How research park leadership is different – and why you should care

Laura O'Blenis
Research Park, Innovation District, & Hubs
June 02, 2022
Research park leaders have an amazing job. They can be connectors and catalysts, bringing people together across sectors and industries to foster innovation and generate impact. I’ve seen first-hand how visionary park leadership can transform entire ecosystems. But it’s also a tough job: attracting the right mix of tenants, balancing the demands of multiple partner institutions, and producing measurable success for the community without necessarily having direct control over many of the variables. When I heard the recent news about Edmonton Research Park – where tenants are opposing the sale of two park buildings and calling for leadership to pause and reflect – I was reminded again of how complex research park communities are, and the special challenges that research park leaders encounter.

So, what makes park leadership different, and why does it matter?

Every park leader will likely have their own take on this question, but as a past park leader and as someone who is passionate about the potential of parks to drive innovation, I believe park leaders have to be able to:

1. Lead even when you have no positional power.

Many – if not most – people a park leader leads do not report to them or to the park. I’m thinking here of tenants, members of partner academic institutions, and local / regional governments – all of whom may have a say in park activities and direction. Without their buy-in, even the best laid plans can be derailed and amazing opportunities can go unrealized. Park leaders have to be able to share a roadmap to the future that excites an often divergent group of stakeholders – individuals and groups with their own immediate concerns and priorities. In this job, learning how to tell the park’s story in a compelling way that includes lots of heroes is much more valuable than any job title.

2. Engage – really engage – stakeholders.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of stakeholder engagement is Arlington Virginia’s Brain Hub, Amazon’s chosen site for its HQ2. To win Amazon’s bid, the community brought together state and local officials, business leaders, and nearby universities in a coordinated effort. The goal: collaborate to offer Amazon a compelling destination with a dynamic innovation ecosystem and a highly educated STEM labour force. Throughout the process, the leadership team was relentlessly engaged. The initiative’s leader, Stephen Moret, reportedly crisscrossed the state in his car to galvanize stakeholder support. He recognized that every stakeholder the ecosystem – from the tech and innovation industries to post-secondary education institutions – had an important role to play in making the Brain Hub a contender.

3. Be open to feedback.

Here’s a softball question: Who would you rather work with – someone who knows it all already or someone who wants to know what you think? Easy, right? Here’s a tougher follow-up: How often do you explicitly ask for feedback in your day-to-day work?

The best park leaders know how to listen – to staff, tenants, and community partners. And they know that the stuff that’s hard to hear is often the most valuable. Welcoming those conversations paves the way to relationships that are more open, trusting, and frankly more human. If this sounds painful or awkward, check out Stone and Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback for some helpful strategies.

4. Resist the temptation to focus on the park as only a real estate play.

Parks are substantial real estate investments that demand ongoing care and feeding. Park leaders ignore the operational side of their roles at their peril. But focusing too much on operations or going “squirrel” and having too many different goals can rob leaders of the time and energy they need to drive innovation and impact – which, let’s face it, is what park leaders are actually hired to do.

For me, going beyond real estate means asking “Why – really – does this park exist?” and “What can this park do, not just to house innovation but to advance it?” The real challenge is keeping these questions top of mind alongside all the other pressing operational needs. Having a roadmap that charts out goals and milestones can help you stay on track and bring others with you. Programming is key and having a solid grasp on your unique value proposition beyond place making.

Park Leaders as Innovation Catalysts

Almost every research park will encounter a situation like Edmonton faces – balancing tenant priorities with operational costs and strategic goals. Moments like these provide an opportunity to reflect on the delicate balance that park leadership entails. The complex work that park leaders do every day is an opportunity like no other. And though the most important work is often unseen, park leadership is really community leadership. It is leadership that has the power to inspire change, accelerate innovation, and foster growth that reaches far beyond the walls of park facilities.

Laura O'Blenis is the president and CEO of Stiletto and board member for the Association of University Research Parks (AURP). She is also the co-founder and former managing director of AURP Canada. She has more than 25 years’ experience in leading change, accelerating ecosystem development, and generating results for clients. Laura was named one of Atlantic Canada's Top 25 Most Powerful Women in 2022.