What if the future was as clear as the past?

By Paul K. Bates

One of the enjoyable pastimes of my life was competitive sailing – around the buoys – after work on Wednesday summer evenings. We generally had a crew of five or six. I was the ‘foredeck’ guy, which meant that my job was to wrestle with the spinnaker. Plus, because I was usually the smallest member of the crew, I was also tasked with being hoisted to the top of the mast to clear line jams – there is nothing like swinging through a sixty degree arc in choppy water while clearing a jam, being yelled at from below, and clinging to the mast! Our Skipper always had a plan that was different from everyone else in the race. As we crossed the start line, he would always veer off in a direction generally perpendicular to the rest of the fleet. Frequently this seemed to bode well for us, but more often we ended up crossing the finish line when everyone else was already tied up back at the dock! Could we have seen the outcome from the beginning? I’ll never know.

In a different role, however, I learned something interesting. As a securities regulator sitting on adjudicate panels, I found, with a fairly high degree of accuracy, that I could work my way backwards through the financial transactions given in evidence, to arrive at the specific moment when the wrong path was taken—and my task then was to determine the cause for the path taken from that point forward to the issue that brought the respondent in front of the tribunal. Had this been a deliberate act? Had it been a really bad and unfortunate error? Why hadn’t someone in the organization played out in their minds the path that was being chosen?

It’s actually not that difficult. There’s a reason why regulators speak of the guiding minds of an organization – these minds are there to guide! Guiding calls for a discipline of standing a year or more beyond a critical decision before it is made. Yet we see, time after time, the evidence that this really important work has not been done.

Sometimes this is done by someone further ‘down’ in the organization, but they don’t speak up for whatever reason; usually fear.

This is also why we have to be willing to embrace contrary perspectives around the table when key decisions are being contemplated. Oddly, we often describe those that have a laser-like vision on a future unseen by others as brilliant; we can all name several. I offer that this is a learned brilliance.

Perhaps a term to anchor this process is the term legacy. Take time today, literally, to pull out a piece of paper and write down what your decision today means when it is contemplated in legacy terms.        


Paul Bates is a Chartered Professional Accountant (FCPA), Fellow of the Society of Management Accountants (FCMA) and Certified Management Consultant (CMC), and his career has spanned: senior academic administration; business and divinity school lecturing; investor advocacy; capital markets regulation; investment dealer executive leadership with P&L accountability; expert witness and international consulting in the financial services sector. He is a former member of the council of Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Paul holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College, where he is pursuing a Doctorate. Paul is available for speaking engagements through Blu Pagoda.

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Paul Bates

A Chartered Professional Accountant (FCPA), Fellow of the Society of Management Accountants (FCMA) and Certified Management Consultant (CMC), Paul’s career has spanned: senior academic administration; business and divinity school lecturing; investor advocacy; capital markets regulation; investment dealer executive leadership with P&L accountability; expert witness and international consulting in the financial services sector. Paul holds a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology. Paul is available for speaking engagements through Blu Pagoda LLC.