Ask the legends: Jim Balsillie

Written by ProfitGuide

Jim Balsillie

Research in Motion Ltd.
Waterloo, Ont.
Age: 45
Education: B.Comm, University of Toronto; MBA, Harvard Business School


Joined RIM in 1992 as co-CEO
Presided over the 1999 launch of the first-generation BlackBerry
Made a founding donation of $30 million in 2002 to the Centre of International Governance Innovation
In October, purchased the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League for a reported US$175 million

What characteristics or qualities do you think are integral to a successful entrepreneur?

Sapna Jain, CEO, Masala Girl Cuisine Inc., Brampton, Ont.

I think the foremost attribute of a good entrepreneur is the ability to see where the puck is going more than where it is, and being able to get there just before or just as the puck arrives. Thereafter, an entrepreneur faces a broad set of demands that are as diverse and surprising as you can imagine, that it’s only by being really passionate that you can sustain the focus needed in a world in which there is a lot of variability. A lot comes at you that you’ve never seen before, and it’s unpredictable, so it’s only if you’re really passionate and committed deep, deep down that you can stay with it. You can’t fake staying with it.

Most great entrepreneurs have a mentor. Who was your mentor?

Terry Clark, RCM Planner, Transmission & Network ENMAX Power Corp., Calgary

One guy I’d give a lot of credit to is Rick Brock, who I worked for at Sutherland Schultz [in Kitchener, Ont.]. Rick really taught me how to operate a business. I think I’m a good operator, and I picked up a lot of the core principles from him.

Other than total world domination by the RIM brand, what is your vision for the future of wireless communications?

David Pancoe

What’s exciting is all the connected applications. You’ll be connected to far more applications, and you’re going to have a much richer and contextualized relationship with those applications. This diversity of applications will be more contextualized, more event-driven, more heuristic for both work and non-work. It’s amazing. We’re experiencing it now, but it’s coming at a more accelerated pace.

If you could bring one of them back, who would you rather have on the Penguins: Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux?

James Campbell, Peterborough, Ont.

Oh, without a doubt, Mario. That’s an easy question.

How have your leadership skills and techniques changed since the early days of RIM?

Milan Yarich, President, Universal Network Technologies, Burlington, Ont.

My leadership has changed, but more because you learn with time. It’s kind of like being a parent: you make a lot of mistakes, but if your head and heart are in the right place, you get through it. I pick my spots more carefully now. I expect more of people now, in that I expect them to do their part — it’s not my job to do everyone else’s job. I also have more fun than I ever did before.

I understand that you walk your children to school every day and are very involved in their activities. How do you manage such great work/life balance?

Catherine McQuaid, Principal, CM Associates, Toronto

You achieve balance by giving value to things. The reason people lose their balance is because they don’t inherently value those things that they want balance in — their values are out of whack. You show me something in life that you love — you’ll spend time with it because you value it. You have to go through a pretty intense exercise to find out what you value and why.

What are the qualities you look for in an executive?

David Perry, Managing Director, Perry-Martel International Inc., Ottawa

One is relative experience — that’s for sure. Another enormous quality is cultural fit and values. And then you carefully analyze how they think, although that’s a pretty amorphous thing.

What should Canada and Canadians do to ensure the future of our country on the world stage?

Eugene Schwetz, President, TransTax Services, Waterdown, Ont.

That’s such a big question! Canada has a tremendous number of things to give to the world. But I would say that to make the most of our contributions, we have to nurture the institutions and vehicles we count on to make those contributions. We have to consider whether we are investing in them and supporting them to deliver what we want them to.

What’s your secret to hiring and keeping the best?

Jim Matthews, President, Matthews Inc., Dumas, Ariz.

Fundamentally, people want an opportunity to make a difference, and they want to fully realize themselves. So, you provide the tools, teams and opportunities to do those things. But, at the end of the day, they want to be a part of something that’s substantive, that has an impact, and they want to do it in a way that resonates with them.

How does RIM balance responsibilities, accountability and decision-making between two co-CEOs?

Scott Tomlinson, Marketing and Alliances Director, Inc., Burlington, Ont.

It requires a lot of communication. There’s a lot of stuff that I do that Mike [Lazaridis, RIM’s other co-CEO] doesn’t, and vice versa. There’s a lot of overlap, but, yes, there’s a lot of separation. You really need an understanding of what you trust the other person to do, and what you expect of the other person. You need to know which responsibilities are shared, and where you need to communicate. So, it’s like a marriage.

If you had to start over, what kind of business would you start?

Gordon Short, Managing Coach, Public Programs, Franklin Covey Canada Ltd., Cambridge, Ont.

[Laughs.] I think wireless data offers so much opportunity that I’d stay in it. I remain really excited about it. We’re really fortunate at RIM to be in a business that has so much room to grow, and that’s the most important thing.

If you could ask one question of a great Canadian entrepreneur, what would it be? You now have that rare opportunity through “Ask the Legends,” a business Q%26A in which you get to put your questions to the greatest Canadian entrepreneurs. Our upcoming guests include super-retailer Harry Rosen and marketing maverick Miles Nadal of MDC Communications. Submit your questions for Harry or Miles by clicking here. Then watch for Ask the Legends in PROFIT.

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