“In a time of crisis, it’s very important to communicate authentically and responsibly. And right now, organizations are really conflicted as to what is the right thing.”

COVID has thrown everybody a curveball. As an organizational leader, you’ve probably had to address hundreds of questions … without even knowing the answers yourself.

Roy Group connected with Melissa Orozco of YULU PR (a certified B Corp) for a few tips around crisis-based communication so that we could share them out with our clients and partners. Anne-Marie and Chiz first connected with Melissa at the Social Impact Summit hosted at Fogo Island Inn in 2018, where she was facilitating a communications workshop. When COVID-19 struck, Chiz realized Melissa’s expertise represented something of value to our Roy Group network.

“In a time of crisis, it’s very important to communicate authentically and responsibly,” says Orozco, who started her PR career in corporate communications in New York City. “And right now, organizations are really conflicted as to what is the right thing.”

Your first wave of communications should already have gone out, says Orozco. That’s where you’ve communicated your how-we’re-dealing-with-COVID-19 plan internally to your team, as well as externally to your investors or stakeholders. You’ve shared with people your position, your immediate response, and your willingness to be proactive / your desire to wait for government regulation.

All of this is communicated clearly, honestly, and in alignment with your vision, mission and values.

The next step is the second wave of issues management. This means communicating what’s next, including:

  • potential layoffs, cutbacks and closures;
  • an honest communication of your wait-and-see approach as the crisis unfolds (you won’t be alone in this — it’s new for all of us);
  • avoiding stating that you’re going to maintain X, Y or Z of your offerings as “business per usual”, because there’s nothing usual about where COVID-19 has sent us.

“Organizations should be talking to their communications agency or team about this,” says Orozco. “There are going to be several waves of what this is going to look like. Even when the dust starts to settle, there’ll be new things to think about. How are you going to recoup some of the customers you may have lost? All businesses are going to be suffering in the wake of COVID. So how do you recover business and stay resilient?”

For more, head to YULU PR’s page on how to communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to Melissa and her team of communication strategists for their insight and teachings on how to lead through the fog.

By Ian Chisholm

The last time I sensed such a global whisper of “what does this all mean?” was the afternoon of September 11, 2001.

I say afternoon (not morning), because Anne-Marie and I were in Scotland at the time — four hours ahead of Eastern Time — when we heard that planes had gone into the Twin Towers. It took several days to comprehend what was happening, let alone how these events would change the way we live our lives — at first dramatically, then slowly but surely becoming a new normal.

Much has been shared in the last few weeks about the uncertainty, fear and impact of COVID-19, and we are once again asking ourselves how to make sense of what this means. What does this mean for those who are vulnerable? What does it mean for those countries who have not found right action in time? What does this mean for our family and our friends? What does this tell us about our sudden ability to “see” the people we do not personally know who are taking serious risks for us every day — the people who stock shelves at the grocery store, clean windows on buses, and administer throat swabs? The unsung heroes who are in contact with hundreds of people every day, knowing that statistically, this probably means they will contract the virus.

What does this mean for the way we work, create value and structure our economies?

What does this mean for us as a society that has, for almost five years, markedly turned down the volume on facts in order to fill our hearts, minds and airwaves with the salacious shock of populist, polarized and antisocial media-fuelled vitriol?

I think COVID might be Latin for to giveth one’s head a shake.

I sense that underneath our logical and methodical response to this pandemic, we have all been stopped in our tracks. In some ways, it has made us feel the way we did when we heard thunder or tried to comprehend the loss of someone special for the first time, or found ourselves in a situation that was bigger than us: we are suddenly looking around for a better way forward. And looking to each other to figure out a way that is safe.

We debated whether our newsletter was valuable at this time; we have no need to add to the noise. The more we connected with each other, though, the more it seemed that some of the things we’ve been noticing are hugely heartening and deserve to be shared.

We’ve been heartened by the fact that Science is chairing this meeting. That as a society, we are listening to what experts and trained authorities are saying. And what’s more is that we are modifying our behaviour accordingly. Suddenly, intellect and lifetimes of practice and expertise are valuable again.

For those of us living in a country where retreating to our homes for the sake of protecting our families is new and uncharted psychological territory, it is hard not to suddenly feel compassion for so many of the global socio-geographic dynamics that have swirled around us in the last decade: war, abuse, mass migrations, drought, wildfire, contaminated water, racism. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been heartened by the countless examples of leaders bringing their finest selves to the rapidly evolving situations they face to create a better future.

From our very first days at Roy Group, the core conviction that we hope haunts our clients for the rest of their lives is about the choice they have — in every moment — of how they conduct themselves. The way each of us chooses to conduct ourselves creates an atmosphere inside others.

And, as it turns out, it also creates the potential for a safe and healthy society.


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

I was standing at a podium in front of a room full of people. My stomach was churning, my heart was pounding and the survival part of my brain was focused on getting off that stage. I had been in my new role as Road Ahead Champion for about a month. I was a forester, an analyst and a writer, experienced at supporting decisions from the background and offering up my thoughts when asked. I was in no way a public speaker or a group leader! How had I gotten myself into this situation? And what was I going to say?

It was my first major deployment as part of my new role and I was at an all-staff meeting. I’d been invited to speak about the large organizational leadership initiative we had embarked on. The initiative was critically important, spanned several years, and in the end, carried that ministry well into the future in terms of built resiliency and leadership development. I had been one of several who had applied to the opportunity and was the fortunate soul chosen from the front lines to connect with and be the face of the people as they navigated and participated in this initiative. They had given me an hour on the agenda.

I had not prepared adequately.

The gathered crowd – public servants, whom I greatly admired and wanted to both connect with and inspire – looked at me expectantly. I stumbled through the speaking notes I had written. Although I was well aware that members of executive conducted their engagements with Powerpoints and detailed, printed speech notes, I had prepared neither. I had maybe five index cards with bulleted themes I wanted to cover.

I managed to scrape together some thoughts to link together the main themes, told a couple of personal stories that extended the presentation to 10 minutes, and then turned myself over to questions. Before the session even ended, I knew.

I had not given myself sufficient time to prepare. I had not practiced. I had failed to give the session the importance and attention it had deserved.

Being Prepared Signals Regard for Self And Others

That was nearly 15 years ago, and it’s still carved in my mind as an epic failure. As my mentor and then-boss, Shelley Sullivan, who knows both my strengths and weaknesses well, later suggested as we embarked on a new project together: “This is not the time to fly by the seat of your pants.”

With grace and wisdom, her words acknowledged my previous gaffe. The inclination to wing it was a part of my practice. My last-minute planning had usually served me adequately enough, and until that point I had flown along with grace. But not always, and not in the most difficult assignments. Addressing that crowd — my peers and Mentors — marked a point in my career where I had to shift in order to continue to develop as a leader.

Happily the best learning often transpires from our epic failures. From that first deployment on, preparation became a critical aspect of my practice and I worked hard to honour the time and attention of others. Together, through that initiative, we created something that made a tremendous impact on hundreds of communities, thousands of leaders and the BC Public Service for many years.

Public Service Is Hard Work

Being a public servant is no easy task. It is critically important work creating or maintaining services for citizens in important realms that many of us don’t think about day to day. Public servants figure out how to make sick people healthier, how to handle freak ice storms, how to keep children engaged in learning, how to build roads and bridges as quickly as possible, how to plan for climate change, how to very suddenly regulate and sell previously forbidden drugs, and how to deal with dogs that bite.

When services are well designed and delivered, no one attributes it to the public servant behind the scenes. But when services go sideways or timelines slow, everyone loves to hate and blame. This requires that public servants cultivate a thick skin and hold a steady belief in the value of the work. Scapegoats in good times and bad, public servants lean into their work with heart and soul because they believe in the outcomes being delivered. How many news articles have you read where the hard work of public servants is praised? The public’s expectations are high — and rarely if ever met.

In addition, public servants are sometimes at the whim of political shifts: a project once important to citizens and their representatives is suddenly turned on its ear and the hard work of a government team is halted and shelved, not because the work done wasn’t good, but because the time wasn’t right or the torch was passed from one side of the house to the other in an election. These shifts can also include turning work units upside down in an attempt to align projects or processes, tearing apart teams, and leaving a trail of disruption.

Despite this, good people enter the public service because they are driven to make the world a better place. I have rarely met a public servant who was not passionate and committed to their work. And those who appear to be no longer committed — those with an attitude of sarcasm or anger — generally find themselves in that state because at some point their hearts have been a little bit broken by an abruptly shelved project or an unexpected shake-up. They have adopted a learned behaviour to protect themselves, which we are able to slowly peel back through our work.

Roy Group loves its work with public sector organizations because of the quality of the humans who choose that path. These people are committed, intelligent and thoughtful, and driven by many of the same passionate values that we carry in our work. We have seen participants in our programs lean in, eager to glean whatever is possible to harvest from our time together. The attitude and intentionality of the people compels us to work with these leaders – leaders from all levels of the public sector.

That moment of truth all those years ago revealed an understanding that I now carry with me into the work I do every day. From my career in working with public servants, I’ve learned that if something is worth doing … it is worth doing well.

After all, each of us is the most important piece of work we will ever undertake.


Donna Horn is the Roy Group Practice Lead for Public Service.

You’ve heard of Fuckup Nights? Of course you have. It’s vulnerable, it’s raw, it’s funny, it’s a gift of learning from someone else’s screw-ups.

In Episode XLVII of Obstacle Course, our co-founder and president, Ian Chisholm, gets vulnerable and raw. Tune in for this audio version of Fuckup Nights, as Chiz opens up to show hosts John Close and Andrew Langford about his incredible learning journey, from growing up a Saskatchewan farm kid to working himself to exhaustion running a startup to — the big surrender — realizing leadership is actually about helping others find their light and letting them shine.

Together this hilarious trio crack jokes, discuss Chewbacca suits, talk about the hero’s journey, debunk some pervasive myths about entrepreneurs, and sharpen the edge between leadership and mentorship. Humble, self-reflective and cuttingly honest, Chiz will have you reflecting on your unique ability, what it means to work smarter, and how best to help other people discover their finest selves.

A Jedi for our time: Ob-“Ian” Kenobi at the Star Wars IX premiere.

We were sitting in our tiny rental car facing off with a herd of elephants. A herd of very large elephants.

My 18-year-old daughter Sydney and I had only just crossed the border into Hluhulwe Imfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa when we developed a sharp awareness of how vast and unpredictable game reserves can be. The roads are narrow and unpaved. There are no road signs, towns or fences to keep the wild animals contained. It was just us, our little car and a questionable map. We did have a vague idea of where we were going, so weren’t operating completely without our senses, but I later came to think of this first day as not unlike a child’s guileless first encounter with a fuzzy large bear. We were wide-eyed and innocent, not quite awake to the immensity of the wilds we were entering.

So far we had spotted groups of immense, graceful giraffes; warthogs skittering frantically through the brush; water buffalo (which looked perpetually pissed off); and zebras — lots and lots of zebras. As we rounded a curve in the one-lane dirt road, we were surprised to see five enormous elephants lumbering steadily toward us.

“Mom. Turn around!”

“Don’t worry. They’ll move.”

“No, this is scary,” Sydney said. “Let’s turn around.”

“They won’t hurt us,” I said. “We’ll just slowly drive toward them. They’ll get off the road.”

I crawled toward the elephants, hoping like hell my guess would turn out to be right. As we approached, I grew increasingly unsure of the wisdom of this strategy, but at the last minute the group veered off the road. As we passed the herd, a large bull turned in our direction. I held my breath. The bull flared his ears and stamped his enormous foot. Clouds of dust rose with the tremor.

My daughter was uncharacteristically quiet for the remainder of the afternoon.

The next morning, over coffee in our thatched hut inside the park, I pulled out the map and started to lay out my plans for that day’s drive. As I was excitedly outlining our route, Sydney interrupted.

“You go ahead and go. I’m staying here today.”

“What? Go by myself? We’re in Africa!”

“Mom,” she said, “I’m not going with you. When I asked you to stop because I was scared, you didn’t listen. I don’t trust you.”

These powerful and painful words were spoken quietly and without emotion. I might say even without judgment. They were simply stated as fact.

I took that day’s trip by myself. It was a sad, scary, lonely journey. Not so much because I was alone, but because I had carelessly let something quite precious slip from my grasp. I had to travel halfway around the world to learn a most important life lesson. Trust is a powerful thing, not bestowed casually. Trust, once lost, is an enormous bridge to rebuild.

I committed myself that day to rebuild that trust. It didn’t come with long discussions about what happened or apologies and promises to do better. It came with months — even years — of being different. I not only had to change the way my daughter experienced me, but I also had to change the way I experienced myself. You can’t compel someone to change their perception of you without making some changes yourself.

The Emotional Underpinnings Of Conflict

I think the best definition of conflict is to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition. Seen in these terms, conflict is value-neutral, which means it isn’t inherently bad or good, it just is. It would be quite surprising to encounter a person who has never experienced personal conflict of some kind. If we accept the proposition that conflict is a fact of everyone’s life, we can either see conflict as a glass that is half empty or a glass that’s half full. When viewed as a half-empty glass, conflict often casts us in the role of victim: someone is trying to make our life difficult. When viewed as a half-full glass, we can see conflict as an opportunity to take control of a difficult situation and actively try to make it better.

Conflict is scary to some people because it’s often steeped in negative emotion such as anger, anxiety, and frustration. If we don’t have some skill at handling communication when there is high emotion, our tendency is to try to avoid it or to lash out. I imagine we would all feel similarly out of control if someone put us in a raft on a wild river and we didn’t know anything about how to manage the oars or handle the boat.

Learning how to handle conflict is incredibly important for leaders. It’s important for anyone, really, unless they’re living in a cave on a mountaintop, but significantly so for leaders, as they set the tone for their team’s engagement and ability to work in harmony. My suspicion is that most leaders feel they are already pretty good at managing conflict in their work environments. Many of them, however, are shielded from conflict by virtue of their position of relative power, which allows them to delegate conflict resolution, ignore it, or sometimes even overrule it. The same may not be true in their personal or private lives, where conflict may be harmful or unproductive.

Conflict must be faced, and it always goes better when one has the proper tools to navigate well.

Where To Start

Learning skills to deal with conflict reduces fear and anxiety. Conflict resolution tools give us the ability to calm a highly emotional situation, focus the interaction in a positive direction, articulate our needs in a way they can be understood by the other party, manage our own emotions, and ultimately help the other person feel heard and understood.

The single most important question we need to ask ourselves is: Do I want to have this conflict resolved? Some conflicts have a long lifespan because the people involved are getting some energy from being in conflict. This happens more than you might think! We humans have a tendency to hang onto our pain, alternately poking at it to justify our walls, or avoiding it altogether. But if a conflict is not serving your highest purpose and you need to get it resolved, then approaching it as a mutual problem to be resolved is the best place to start.

The best tools for managing conflict well are to: 1) listen carefully and try to understand what the other person is saying before you try to convince them of anything and 2) before you even engage, have an honest conversation with yourself about what’s going on for you. Not what you think is going on for them, but what is going on for YOU. What is the story you’re telling yourself? Start there.

Building — Not Burning — Bridges

Figuring out how to navigate conflict well goes a long way to shaping the way you see yourself and the way you conduct yourself. In turn, this shapes the way others see and respond to you. Dealing capably with conflict builds trust. There is a useful quote by some wise person — the internet can’t agree on who — that goes something like: I am not made or unmade by the things that happen to me but by my reaction to them. Through the conflict I experienced with my daughter in Africa, I was reminded to listen and understand Sydney’s hesitation, to examine my own story around it, and to look for a strategy that would help us move forward. That strategy was to work on rebuilding the bridge of trust, one truss at a time.


Alice Estey is a Special Advisor to Roy Group.

No one has ever achieved peak performance without a coach.

— Verne Harnish, author of
Scaling Up: How A Few
Companies Make It And Why The
Rest Don’t

One of the pivotal moments where I wished I had had the understanding, practice and grace that coaching offers is when I first moved into the vice-principal role at a local middle school. I was a teacher at the time, and overnight was asked to move into the VP role. This was an unexpected offering. It came with a whole load of doubt and insecurity, and one of the steepest learning curves I have ever experienced.

I wasn’t long into the position, maybe six weeks, before I began to feel very lonely. I felt like an impostor. I was so out of alignment with how I was experiencing myself that I really began to believe I had made a terrible decision.

One of my previous students dropped by my office one afternoon and asked me how I was doing. She said I looked stressed. I was caught off guard that a Grade 8 student would notice that.

She went on to ask me what was stressing me out. As I began to share a bit about the challenges of being in a new role, she interrupted me. “What has happened to Miss Bond?”

I asked her what she meant by that.

“Well, how would Miss Bond handle this?” she asked.

It was in that moment — with two simple questions and a kind invitation by this young human — that I realized I had been approaching this new role from everywhere but within and of myself. I experienced an instant shift in perspective. I began to feel more aligned internally, enabling me to move forward in my new role with excitement and a deep sense of ownership.

Little did this student know that, without judgment, she had helped reconnect me to the resourcefulness and strengths that lay within. She had set me on the path to genuinely finding my way into the VP role and its responsibilities.

Coaching is very much like this experience. Our inner knowing is such a rich resource for our own situations. When someone can help us access that knowing and make meaningful connections, we are able to see the possibilities and keep moving forward. I love Warren Bennis’s quote about this: “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it’s also that difficult.”

Shining A Light On What’s Already There

When I began my coaching training, I remember saying to myself, “Ah, this is what this is.” My sense at the time was that I had been doing this coaching thing all along, in my role as an educator and as a school administrator. There was some truth to that, however there were also some clear distinctions that I became aware of.

Coaching is more than listening. Coaching is a clear intention to create space in a conversation for someone to explore and fully own what the path and outcome need to be for themselves. It requires us to listen without judgment, setting aside our own opinions, advice or direction. When coaching, we ask questions to create awareness within the reality of that person’s experience. We ask questions that strengthen how that person connects with the rich resources and possibilities that not only surround them, but also to those that are within reach inside. The magic of coaching helps to identify and transform the limitations that are at play, propelling us to move forward with increased clarity and purpose.

I often think about coaching as a way to “light up” or “reignite” that which is already there. Think old-fashioned lamplighting as we walk the streets together.

We Travel Farther Together

There is a path to ourselves and our capacity that we cannot see on our own. Parts of the view are limited. There are only so many perspectives our mind will allow us to have access to through our own filter. Having someone who can intentionally reflect back to us our truths and tendencies, all in the spirit of continuing to grow and become our finest selves, is an incredible gift and builds capacity for what is needed in our roles, our relationships and our organizations.

Great leaders engage in personal work at this level. Working in partnership with a coach supports a leader to strengthen and develop their own capacity. When leaders pay attention to their beliefs and actions, and are willing to explore what else might be possible or accessible, they amplify the level of influence their leadership can have to impact the culture and performance of their organization. When a leader invests in and pays attention to the inner world at play, greatness emerges.

The Benefits of Coaching

Coaching creates a space for the practice of reflection. This practice allows a leader to explore thoughts, feelings, information, patterns and considerations so they can choose the best way forward. Clients often will comment that they emerge at the end of a coaching session clearer about the right action for moving forward.

Coaching is relational and empowering. When a leader values the coaching process and adds a coaching approach to their own leadership practice, they invite and influence a culture of practice within the organization. Many Roy Group clients who have integrated coaching into their own leadership practice have noticed profound shifts in their organizational culture. Without directly talking about trust, they discovered that trust among their team grew. Without directly addressing motivation levels, performance and accountability strengthened. Without directly addressing retention, the way people began to feel and how their contribution was being valued dissolved the issue. Each of these organizations invested in a practice of coaching, sharing it not only with the top tier of leaders, but throughout the entire system, developing capacity across the organization.

Coaching Unlocks Possibility And Positions You In Choice

When we enter into a coaching relationship, our sole aim and responsibility is to be intentional with positioning that person to be the best version of themselves possible. Each time we meet with someone, that possibility will be different and will grow. Coaching requires us to work in partnership, to be curious and skilled with powerful questions, creating the opportunity to understand ourselves better and heighten our self-awareness.

Awareness creates choice. Choice creates possibility. This is really what I see not only work being about, but life itself: the unfolding possibilities on a moment-to-moment basis, considering how we want to experience ourselves and how we want others to experience us.

As leaders, we have an opportunity to pay attention to more than just our tasks and outcomes. We have the opportunity to create a different kind of experience for the organization, for the individuals who make up our team, and for ourselves. Coaching invites and strengthens the existing capacity to position others for increased performance, deepens levels of learning and fosters new levels of engagement.

My Grade 8 student had no formal coaching training, however she approached my issue with inquiry and she cared. Although she may not have been able to articulate it, she wanted me to understand myself better, to stand in choice, and to dig for those capabilities that I already possessed — the capabilities that would guide me in the task ahead.

Imagine the power of that for everyone in your organization.

Anna Lisa Bond is the Roy Group Practice Lead for Education.

I had a tough wake-up call early in my leadership career. I guess it was about 20 years ago. Back then, in my mind I was bulletproof. I was unstoppable. I was amazing. All you had to do was ask me. I would have told you.

But actually, I was insufferable, arrogant and completely lacking in empathy. Nobody could be five minutes late for one of my meetings. (God forbid they had to get their kids to school — that wasn’t my problem.)

Luckily I had a mentor, a senior vice president, who had this really direct, stern, caring way of holding up the mirror. One day he said, “Todd, this is the way that you portray yourself to the world, and it’s how you’re being perceived by the world. How you’re being perceived by the world and your [work] results aren’t pretty. So figure it out.”

I called it the ‘magic mirror’ moment. He held that mirror up and I thought, “Oh my god, that’s how people see me? That’s how I am?” To me, that was the pivotal moment. Since then, I’ve said a thousand times to people that I wish we could borrow someone else’s eyes for an instant so that we could see how other people perceive us and how our conduct — what we’re doing and saying — actually lands for other people.

I hadn’t been taking responsibility for my conduct.

Leadership is about taking responsibility for yourself before anything else. Sure, it’s important to pick the right KPIs and hit your targets and pay your employees on time, but there’s a deeper responsibility that underlies all able leadership. This is the responsibility of stepping into one’s power and being intentional in every choice you make.

What would happen if a leader possessed a stronger sense of their “self” and was thus better able to harness the superpowers of the team? 

This is one of our key explorations with our clients.

Being present and intentional is a tremendous responsibility. As a day unfolds, we are invited into hundreds of moments of choice. Many people choose to step back from actively engaging with the myriad choices that appear throughout their day, and this choice keeps them in a place of powerlessness and blame. That isn’t very fertile ground; leadership can’t grow in that garden.

When you make your coffee in the morning, the amount of cream and sugar you put in is a choice. When you drive to work, the distance between you and the car ahead of you is a choice. Once you get to the office, the words you choose to communicate with your colleagues are a choice. So is your body language, tone of voice and countenance.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Everything you offer into the world is a choice. The difference between an accomplished leader and the rest of us is that great leaders have learned to be present with every moment, with every person, with every conversation, and to use that clarity to make choices that ultimately add to their experience of work and life. And, by default, these choices add to other people’s experiences. The burden of always and all the time may seem daunting and as such, it’s important to be gentle with yourself. Progress, not perfection.

Leadership at all levels, in all sectors of society, benefits from this kind of true engagement. It is in those moments of presence that we are masters of our own conduct.

What would happen if society and leaders were held accountable for  their conduct? What if there really was a conduct barometer? 

This notion may seem old fashioned, but what if leaders were lauded for being wonderful teachers and stewards of societal values, as well as conscious, caring, trustworthy and selfless? How would we behave if we could all have that Jimmy Stewart moment from It’s a Wonderful Life, and see the impact we’ve had on our world just by being a stand-up person?

How is society impacted by the current climate of divisiveness and cynicism? What is the counterbalance? 

I notice that we can occasionally fall into the trap of  focussing on what’s going wrong rather than what is going right. The current climate of divisiveness and cynicism is shaped by our paying attention to negative outcomes, and by our habit of ruminating on that negativity. Whether it’s on the news, on Twitter, or at the water cooler, there’s a lot of bitching going on. We love to feed that wolf — but it never takes us to a place of strength.

Taking action, yes. Complaining, no. It’s tricky.

The counterbalance? Conducting yourself like a true leader, by searching first for the things you can honour in yourself, and then for the things you can honour in someone else’s conduct. Can you listen for the shared interests? Can you help them articulate what success would look like for them? Can you position others to perform at incrementally higher standards, to learn from their experiences, and to be increasingly engaged in their endeavours?

Imagine if we had the tools and the ability to engage in constructive dialogue with people who also have good intentions, but a different perspective from ours? 

On the whole, people haven’t been taught how to navigate tricky conversations. It’s not a skill that is taught in school, nor in university, unless it’s a specific class on conflict resolution. Yet it’s a necessary skill for leaders to understand, and to be able to expect from their team. How many of your people’s best ideas never come to fruition because they don’t have the tools to reach agreement, or to find a way forward?

How many of your ideas never do? Are you yourself in need of learning how to deftly handle a range of opinions, needs and desires, while simultaneously keeping the ball rolling toward the goalposts?

What would happen if we were better able to lead ourselves and others through a world where the pace of change continues to accelerate, and where life’s priorities constantly compete with one another? 

This issue of competing desires becomes even more significant when cast in the light of a fast-changing world. Your conduct as a leader — your ability to help others look for shared interests, work collaboratively and bring their own best selves to every interaction — is the skeleton key to managing change.

Navigating change is uncomfortable at the best of times, and can take a wrong turn if your team is not well grounded in methods of communicating and moving things toward the goalposts. The accelerating pace of life and business requires that we remain fluid and optimistic, that we step into our responsibility to be present and choice-aware, and that we coach others to do the same.

When my senior VP held that mirror up 20 years ago, I realized that leadership was about understanding the other person’s agenda and helping them get what they want, as opposed to me trying to push my agenda and using other people as a tool to fulfill my agenda. The key is to align yourself with people whose agendas are aligned.

You Are The Work

Even as leaders, the journey never stops. Leadership takes a lifetime to master — and the work is never truly “done”. What if, as a leader, you had a skilled guide in your corner? A guide whose agenda was to serve your agenda?

You would be that much closer to becoming your finest self, making your finest contribution.


Todd Walsh is CEO of Roy Group.

Helping people across the threshold from leadership to mentorship is our specialty at Roy Group. We were honoured late last year to work with teachers and administrators from Handsworth Secondary and Carson Graham Secondary schools in School District 44 (North Vancouver) in doing just that.

In the wake of the group’s participation in The Leader’s Discipline™, Handsworth Vice-Principal Mark Barrett wrote a reflection of his experience. (We’ve condensed it, redacted a few things that might give away the Roy Group secret sauce, and republished it below.) Mark, thanks for sharing your voice.

If you are an alumnus of one of our programs, we invite you to submit your reflections and stories of your leadership journey. We are all on this road together, and there’s richness in learning from each other’s lived experiences.

Until next time, remember: You are the work. And there’s no finer investment.


The Leader’s Discipline™ — by Mark Barrett

This month I had the privilege of participating in a professional development opportunity with a coaching and leadership organization called Roy Group. Twenty-one participants, including teachers and administrators, from Handsworth and Carson Graham Secondary gathered over an immersive three days to engage an experience called The Leader’s Discipline™. This work was facilitated by Roy Group founder, Ian Chisholm, as well as Carson Graham Principal, Ian Kennedy.

Much of what we were to discover later was shrouded in a bit of mystery, but the few instructions we did receive beforehand included to clear our calendar for the event, to plan to leave our cell phone off and emails unattended, and finally to make sure we came prepared to discuss a professional problem of practice. Oh, and to dress for activity!

We began with a Wednesday evening dinner that brought the groups from both schools to break bread and build relationships in anticipation of Thursday and Friday. Each participant introduced themselves and talked a little bit about their learning intentions for the experience. Ian Chisholm, or Chiz, as we called him, spoke a bit about his professional journey as well, and how it brought him to work with us today. A few of the aforementioned instructions were provided and we all left looking forward to the next day.

On Thursday morning we met at the North Shore Tennis Club. Although having lived in North Van for most of my life, I’d never actually been inside the facility, so it was neat to see. To begin the day we were each given a notebook, pen, and a series of custom stickers that included quotes, concepts and key ideas we would be working with throughout the day.

The first idea we played with was what it means to be a ‘mentor’; that a mentor is name you don’t give yourself – it needs to be given to you. Our first activity, without giving away the details, was designed to illustrate how being an engaged and attentive listener is such an important skill. And that way we conduct ourselves has real effect on those we interact with.

It was from this activity that I knew what we were learning was going to be absolutely applicable to my daily work; much of my day comprises brief five-minute interactions with colleagues, parents and students. And my ability to be dialled in for each of those conversations has a significant impact on my effectiveness as support in my school. How you conduct yourself is so important. We learned that conduct is where everything inside of you meets everything outside of you, and that the way you choose to conduct yourself creates an atmosphere in others.

With colleagues in the school, it’s important that the atmosphere I’m creating is one of safety… but not comfort. Particularly with all the changes happening in education, it’s more important than ever that educational leaders are encouraging movement from comfort through discomfort – but from a place of safety. High-performance professionals who are heavily engaged in their work are not comfortable.

Through our second activity we started to explore what meaningful feedback looks like. This is where we also began to examine coaching as a vehicle for feedback, mentorship and, ultimately, leadership.

In the afternoon this understanding was further refined. For the purposes of the first afternoon activity, we participants were arranged in trios, with a coachee (player), coach, and supercoach who would provide feedback to the coach on their performance. Coaches used something called The Question Funnel with their players — a series of questions designed to increase awareness and focus attention. Meanwhile, the supercoaches, who were observing the work of the coaches with the coaches, followed The Feedback Model. This model employs three simple but powerful questions that guide the conversation.

Once the coach had the opportunity to provide reflections of their own, then the supercoach was able to offer their thoughts. The ideas we had established earlier about quality feedback needing to be more informative than encouraging were also reinforced through this activity. We each had an opportunity to try all three roles, and from this activity I learned that as a coach/mentor it’s important to be highly attentive, to allow the student to define their own goals, and to remember that learning is a reflective process that works best when people feel safe.

For homework, we were challenged to carve out an authentic and meaningful pause: to take a break from the day, and to make a conscious effort to relax at some point between when we ended our Thursday and began our Friday. (Unfortunately for the Handsworth participants this also happened to be our Parent-Teacher Interview evening. But needless to say, we did our best!)

On Friday we moved locations from the tennis courts to a seminar room at a local rec centre. The focus for Friday was to take the theory and concepts we had learned, and bring them to bear on a real problem of practice we were dealing with. Essentially it was to bridge the theory with the real world and to make it explicitly applicable.

Our first activity was to form new trios of coachee, coach, and supercoach, but this time we weren’t refining tennis skills, but rather coaching our colleagues through real work issues. Ian and Chiz provided us with an exemplar to start, and then we broke out in to different spaces to work. It was a wonderful opportunity to practice using these new tools we had just been equipped with, in a real-world situation.

Another tool which was added to our belt to work through these issues was the GROW model. Each of the four categories includes a series of questions to be used to drill down into a problem and help work towards a possible resolution.

As a coachee, it was insightful to have a coach who could take my issue in unanticipated directions with their questions. It forced me to examine it from a new perspective. I also noted that I didn’t need my coach to have all the answers – the coach is not going to be the source of the solution; they are just there to facilitate my own reflection and to take it in different directions.

As we wound down the experience and debriefed some of our takeaways, we discussed how leaders don’t create followers, they create other leaders. And that good coaching is really about having the right conversation before, and having the right conversation after.

We were challenged to identify ten topics we hope to be coached on, and by whom, and to write them down. Lastly, we set some tangible goals for ourselves, moving forward, and committed to practicing our new coaching and leadership skills in some way. For me, I’m pleased to say I’ve already brought these lessons to bear on my own practice by using The Feedback Model in conducting performance reviews. I also feel better equipped than ever to navigate some of the complex relationships and difficult conversations I regularly encounter in my role.

This was a wonderful professional development experience, and I would highly recommend it for anyone in a position of leadership, or who works in a highly relational industry. It was great to have the chance to work with the team from Carson Graham as well. I’m looking forward to integrating these skills even more into my daily work, as I know they’ll serve me well. Thanks to Ian Chisholm, Ian Kennedy and the Handsworth and Carson Graham teams.

Fall 2019 update:

Mark writes: We’ve been integrating the language and skills honed during that experience throughout our school. “What’s working? What’s tricky? What would you do differently?” have become staples in our conversations with staff and students.


Because I lost it…

My life would not be the same had it not been for taking on the CEO role at Columba 1400 on Skye. This assignment introduced my brand new family and I to lifelong friends; together we made a huge difference to an entire country; and it gave us the chance to be players in the early days of the social enterprise movement in the UK.

But it did leave a dint. 

Being only 27 when I took the job, I only had one gear: WORK. Grinding it out. No grace. No compassion for self. No discretion or mastery — just pure effort. Leaving it all on the field.

The heroic label I applied to this adventure was entrepreneurial — connected personally at a very deep level to the theme of exhaustion. And therefore, after nearly five years of riding with the throttle wide, I admitted, very privately, that I didn’t ever want to do this to myself or to my family again.

So we decided to practice.

Had a chance on Skye to work with some amazing practitioners. Their skill sets allowed them to engineer a different pattern of work. It wasn’t 9-to-5 — not that my work was. It wasn’t five days a week. It was project-based, as-and-when, leveraging a high degree of choice and using their unique gifts to multiply the impact of key projects.

They were the closest thing to Jedis I had ever experienced. Coaching, mediation, engagement, facilitation. The works.

The mastery.

And so when both Anne-Marie and I had the chance to work a different way — as practitioners — we took it. We launched Roy Group a few days before our kids started school in September 2004.

If we kept things simple, we reasoned, we could create the leanest of start-ups and share our practices to make our living. (Side note: Not all business owners are entrepreneurs by nature. As practitioners, we were tied to our personal involvement in the business — our offering was our time. If we ever stopped practicing, the company would stop, too. The difference between practice and enterprise is a lesson that took me 15 years to take on.)

We didn’t really have a business plan, because we didn’t need one. Instead, we had an equation of 100 client-facing days a year. If we could organize ourselves around that, everything in our life would work.

In any given week of the year, this system allowed us to learn, to earn, to be a part of the volunteer commitments we felt were important, and to do most of our own administration and billing, etc.

It was a good life.

Not without its challenges…  

Moving back to Canada after Skye meant we were starting something new without a network that knew who we were or what we had to offer. There was a lot to learn.

I was still pretty tired. Most of the initial calls I made to people to build our network and launch Roy Group originated from a lawn chair on our back porch, me sitting with a blanket over my knees. I was in entrepreneurial convalescence and had big questions every day about whether this was going to work or not. There was pressure, but there was also the genuine enjoyment of connecting with people who were trying to do important things.

We had borrowed some money to get things started. Wasn’t enough. I went to my dad (who many of you know is a finance whiz) and explained that I needed to have a meeting with him to talk about cash flow. For any of you that know Mike Chisholm, you’ll appreciate the dry wit of his response: “I assume that this meeting is not because you have too much cash flow?”

But it started to work.

The balance in our bank account siphoned down to a sphincter-clenching few hundred dollars — but then our equation started to work.

For 15 years, we have loved Roy Group as a vehicle to do the things we want to do, and to become the people in the world that we want to be. It was as if a tight-knit group of us was powering along in a handcrafted rowboat. Life was pretty good. Growth came in the form of deepening our own capacity to learn from, respond to and gain credibility through our clients’ challenges. Our practices became more and more potent toward mastery.

We felt like samurais — loyal and self-disciplined warriors for leadership who could be sought out for special assignments. We met other extraordinary samurais along the way. It allowed us to focus on what we could supply, and to make it unlike anything else in the market. It allowed us the flexibility to spend time with our family and to enjoy our life. I don’t believe in static life balance; it was a dynamic equilibrium of everything that was important to us.

Until it wasn’t.

After 15 years in business, working each and every time to deliver the best offering for your clients that you possibly can, a LOT of people find out about what you do. And they call you up. That was our only strategy: do great work every time, and have the message spread by word-of-mouth between people who trust each other.

Things got a little hairy. We were practitioners trying to manage big growth but without a foundation for the enterprise we were evolving toward. Getting back to people, preparing for courses and travelling started to pinch into every evening and every weekend. Vitality started to ebb. Life on the road was dishing up the wear and tear. Creativity suffered too: it was easier to run the same plays that had worked before. I lost my focus on important professional relationships. Quality in our work was a compromise I would never consciously make, but even it started to dip. The rowboat was taking on water. And we needed to take stock.

Start by protecting the spark…  

A lot of people talk about the importance of choosing your values. But true conviction feels more like choicelessness to me. You either live it or you don’t. Along the journey so far, we have uncovered what means the most to us. They were the things that began to be compromised — quality, vitality, creativity, focus — and we knew it felt wrong. Everything we do now is grounded by our exploration of these core values. We have no choice but to live by them: it’s who we are.

In January of 2019, Anne-Marie and I hired Todd Walsh to serve as CEO of our business. Todd’s unique gift is his ability to create, align and advance an elite team toward a desired future state. In a relatively short amount of time, he has brought together a cadre of extraordinary characters. He positions each of us to use our unique gifts more often — and more powerfully. He believes in our values. He builds them into our operational processes, and brings us back to them when we’re not in line.

We will still be a small giant — a company that chooses every day to be great before we are big. We’ve shifted our metaphor from rowboat to zodiac: quick, tight, agile, adaptable. We will work with clients, colleagues and suppliers that we love. We will always aim at delivering client and team member experiences that are high-impact and indelible. We will create new offerings and build our supply. And together, we are going to meet a demand that we are humbled by, positioning a corps of extraordinary leaders as Mentors in their communities.

And tend the fire… 

When we left Skye in 2004, the team at the Centre gave Anne-Marie and I a silver quaich engraved with the Gaelic Bheothaich sradag bheag teine mor: From a single spark has come a raging fire. Entrepreneurship comes with some incredible potentials: to use our unique gifts alongside others, to innovate, to create value together that we believe deeply in. To work with who we want to work with. And to be as zealous about quality and improvement as we like: arriving is the enemy of thriving.

I am really happy to be thriving again.

It even feels good now to be making the inevitable sacrifices required of entrepreneurs. I feel the pressure that comes from holding a vision that is bold enough for us all to move toward. I am doing things that I don’t know how to do, masterfully. I am making a lot of key choices, and getting some of them wrong. I am holding all the inherent doubts and facing the natural fears that come with risk and growth. I am waking up early thinking about all the things that our business needs to be whole. I am working on myself more rigorously, and playing harder — knowing that I am playing for my teammates and that they are playing for me. I am holding myself to a higher standard of communication and of follow-up. I am protecting my energy and treating myself more gracefully when it comes to diet and rest and exercise.

And it all feels great this time.


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

By Keith Driscoll

A little over six years ago, I and my colleagues on the management team at St. Michaels University School (SMUS) participated in a Roy Group experience called The Leader’s Discipline™. This two-day experience was the gateway to both a personal and organizational journey that is still continuing today.

It was during this experience that I began to see how my own philosophy could be best aligned with our organization’s to help foster high-performance teams — teams that utilize the many strengths of their members while honouring them as individuals. The foundation of the work would be implementing my particular coaching approach to leadership.

We recognized that, although our function is to lead and educate, it is our teams and students that ultimately have to perform — similar to a coach and a sports team, where the players play the game; or a conductor and an orchestra, where the musicians play the instruments. The success of the team hinges on its ability to execute in those moments that count: it is their actions — not the leader’s actions — that will affect the field around them. Therefore, as both leaders and teachers, we have some choices as to how we work with people to position them best for these moments.

Consider Roy Group’s definition of coaching as “the intentional positioning of others to perform at incrementally higher standards, to learn more from their experiences as they emerge, and to be increasingly engaged in their endeavours.”

When applied to one’s working relationships, this process not only helps in achieving the stated goals of a position or role, it also intrinsically creates a culture of ongoing learning and collaboration between both leader and team, and among team members. It does so by creating a space for dialogue that is growth-focused and low in judgment. The elegance of this approach is that it simply can become the way that we lead — every day.

At SMUS, we began by providing workshops on coaching and providing feedback to those who were interested. Management team members were allotted two Roy Group coaching hours per month that they could use, gift, swap or collect to use later for whatever they needed.

Gradually, leaders began to incorporate scheduled feedback meetings with their teams and to employ the principles learned in these workshops and through their coaching sessions. At first, efforts felt scripted and at times even artificial. However, as we practiced together, we honed those formal meetings into sessions conducted with ease and elegance, now comfortable with the beliefs, language and approach. Over time, we began to use coaching tools more informally, with people asking colleagues for coaching on the challenges, problems, idea and aspirations that landed in front of us.

This six-year coaching experience with Roy Group has provided SMUS with a foundation for better facilitation, leadership development of student leaders and improved interactions with our stakeholders. Ultimately, we have learned that leading means helping others be their best.


Keith Driscoll is Director of Residence and Student Life at St. Michaels University School in Victoria, BC. Keith is also the winner of the MacGregor Cup, Roy Group’s highest honour, which each year acknowledges a remarkable individual whose leadership development activities have made a significant impact on their communities and organizations.

For upcoming sessions of The Leader’s Discipline, see Open Courses.