Cowater International Inc. has spent decades building a reputation for taking on projects its competitors won’t. Since 1985, the management consultancy has placed its focus firmly on developing and emerging economies, with work that tackles public, social, economic and infrastructure challenges. From its headquarters in Ottawa, Cowater plans multi-year projects that carry multimillion-dollar budgets in 65 countries worldwide, with the help of 600 employees.
Recent undertakings include a renewable energy project in Jordan: Cowater installed demonstration solar panels with the aim of providing Jordanians with improved living conditions and livelihoods, along with the possible generation of renewable energy jobs.
“At Cowater, we take strategic-planning sessions very seriously,” explains CEO David Baron, who assumed the CEO position from his father, one of the company’s founders, in 2006. “We’re constantly developing a one-, two- and three-year strategy, on top of our long-term five- to seven-year strategy.”
Baron credits a culture of ongoing rigorous scrutiny for much of the company’s success. “Strategy is not something we plan and then put aside for a few years,” he says. “Determining whether something is a bad idea is huge for us. I love hearing that we need to stop something—if someone tells me they’ve got a good reason for a no go or a pivot, that’s great because it’s going to save us time, money and morale.” He insists he would reward an employee who found a strategy flaw the same as he would someone who landed a new contract. “It takes a lot of smarts to determine why something is wrong,” he says.
He admits that as Cowater grows, it can be challenging to keep employees enthused about what they do. In large firms, it’s more difficult for individuals to see themselves as important members of the team. The company combats that scenario by actively engaging its employees. “We bring all staff, at every level, into the process,” explains Baron. “We have them play a role in building the strategy from the bottom up. Every division and group is consulted in the process.” This, he says, gives employees a sense of ownership over their work. “People don’t just follow,” he says. “They feel the work is theirs.”
Baron says when he looks at Cowater’s growth, he likes to remember a piece of advice his father gave him when he was young. “Think big—you have to think big in everything you do,” he says. “Pull your head out of the weeds, sit back, take a breath of air and think big.” Allowing that the phrase might come off as a bit clichéd, Baron is clear that he thinks a dedication to long-term strategizing and big-picture thinking are the keys to the company’s success. “I think this, aligned with proper objectives and a dedicated workforce, is the way to deliver profitable growth,” he says.