FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Dan Wicklum
January 10, 2017
Linebacker. First round pick. Environmentalist. Represents oil sands producers. Flies airplanes. Climbs mountains. Has his own ‘I'm not sure we’ve seen all the science yet’ attitude on football concussions. Spends his days dealing with greenhouse gases, SAGD, tailings ponds and water quality in rivers - and much more of course ...
He describes himself as ‘a practical environmentalist’. “We are the collaboration hub of the technical people in the oil sands industry – we are trying new models for partnering; we have no explicit role around social license – we’re just going to do what it takes to advance what we do with who and what we have.” So far, that’s 276 projects, $680 million. Not shabby at all for a new organization with 18 people. “No one’s ever done this before – sharing like this is unprecedented”. He added, “good legal agreements make for good collaborations”.
Which when you consider all oil sands producer CEOs signed a charter, that sounds like commitment to me and after spending some time with Dr. Dan … I’m convinced something amazing is going on even at cosia - though we don’t read about it in newspapers.
So, who is Dr. Dan Wicklum and why should we care? He leads cosia – Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. He’s their first and only CEO. He’s hired every one of their 18 staff – and the work they do is remarkable in terms of science and environmental progress, AND, they’ve knitted some fierce competitors together to share their science, share their work and to share the wealth so to speak. No small achievement and while Dan would be the first to credit many others and the leaders of member companies, it is clear they drafted the best player for the job (more football metaphors to follow). In preparing this piece I found something online I think most football fans might enjoy – it’s a Winnipeg days newspaper piece on Dan, and check out the embedded video!)
Science geek, outdoorsman, athlete, tree-hugger – all these labels might be fitting, but he winces at being called Doctor and says, “if you need medical attention, I’m the wrong Dr. Wicklum – for that, check with my wife”. (She’s Dr. Sonja Wicklum, a family physician, the Dr. Wicklum with a stethoscope in her bag).
So, what’s in Dan’s bag? Born in Edmonton (his dad was a defensive back for the Eskimos, then traded to the Argos); raised on a farm near Preston, Ontario. Both parents were teachers (they met at Queens). He has an older sister and two younger brothers. For university he went to Guelph (played for the Gryphons – set a record for most tackles in a season) to study Marine Biology – mingled football with school (he was drafted by the Blue Bombers – and finished his career with the Stampeders) – he’s got a Grey Cup ring, a Masters and a Ph.D. to show for his efforts. Outdoor enthusiast, hangs out in the woods of Montana as comfortably as downtown Calgary boardrooms and until recently his mode of transport was always a pickup truck. A gentle guy, a strong farm boy and a linebacker who can tackle better than most – in a brawl, or an intellectual argument, I’d want him in my corner.
His post-football career began in (or near) high places - in Ottawa when Jean Chretien was Prime Minister - working for Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale, fast-forward to Director-General (that’s pretty high up the ladder) running a shop of 650 science folks in water managementm then to being head-hunted to be the first CEO of cosia in 2012.
We talked way longer than I expected – and his explanation of cosia structure and how the industry is leveraging its science was a remarkable ‘tutoring’ for me; I don’t profess to understand the detail, but I really found the structure, approach and potential remarkable. If you ever get to meet Dan, be prepared for rapid schooling …
Why are you successful? “I’ve been given incredible opportunities. I’ve been part of strong teams. My team here.”
What has held you back? “I think everyone struggles with that question most of the time!”
I’ve found some interesting traits common to ‘former professional football players’ I’ve interviewed I really admire; teamwork, team-think and strong leadership traits. Oh yes, imposing size, focus on fitness and handshakes that gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘firm’. Oh, and the Drs. Wicklum are growing more academics and athletes – son and daughter – rugby, football, science and international government work.
To call him successful is, I think, understatement – but he modestly deflects. He’s not one to brag, though he certainly has many reasons to …
How do you see your business – collaborate hub catalysts – going forward over the next quarter?
… it’s a remarkable time globally – competence is accelerating. We are relatively new but making great strides.
And over the next five years?
… I expect every sector of our work will deepen through collaboration. We’ll continue pushing boundaries at cosia to show what IS possible by exploiting continuous improvement, pushing for more, for better.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… value. Which is not always ‘lowest price’.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Dan Wicklum, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… more luck than anything else. Education and talent are only going to take you so far. I’m a deliberate person – laying out a good plan to get where we are going.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’m demanding in terms of my expectations. I try to lead by demonstration – showing I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do.
… work doesn’t feel like work.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I don’t have any trouble sleeping. I’m concerned about turbulence in the world – there is so much polarity.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… sports, football in particular as a big part of my life for so long, influenced my pursuit of goals. My time in the political and government world – especially Ralph Goodale, on the need for sound government and the value of industry. Time spent with myself in the wilderness.
… skiing, climbing mountains, ice-climbing, flying airplanes. I like heights. We have a different risk tolerance …
What do you read?
… I collect journals of polar explorers. Right now I’m reading The Sports Gene by David Epstein. A really good read that puts data to the age old question about whether athletic prowess is more due to genetic predisposition or practice. Nature vs. nurture!
… 2011 Kia Forte. I’m not a car guy. I picked it for the great gas mileage.
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