I've written before about my strong belief in the importance of liberal arts education. The renewed focus on STEM is great and important for the economy - but shouldn't come at the expense of liberal arts. Even if robots take over huge numbers of jobs, no machine could ever truly replace the human brain. Someone will still need to translate computer code into human language, using the emotion and empathy that is uniquely human. Plus, the arts teach valuable lessons that are applicable in life and in business.
YPO member Don Duval is a chemist and engineer, but he, too, understands why the arts are critical to business success. His science credentials are impressive: he holds a bachelors degree in chemistry from Queen's University, and a masters in civil engineering from the University of Toronto. After beginning his career as an engineer, he spent time as a consultant with Arthur Andersen before becoming Co-Founder and Partner at InStride Solutions, a supply chain management and operations technology software company. He then became a Senior Manager at Deloitte, while also serving as an adjunct engineering professor at University of Toronto. Duval then joined MaRS Discovery District, an innovation center that provides services to support and accelerate the growth of early stage science and technology entrepreneurial ventures. Today, Duval is CEO of NORCAT, a nonprofit that works with business leaders and skilled laborers to promote training and innovation. Under his leadership, NORCAT was included among the "Best Places to Work in Northern Ontario," and recognized as having the best "Entrepreneurial Ecosystem." Among other awards, the Bell Business Excellence awards also named him Executive of the Year, and the Governor General of Canada gave him the Young Innovator Award.
On an episode of my podcast 10 Minute Tips from the Top, Duval shared his thoughts on why the arts are still so relevant, and how they helped shape his scientific career:
1. Learning to Listen
In performing arts, it's absolutely critical that participants learn to listen to each other, and base their own performance on what their teammates are doing. "One of the things I've really learned, especially in the theater community, is listening to your colleagues: listening for the cues, listening and understand where they are. If someone goes off script, be able to pivot and improve to make sure you can continue with the momentum," says Duval. He explains, "If you think of improv, the way that an individual leaves a sentence or topic is bait for you to take the torch and move on. And if an individual subsequently is listening to you very carefully, they'll know the cue when it needs to be picked up from your messaging." Paying close attention like this will make you a better boss and colleague, and make you more valuable to your company.
2. Embrace the Chaos
In the arts as in business, things are rarely in a straight line. "One thing I've learned over the last 10 years of being in the innovation startup world, is that things can be very messy, very complex, very confusing," Duval says. But there's some pride that can be garnered from this struggle. He explains, "It's underpinned by the cliché saying, 'Innovation is hard, and it's supposed to be.' The notion that everything can be compartmentalized, learned on paper, learned in a textbook: learning it, living it, breathing it every day, and appreciating it, to me is hugely important for any business." It certainly applies at Duval's company. "At NORCAT, if we're in the business of supporting early stage tech startups, we ourselves have to abide by a bit of the chaotic spirit within our four walls. When we hire new staff, they know that Day 1 will never look like Day 2. And if you're uncomfortable with that, you will not succeed. In fact, that's one of our core values, and one of our core interview questions for bringing new people on," he shares. Controlled chaos can help your company grow.
3. The Show Must Go On
When you're putting on a theater production, you better be ready when the curtain rises, no matter the complications. "Things aren't always going to go the way you hope," Duval laments. But he asserts, "The notion of 'the show must go on' is so applicable in our business." He has found that those with a background in the arts tend to thrive. "Some of the people that are very successful at NORCAT, are people who have worked in the world of theater, arts, and music. They appreciate a bit of the chaos, the uncertainty," he explains. Duval says what's critical is the ability to roll with the punches and enjoy it, because once you've started down that new path, it's all about "maintaining a positive attitude while doing it!"
4. Openness to new ideas
The world of startups is no place for the inflexible. Duval says, "People who won't be successful at my company are people who are used to 9 to 5 in the cube, with very prescriptive duties every day." At NORCAT, they're open to new ideas even in the fundamental way they do business. Duval explains, "We are primarily an earned revenue non-profit, meaning around 95% of our revenue comes from earning revenue through selling products and services to customers." It's all about pivoting in response to what they hear when they're listening. "When I arrived, the organization was probably about 50% government funded. But the reality is, to be sustainable, recognizing that governments change and funding programs change, we had to make a pretty strategic and fast pivot to say, 'For us to be sustainable and competitive, we need to change that model,'" he explains.
On Fridays, Kevin explores industry trends, professional development, best practices, and other leadership topics with CEOs from around the world.