From never having been in a boardroom to negotiating million-dollar deals, Dr Blair Feltmate is a role model for learning-as-you-go. Here’s how he did it.
I met Blair at Waterloo’s Environment & Economy conference. And, honestly, I was intimidated by his accomplishments (his track record includes high-level roles at BMO, all across the resource sector, research programs, countless news interviews, and more). But then I spoke with him, and Blair’s philosophy on communication made it so easy to follow what he was saying that I couldn’t help but be uplifted by his charisma. He’s so refreshingly personable, but it’s obvious that this man means business.
Naturally, I had to ask him how he does it. He’s brilliant at so many things (capital markets, the resource sector, climate change, climate change adaptation, infrastructure) that it would be a crime not to learn how he does it. For all of us here still figuring things out, here goes:
Dana Iskoldski: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Blair Feltmate: Up until about 1990 I was a professor at the University of Toronto (I’m an applied ecologist by formal training), but I became interested in the area of sustainable development. It was new back then, and nobody had really focused on it. So I thought, why don’t I get off my rear and do something about it?
I developed what I thought was a good plan to help the resource sector to operationalize sustainable development, because companies had nowhere to go for help. Then the question was, do you have a potential business? I was pretty sure companies had need for it, but wasn’t sure whether there was perception of that need yet. So I thought who’s the most senior business person in Canada in the resource sector that I could talk to, to ask whether or not all this makes sense? And there was someone: Trevor Eyton. He was the senior president of Brasscan Corporation at that time.
So I wrote him a letter (there was no email back then) and asked if we could meet to talk about advancing sustainable development for mining and forestry operations. I thought I’d never hear from him, but his secretary contacted me a week later. She said he’d be happy to meet with me.
And I immediately got scared, because at that time I’d never been in a boardroom in my life. And there I was, at the base of Bay and Front St, on the 42nd floor, meeting with Trevor Eyton. I thought if worst comes to worst, he’ll just tell me to piss off.
So anyhow, I had a one hour meeting with him which turned into four hours. We talked about everything — politics, history, philosophy, religion, my business plan. What it amounted to is he told me “I really like what you have to say. I want you to leave academia immediately. I’ll put together a sustainable development board and you’ll be in charge of it.”
So that’s it; I left academia, and spent 6 years developing sustainable development programs for Falconbridge, DuPont, PPG, Occidental Chemical, and more. It was going fairly well, but I was only getting to one company at a time when I wanted to get to thousands.
Later, Ontario Power Generation called me and asked if I would be interested in working with them. I didn’t know anything about energy, so I said yes.
Then I was working on a speaker series when I met James Lovelock, the man who invented Gaia Theory, and who had a better understanding of the challenges we’re facing today than anyone else on the planet. He convinced me that climate change is a done deal, and we have to learn to adapt very very rapidly to the extreme weather conditions we’re seeing. When I looked around the landscape in Canada six years ago, it became obvious to me that nobody was addressing it. So I figured out a way to get a million dollars out of the insurance industry, and set up a climate change adaptation research program at the University of Waterloo. Now I find myself deeply entrenched in it.
DI: There’s a recurring theme in your career of jumping into things you don’t already know about. How do you do that?
BF: The bottom line is that, to succeed, you’ve got to be willing to stick your neck out where you’re not the subject expert. You’ve got to know when to speak up, when to keep your mouth shut and listen, and you’ve got to think in an interdisciplinary way. You don’t have to know everything cold like the experts do, because you have a whole other set of skills they need you for. It’s a little like there’s a giant puzzle, and lots of people know a lot about the individual pieces, but only you know what the big picture should look like.
At times you’ll look stupid. Others, brilliant. But the reality is you’re neither, you’re somewhere in between.
DI: What have you learned about communicating information over the years?
BF: In the media, when the red light comes on, I’ve got to tell a story in a minute in a half. Beginning, middle, end, and a point. All I’m doing is telling a story and getting the technical stuff out of it.
So, be concise. Know your point, make it, and make it without all the technical jargon. If you can’t take an idea that’s potentially complex and present it to a smart kid in grade nine in a way they understand, then you don’t know it well enough or you’re a lousy communicator.
DI: What are a few characteristics that are vital for success?
BF: One is curiosity. You’ve got to be interested in everything: newspapers, politics, history, the world of science. Number two is you have to be relentless. If you want to make change you have to be willing to work 75 hours a week. Friday night, when everyone else goes to bed, you go back to work. And you have to have tenacity. When somebody knocks you down, or this attempt doesn’t work, keep going and going and almost always persistence and patience will pay off. It’s push, push, push in my opinion.
DI: What is your definition of success?
BF: Success, to me, is transforming a system for the better in a meaningful way. History doesn’t remember business people (for the most part). At the end of the day it’s politicians, scientists, and medical discoveries that are transformative agents in society. And not everybody needs to be that, but that’s what interests me.
For me personally, it’s what are the major challenges that if we screw them up, we’ve had it as a country? That’s what draws my attention.
There you have it, folks. Five coffees down, ninety five more to go. I hope you learned something. And to Blair, it’s a pleasure knowing you.