to performing their job effectively. As employees, they may not necessarily be able to deduct such expenses, so they would ask the fund manager to pay for some or all of those expenses, which would change the dynamic of the relationship.

We urge you to include in the 2015 federal government budget a provision to enhance good corporate governance by recognizing the independence of independent review committees. This could be implemented by having the Canada Revenue Agency issue an interpretation bulletin stating that payments to IRC members for their services are income from business or professional services, rather than employment (T4) income in service to the manager of the mutual funds family.

Thank you for your consideration of this proposal.

[signed]

 

Sandford Borins, Chair,

Independent Review Committee,

Chou Associates Management Inc.

Joe Tortolano, Member,

Independent Review Committee,

Chou Associates Management Inc.

Peter Gregoire, Member,

Independent Review Committee,

Chou Associates Management Inc.

Francis Chou, President and Funds Manager,

Chou Associates Management Inc.

Doug Mills, Chair,

Independent Review Committee,

First Asset Funds

Carl Solomon, Member,

Independent Review Committee,

First Asset Funds

Henry Knowles, Member,

Independent Review Committee,

First Asset Funds

 

November 3rd, 2014

Deconstructing York University’s “My Time” Campaign

Education, Narrative

Given my interest in narrative, I’m always on the lookout for effective or ineffective instances in the media. I look particularly at advertising because of its explicit mission of persuasion.

York University’s “this is my time” campaign – which I’ve now seen in print, on television, and on public transit – has definitely caught my attention. The basic story these ads tell is simple. They present a variety of York students stating their personal visions of the work they will be doing in a future year (2025, 2031, 2039, etc.). The visions are all intended to be innovative and societally focused. They also draw a link to the York program in which the student is now enrolled. They use real names and faces.

The recruitment message is that students at York are in programs that will help them do important and exciting things at the height of their careers. Somewhat paradoxically, “my time” doesn’t mean today or the day after graduation, but ten or fifteen or twenty years from now. The sell, of course, is for students to apply to York. If the sell is targeted, it is to the elite students who are especially innovative, the ones who want to design their own curriculum to support their own vision – the students that every university wants to recruit.

Contrast York’s ads with two standard tropes for student recruitment. One emphasizes the entry level jobs of its graduates, which is what government statistics normally track. Ads that feature entry-level jobs speak to personal ambition, while York’s ads speak to societal contribution. York’s are much more inspirational. The second trope highlights a university’s most successful alumni. These ads leave unanswered the question of precisely how an individual’s education thirty years ago contributed to the success she achieved later in life. York’s ads, by featuring current students and their visions looking forward, draw that link much more clearly.

York’s ads have won a number of awards for educational marketing. I think the awards are well-deserved. And they demonstrate to me, once again, the persuasive power of innovative story-telling.