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How Canada Is Approaching Innovation in Leadership

If you want to be successful in the digital economy, you’ll need to invent more than cutting-edge AI, smart grids, digitized supply chains, or quantum computing. You’ll need to focus on people.

This was the big takeaway from the Honorable Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development for the government of Canada, speaking at a breakfast roundtable at Fortune’s Global Forum in Toronto on Wednesday.

Bains told the assembled group of business leaders that mastering the human component of the innovation economy is the thing most vexing the executives he meets with.

“The number one issue when I speak with businesses across Canada and globally is around skills,” he said. While there is near universal concern that the workforce is being insufficiently prepared to understand the opportunities described by new technologies, Bains took the time to point out that problems often start from the top.

“When we talk about technology and the speed of digitization that’s taking place, leadership matters,” Bains continued. “Many CEOs, senior management teams, and even at the board level, [people] don’t fully appreciate the speed and scope of change. And they may not have the right skill sets to make the right decisions.”

Canada already has a highly educated population, he says, so part of his focus as the country digitizes government services is to partner with companies and other entities to offer the types of lifelong-learning experiences that provide a workforce with the leadership skills to understand innovation on a deep level.

He said the trick will be to do it without leaving underrepresented populations behind. “How do we leverage our diversity in Canada?” he asked.

Bains also pointed out that Canada is open for business: As the only G7 country with free trade agreements with every other G7 member, they’re building a wide customer base and hoping to draw from global talent, as well. “We have access to Asia, North America and Europe, which is 1.5 billion consumers,” he says. And, they’re offering a new fast-track global visa program which will allow companies to set up shop and bring in workers from outside the country.

“Our brand in Canada is that we’re open,” Bains said. “We’re open to trade, we’re open to people, and we’re open to investment.”