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Your Top 7 Questions Answered About Team Retreats

Your life is a spinning circus. The bank website wouldn’t let you log in this morning, you lost an hour on the phone troubleshooting the new CRM, and a colleague from way back emailed to say they just saw your teenager on YouTube streaming political commentary under his own name (and therefore yours).

Oh, and your director group just informed you that the culture is flagging now that everybody’s working from home three days a week. And your star performer—the one you can always count on—gave their notice last week.

It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure, except you never finish, you never die…and you’ve brought your whole team along for the ride.

Might as well start right there, with how to knit your people tighter. Because we’re all pretty clear by now: your culture is determining what you’re capable of.

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The way teams function is undergoing an overhaul.

Two years of social distancing has changed the way we work. This shift has delivered some good things: less commuting; fewer emissions; hybrid workflows that often improve life balance.

It has also left some teams floundering. Leaders are wondering, How do we foster meaningful relationships and enable productive teamwork in this new territory? How do we build a healthy work culture in 2022?

It feels like we’ve gone from COVID pivots to the brink of burnout, and now we’ve landed in this grey area where we haven’t quite recovered from what came before…and we aren’t quite sure what lies ahead. Even with restrictions lifting and people returning to the office, we know we are still missing real connections.

The custom retreats we’ve been receiving inquiries about include clients asking about time in nature together, having long meals together, being somewhere special together, and celebrating the fact that they get to do their unique brand of work together.

 

Here’s what people are asking us:

 

QUESTION #1

Why does my team need a retreat?

 

Short answer: everything in org functioning comes down to relationships.

Every door that opens, every goal you achieve, every customer you acquire, assist, retain or fumble…your organization’s success comes down to the quality of your relationships. How far will people go for you? How hard will you play for them? How hard will they play for you?

Relatedness (whether people work well together) is a key element of high-performing teams. It’s the one that challenges leaders most—but it’s the biggest lever for culture.

The casual connections of the workplace we once knew are no more. Teams are dispersed. People are living inside a whole new layer of stress. New teams struggle to know each other on a personal level. People feel disconnected from a sense of purpose and belonging. Trust is at an all-time low. And change—especially the relentless, slap-you-in-the-face kind that just keeps coming—is hard.

Teams need time to reengage with one another as humans, not just as people connected by a common workplace. They need to build trust and psychological safety. They need to see each other as people first, colleagues second. Only then can people shift their focus to things like annual targets, strategic goals or their leadership practices.

Plus, taking your team away makes people feel valued. And research shows that recognition is often a more powerful motivator than money.

What’s extra great is that with a Roy Group team retreat, you build relationship skills at the same time that you’re building the relationships themselves.

QUESTION #2

 What does a typical day of a team retreat look like?

 

Whatever you want it to look like. Generally, a well-rounded day together involves some “me” time on an individual level, time together and alone in nature, three excellent meals, a group activity where we go off somewhere to feast or explore, and a structured session where you drill down on something that’s important to your roadmap forward.

Maybe you’ll want to build in a complete program like Focus on Self, which is well suited to the greater sense of openness that a retreat brings. Or you might dive into how to strengthen alignment with The Collaborative Team. Or learn tools for putting ego aside and seeing others’ perspectives with Engaging Difficult Conversations. Endless options.

 

QUESTION #3

How will my team or organization be different afterward?

 

Imagine having an opportunity to talk together, authentically and unscripted, about your culture. To see each other as people outside of a work setting. Outside of roles, pressures and deadlines.

In a retreat setting, there’s so much more space for intuition, nonverbal communication, play and shared experiences. It’s like a jazz jam compared to a solo.

It’s astonishing how quickly people can ideate creative solutions to problems that seemed intractable under the fluorescent lights of the office. Astonishing how easy it is to find alignment when everybody really gets what you’re working toward together.

Before a team retreat, your people could be grappling as individuals without tools and skills, or the knowledge of how to use them effectively. You lack a common language, and a set of common experiences.

After a team retreat, your vision is suddenly clearer, your objectives seem somehow reachable, and your people feel refreshed and valued. They’ve honed their focus, dug deeper to understand how their roles and responsibilities contribute to excellent performance, and have a better understanding of who else on their team they can turn to for support. You can see the makings of a high-performing team.

They’ve learned to play together—for each other.

 

QUESTION #4

What are some specific things a retreat can dig into?

 

  • Articulating what you’re truly struggling with.
  • Strategy, team composition, new workflows.
  • Deciding which business lines to let go of.
  • Coming to grips with change, and building tools to navigate it—two different things.
  • Refining or reassessing your organization’s purpose.
  • Taking steps together toward the things the team feels are truly important.
  • Taking stock and choosing a heading.

This last bit is especially important. It’s easy for people to get completely fired up during a retreat…and then lose track of the pieces after returning to the office. We can help you close out the process by developing a roadmap or custom-shaping you a Roy Group pathway, where we build in an accountability structure to make sure you stay the course.

 

 

QUESTION #5

How can we afford to pay for a retreat?

 

Organizational advisor David Baker has a good answer for this. (His emails are great. You should get on his list.)

“Set aside that rent money for culture building,” he writes. “If you go remote-first, that doesn’t mean you automatically eliminate the big “Rent” line item from your Income Statement. A good chunk of that should most likely be reserved for in-person teambuilding, whether that’s a big annual retreat or more regular in-person gatherings.”

Our practice leads can work with your organization to find the sweet spot between your fiscal realities and…well, limitless possibilities.

 

QUESTION #6

 What makes now the right time to consider a team retreat?

 

The last couple years have been hard as hell on most of us. But even hard things demand closure—a grieving of sorts.

We need to acknowledge that we have been through something—that we’ve suffered and prevailed, and that we are each warriors in our own right. We need to engage Henderson’s Disciplines by pausing, reflecting and inquiring, before we can embrace the next chapter of action.

Now is the time to come together and reflect on these last two years. What went well? What was tricky? What do we need to do differently?

 

QUESTION #7

 Where would we do a retreat?

 

That depends on your budget and the activities you want to engage in. One of our Alberta clients, for example, recently came for a retreat on Roy Group home turf, so we built in coastal exploration in voyageur canoes and whale-watching. We had small groups working in the forest, on the docks, and on the grass at the ocean’s edge. Retreaters shared exceptional meals together, learned from a local First Nation, and bedded down in the oceanfront comfort of the Oak Bay Beach Hotel.

We have hosted our own team retreats at Bilston Creek Farm

…and we share a longstanding partnership with Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, where our exquisite experiences will have your team talking in the staff room for decades to come.

 

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If you’ve been thinking about a team retreat to help bring your people together, reset, and choose a fresh heading filled with purpose, drop us a note. We are booking into the fall—and we’d love to work (and play, and feast, and plan) with you.

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Conversations with Roy: The Three Keys to Unlocking Exponential Impact

Every now and then, a leader’s candid insight makes our hearts skip a beat. This month, we bring you an in-depth conversation with Margo Long, one of the most perceptive and unguarded humans we know. (She’s also ultra-competent, having steered her organization to surpass its five-year strategic targets in a mere three.)

Margo traded her corporate job to head up an Edmonton social service organization where she had little practical experience, so that she and her team could make life safer and softer for youth who are already on that slow, terrifying slide toward homelessness.

As an original (edited) interview, our conversation with Margo adds context to the case study we recently sent you.

Self-reflective, gifted with strategic insight and unafraid to talk about her own struggles on the path of leadership, Margo embodies the humility, discipline and rigour of practice we most admire in leaders.

 

Don’t have time to read the whole interview?

Here are three key takeaways:

 

1. Sometimes we forget that EQ is a privilege.

We’re told to hire for EQ. But who has EQ, anyway? People who have had the privilege of safe, positive learning experiences. It is usually not people from tough backgrounds, yet they’re often the ones who gravitate to working in the social sector because it’s personally meaningful. These folks need leadership development training to properly support the complex, emotional work they are doing.

 

2. If you trust people who do great work…they’ll keep doing great work.

Same is true for charities. We don’t have to tell them how to spend their money. (How absurd for an overseer to dictate how your business should spend yours?) They know what their clients need best.

 

3. Crisis is exactly when you need good leadership skills.

People are quick to cut leadership development when times get hard. But that’s when you need the tools the most. When the world needs you needs to be masterful…it’s too late to start practicing.

 

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Going long with Margo Long, President and CEO of YESS

 

Tell me a little bit about what YESS does.

Absolutely. YESS—Youth Empowerment and Support Services—provides a low barrier, 24/7 shelter, supportive housing, transitional living and wraparound resource support for young people experiencing crisis and housing instability in Edmonton. Typically, they’re aged 15 to 24. We’re focused on prevention—what they call late prevention—where our goal is to prevent further entrenchment into crisis and housing instability.

 

Can you expand on what you mean by “housing instability”?

Yeah. There are different schools of thought. The term conveys a true sense of instability, as opposed to the label of “living on the street”. We use “housing instability” because often, young people are hidden in their housing instability. They’re sleeping on couches with friends, they’re moving from area to area. They’re not necessarily sleeping under a bridge, but they also don’t have a stable housing situation.

 

Let’s talk about how YESS’s impact has deepened through Power to Give. For our readers, Power to Give is a granting foundation that provides unrestricted funds to charities to use as they see fit—instead of telling them how the money should be spent. What’s the nature of your relationship with Power to Give?

I started working with Power to Give in 2019 through a funding relationship. Like you say, they have a unique philosophy that’s really progressive. They educate funders on the importance of trusting charities and social service groups to do the work they’re doing, and to use the money where they see best, on projects that are impactful. It’s really about learning about the organization, trusting the work that they’re doing, and trusting them to really focus the funds on where it belongs. We do talk about what the funding is going to support, but taking out a lot of the cumbersome red tape and the often ambiguous or random outcome-reporting that a lot of funders demand that can be really onerous.

 

My understanding is that the work of constantly writing reports for funders often taxes organizations to the point where they’re actually spending more money reporting on things than they are on doing the work they’re supposed to be doing. Most people don’t know this.

Exactly. From my perspective, the current funding landscape is short-term. It’s directed by either political influence or by people who aren’t frontline, who don’t have visibility to the actual problems, which is not good continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is about involving the people who are doing the work and making those changes to the system. It’s not about somebody who’s not in the system overseeing it and making the decisions. That’s short-term thinking. It’s also not sustainable. Funders put the sustainability back on the organizations—How are you going to take this funding, this capability and keep growing it?—which makes us compete as if we were businesses, when we’re not. We don’t sell commodities. We’re often serving the same needs between our organizations. In our funding grants, we’re asked how we’re going to collaborate with people (who we maybe just beat out for funding) and how we’re going to sustain the $10,000 they gave us to start a new program…without any salary money. Those are the challenges that we face with funders.

 

Charities have to fight for grants. And then work together to deliver services.

And prove that they can keep the thing going, without further support. I was lucky enough to receive funding from Power to Give in 2019, and it was quite transformational for our organization. I took over YESS in 2017—I came from business, which is where I had met Roy Group. When I took over this organization, it was in trouble. It was not financially sustainable. In 2017–2018, we really had to lower our operating budget, stop the bleeding, look at our staff and really clean house. That meant that in 2018, we were behind six months in terms of revenue generation. It was quite an unsettling time for us. We knew that what we had invested in was going to get us to the next stage. We knew we had the right strategy, we had the staff in place, but we had probably a six- to eight-month runway and we were significantly in debt. I appealed to Power to Give to support us through that year, which has made all the difference for us in giving us that stability and strength to grow our foundation.

 

How so?

My goal was to get to a place where we actually had our operating budget in the bank—at least six months of it. Which was not the case at that point. We were starting each year with zero, as charities often do, or else we were in debt, which is just not sustainable. This is where Power to Give believed in our strategy. It was not just a loose belief: They’re good people doing good things. They actually saw that we were being strategic. Looking at root causes. They could see that we had in place the mechanisms to become financially sustainable. Their investment gave us a stronger poker pot to make better choices during COVID, for one. If we had been $750,000 in debt (which we were in 2018–2019) we would not have made it through COVID the way we did. This belief in an organization’s strategy and what they’re setting out to do, and trusting the organization to set the outcomes that are appropriate, is empowering and I believe more responsible.

 

You say it’s more responsible.

It’s interesting. That behaviour of trusting is very much within Roy Group methodology and Tim Gallwey. Trusting us to have the skill and the will, and coaching us if there was anything in our way, but to really allow us to self-determine, and believe that we could self-determine and self-adjust through this and make our own decisions. Power to Give is walking that walk in true Roy Group fashion, and that’s made all the difference. That support from Power to Give set us on a trajectory where now we’ve reached all our strategic goals. We’ve surpassed them, actually. And that was a five-year goal. It’s supposed to be done in 2023, and we’ve already reached those financial goals. We’ve started investment accounts and endowment funds to build automated revenue for ourselves.

 

Wow. You don’t hear charities saying that very often.

And we’ve been able to really focus on this transformational change internally to build collaboration with other agencies in the city-wide model—the first of its kind—and to really embed a trauma and healing lens into the process, because that’s not something that’s been intentionally built into our system at all. It has let us do the work we need to do, knowing that we’re OK, and it has allowed me to build up financial sustainability quickly.

 

What was your prior business experience?

I was a business and marketing strategist. I did strategy for both businesses and social service organizations.

 

So Power to Give provided you with unrestricted funding—money for YESS to use in whatever way you understood it to have the greatest impact. And how does your work with Roy Group fit in?

Power to Give brings Roy Group in to work with the organizations it grants money to. Once a year, Power to Give brings us all together somewhere for a retreat, and Roy Group facilitates leadership development conversations and learnings. Some of us, like YESS, also work with Roy Group directly in our own organizations. It’s easy to identify a Roy Group organization by the way they walk. And if they’ve truly started to embody it, you can see familiar “family members” within that quickly: Oh, yeah, you get this. And that’s with Power to Give as well. You can tell because they are acting on those principles of the dignity behind organizations to self-determine and make those adjustments, and that the role of Power to Give is to give feedback. To ask what’s getting in the way. And to coach.

 

So you met Roy Group through Power to Give?

No, our origin story is a bit different. Roy Group actually introduced me to Power to Give! My relationship with Roy Group started back in 2008, through the business and marketing company, Incite Strategy.

 

We still have a close relationship with Incite! Chiz and Ted are good friends. And Darren, who’s also a partner, works with us on our materials. They’re good people.

I was a partner and strategist with Incite for 10 years. In 2008, the two owners—who were young men at the time, not even 40—had this growing company that went from a flat organization to a hierarchy, and they started to acknowledge that they needed to build leadership in their leadership team. Some of the signs that they needed support were pretty common flags: micromanaging, an inability to let go of control, not understanding the dynamics of coaching.

 

We see this all the time in organizations.

So we went looking. And Fountain Tire, who were trusted friends of ours, recommended Roy Group. My leadership training started with The Leader’s Discipline™ as an executive group, where we met Ian and Bradley [Ian’s brother] and Anne-Marie. That relationship became mutual over the next 10 years: Roy Group became our clients as well as us being their clients. When they came to us, their visuals were terrible and a lot of their stuff needed support. I had the honour of being their strategist on the website and on content and some of those things. And actually, Bradley and I initiated the system of stickers that Roy Group uses to this day.

 

Well, we’re grateful for that early steering, Margo! How are our materials now?

Better! And at Incite, we were so excited about the capacity that we could see building within us as a team—the philosophy and the enticement of building a leadership design for coaching, and building an organization designed for leadership. Building a coaching organization! We made sure all the staff had Roy Group training, and over time, we became a coaching organization designed around the Roy Group principles.

 

You actually took the tools and applied them and made it work. We get really excited when our clients do that.

It was such a powerful tool in my leadership. I had the benefit of going through all of the Roy Group courses, doing personality tests, really looking at: What is it time for? in my leadership during that period between 2008 and 2017.

 

So…and in 2017 you took over YESS. What was behind your move from business to the social impact sector?

There were two things. Number one, I am a changemaker and a continuous improver, and it’s really hard to do that as a consultant. It is so difficult to make recommendations and not see the implementation through. And the second thing was around wanting my own team. As I prepare for succession at YESS, I realize I value teams the most, and leading teams. I don’t even think I knew that leaving Incite. I feel like I had no business taking over a bigger company than the one I’d just left! But I did it, and I learned a lot. And I made a lot of mistakes about being a leader. And I realized this is where I want to be. I get the most juice and inspiration and energy when I can work with a group of people and collaborate and figure out how to do something together.

 

That fits with Roy Group’s work. Figuring out how to do something together. Playing for each other.

Yeah, the first month after I joined YESS, I knew that I needed Roy Group. I knew that to do the big, ambitious work that we wanted to do, we needed the Roy Group leadership philosophy, tools and methodology. Social services need this more than anyone. A lot of the skills of leadership get taught in business school. They get taught in universities. They get taught in for-profit businesses: when you become an employee, they invest in that training for staff. That’s not something that typically happens in social service organizations. And a lot of that comes from the influence of boards and donors who, misunderstandingly, think that it’s an administrative cost that’s not necessary. And that’s garbage. These tools and methodologies and the philosophy are more important than ever in an organization that’s dealing primarily with humans, not profit.

 

I don’t think that’s a view most people have considered. Tell me more of your thinking.

Often in social service we attract people with lived experience. We attract people who have gone through trauma as a child or as a youth, who’ve worked at YESS before, who have significant emotional issues around some of this stuff. That’s why they’re drawn to help! But not everyone has learned how to regulate their emotions. Not everyone has learned how to be confident and believe in themselves. We get a lot of imposter syndrome in social services. Those emotional ego issues from past experiences get in the way of the deep work that we want to do. For example, youth workers—youth workers are an incredible bunch of people who are so hidden and invisible in the value system of our society—might be concurrently parenting, doing CPR or administering naloxone, probably also dealing with some suicide ideation and maybe creating suicide plans, doing homework, talking about boyfriends, all in a night.

 

Even one of those is a big assignment when you’re dealing with at-risk youth, never mind all of them.

And they’re often the least paid, most junior people in the staff. When I think about my parenting journey, I was very grateful that at least I was in my 40s and had some life experience to deal with some of these things. And we’re often throwing them right out of school into these organizations.

 

How does the lack of leadership skill show up?

In the interpersonal. Having difficult conversations. Not taking things personally. Being able to regulate when they’re triggered or feeling unsafe. Trauma-informed care, which is a best practice that many youth agencies and social services use, is very similar to the Roy Group philosophy. It’s about creating space and safety, being explicit about what you need, setting boundaries, giving data and feedback around things, and coaching people through what their own barriers are.

 

The methodology works everywhere.

Yes. In the beginning, we were spending so much time on interpersonal conflicts between staff. Whether it was fund development or facilities, there was a lack of empathy and communication, which is pretty normal for any organization, profit or not. It escalated very quickly in this organization because of those emotional pieces. And we were also trying to change a culture that was quite damaged. There was disempowerment and there was fear of leadership coming down hard or yelling or punishing, so people didn’t feel safe. They didn’t know what their role was. And they certainly didn’t see themselves as leaders. With the previous leadership, it had very much been a “role” and a privilege to be a leader. You know, you get the nice parking spot. The concept of leadership wasn’t based on the types of decisions you make on a day-to-day basis.

 

How have you embedded Roy Group practices into YESS?

I’ve prioritized this training so that even when we didn’t have budget for much, we had budget for Roy Group. Even during COVID, when we cut our budget to predict a 75% loss of revenue, I kept Roy Group. I knew we were going to need it. Again, that’s something that Power to Give has supported us through. It’s easy to make the decision that you don’t need it. It’s like marketing, it’s like strategy…when you’re doing well, you think about these things that support your broader ability to function—but that’s not when you need them.

 

It’s in crisis that you need these things.

Yeah. Luckily, we had started this process when the pandemic struck. We had already started with our Leader’s Discipline, putting one group through the first year, the next group the second year, and then we did recharges where we brought the two groups together so that we could really start talking about that next piece: How do I start taking this into the organization? How do you go from a training session into regular practice? It was in those discussions as a group about: How are we going to live this? Where do we see us using a feedback model? When is coaching valuable?

 

What processes or tools really aligned for your team?

Wise Council really resonates with everyone and empowered them very quickly, so that was one of the first things that we started to work with.

 

What has your work with Roy Group helped your team to do?

It’s taken three years, but what I’ve noticed is that now we’ve got leaders. We have directors. We have an executive, and then we have managers, supervisors and staff. We have roles, but we also have people making leadership decisions at every level. The first thing I did when we started with Roy Group was to get my executive team trusting and on board so that they could start disseminating this. I also put us through a Focus on Self in the summer of COVID. We’d spent the first three months of COVID crying, yelling at each other, upset, scared, because you just don’t have the tools. What we call personality flaws are really just not having the tools and understanding in space and time to build resiliency. Especially with the work that we’ve been doing in understanding how to support racialized and 2SLGBTQIA+ staff and youth, it’s become very clear to me that resiliency and leadership skills are a privilege.

 

What’s your thinking there?

HR and recruitment firms say all the time that we should be hiring for EQ. Well, who has EQ? It’s those that have had safe upbringings and positive reinforcement and have had the space and time to build these resiliency tools. Who is that? It’s the privileged. If we want a strong organization…like, we’re going to change the world, but if we’re going to do that, we need to be able to take care of ourselves, to take care of our youth and the organization. Hierarchy is a level of mentorship. What we’ve really learned is whatever we are going to do for the youth, we have to do for the staff, because they are the Mentors and models. They’re the parents for these young people. Often they’re the same age as the youth they’re serving, and they’re out there working with the agencies trying to get the same income supports or housing supports for themselves as for their clients. If you build the Roy Group practice into the staff, their practice then automatically gets built into the work that they’re doing. You have to start there first. We need to practice and have those skills and be a dynamic team. And that takes a ton of work, it took more work than anything else. Still takes more work.

 

Yes. It’s doing the work that makes it all work. The discipline. The practice.

What I’ve noticed now is that instead of individuals who in the past have maybe had a hard binary—That person is too hard, I don’t want to work with them—they’re now saying things like, You know what, I’d like to take six months, I’d like to coach, I’d like to really take a focus on helping develop this individual through my own leadership practice. I’ve seen people start holding feedback meetings after big events. We just had our CARF audit, which is our international accreditation body, and after we did the audit, we had a feedback meeting. That’s not something I booked. It’s so incredible. When you start laying that foundation, you start getting the buy-in and then it starts happening all on its own.

 

Let’s talk about the Social Impact Retreat. For our readers, this is an annual gathering of social impact orgs, hosted by Power to Give—always in a restorative place, like Fogo Island Inn or the Wick in Tofino or Arowhon—and facilitated by Roy Group. The idea is to bring leaders of these organizations together so that they can be a little spoiled for once, and so they can build relationships across sectors and improve their leadership skills. What is the impact of that retreat?

I’ve never been so lonely as being a leader of a social impact organization and not having peers to talk to, support, innovate, collaborate. There’s quite a bit of vicarious trauma in my job, whether it’s crying staff, losing youth on a regular basis…there’s a lot of trauma and without an outlet…and without really having an understanding of where it was affecting my leadership and my self-care… Going to the social impact retreat was transformational for me. It’s incredible to just be nurtured. You know, it’s hard sometimes to even accept the kinds of lavish comfort and support they give through the space and the food and all of these incredible things. But I was able to start feeling like it was OK to nourish myself, because I could see that my leadership was suffering. It gave me perspective. It took me away. I got out of the weeds and was able to look back, and I was able to see what everyone else was going through. It gave me perspective on What is going on with my leadership? What are some of the red flags around how I behave when I’m under stress or in crisis?

 

What were you able to see as a result of having some distance and rest?

Roy Group often asks: What is it time for? And in my leadership stories, I realized that I kept stopping at the “celebrate” part of the hero’s journey. I wasn’t celebrating. I was already on to the next thing. And I stopped letting myself experience joy, because I kept feeling like I didn’t deserve it when everyone else was suffering.

 

People who work in the social sector so often pour from an empty cup: How can I justify giving to myself when others have so much less?

And that was actually being pushed onto my staff. Some pretty negative leadership flavour for me there, as I realized my own not taking care of myself was actually affecting the way I was helping others. It gave me so much perspective to really focus on, What do I need in my leadership for myself? And what does everybody else need? The retreat also gave me so many ideas for collaboration and support with the other leaders there. I feel like I have a peer group of CEO colleagues, EDs who are brilliant, who are so compassionate. They can hold me in that space of, I’m exhausted and I just need to come apart in front of someone that doesn’t need me to be strong. And because we have all had Roy Group training, they can help me through some of the thought processes and work. But they’re also there for that operational dialogue on: Hey, if you’ve got a policy on this, could I have a look? It’s just been incredible.

 

Retreats like this in the social space are rare. Like you said, society has this expectation of charities to solve massive socioeconomic and environmental issues…but keep it cheap, please. Whereas in the corporate sector, leadership development is perceived as essential for optimal performance. These kinds of experiences are seen as valuable for the for-profit sector, and they are made available.

All the time.

 

How does the leadership development you’ve been doing with us support innovation and collaboration at YESS?

Innovation comes when you need to solve a problem together, but you need lots of perspectives. In order to get lots of perspectives, you need to be able to work together, you need to hear them, and you need people to feel safe talking about them and coming up with those ideas. You need an ecosystem that’s safe for innovation, and that means there needs to be honesty. There need to be safe-to-fail situations as well. COVID really helped me with that, because I leaned on my knowledge of the Cynefin framework and the stuff from Cognitive Edge that Roy Group taught me.

 

That in complex times, there are no experts and there is no procedure.

None. And often when people don’t have the tools to think for themselves, they follow the procedure and then it goes horribly wrong because it’s not a perfect match—the situation is more complex than whatever that particular procedure is designed to address. In complexity, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We have no experts, which means we can experiment. Nothing fails because it’s all education. We sense what works and we go from there. I’ve used that language when we were trying things. We experimented and innovated like hell through COVID! Coming up with some of the coolest stuff, and overcoming a lot of risk aversion that had been with our partners in the past (worry about us being territorial or overtaking). The atmosphere was there, and with this statement around, Look, we’re just experimenting right now and we’ll learn things and we’ll learn what works and we’ll start doing more of that. We’ll try some other things. It really gave people space to come up with problem-solving small experiments.

 

That’s very cool.

The essence is that there are no experts, and so you just try shit.

 

We did that too during the pandemic.

Of course you did.

 

Lotta experiments. Do you have more to say on that innovation piece?

We’ve made some pretty incredible accomplishments—aside from reaching all of our strategic goals in three years. During COVID, we were the first people to respond. We wrote all our policies and we shared them with everybody else. We saw a problem: in our city, people experiencing housing instability or homelessness were supported at our Expo centre, but it was adult-based. Nobody had thought about youth at first. So leveraging some of the collaborative trust we built over the last four years, we took a swing at a solution.

 

Which was?

We opened up one of our houses as an isolation space. And we provided isolation to the entire city, including transportation. It worked because people felt safe—it was safe to try things out, it was safe to talk about what was working and what wasn’t. We were able to c0-create something called the Coordinated Youth Response during COVID that found money, got a contractor consultant, built a platform, and we now have thirty-five agencies working together on this platform to share information, connect youth to basic needs, isolation and screening during COVID. And that was huge. Including schools and Edmonton Public Schools and Children’s Services and partners that we haven’t collaborated well with in the past. But because we prioritize leadership and collaboration at every level, that means I expect our team to be collaborating with other agencies just as much as I am, and building out those leadership tools in the work that they’re doing with other agencies. Different individuals have started to see their own leadership, have started to see where they fit into this, and are building those relationships. Coming back to coaching, feedback, difficult conversations, and really being clear about our intentions and the atmosphere we create through our interactions with other people.

 

That is a huge moment, eh? When you realize that the impact of your organization has mushroomed because people now take the ball and run with it? They know that their leadership will be supportive of them as long as they’re philosophically aligned and are conducting themselves in a way that marries back to your values.

It’s huge. In the past, I was called in to mediate things at YESS. It was at the executive level that we would make decisions around solving problems—which was still micromanaging, in my opinion. Now what’s happening is managers are coming to us and saying: Hey, we had a meeting, this didn’t work. Now we’re doing some continuous improvement. Here’s our plan. Here are some of the ideas that we have. What do you think? That is a huge difference from a personal issue of somebody coming in and saying: So-and-so is doing this and I don’t like it! And then me stumbling through, trying to figure out how to navigate that. Now they’re making leadership choices in their own departments and with their own peers on a regular basis.

 

This is interesting. In our case study with Rocky View Schools, their head psychologist said the same thing. He used to be called in to mediate and to resolve disputes, and now that’s not happening. Like, people are now able to work through conflict because they have the tools to do so.

And HR! That’s the other sign, is when fewer people are going right to HR for grievances when it should have been a conversation. That’s not anywhere close to as much anymore. Where people are having conversations with their peers, having feedback meetings, they’re not even involving senior leadership. They come up with something.

 

It gets resolved.

Yeah. One of the cool things that has happened in this evolution of Roy Group leadership bubbling up in different ways, and the compatibility with trauma-informed care and boundaries and the training that we give our staff, is that we have a psychology team that focuses on both the youth and our staff. The wellness practitioner that focuses on staff works with each department throughout the year, and she does a wellness SWOT with them. She runs through what trauma-informed care means for each department. It’s different in administration than it is in fund development than it is in the kitchen. They talk about how they see themselves and the role. She works through their own personal values as well as the team values. She talks through self-care and what that looks like from a team focus, so that people can help hold each other accountable. Or helping them understand red flags in a teammate’s conduct—maybe they’re overloaded or they’re exhibiting ego behaviour—so that they can ask themselves, What does this person need and how I can support them? We’re actually going to work with Iain Duncan to see how we take that into the organizational values with some charters so that we are holding each other accountable as teams. We’re even going to have Iain do some supercoaching of our teams to see if they, in their meetings, actually adhere to their values. It’s also really shone a light on our performance management evaluations and monthly supervisions. Now that everyone’s gone through The Leader’s Discipline, we are going to spend this year working with Iain and ourselves on: What does that monthly check-in / yearly review look like, according to our trauma-informed principles, as well as the tools and methodology and philosophy at Roy Group? We hope to be ensuring that each meeting has feedback and coaching around a goal. It is really about taking those tools and ritualizing them—by seeing them not as extra things, but rather as embedded. They’re the tools that we use to check in on each other and hold each other accountable.

 

You used the word embedded. That’s how this material works. What we’ve come to realize is that in the past, we’ve come in, done the learning, we really get people to understand, Oh, my goodness! Like, the doors fly open and they’re like: This could change everything! And then once the program wraps up, people get swept back into their workflow, and they don’t have systems in place to actually embed and integrate and practice what we’ve just helped them learn. Not every organization is as determined as YESS to implement and embed the tools. So we’ve shifted the way we work, because we see that people need more support and practice and discipline to get the changes to really take root. We’re not in this business to not move people. We want to create unstoppable cultures.

Yeah, that piece around, How am I going to embed this into my organization? That’s the value. Your new “walk-beside” pathway model is going to be a game-changer for groups that really want to shift their culture. You almost need a… It would be very helpful for EDs to see: Here’s the timeline of what it would look like to embed this in your organization. Here is the emotional line graph of where everybody is going to hate you, and then it starts to pick up, and then this is going to get hard, and you plan for that. Here’s the emotional or the financial investment timeline for your organization and what you need to pay attention to. That would be huge.

 

I like that timeline idea!

And you’ve got all these tools and stickers. It would be very helpful to have a video or a file, something that you can quick-reference: I’m about to have a difficult conversation. What are the steps that I need to go through and write out and think about? I’m going to go into a deep coaching: what is the HELI model? What do I have to pay attention to? Those references are incredibly useful.

 

We’re building out our resources to better help people use the tools. We’ve now got handouts on what does it look like to pause, how do you lead without bossing people around, how does a coaching conversation work, how do I shift leadership by saying less and listening more. Like you say, expand on what’s in those powerful stickers.

We talked at one point of doing almost like Headspace videos with Iain or somebody, so you could pull up a video and Iain would just coach you through: You’re going to have a difficult conversation, here are the things to pay attention to… You know, just having a supercoach like your little Windows paper clip. So you always have Roy Group in your back pocket, right?

 

It’s coming. Like our man Jonny says, It’s an evolution, not a revolution. You, however, Margo, are a revolutionary. Thank you for this. Keep on.

The pleasure is mine.

,

4 Reasons Why You Need a Chief of Staff

Back in January, Chiz noticed a red-hot thread running through his conversations with other leaders: burnout.

People were arriving back at their desks feeling even more drained than before the holidays began. Nobody was ready to return. Nobody wanted to return. The words torpor and resignation and exhaustion circled, unspoken, in the airspace between webcams.

“I found myself in numerous situations suggesting that people look into hiring a chief of staff,” he says. “I said, You’ll be way more effective if you have somebody who’s helping you to be more effective.

Whether you call them a chief of staff or a #2 doesn’t really matter. The thing that matters is the work that this individual can do to make your life as a leader more bearable.

That work will look different from organization to organization, but it boils down to the same thing: creating ease and space for the leadership. The work of Roy Group Chief of Staff Nina Moroso makes our founders’ and partners’ jobs easier, more focused, and less prone to overextensions.

“We need to move away from this idea that your top person—the founder or the CEO—can provide your organization with all the leadership,” Chiz says. “We’re forever making statues to commemorate one person…and maybe a horse. But that’s not how leadership works. Good leadership is distributed. Nina is the perfect example of doing the work of a CEO, while not being the CEO.”

Since she stepped into the role in 2021 from her former role as Director of Operations, Nina has helped streamline Chiz and Anne-Marie’s time, as well as that of our Practice Leads. As a Level-5 leader herself, she keeps Roy Group—and everyone inside it—running smoothly.

 

A closer look at the role

In his 2020 article, “The Case for a Chief of Staff”, Harvard Business Review author Dan Ciampa notes that “a top-level COS serves as an air traffic controller, an integrator, a communicator, an honest broker and truth teller, and a confidant.”

For us, it’s also a mediator, a moderator, a mind-reader and a Mentor—although the order flips around depending on the demands of the day. And sometimes it’s even humbler than all that: at our summer barbecue last year, Nina was the only person on the team who could say where the paper towels were. Even though she was across the yard running the grill, she pinpointed the paper towels down to the container that held them and its exact placement in relation to the office door.

“Chief of Stuff,” she shrugged, and put a couple more buns on to toast.

A chief of staff—or whatever you want to call your #2—wears different hats depending on what’s needed. They assist the CEO in overseeing a company’s operations, advise on key issues, determine the appropriate team members to complete different tasks, and work in conjunction with other leaders in the organization to get projects moving or bring them across the finish line. They also act on behalf of the CEO.

Perhaps most importantly, a chief of staff increases the overall effectiveness of the CEO.

But it’s not an executive assistant role. A chief of staff’s purview is wider than organizational and administrative tasks, to the point of acting in the stead of the founder or chief executive. “The chief of staff role is an extension of the CEO,” Chiz says. “Communicating with them is as good as getting information from or providing it to the executive. It’s actually giving somebody the clout they deserve.”

It can be a tough position though, and Nina says that operating both calmly and impeccably is the key to doing it well. “I am often at the vortex of all of the chaos,” she says. “Either that’s happening internally, externally, or the combination of both. And approaching that calmly is the only way that you can get it done.”

 

The mother of preparation: When life itself is your training ground

Preparing for a role as complex and as diverse as this is challenging, and not something everyone can manage. There’s no path to follow per se inside an organization to get to chief of staff. Often people arrive at it organically, by demonstrating the competencies that a founder or CEO needs in a number two.

But what Nina says helped her best prepare for the role? Becoming a mother.

I had the chance to be home with my son until he was three. When he was two and a half, I started to look at going back to work. The Olympics had just ended and every communications professional in BC was looking for work. I remember applying for a job and getting a discouraging email back from the hiring manager that said, ‘We’ve had 109 applications for this job’.

I didn’t have a ton of credentials or qualifications. And from a hiring manager’s perspective, I now had this three-year hole in my resume. Which didn’t sit well with me, because with the growth I’d experienced through parenting, I felt so much more prepared to be amazing at these jobs.

I could multitask. (I know there’s a question about whether people can actually multitask or not, but let me tell you: mothers of three-year-olds multitask like machines.) I had my head on straight about values and what was important for the world in a way that I didn’t before. My ambitions were stronger than ever for what was purposeful to me. And now I knew that I could do important work on four hours of sleep.

I knew that I could do it all, but I didn’t know how to convey that. Like, actually, I have superpowers now.

As luck would have it, a bunch of stars aligned for me, and I ended up working at Pearson College UWC. It was the perfect thing for my life and for my career.

Motherhood made me good at that job and every single job I’ve had ever since, but none more so than the chief of staff job. I can sit in an organization the way I sit in the job of motherhood, with that owl head-turning: being able to look all around me and be observing and acting at the same time. I notice things I didn’t used to notice. I don’t necessarily feel the need to act without purpose. I don’t necessarily have to act at all. I can watch something unfold and just be there to help pick up the pieces afterward, if that feels like the right thing to do. I recognize that everybody is growing all the time, that it’s all a journey and we are all in this process of evolving. And being present in the moment is sometimes the most important thing.

 

We’ve put together a few compelling reasons why you might want to consider the Chief of Staff role for your organization.

* * *

REASON #1

A chief of staff puts the CEO’s time to the best use

 

CEOs are notoriously busy, and few are actually happy with how they end up spending their time. The chief of staff aids in driving priorities from start to finish, and helps the CEO maximize their time by focusing on those areas where they add the most value.

Without being pulled in a million different directions every day, the CEO is able to maximize their effective working time and focus on what really needs their attention.

“I’m keeping track of not just necessarily who is the best person to be on each piece of work,” Nina says, “but also, are we using all of the people to the best of their ability and taking care of each other in a way that makes sure that people are satisfied, happy, and taken care of?”

This means keeping tabs on other team members and supporting them through difficulty. “Being able to put down whatever project you’re working on because somebody needs a 15-minute chat? That’s imperative,” Nina says.

* * *

REASON #2

They prevent communication bottlenecks

 

The chief of staff also acts as a gatekeeper of irrelevant information, which in turn prevents bottlenecks. Managing the flow of information is crucial, as is managing any ongoing assignments. And this doesn’t just benefit the CEO—it benefits everyone.

As the chief of staff connects the dots across the organization, they become the trusted communicator linking the leadership team and the employees. A good relationship between the CEO and the chief of staff is imperative for this reason. Look for complementary qualities that enable these two key leaders to work effectively together. “For Nina and I, our Lumina profiles show that we are complementary in a number of ways,” Chiz says. “Nina is very blue-green, meaning grounded in objective, organized, and collaborative. Whereas I’m very yellow, which is big-picture imaginative thinking, and a fair amount of red, which is purposeful, direct, and bold.”

Trust in the relationship is essential, too. “I don’t think I could be in a role like this if I didn’t trust the founders, if I didn’t have common ground with them and share their values and believe in the vision,” Nina says.

* * *

REASON #3

They represent the executive

 

The word of your chief of staff is as good as your CEO’s. “They know the way that the principal thinks,” Chiz says. “They know what’s important to the principal. They know what that person is trying to accomplish. They have access to that person’s schedule. They can make decisions with a high degree of autonomy on how the principal will use their time.”

This also prevents burnout—arguably the greatest threat to founders and CEOs. By acting as the CEO’s proxy and by gatekeeping irrelevant details, the CEO isn’t dealing with individual concerns from a large number of people; they are free to complete the tasks that do require their full focus.

Acting as a proxy also allows the chief of staff to keep a CEO’s ego in check. “They have to be really brave with the person that they’re working for, because they are the last line of defense between a leader and their own ego,” Chiz says.

By asking tough questions, the chief of staff helps bring big dreams down to an operationalizable scale. “I sometimes call myself the queen of the reality check,” Nina says. “And it doesn’t feel good all the time. But I often sit in meetings just poking holes in things.”

* * *

REASON #4

A great chief of staff forms part of your succession plan

 

Because they know so much about the organization and its optimization already, your chief of staff can occupy the runway for a leadership role that they’ll move into months or even years down the line: your own. “It’s an incredible position,” Chiz says. “The chief of staff basically gets to see the organization and the markets that you’re in from the same perspective as the CEO.”

It’s almost like doing an internship for the role of CEO. And it stems from being able to see the leadership in everyone, and distribute that agency accordingly. “Once you know what people can do—sometimes better than they themselves know—then you can challenge them,” Nina says. “It comes from the noticing. It comes from hearing what people say to you. Whatever piece of this organization people are entrusted with, they’re the leader of that. They have to treat that like they’re the boss of their own company.”

 

The Swiss Army Knife of your organization

A chief of staff’s job isn’t an easy one to navigate, nor is it easy to define. But the beauty of the position is how “everywhere and everything” it is.

“I used to be envious of my son’s dad and other people who had a piece of paper that could tell them what they were,” Nina says. “He can go anywhere in the world and be an electrician. There’s something so clear and distinct about that. But the thing with being a chief of staff is that it’s so many things. And that is actually what I love about it. Because I’m not an electrician, or a teacher, or a board secretary. I am a chief of staff; I get to do all the things. HR, governance, vision crafting, writing communications, administration… I want to be in all those things. I’m a Swiss Army knife.”

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Five Tips For Showing Up As Your Finest Self

It takes practice to occupy the ground well.

Practice underpins our why. When people embed the tools and practices we teach, and commit to learning from their application, they make progress toward mastery of their conduct — a prerequisite to mentorship.

Remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem If ?

 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

 

It’s a description of quintessentially skillful conduct — 21 tidy practices contained within four verses.

Master those, and you will be a powerful model for others around you.

Twenty-one practices, however, seems like a LOT of work right now. It is 2022. We are in the middle of some sort of great turning. And we’re all feeling a little maxed.

So for this issue of Roy News, our practice leads and Chiz have assembled a set of five simple practices for you. One practice each. You can grab one and put it into play in your next conversation.

Notice how we said simple? Doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Practicing is work — but it pays compounding dividends as you show up more and more masterfully.


Donna takes on a lack of focus.

Yo talks about taking things personally.

Heather brings the practice of gratitude.

Iain reminds you to use the tools.

And Chiz tackles judgment.

* * *

TIP #1 – Focus

 

RG Mag Cover Donna Horn

Public Service Practice Lead

Donna Horn

 

The problem: Lack of focus.

One behaviour I see with increased frequency in both myself and the people we work with is a scattered, unfocused energy. The pull toward unfocused has always existed to some degree in our world of technology, however that pull has become a stronger magnet in the past two years, with the pandemic restrictions and the fact that we spend so much time alone, managing ourselves.

We are in a virtual world, and no one can see if we are responding to a text on our phone, reading an email that just pinged as it came in (and we were waiting for a response to a critical question for this afternoon’s meeting), or wistfully doing a Google search of “best places to vacation in 2022”.

The impact is that we never are fully present anywhere. We’ve all read the articles about multitasking, and the fact that it doesn’t actually work for us.

At the end of a day if I have been allowing myself to engage in this scatter approach, I feel exactly as one might expect: scattered, bleary, anxious.

Guilty that I didn’t pay the appropriate amount of attention to my meetings, and that I at least in part squandered the time of others because I was not. Fully. Present. My conduct was not admirable.

I did not meet my own standards for who I am being in the world.

 

The practice: Focus.

Focus is one of our core values at Roy Group. It goes along with our reminder to notice.

Just notice when your focus drifts. Awareness, as always, is the key to making changes.

When I am noticing my behaviour, I make the change. I put my phone out of reach. I shut off my second monitor. If I need to do something to get myself focused, I will practice a mindfulness activity like paying attention to my breathing. I will take notes of what’s important in the meeting, because from long experience, that helps me to pay attention.

I will do my best to conduct myself in a way that, at the end of the meeting — and the next meeting, and the end of the day — has me feel that I did my best.

Pair our Notice sticker with the Mindfulness, Compassion, Accountability trifecta. Notice the behaviour, have compassion for yourself, and take accountability to change things.

* * *

TIP #2 – Gratitude

 

RG Mag Cover Heather Gross

Education Practice Lead

Heather Gross

 

The problem: Apathy.

I notice apathy around me. People just giving up and going on with what they need to do to serve themselves. There is certainly a feeling of “when will it all be over?” in the air, but also, there’s a sense of losing our collective enthusiasm and creativity around big problems.

Climate change is still with us. Racial injustice is still perpetrated. Public health is becoming more and more fractured in the discourse.

And some of the enthusiasm around how we can overcome these challenges, or how we as individuals, can influence them to the good, is waning.

 

The practice: Gratitude.

The one practice that has helped me shift apathy has been gratitude. I keep a box of thank-you cards in a spot that I can’t ignore. Either the box needs to be opened and a card sent, or another form of note needs to leave my desk on the regular.

Photo by Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

The act of sharing gratitude — of reminding others of the small things they do (or the large things they do) that really help — matters.

It matters to me, and I hope it helps to shift apathy for others in small ways as well.

 

* * *

TIP #3 – Intentions

 

Enterprise Practice Lead

Yolanda Moran

 

The problem: Taking things personally.

A behaviour that I see getting in the way of people making their finest contribution is taking things personally, or a failure to see from a perspective other than their own. People can create an entire story around one comment made by a coworker, or an ambiguously worded email.

I regularly run into situations within organizations where a leader has allowed a massive divide to occur within a team or with another department, simply because they didn’t pause to ask a few questions. We know we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. But we often forget this adage.

 It’s human nature to think our version of events or our experience of a situation is the correct one. Our broader culture is currently shackled by this bias.

 

The practice: Feel around for intentions.

Whenever I find myself reacting to a situation or a person with anger, frustration, self-doubt or annoyance, I try to practice the habit of asking myself: What is their actual intention here? rather than becoming fixated on how I might be impacted or how I’m perceiving something.

We explore this idea in our Opportunity in Conflict course in the segment around “Intention vs. Impact”. It’s something I find myself constantly coming back to — with my family, as a parent, in my friendships, interacting with others out in the community, and of course in my work.

What I love about this simple concept is that when I stop to consider the other party’s intention, 9.5 times out of 10 it’s coming from a good place. Maybe the delivery, timing or specifics might miss the mark, but the intention is positive.

Just that realization in itself is, for me, a step toward a clearer head and a more productive outcome.

 That remaining 0.5? Topic of another blog post.

* * *

TIP #4 – Practice

 

Social Impact Practice Lead

Iain Duncan

 

The Problem: Inconsistent practice.

One thing that holds people back from getting to their ideal state is inconsistent modelling of important leadership practices.

We get busy. Or we think using a particular framework (HELI) or model (Feedback) will feel contrived. Or it’s easier — just this one time — to not use the tools. Instead, we go “organic”.

So we let it slide, and our practice slides, and the potential that these tools hold for unleashing a new dynamic and dialogue in your team is lost.

 

The Practice: Practice.

Pick your set of leadership and communication tools and be explicit in letting people know that this is how you operate.

Be consistent in the tools you practice with. Here’s just one that we’ve shared with you in the past.

Share your tools with others so they can engage more in their use and adopt them into their own leadership practice as well.

Request that the people above, below and alongside you use them with you, too.

Get over the barrier of something feeling new and a little fumbly to establish a steady practice.

And then practice, practice, practice.

These will become the rituals that will make your work together legendary.

* * *

TIP #5 – Accept

 

RG Mag Cover Ian Chisholm

Partner & Co-Founder

Ian Chisholm

 

The problemJudgment.

At an alarmingly increasing rate, the world is full of it. Social media is rife with finger-pointing and blame, and people daring themselves to be mean-spirited to get noticed. Judgment shows up when someone tailgates me in traffic or throws down a political opinion I don’t like. It shows up when someone arrives late to a meeting, leaves early to pick up their kid (again), or reacts to a team exercise in a way I see as closed-minded.

Sociologist Brené Brown observes that we are more likely to harshly judge the things in others that we hate to see in ourselves.

The thing is, we all judge. I notice it in myself multiple times a day: the way people choose to say something, how slow the cashier is moving, the state of the world. It’s what we’re wired to do as humans, judgment having evolved primarily to help us make quick decisions for our safety. Except it gets in our way in the 21st century, as we try to create a harmonious society of folks looking out for each other. The more we judge others, the less we grow.

 

The practiceAccept that people have different worldviews.

Understand that we’re all coming from different places. Your birth story, your genes, the beliefs you adopted from your family, the marks you got in school, the shows you watch, your experience with hospital stays, the car that chased you at 1:30 in the morning until you had to jump a fence into someone’s backyard to get away…all of these create a kaleidoscope of YOU. It’s only one frame of reference for the world out of more than seven billion — and yet we tend to assume everybody perceives things similarly. But you’re the only one who lives inside your kaleidoscope; everybody else is living inside their own. So next time you skew toward judging someone for how they behave, remember that you cannot possibly know their worldview. Notice — but don’t judge. Replace judgment with curiosity.

* * *

Pick one. Any one. And practice.

 

And when you’ve practiced a while and found that you’ve shifted that behaviour for the better — really MOVED it — reach out to us. We love sharing stories of the work we do inside ourselves, but we’d really be excited to share your story on our blog.

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.