The Pan Am Games CEO shows the kind of vision CIOs need from the boss

Toronto 2015’s Saäd Rafi gives a keynote speech that focuses on the long-term impact of next year’s event

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Saad Rafi Pan Am Games leadership

Everyone attending the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s annual luncheon this week probably expected Pan Am Games CEO Saäd Rafi to be laser-focused on the summer of 2015, but the first of the keynote speaker’s surprises was his decision to open his speech with a look back at 2009, when the city won the bid to host a landmark event.

In a video he showed titled “The Dream Begins,” young children such as Olivia (from Ontario) and Dario (from Jamaica) are followed from their early enthusiasm for sport to the moment when, presumably after years of training, they wind up competing in the Pan Am and ParaPan Games in Toronto almost exactly a year from now. Rafi said he sees his job, and those of his team, as ensuring their dreams come true.

“Success doesn’t mean getting these Games to the finish line, although that’s critically important,” Rafi told the crowd of business leaders. “It’s about making these Games live on as a part of this region’s fabric for generations to come.”

If that sounds like empty rhetoric, consider the 10 new venues that will be created in and around Toronto in preparation for the Pan Am Games, and 15 other buildings that will be upgraded with the same advanced unified communications technology and additional improvements. His expectation is that those facilities will foster a new generation of sports heroes long after the Games end. “What we’re creating is not intended merely to serve top athletes, but the communities in which they exist,” he said.

Contrast Rafi’s outlook with those of many other CEOs in more traditional businesses, whose perspective around business transformation can be frustratingly narrow. When new technologies are used to address challenges, the focus is often on things like short-term cost savings or responding to immediate customer needs. Imagine if more senior executives spent more time thinking about how the investments they make today will prepare their highest-achieving employees — their version of Pan Am medal winners — for career success. How might it change the way companies use cloud computing, IP networks or big data if they sought a benefit not just for their own organization but for their surrounding community of customers, partners, suppliers and even competitors?

It was impossible to hear Rafi talk about the opportunities Pan Am brings to small businesses, artists and local governments without thinking about the recent news from Telsa. Surprising nearly everyone, the smart car manufacturer’s CEO, Elon Musk, decided to release his firm’s patents to any and all comers, reasoning that innovation is something that should be shared as widely as possible. There was a similar ring to Rafi’s insistence with Pan Am that, “these Games belong to all of us.”

So many CIOs I talk to seem to be suffering from a lack of powerful leadership — they report into boards of directors or CEOs who see no further than the reaction of shareholders on the next earnings call. Whether you care about sports or not, Rafi is setting an example of how the execution of major initiatives requires a highly developed sense of imagination about what’s possible, and what’s truly transformative.

“Where will you be when the next Lennox Louis or Donovan Baily is standing on the podium?” Rafi asked. You could ask something similar of IT professionals: Where will you be when the technology you deploy today fosters an environment for excellence for your firm’s staff? Chances are they are already competing for greatness, with many of them, like the Pan Am and ParaPan athletes, ready to give it everything they’ve got.

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