Dr. John Evans: Truly gifted

In light of the Evans family’s recent $10 million gift to MaRS, I thought it fitting to write about the man they are honouring with this gift – Dr. John Evans, Chair Emeritus and co-founder of MaRS. You may have heard the name around – John Robert Evans, Dr. Evans, Dr. John or simply John. No matter what you call him, he has a reputation that precedes him in Canada and around the globe.

Through his work at MaRS, as well as in business and academia, Dr. Evans has passionately advanced the frontiers of innovation in Canada and abroad, driving change in scientific research, business, education, civic engagement and public policy.

By funding the soon-to-be-launched MaRS Solutions Lab, this gift will support one of Dr. Evans’ main personal and professional goals: to improve the lives of individuals and communities both in Canada and internationally. The Lab will tackle some of society’s thorniest challenges, bringing innovation into complex systems.  There are some interesting models of these “change” labs developing around the world.

Here’s a bit more about the man at the centre of this announcement:

  • Some know him as the founding Dean of McMaster Medical School, where, beginning in 1965, he helped launch the highly influential model of problem-based medical education.
  • Others came to know Dr. Evans as President of the University of Toronto, a role he served in from 1972–1978.
  • Folks around Washington may know him better as the Director of the Health, Nutrition & Population Department of the World Bank (1979-1983).
  • Those in the global health community continue to praise him for his work on the social determinants of health and population-based medicine with the Rockefeller Foundation, of which he became Chair in 1987.
  • On Bay Street, the name John Evans is synonymous with achievement in Canadian business: Chairman of the Board of Torstar, Chairman of the Board of Alcan, Chairman and CEO of Allelix . . . the list goes on.

I’m not the first person to attempt to summarize the many sides of Dr. John R. Evans in a few paragraphs, but everyone agrees that it’s rare to find someone who is so successful in so many areas, who is also so exceedingly decent on a fundamental human level.

In the 10 months that I’ve worked at MaRS Discovery District, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it said: “John is such a nice guy.”

At first I wondered what all the hype was about. From the basement to the boardroom, people go out of their way to tell me just how much they admire and respect John. As I got to know him, however, I realized that people were simply responding to the remarkable amount of positive energy Dr. Evans has invested in his professional relationships over the years. If you know John, you know how much faith he puts in the talents and potential of others.

I’m not sure where he picked it up – perhaps while hitchhiking through post-war Italy or working as part of an ambulance crew in New York City – but somewhere along the way Dr. Evans developed a unique and highly effective style of leadership. I wouldn’t want to give away any trade secrets, but if I had to summarize the Dr. Evans approach to leadership, it might look something like this:

1. Find out what kinds of interests and skills people have.

2. Encourage these people to pursue their interests and refine their skills.

3. Provide key resources and practical support.

4. Set the bar high.

5. Provide a degree of autonomy, which allows people to solve problems in their own ways, and arrive at their own conclusions.

6. Provide subtle forms of guidance, encouragement and direction.

7. Stand back and watch the achievements pile up.

One of the defining features of the Dr. Evans approach is the focus on developing new ideas, new resources, new methods, new solutions and, ultimately, new systems. The common theme? Innovation.