Writer, listener, thinker, envisioner: Alex Van Tol works as a special advisor to Roy Group, bringing her communications genius to our ongoing projects. With her background in leadership, both as a teacher and as a program director at outdoor camps, Alex understands how an excellent leader can shape a human life. She’s super excited that Roy Group’s Land Rover stopped to pick her up along the road.
How did you arrive at Roy Group?
I first sought Ian out when I was nominating a mutual friend of ours for an award. We sat at Union Pacific Coffee one afternoon and roamed all over Scotland, Skye and schooling, finishing our conversation off with the screenplay he was co-writing. A few months later, I pitched a profile of him to Douglas magazine. After the issue was published, Ian invited me to assist with developing Roy Group’s content as the organization moved to reach more leaders.
What’s your background, and how did this set you up for working with Roy Group?
I have a science degree in psychology and an education degree, both from the University of Calgary. In my early career I taught almost every subject in elementary and middle schools, and then, when my first child was born, I hit the gas on pursuing my plan of writing full-time. I work in instructional design, write books and speeches, project-manage other people’s books, write for magazines, and lead workshops in mental health. I’ve had the awesome good fortune to meet a lot of Victoria’s leaders in business and in the social impact sector, and have received an informal education of sorts from those conversations. I’m able to bring some of those insights to Roy Group, as well as my skills in content creation.
What do you consider your gift?
Writing has absolutely been a gift for me, however I believe it goes deeper than that. Journalism has trained me into my greatest ability, which is to engage people in deep, open and trusting conversations. I’m pretty unfiltered in conversation, and that vulnerability breaks down barriers. My conversations tend to wander into interesting, personal territory, and I’ve had people share their relief with me that they never feel judged.
How do you bring forth that gift with your Roy Group work?
Well, my first job was to develop all the bios and the content for the website, so getting people to open up about themselves was the work. Best assignment I’ve ever had. I’m also able to tap that openness, vulnerability and nonjudgmental listening when I’m facilitating Roy Group programs.
What do you believe in, and how does this inform your career?
The things I believe in are constantly evolving according to my focus and my learning. I absolutely believe people have much, much more power over their lives and choices than they think. I could talk endlessly about focus and intentionality and freedom and the significance of the words we choose, and how all of these work together to shape our realities. As far as how this informs my career, I talk this stuff through with anyone who is also in a place of exploration. So many of my interviews veer into self-growth territory once the necessary questions have been covered off. I am constantly inspired by what people show me. Everyone has an incredible beam of light somewhere. Sometimes it’s dim, or hidden under a bunch of emotional rubble, but the light is always there.
You’re pretty passionate about what people focus on. What’s that all about?
Your attention is the most valuable thing you have. If you spend your time focusing on negative things, or looking back at the things you “did wrong” — or blaming others for your situation — you’re putting your attention in a place where you don’t create any forward movement. I have a good friend who talks about focus in terms of concrete: imagine yourself standing on a square of sidewalk that has just been poured. That square represents today. Yesterday’s square, behind you, has already hardened. Tomorrow’s isn’t poured yet — there’s only an empty wooden frame. But you’re standing on the just-poured concrete of today. It is totally malleable. You can mold and shape your interactions with people however you like, because today is what you have control of. Yesterday’s concrete has already hardened, and tomorrow’s hasn’t been poured. Why are you putting your attention on those? Focus on the power you have, right in this moment, to shape every interaction you have. You have numerous choices in this moment. And you have thousands of moments every day. So get behind the wheel of your bus and drive.
Drive your bus! I love it. Talk about the importance of choosing our words with care.
If you complain about your situation, or about the world or other people, what are you focusing on? Over time, that shapes who you see yourself as. People have no idea how powerful their words and thoughts are. Our brains are exactly like muscles: they need to be trained. Yet we’re never really taught how to manage our thinking, or our speech. It’s super important to choose carefully, and always lean toward the constructive. If I had a magic wand, I would remove negative self-talk from everyone’s mind. There should be no room for any self-directed comments other than those that are unconditionally loving. Discipline yourself. Have your own back. No one else on the planet cares about your life as much as you do. Drive the bus.
Note to self: only love. Before we wrap up, can you talk about the fellow that this organization is named for? Roy MacGregor?
Actually, Roy Group was named after Roy Chisholm, Chiz’s grandfather (and first Mentor.) Roy MacGregor, on the other hand, is our brand character. A brand is what it feels like to do business with an organization. For us, it’s a tricky thing to capture unless we wrap up that feeling in the metaphor of a single person. That’s why we created Roy. Roy has a backstory. He has characteristics and preferences and values and standards. When we get into a jam, we ask what Roy would do — and it normally sends us down the right road.
Sounds like a guy a company should be named after. So Alex, if you weren’t working, what would we find you doing?
Hanging out with people who inspire me, absolutely. Lots of partner time, and time with my two sons. Walking in the forest — it heals and restores. I read in the tiny pockets of downtime that I get. I’m a research knob, and I get lost in rabbit holes pretty easily. Podcasts. Big thinkers. I know what you’re going to ask next: special talents? Unerring resilience. As Roy MacGregor says, “There is always a way forward.”