four people cabled together hiking a mountain
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Conversations With Roy: Love Your People. Lead With Purpose.

We know exceptional leadership when we see it. And in the coming months, we’re inviting the voices of more exceptional leaders onto our blog, to share what they think is important to focus on now.

In this edition of Conversations with Roy, we sat down with WildPlay Element Parks CEO and co-founder Tom Benson. Tom cut his teeth in mountain guiding back in the 80s and 90s, managed a division of a software startup and then, with a couple partners, started a poky little adventure park company in 1994. The WildPlay empire has since expanded across North America, offering ziplines, bungy jumping, adventure courses, freefall jumps and axe throwing.

But it’s not all about the rush. What particularly impresses us is the cohesive nature of WildPlay’s culture. So we invited Tom in for an interview.

Here, Tom talks about the value of leading through principles, finding the levers for big change, how to know when fear is operative on your team, and — most exciting for us — what happens when you build a culture of playing for each other.

* * *

The pandemic presented remarkable challenges to your company and your industry.

Sure, closing our parks and pivoting and moving into a whole new realm of safety processes. But that’s not the story. The story is: it’s been an opportunity to make sure that what I believed is true, in terms of leadership, culture, team, and the robustness that you need to go forward in business.


Okay, unpack that.

It feels like this time is what I was made for. It’s what I prepared my whole life for, all this stuff that’s here right now. I look at what’s happening in the world, and the relationship between what I believe for myself to be true and how I relate to the others around me, and the work of building leadership — like, actually actively and consciously focusing on helping other folks get to that place where they are empowered and powerful to do what the world’s going to need them to do. That’s really where I’m at.


You’re crossing that threshold from leadership into mentorship.

The greatest challenge for me is: How can I do as much of that as possible? Is it through my business? Is it through something else that I don’t know yet?


Like, what are the levers?

What are the levers? What are the mechanisms to make the greatest difference? Generally, people don’t do amazing things based on fear. They do amazing things based on love. They do amazing things based on a sense of possibility, right? People with a sense of impossibility aren’t doing the amazing things. So how do you open up the world of possibility? It’s been interesting some of the discussions we’ve had in WildPlay about leadership. Oftentimes what I find is people get confused between management and leadership. And they’re not the same thing. I think it was Peter Drucker who said way back when, “Leaders know the right things to do, and managers know how to do things right.” I use that now to help the team understand, Hey, are we looking at a management thing or are we discussing leadership here? Because they aren’t the same thing.


Do you always want people to reach for the leadership approach or is it often useful to take the management approach?

For the practical part of what I do, the management acumen has to be there. But I focus on leadership as the core thing. WildPlay is trying to create a culture that is around growing leaders, growing that culture, growing our influence and changing the world. That doesn’t happen from managers. That happens from leaders. And not just the ones internally, in our ranks.


You want to help people get to that level where they’re tapped into their power and are using their energy to help the world get to where it needs to be. So how do you get people to know the right thing to do?

Well, leadership is the ultimate pyramid scheme. The first thing a leader approaches anyone with is a gift. You’re bringing something that is an opportunity to this person to develop in some way, to change in some way, to see something, to slow down, to observe. Whatever it is, you’re bringing the potential for that to become part of their hardwiring. It might be they have to do it a bunch of times so it gets locked in, but your hope, if you think of it as a pyramid scheme or as an investment, is that it doesn’t stop there. (I think that’s important.) Because if you think that it stops there, you can go, “My job is done.” But the job is not done. Everything that you do has to be about helping people to take that thing that you’re sharing and pay it forward. It’s also helping the people that you’re working with to understand what you’re going through and the value of that for you, so that when they are in that position, they have the same understanding. Because that’s how it continues on. They will say, “I absolutely must bring this to other people. I must help other people to have less fear. I must help other people to lead themselves. Lead teams. Lead in society.”


Is that the trickle down, then? That you will bring someone into a greater state of leadership and in so doing, they will then do that for more people?

At an individual level, there’s fear and there’s love. And if we can eliminate fear, then we have more room for love. The same thing is true about leadership. It’s not that leaders should be fear-less. It’s that despite those things that are indicating that we should be afraid or concerned, we still act. Leadership is acting despite the forces that are trying to constrain that action. Don’t get me wrong about the utility of fear. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute is probably pushing the limit. There’s no question that fear is there for the right things. But I think that when we as leaders talk about the right thing to do, it’s like, “OK. I see this thing. And it concerns me. I might be afraid of it. What am I going to do with that? How am I going to demonstrate that to those around me? How am I going to coach someone through that?” Because most of the time, even when we’re coaching or helping someone to see their way through something, when we start at that place of fear or trepidation, almost always that’s where the lockup is happening. I’ve talked before about both fear and leadership from the point of view of a pebble.


OK. Metaphor me. Pebbles?

people tenting in a snowy base camp

Photo source: WildPlay

Well, coming from the mountain guiding background, you’re very aware from a risk point of view that something little — raindrops, right? it could start to rain — could grow big. We think, “Oh, it’s just rain.” But in the mountains, if you’re walking in places where you’re exposed, that’s not just rain. That’s a change. It’s something that’s hitting something, and that something’s going to hit something else and that something’s going to hit something else. That simple rain could ultimately deliver a load of falling rock. It’s not always a negative spiral. At WildPlay, I look at what we do as: We’re a pebble that’s being thrown against a rock, and the rock is going to bump up against a boulder, and the boulder is going to create an avalanche of an outcome. So while our influence in scope is small, in effect it is large. I look at leadership in the same way. So our little company out of Canada can take this approach to fear or leadership — I see them really tightly related, actually — and make a difference that makes a global shift stemming from these little “pebble bumps”.


Tell me more about how fear shows up on a team.

Not wanting to make mistakes. It’s often associated with failure. Fear shows up on a team in ego or invulnerability.


Invulnerability?

Yeah. You can tell that fear exists when people aren’t willing to be vulnerable. One of the things that our team has is we’re pretty vulnerable with each other. We’re pretty open in ways that wouldn’t be normal in a workplace, but they’re real. I think fear shows up in a team trying to make everything safe or having rules. Whereas love shows up as principles.


What’s the difference between rules and principles?

We try to control people and events, and we end up bound by these rules. Yet there’s no way to control everything through rules. That’s insanity. And yet the world tries to do it. But principles, we can all understand those pretty quickly and we can actually work with them.


Do principles translate to values?

Directly. When you start to think that way, and you’re building a company or leading teams and you focus on principles first, you have a huge advantage. It’s really simple. It’s easy to remember. It’s not a thousand things. It’s, like, four things. You know, like, we don’t hurt people. We build people up. We have each other’s backs. What we say we’re going to do, we do it. Whatever those things are. Those are principles. They’re easy to guide your actions by, individually or collectively.


Is it useful for you to articulate WildPlay’s values as a way of showing people what you mean? Were those the ones you just listed off?

No, WildPlay basically has four values. The values are: Circle of safety. Share the fruit. Taste the dirt. Nurture the pride.


Taste the dirt. I love that. Can you walk us through them?

Circle of safety means make it good for people to be able to be vulnerable. Everything we do at WildPlay is entirely dependent on trust. And so we cannot break trust. Make it that people can place their trust. That goes into how we design an element, how we run the business, how we work with each other. I would say at the core of that first value, that’s the word: it’s trust. It is both noun and verb. And we need to trust as well. That’s the other thing about how fear shows up in a team.


A lack of trust.

If I don’t trust you, then how the hell are we going to make it through this thing where, you know, I’ve got to know you have my back because I can’t even look behind me — I’ve got to run in this direction. Leaders need to actively focus on reducing these fears. They need to build trust. It’s cyclical: if we’re going to build trust, we’ve got to reduce fear. If we’re going to reduce fear, we’ve got to improve trust.


Do you want to talk a little bit about share the fruit?

It’s making a difference in the communities that we work in. It matters to us a ton. Long before we were making a penny, we were giving our pennies away. We’ve made a huge difference for Mental Health Recovery Partners on Vancouver Island, and the Brain Injury Society in Victoria and Nanaimo. And like Roy Group, we are members of 1% for the Planet. Wherever we can, our business is pushing to make a difference in these communities. We work really hard to do it. We’re excited by it. A business that doesn’t understand this idea of sharing back is missing a huge opportunity. This is part of the blueprint of business in the future. If you don’t understand this blueprint today, you will not make up this ground with salaries, you will not make up this ground with bonuses. That is not going to matter to human beings in the same way. People need to be able to make a good living and survive, there’s no question. But that’s not where people’s hearts and minds are going to land. People are really voting with their hearts and minds.


We see it now, don’t we? This Great Resignation.

I look at that as a great opportunity. Where do you want to come to work? What kind of environment do you want to be in? How do you want to feel? What difference do you want to make?


Would you say organizations need to get clear on what they’re contributing to the world, so people can find their alignment?

If you don’t have an understanding of the purpose your business operates with, what are people aligning with? Hardwire your business around your purpose. By God, if you’ve built something that’s fake, just watch how quickly that sniff test is going to break you. Going back to the conversation around trust. People trust less now than they ever have. If you’re going to go and lead a company and lead teams and you’re full of shit, you’re going to get called on it, and there’s no coming back from that. You broke trust. If you’re laying this out there and you aren’t willing to actually put skin in the game and really put yourself at risk through your values, they’re not going to mean anything. And if you break them, you’re in trouble because that’s how people are making their decisions about who you are, or the approach they should take. So put it out there. Get behind it. Be prepared for the storm that you’ve created for yourself. Live by it, and at least you won’t be alone.


Wow, I can feel my wings filling with air. You’re inspiring when you get on the soapbox! What about taste the dirt?

When we started the company 16 years ago, we knew the environment matters — and we knew it was really going to matter. Our belief is that if you aren’t creating meaningful experiences for people that they can associate something emotional with, you’re not going to create stewards of tomorrow’s natural spaces. Not unless people have touched them, felt them, had experiences in them. The masses generally are not doing that anymore. We want to change that.


And nurture the pride?

It’s an acknowledgment that our people are everything. We have people that have been here since day one. That doesn’t happen in most companies. We have people that have left and come back two or three times.


That ties to retention, right? Having that stance that your people are everything. If your people believe in your purpose, if you’re positioning them in that leadership pyramid scheme and giving the gift, if you are creating opportunities for people to push past their fear or to take on more leadership…all of those things are motivating. They deepen the love and deepen the trust so that it becomes this virtuous cycle.

Yeah. That value is pointing at the core of: we care about the person, and in many ways the outcome for the person, more than the outcome for the business.


Hmm. Say more.

I love people to stay in my company. But if the best thing for them to do is to take everything that they learn here and to carry on the mission in some other form or to carry on their own personal purpose in some other form, that’s a good thing. The other thing about nurture the pride is the things that we do are about taking care of each other. We don’t look at revenue as this thing that creates profit that lines our pockets. We look at it as a hunter-gatherer thing. First and foremost, revenue makes sure that we’re okay and that the people in our organization are okay. When we have a new park that opens somewhere, they might need the support of the revenue of the other parks to get to a point where they’ll be okay. It may seem like that’s just simple business: you move money around. But we don’t look at it that way. Because culturally, it’s an entirely different mindset for me to go, “You know what? I’m grateful for the fact that the rest of you who are in this position have helped me in my business unit to get to this point. And when I am at the point you are at, I will now understand that is part of what I do.” It’s a very nuanced cultural difference, and it matters.


Most times people see their job as the company paying them, but they don’t look at each other as key parts of a well-functioning machine. That supporting your colleagues to do their best work ultimately helps drive revenues and makes everyone better off.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Going back to trust, and the relationship between company and employees.


It’s an ecosystem.

Exactly. We are an ecosystem. It’s all totally interrelated and it is not about “company” and “employees”. It is not.


Drucker again. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Tom, the world has much to learn from you. Thank you for being such a mentor to so many.

The mission keeps me centered. Evolve the human.

 

tom benson ceo wildplay

Photo source: WildPlay

smoky view across the lake
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The Way You Choose To Conduct Yourself When Your World Burns

It was mid-July when the fires started in our part of the province.

We live near Vernon, in central British Columbia. Prime wildfire territory: semi-desert, low precipitation, high summer temperatures.

As we live in a more rural area, I was keeping an eye on the BC Wildfire page. We were watching the White Rock Lake wildfire that had ignited toward Monte Lake. But it was a few dozen kilometres away, and well behind the mountain to our west.

It was close enough that we were concerned and watching it, but it seemed okay.

Ah, we’ll be fine.

We went on alert in the last week of July.

In an alert, government advises you to get ready in the event of an evacuation order. Get your important documents together. Make a plan for your pets. Make a plan for getting yourself out. Figure out what you’ll do for elderly family members.

So my husband and I went through our place and put a few bins together. Things that we wouldn’t want to lose.

But just as a cautionary measure.

By Sunday August 1, the fire was much larger.

thank you picture

We had heard that people were collecting snacks for the fire crews, so we headed into town and bought a couple packs of Gatorade. We bought a huge crate of bananas and some healthy granola bars. Our nine-year-old son had drawn a picture to take with our food donation. We had this whole plan that the next day—Monday—we were going to deliver these snacks as a family.

That Sunday evening, we headed into town for a family movie night. As we were sitting down to a pre-show dinner at Earls, we got a phone call from a friend.

“You guys are on evacuation order. You’ve got to get out.”

You’re on evacuation order.

My crisis response rose up, levelling my head and giving me the calm I needed to take the wheel. Okay, what do we need to do?

My parents and grandmother live nearby. I called and checked in on them, making sure that they had their plan all set.

Plan in place. OK. Next step.

You’ve got to get out.

We raced the 30 minutes back home. By the time we got back, our whole community was teeming with people in a panicked state.

People were loading up their cars. Their kids. Their dogs, their cats.

The RCMP were there, checking everyone as they were coming in and out of the community. I could see officers going door to door with surveyor’s tape. Different colours denote different things. They tie a blue ribbon on your house if you’re not home. Pink if you’ve been advised to leave. Yellow if you’re evacuated.

It was chaos. Orderly, but panicked. It felt like a dream.

We emptied the bananas out of the car and put them on the dining room table, swapping them for the bins of our belongings. We finalized the suitcases that we had half-packed.

I called a friend who lives in West Kelowna. “Listen, this is what’s happening,” I said. “Can we come and stay?”

She said of course.

I was the last person out. As I turned to close the door, I spoke to our house. It was half plea, half order.

“Please be here when we come back. You’d better be here when we come back.”

We checked on our neighbours to make sure everyone was doing all right. Then we got in the car. My husband and I and my nine-year-old and our dog and all of our stuff. We drove through the RCMP checkpoint, watched as they wrote down our destination, and then headed to our friend’s place.

smoky mountains across the lake

It was six o’clock.

And the sky…it was so smoky. You couldn’t see the flames, but the smoke from the mountain behind us…it was that eerie, haunting greyish-orange glow of a forest fire.

We stayed with our friends that first night.

Night number two, we moved again.

It’s incredible, the way the evacuation centres are set up to help. And the volunteers. There were so many people volunteering. The Red Cross, Emergency Services…everyone in the community wanted to help, evacuated or not. The whole community of the Okanagan came together, just trying to find ways to help. Even us, and other people who were faced with losing their homes.

“What can we be doing? How can we help? What can we do?”

Through it all, I felt so thankful that we live in a place where we have an infrastructure that supports people when crisis hits.

 

There were so many unknowns.

At first, I thought we might be away for a week or two.

And if it turned out to be longer, I figured I’d be settled into my new routine of living in a hotel. I figured I could just pick up my work where I left off.

I soon realized that “being settled” was out of the question. For a couple days the fire would go in one direction, and then the next thing you know, the winds would pick up and it would move a dozen kilometers in the night. The emotional up and down was enormous. I just couldn’t get myself to a place where I could feel anything close to normal.

For the first week, we lived our lives from a standard 400-square-foot hotel room. Two beds, the dog, our son, all our things. Us.

Over the weeks, we changed hotels a few times. I struggled with the grief of letting go of the summer I had planned. In a rapid re-prioritization, work became secondary. It simply wasn’t where I was needed.

Roy Group totally had my back. Anything that was on my calendar that I couldn’t be there for, the team came together and covered it. I focused on what my husband and son needed, and what my parents needed, and what my grandmother needed.

I created normal as best I could for my son.

We met other evacuees at every hotel. There were constant conversations around who had lost their house. What happened last night with the fire? How close did it come?

I wanted to shield him somewhat from what was playing out. But you couldn’t hide from what was happening. You could see the sky. You could see that it was dark at three o’clock on a Friday.

There was one Roy Group event that I’d kept on my calendar. I had really been looking forward to facilitating this one — a virtual event on the 17th and 18th of August. I figured for sure we’d be stabilized and back home by then.

But the evening of August 15 was the worst night of our fire. It raced along through the tinder-dry forest, sweeping its scalding wind and flames right up close to where we live.

The emotional strain of going through that night was something else.

We were following seven or eight different social media pages, just glued to what was going on. There were people who didn’t evacuate even though they were supposed to. Some people were still on-site in certain areas. Some people on the other side of the lake were watching the fire from across the way. And all of them served as different sources of information.

BC Wildfire had announced that they expected it to be a bad night. The weather report showed winds were expected to gust up to 70 kilometres an hour.

Everyone was watching. And everyone was talking.

Your friends, your family. Everyone calling each other, texting each other, checking in. Did you see this? Have you heard that? Are you watching the news?

And of course, the panic. Social media is the best thing and the worst thing all at once, because you’re getting real-time updates from all different areas. There was this frantic panic in people; facts were few and far between, and people’s emotions were heightened. Everyone was posting their every thought, feeling, thing they’ve heard, thing they thought they saw…it was absolutely exhausting.

We found out the next day that our local gas station and corner store — the hub of our community — had burned down. Seventy homes chewed up by flames, just four minutes from where I live.

I just called the Roy Group team and said, “Guys, I’m so sorry. I don’t think I can do it. I can’t hold it together.”

***

You know I wouldn’t be writing this if I weren’t going to talk about how I leaned on the Roy Group toolbox.

We say that the way you choose to conduct yourself creates an atmosphere inside others.

I saw that playing out everywhere.

Just for a sec here, before I unfold the next bit of the story, I want to acknowledge the fire crews who fought this fire. Enough cannot be said about those people and how hard they worked. How brave they were.

Yet from early on, people were criticizing them on social media, saying they weren’t doing enough or doing the right thing. And it made me so upset. Those firefighters are people. They are members of our communities. I couldn’t imagine how demoralizing that would be for them.

I wanted to give the complainers a shake: Who among us can say we would do a better job? Would you imagine that someone could do your job as well as you can, given all the years you’ve been building your expertise? Would you sidle up to a paramedic, push her aside and take over the defibrillator?


On the flip side, it was heartening to see a finer kind of conduct.

Most of the community rallied to support the Emergency Services and fire crews. Every night, Vernonites would hold signs and cheer in places where we knew the fire crews were coming off the mountain for shift change. Somebody created a fire crew appreciation page. It felt so great to see that the majority of people, whether they had suffered loss or not, understood that this was well beyond anybody’s experience — this fire, this fire season, these conditions, the dryness, the winds.

Most people wanted to have a positive impact on others.

The fire evacuees all identified each other throughout the weeks. You can recognize an evacuee once you’ve been one. Not because they’re carrying certain luggage or anything. You just…start to notice the faces. “Oh, are you evacuated? Where are you from?”

I had many conversations with folks who were in a desperate place. I remember talking one day in the hotel parking lot to a woman whose property backed right onto the fire line. She was in tears, having been evacuated four times in the last 20 years. “I don’t think we’re going to make it through this one,” she told me.

“I can’t tell you why,” I said, “but I feel like we are.” And I showed her the fire map I’d just been looking at. I told her what BC Wildfire was forecasting for the direction that night, and the weather.

We talked in the parking lot for half an hour.

At the end of that conversation, she said, “I don’t necessarily believe you. But I really appreciate this conversation. And I feel better than I did when we started.”

Those little touches with people. The ones you meet at the front desk of the hotel, or in the parking lot. They matter.

***

There was no good reason why, but from the beginning, I knew it in my heart. Our house is not going to burn.

If you look at the fire map of what did burn, it really is quite a miracle. The place where we live is literally a little horseshoe of land that was spared. And on either side, there was total burn, right down to the lake.

The constant thing I kept coming back to during those weeks was this:

Nothing I do right now is going to change the outcome.

I do not control this wildfire.

I do not control what will come to pass here.

I have faith that the people who are trying to battle it are going to do their very best, and me sitting here having visions of my house burning down and having nothing is not going to serve me.

That was my stance through the whole ordeal. Until I know something is a fact, I’m going to lean toward the positive.

I tried to do that with my mom and with my neighbours when they were in those dark places. Because when you start to spiral into those catastrophic scenarios…it’s devastating to everyone around you, and to yourself.

I often was met with that truest face of fear. There was darkness. It was in the sky. It was in the air. It was in people’s hearts.

***

We returned home on September 16.

The drive to and from our community now is hard. Either way you go from where we live, whether you’re going to Vernon or to Kelowna, you drive through areas that are burned black.

We have survivor’s guilt. People down the street got completely wiped out and yet here we are, our beautiful community still has its trees and all our houses are safe…and people down the road have nothing.

We were among the last to return. Our house had needed restoration work done because — well, because a crate of bananas plus 40-degree heat plus four weeks equals a disaster of its own.

We know how lucky we are. This could have been a very different story. We are continually looking for the avenues to give back and help folks from other areas that lost so much.

One small way we will give back is through our conduct — the way we show up. We will be listening. And holding space for people to unfold their stories.

Sharing. Giving. Receiving. Laughing.

Healing.

We are not built for easy.

But we are built for the next step.

And then the next.

 

Roy Group has worked alongside BC Wildfire Service since 2018, supporting their fierce commitment to investing in their people, building strong relationships and creating a learning culture. We are grateful for the dedication and skill demonstrated by the leaders throughout the organization during summer 2021.

 

boy with thank you sign

 


Yolanda Moran is Roy Group’s Practice Lead for Enterprise.

coaching approach to leadership model
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Steps To Building A Coaching Culture

There’s a lot of talk about the shift toward coaching cultures in organizations. This is a good thing. Roy Group has been ready for this for a long time. But what does “a coaching approach” really mean?

Our definition of coaching is the intentional positioning of others to perform at incrementally higher standards, to learn more from their experience as it emerges, and to be increasingly engaged in their endeavours.

Let’s put it into a story so you can see all the parts at work.

Step 1: Identify the moment of performance.

Say a relatively junior staff member, Maria, has been asked to give a presentation to a group of stakeholders.

Step 2: Position for success.

As Maria’s manager, you want to set her up for success, right? You’ll likely give some tips and advice. But you’ve also got an opportunity to dive a little deeper with some good coaching questions:

  • What do you want to accomplish here?
  • Who are the people involved?
  • What messages do people need to understand by the end of the session?

Your questions will spur some reflection and planning in Maria’s mind, and help clarify outcomes.

Step 3: Pay attention to the person’s performance. Notice.

Ideally, this is where you sit in the corner to observe. Notice your team member’s performance, bringing your full attention to how things unfold. Take notes.

Sometimes your direct report will nail it. But for the sake of fully walking you through the process, let’s say Maria’s presentation doesn’t go super well. She gets tongue-tied from stage fright, and her voice shakes all over the place. She doesn’t nail the messaging. The session ends up being a five out of ten.

And Maria? She’s embarrassed and worried about what you’ll think.

Step 4: Review, note the learning, plan for next time.

As a boss, you could conclude that Maria is no good at doing public presentations and decide to give her other jobs instead. But this is a key moment. You want to build capacity in your organization, so use that failure for the information it gives you. Our organizations tend to be failure-averse. But that’s misguided thinking, because failure is an awesome teacher.

Help Maria understand that learning from her attempt → error → failure sequence is exactly what we’re supposed to do as humans. After all, it took you and me a few times to learn how to ride a bike, right? To learn how to write code in Python. To chair an effective meeting. To speak Spanish, to meditate, to eat with chopsticks…

We learn through practice.

So you could get curious about what got in the way for Maria. Invite her to unpack her own experience of herself in that presentation, and then give her some helpful feedback from what you observed. Find out what she needs in order to perform better next time. Maybe she needs to practice in front of a mirror, or maybe she needs to change the way she scaffolds the learning. Maybe she needs to slow down, and harness the power of a good pause.

Then position her to do it again.

This is the coaching approach to leadership.

We conceptualize the coaching approach as a möbius loop, in reflection of continuous improvement. If you practice coaching your direct reports this way, over time you are going to grow those individuals’ accountability, responsibility and ability to make decisions on their own. This takes the pressure off your shoulders to get everything right.

This is what we mean by “building the capacity of other people”.

We’ve built our Coaching Approach to Leadership downloadable resource to make it easy for you to remember and practice the stages. Try it out in your team, and let us know how it goes. And keep at it. Practice does magical things.

Roy Group tools for great leadership

coaching culture sticker heli card deck
Download this resource as a quick reminder of the steps. Share it with a peer. We’ve built a bank of seriously great coaching questions into our HELI deck. Visit Shop Roy Group.

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man quietly sitting on a dock with lake and mountains
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Start. Again. A Practice Of Accountability

Photo by S Migaj on Unsplash

By Ian Chisholm

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you’ll know I like the idea of new starts. I like early mornings. I like September for the new start it represents. I like January for the same reason. And recently, I realized that you can make any day of the year a new start, especially if you just need to start. Again.

Let me explain.

When March of 2020 brought the pandemic to our doorstep, we shifted into a heavy regime of work to convert our business into one that could be delivered online vs. in-person. I could tell you that I like work — even that I love work. The truth is that work is a vice I struggle with. The way I work can be excessive, compulsive and self-depleting. The crisis at hand really just gave me a context where it would be acceptable to give in to my vice.

So I did.

By December, I had run myself aground. The last time I had worked this way was in my early 30s (which was followed by six months of convalescence, sitting in a lawn chair with a blanket over my knees). I didn’t feel good at all. It was hard to focus, I had put on a lot of weight, and my adrenals were spent. I needed to ask for help.

I started working online with a personal trainer named Nick.

We would meet twice every week: on Mondays to go through a new workout that I would do three times that week, and on Fridays for more of a chat about where I was at. I could tell that Nick knew his stuff. What I didn’t know was just how great a coach Nick was. This young guy had a serious system for helping people like me to “hack” ourselves.

Over the next nine months, Nick and I would treat my wellbeing as an experiment. What differences did I notice when I changed my water intake? My coffee intake? My food intake? What difference did my body temperature make before bed? How many hours of sleep felt rejuvenating? What was the rhythm of my week and when did I run out of steam? How could I break that up? How could I address sources of stress? What kind of movement made me feel better? What kind of exercise made me feel stronger?

We cleaned up my entire world.

Work went online…and I went to work. I got serious about rituals. Lighting an early morning candle and doing yoga. A pitcher of ice water on the corner of my desk with my vitamins. Strength training. Healthy snacks. Fasting. Walking phone calls in the forest.

It was like my soul had signed a contract with my body — and made a promise to keep it well. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Finally, after decades of hammering through life like a young sheepdog, I was conserving effort and taking responsibility for my own resilience.

I reduced my “festive” waistline, increased my function, honed my ability to empty my brain of thought.

And then I tripped up.

Enter fall 2021. Restrictions relaxed, and the Roy Group team climbed back onto airplanes. We were eager to reconnect with clients in Alberta. Eager to observe BC Wildfire crews in action in southern BC. Eager to connect with executive teams on retreats.

I travelled for a month. Dropped right back into my old habits. Living by plane schedules, spending time in airports, early mornings, late nights, full days. Beer and wings.

My sneakers were always in my suitcase…but never got unpacked. The regimen I had created to nourish and uphold myself fell right off the table.

This is right around the place I normally start beating myself up. The shame flares go off, the hair shirt goes on, the self-blame loop whines back to life like an old phonograph cranking up.

I’m a screwup. Where’s my self-control? I have no discipline. How will I ever stay fit if I keep blowing off my fitness regimen? I suck at staying the course.

That’s just a taste of the things I say to myself. The spiral is slippery and quick. And ugly. There’s nothing good down there. You know it. And I know it.

So I decided not to go down there.

 

 

The concept for this Roy Group sticker comes from the mat of Bowspring founder Desi Springer. Springer describes Bowspring as “movement medicine” — a postural system that optimizes mind-body health through the body’s natural curvatures.

The important starting place here is that in Bowspring, like in any practice, you must quietly take full accountability for your own practice. You can always ask for help…but ultimately your practice belongs to you.

Then, you open yourself up to mindfulness to grasp a sense of what is really going on — what is — and all the dynamics that you need to be aware of. For me, I noticed how good I had felt when I was practicing…and how less good I felt now.

Normally, once we become highly aware of what is, we immediately judge ourselves (or others).

Instead, what is required more is compassion: “I made really great ground and know so much more about myself now. I miss the habits that I created with Nick. In adapting to the world snapping back, I let go of some important pieces.”

I didn’t judge myself for losing track of my self-care. I just witnessed it, and decided that yeah, it’s human. And it’s okay to be human.

And that brought me right back to full accountability.

No blame. No recrimination. No negative self-talk.
No story.
No room in my mind for that sloshing around.

I simply started again.

Instead of, “You need to clean up your act and get back on track,” I said, “Hey, you worked out like a champ for nine months. You learned a lot about what you need to be resilient. So you got thrown off for a month. Okay. Now what?”

Did you hear that? So what? NOW what?

That’s what I mean by a new start. Not “getting back on the rails.” I just cut cord with the story — the why, the how, the blame — and took action. Started over.

Accept where you are, right now.
Drop the story.
Choose your next move.

The very best part is that you can do this in any area of your life. With your children. With your partner. In work relationships. With your health.

We’ve created a learning resource that builds on Desi’s concept of Accountability – Mindfulness – Compassion, to remind you that it’s a daily practice.

I hope you find it useful in your growth and healing as a leader.

 


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

ian chisholm with mentors robert henderson and mark bell
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Roy Group Research: Stories Of Mentorship

Robert Henderson, Mark Bell and Ian Chisholm ca. 2011

By Ian Chisholm

If someone asked me to share a story where I received guidance from a Mentor, I’d start with this one. The feeling that comes up for me is that something potent and definitive about mentorship happened for me in the following situation.

* * *

It started as a little tangle about the meaning of the word integrity.

I had proposed to the group that integrity on our team meant ‘keeping one’s word’—something that becomes functional versus a moral sense of right or wrong. One of the group members (who had a lot of status and swing with their peers) was arguing that the world needed the concept of integrity to be about ‘doing the right thing’.

So I used an example of the way it worked on our team. The morning schedule promised a tea break at 10:30 a.m., and as we approached that time on the clock, everyone on the team knew that our team member Chloe would be readying that tea break (to a high standard) while we conducted our meeting. At 10:30, when the doors opened to the break room, it was a matter of our entire team’s integrity that Chloe had put in the effort to maintain the promised schedule.

The group member who was debating with me put quite a large hypothetical situation on the table. “So, if we were hit by a meteor at 10:20 a.m., would it mean that Chloe lacked integrity for not having set up the tea station?”

I knew that I’d been hooked, but I didn’t even know why. I reached down deep for just a little more professionalism in the moment, but the coffers of that poise had been tapped. I was tired of this conversation and did not want it to eat up any more of our time together. I didn’t pull my hair out or raise my voice. I went stock still and lowered my tone. I knew what I was about to say.

What I didn’t know was just how contemptuous and acidic my tone would be as I was saying it.

“If we were hit by a meteor at 10:20, and Chloe was still alive, my expectation would be that she would gather broken bits of wood to start a fire, to heat the water, to make the tea so that at 10:30 a.m., there would be a tea break, as promised. And THAT very act of keeping her word in such a circumstance—of making that tea—would be a moment of great and memorable inspiration for anyone else who was still alive to share it.”

I left the very quiet room, walked past Chloe, who was smiling in blissful ignorance of everything that was happening behind closed doors (but she was smiling in front of a well-prepared tea break, thank goodness), and went up to my office.

Mark and Robert—two of my most notable Mentors to this day—followed me.

“That was a little edgy, Chiz.”

“I think we have some mending to do.”

The next 10 minutes were some of the most instructive moments of my life. I wasn’t being judged for what I had said…but I did need to change course from the inside out—and in real time.

They used the time we had to get me there.

  • Where had my frustration come from?
  • What was I making this person’s challenge mean?
  • Why had I chosen to respond so harshly with the obvious intent to end the conversation? Particularly since this person was a key decision maker on this project?
  • How would we move forward?
  • What would be the first thing I’d say when the session reconvened?

The groundedness Robert and Mark displayed. The non-judgment. The unity of purpose. The invitation to take accountability. This was mentorship at its finest.

In mapping out this story for you, I can now understand the themes that underpin it—themes I would not have started with when asked about a topic as complex as mentorship.

* * *

“The truth is always in our stories.”

I first heard David Snowden say that more than a decade ago. At the time, he and his team at Cognitive Edge were exploring the possibilities of a research tool that could actually distill patterns of data…from stories.

They called it SenseMaker®. (Makes perfect sense.)

The essence of Snowden’s creation was a database for narrative fragments: thousands of ‘stories’ collected on a specific topic. Topics that don’t normally lend themselves to quantifying. And fragments that, together, can tell you what is really going on.

Because with mentorship…it’s a kind of alchemy, right? It’s not a precise formula. At present, our world lacks a clearly defined pattern that describes what, exactly, a Mentor is. We seek to change that.

For years, Roy Group has focused on mentorship. When we look behind us, we know that mentorship is a force that has intersected our lives and created little quantum bumps in our development as humans. When we look into the future, the idea of powerful mentorship provides us with some hope in addressing wicked problems.

In the present, for Roy Group, the concept of mentorship has become our muse—something we would like to understand deeply. It’s our north star.

We want to find out:

  • What conditions create an ideal crucible for meaningful mentorship?
  • What conditions or factors compromise the strongest bonds?
  • What hazards rupture the crucible?
  • How can we create opportunities for mentorship that serve the world?

Now, of course, we have opinions about all of this from our own lived experience. But how do we actually know how mentorship functions in the world? That would take thousands and thousands of people from every walk of life sharing their stories.

So we’re turning to you.

We’re asking you to write your stories of mentorship into the SenseMaker® collector.

As you do so, your words will naturally tag your tale with whatever themes fit. There is more in your stories than you can imagine.

Once the stories are collected, the software helps us discern key themes and insights that otherwise we would be guessing at. We will be able to ‘read the wind on the water’ about a dynamic that could create a lot of good in the world.

So…will you help us with our research?

Tell us your stories of mentorship. Those times when someone exemplified the finest conduct, and encouraged you to do the same. And the times when it went wrong—when it did not provide you with what you needed. We want them all. And once you have shared one story and other narrative fragments come to mind…we would like you to share those ones, too.

Visit our Gift of Mentorship-Mentee SenseMaker® web collector. Log as many experiences as you like.

Two, five, ten. Forty-seven. More is more.

You won’t be identified, nor will the other people in your story. We don’t even ask for any names.

Circle back in a month and write some more.

Send the SenseMaker® collector link to your peers. To your leaders. To your direct reports. To your Mentors.

We want to create better patterns in the world.

Help us do it.

 


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

jonny-schwartz-director-of-finance
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When Your Chief Of Staff Passes The Baton

Formerly titled “What is it time for? Continuing the evolution,” this post originally took the form of a personal letter from our then Chief of Staff, Jonny Schwartz, to the whole Roy Group team. Jonny wrote his letter early in the summer of 2021.

What is it time for?

Chiz asks this so often that when I think about it, it’s his voice I hear in my head. As we start asking our clients that very question, it has me pausing and reflecting.

What is it time for at Roy Group?

And…how about for myself?

It’s the exact question we asked ourselves when the pandemic redirected our course a year and half ago.

My answer then, for both Roy Group and myself, was simple:

Survival.

As the newly named chief of staff and the person responsible for the finances, I was feeling the weight of it all. Survival didn’t even mean breaking even. Forget that. Our business—our bookings, our work, our revenue—vanished in the span of days. Survival just meant finding a way to keep it all together.

We had assembled a team with plans for growth and now, by something completely out of our own control, those plans were shelved. I found myself analyzing scenario after scenario, looking at all the possible outcomes. How much revenue do we need, not only for the year, but for the next month? The next few months? How much can we turn up the revenue and turn down the expenses?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was trying to solve this scary and unexpected puzzle, I was actually using the skills and abilities that bring out the best in me.

Figuring out scenarios.

Gauging our potential.

Looking past this year to the year after…and the year after.

That is the sort of work that allows me to add my greatest value.

Don’t get me wrong, this was still the most stressful and anxiety-filled time of my career so far. I imagine it’s so for many others, too—if not for all of us. The stakes were high and very real.

But I recognized that those were forces outside of my control.


So I looked at what was within my control.

What I could control was the work it would take to figure it out.

And that had me getting up early and working late every day, not feeling like it was really “work” at all.

At the time, it wasn’t easy to see I was doing some of my best work. What has given me the perspective now to realize it?

Well, while the unknowns were definitely stressful during the pandemic, it did give Roy Group some time for doing some extra personal development within our team.

We started working together to figure out our Leader’s Gifts. Led by Chiz, a group of us spent time over a number of weeks discerning, both together and within ourselves, What is the gift that we bring to the world and allows us to make our finest contribution?

It was a powerful process. It gave each of us a new lens on our strengths as perceived by others, and as defined by our own preferences in the work we gravitate toward.

Through these inner-focused sessions, I was able to see what was happening while I was working around the clock, trying to solve these problems….and totally loving it. I was able to identify that spark in me, and define what it was that gave me the energy to try to solve the challenges ahead.

As we close this next pandemic chapter—hopefully the last—I’m wondering, What does the next evolution of Roy Group look like? How can we use this knowledge to position ourselves in a way that we could all be at our best, making our finest contributions?

So, what is it time for?


I’ve realized through my work with the Leader’s Gift I am not the chief of staff for the next phase of the Roy Group evolution.

This wasn’t an easy decision to come to. The world tends to push us to more, to bigger, to better, to always keep moving forward, to never give in. To keep moving UP.

I had to ask myself, Am I allowed to take a step back?

And then I considered: Will that step back actually be a step forward for myself and for Roy Group?

I spent some time getting curious, wondering whether the best thing for everyone involved might be to let go of this societal programming…and do it our way. The simple truth is, for some people, once we climb to certain heights, we realize it’s not for us.

But instead of resigning and going to find something else to do, what about just accepting that we were happier a step before?

I realized I wanted this. It’s what I thought was best for the team. And thankfully, when I pitched the idea, they got it.

They understood as well as I did that for the chief of staff role, we need someone who can bring us together. A communicator. A connector.

We need to simplify our processes and communications, and increase efficiencies.

Luckily for us, the person who has exactly those gifts had joined us during the pandemic. Nina has tackled trickies in a way that has often left me thinking, “I could never have done that.”

She has filled the gaps I’ve left open and picked up the balls when I dropped them. And I am excited to pass the torch to her to lead the team along with Chiz and Anne-Marie into the future.

I won’t be going away; I will be moving back to my role as director of finance, using my Gift to create the blueprints for the future, assisting with solving problems as they arise, and supporting Nina and the team wherever I can.

I feel rejuvenated with the possibilities this new structure brings to our team.

The takeaway?

Sometimes leaders provide a gift to their teams in taking a step back…and allowing others to lead.

 


Jonny Schwartz is Roy Group’s Director of Finance.

Mentor Carole Cooper and Yolanda Moran
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Conversations With Roy: We Often Don’t See Our Mentors Until We Look Back

Every now and then, a person you never suspected turns out to be a powerful Mentor. You walk beside someone on the path for a few years. Or a few decades. And one day, you turn around and look back over all the ground you’ve covered together.

And then you get the memo:

While you were busy looking to other people for your learning (or imagining that everybody was learning from you), you suddenly realize that this person you’ve crossed deserts and oceans with…was actually schooling you all along.

That’s a hallmark of mentorship. Sometimes, like that “Footprints in the Sand” poem, you can’t even feel someone holding you and pushing you until you realize you’re in a totally different place.

In this instalment of Conversations with Roy, Yolanda shares a story of one of her key Mentors as she was growing through the ranks at Flight Centre.

* * *

You have a great story of mentorship from your own experience. It’s a take on “the Mentor I never suspected”. Will you tell us more?

Yes, Carole. The funny thing with me and Carole is, I never realized she was a Mentor to me until about a year ago. When I was working for Flight Centre, I knew that she was a huge supporter of mine. And I was also aware that I owed many of the steps of my career directly to her. She was a good friend. But I didn’t really see her as a Mentor. I always saw a Mentor as being someone that you notice, but she was like the Mentor ninja, a silent Mentor.


How old would you have been when you and Carole began working together?

I started working with her when I was twenty-six. And we moved through our organization together. I followed in her footsteps.


Why didn’t you really notice her as a Mentor?

As we worked closer together, I had always felt that I was backfilling her shortcomings. Which, in certain ways, I guess I was. But she was a lot more strategic than I ever realized. And she was propping me up in certain ways when I needed it as well. Now looking back on it, I think to myself, How did I not see this clearly? She is my biggest Mentor. I learned so much through working with her.


How so?

With Carole, I feel like she almost fell into that role. It was this perfect storm that created a dynamic between us over 15 years working together. She opened many doors for me. She always saw much more potential in me than I ever did. I always had confidence, but she put me into positions where I was in way over my head, in roles I had no business having. And then I would figure it out. Just as I was about to drown completely, I would somehow find a way to stay afloat, and continue to move through it. At times I would think to myself, Why didn’t she prepare me better for this? But I know now that she had. She prepared me just enough to stay afloat, and the rest I needed to figure out on my own.


Take us back to those times when you would say, Why didn’t she prepare me better? Where was that coming from?

Yeah, I would have been in a state of fear and fluster, doubting my abilities and feeling like she should have given me more tools. Or better tools. Or a ladder or a lifeboat. Something! And, you know, we blame other people when we’re scared, or when we’re not taking full responsibility for ourselves. But of course, she knew I could cope. Even when I didn’t know it. Without her, I wouldn’t have even thought to go for the opportunities that I was given without someone going, You should go for this, and me replying, You’re crazy! She did that for me at least five times over 15 years.


That fits with the idea that a Mentor often can see a deeper and wider set of abilities in the person in front of them than the person themselves can see.

Yes, absolutely. I grew as her mentee and she grew as a Mentor, as I happened to be under or alongside her catching the draft of her own journey. I just showed up at the right time, in the right place to be there as she was moving into her own leadership, holding space as Mentor.


Will you share a story from those years?

One that comes to mind is when I was in a western Canada operations role. Carole ran the Canadian business and there was a middle-layer manager between my role and hers. That middle-layer position was held by someone I will describe as emotionally manipulative and psychologically abusive. When they said, Jump, I said, How high? I was permitted absolutely no boundaries.


Those folk are hard to deal with. It’s hard to even get the ground to stop moving underneath you.

Yeah. I was done working in that kind of environment. But I was hopeful, because our financial year-end was coming, and there had been discussion that the structure was going to change, meaning I would no longer report to this person. But that change didn’t come through. So when it was announced we were keeping the structure, I thought to myself, OK, I’m going to have to do something drastic. Am I going to have to quit? What do I do?


Because you knew you couldn’t stay.

It was not healthy. I was broken under that leadership. So I had a conversation with a trusted peer and she said, “You need to call Carole and tell her exactly what’s been happening.” Because she had no idea. Any of the stuff that was going on—it was pervasive—but she had no clue. We were all terrified of Carole at that time! She had been portrayed to us by this person in middle management as a tyrant.


Right. That’s classic manipulation. The fearful despot trying to get everyone onside, against their would-be opponent.

And so I called Carole and I told her everything, and she said, “Leave it with me.” And within a few days, that person had been given some options…and ultimately left the company. Carole had taken immediate action simply based on my word. And then eventually she promoted me. That’s kind of a heavy story, I guess.


It’s always heavy where culture festers.

She stepped in and she trusted me. She believed me. She heard me. Wow, I’m even a bit emotional about it right now. It was a really hard time, and I was so afraid. It’s easy to get scared of consequences within a corporate culture, especially when there is this tyrannical image perpetuated of a leader. I was so fearful of her and scared to expose the bullying that was happening.


You didn’t want to rock the boat.

I loved my job and I loved the company. And I was terrified of what might happen if I spoke up. But through that experience, she went from this person I was completely intimidated by to someone who…just heard me, and took care of me in that moment.


Let’s talk about trust, because this kind of story probably plays out in a lot of places. Carole trusted you…but you didn’t even know that could be possible. It took huge courage to take your problem to her.

Carole’s conduct through that time completely changed my internal atmosphere. And we talk about that idea a lot at Roy Group. I had moved from being afraid, feeling not worthy, feeling disempowered, to feeling totally valued, totally respected, fully empowered, fully trusted—literally in the course of a few days—through how she conducted herself. I think that was a catalyst to enable me to be open to all the opportunities that came in the years that followed. I shifted from a place of fear and under the thumb to a front-footed, confident place where I could actually see myself moving forward in the organization.


Can you say more about how Carole was the Mentor you never noticed—at least until much later?

I always respected her, but I was young and I thought that the areas that were not her strong points would be her demise. And I was so wrong. In fact, because those weaknesses were my strong points, I believed, Oh, to be a really good leader, you’ve got to have all this stuff that I bring. But actually, I needed to learn more of what she had naturally.


So humbling, those moments of clarity.

Totally. You can’t always see it while you’re in it.


You never really know who might turn out to be one of your greatest teachers. Yo, this was a great conversation. Thanks.

Thank you.

 


Yolanda Moran is Roy Group’s Practice Lead for Enterprise.

Share your stories of mentorship right here. Your stories will help us build research in this area.