Waking Up – And Showing Up

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.

North Vancouver School District Takes Up The Leadership Sword

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.


From Row Boat to Zodiac – Re-finding My Entrepreneurial Spark

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.

A Coaching and Leadership Journey

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.

To Be a Coach for Children

By Vanessa Braun

To be a coach for children is to see the individual potential and to create the space for them to rise to it.

In February I attended The Leader’s Discipline™, a two-day training presented by Roy Group in Victoria, BC. One of the many things I took away from the training was how applicable it was not only to leading my teaching team but also to my work in the classroom with the kids. Though I hadn’t thought about it this way before, a vast majority of our time is dedicated to “coaching” or empowering children to be the best they can be.

As the founder of Storyoga, I can proudly say we believe in asking children the right kinds of questions so that they may draw their own conclusions. Rather than giving them answers, we believe that their ideas and understanding of the world is of equal value and that their voices are meant to be heard. We believe in giving children the tools to problem-solve and the skills to stand up for themselves. Rather than stepping in to fix something, we see conflict in the classroom an opportunity for growth. Essentially, we believe in supporting children to be their own advocates and to know their place in the world.

How incredible it is to be gifted this kind of an opportunity at such a young age. To be valued, to be supported, and to be heard.

What I also realized after taking this training is that we hold our children to a high standard. We expect a lot of them, and in return, we see them grow by leaps and bounds. To be a coach for children is to see the individual potential and to create the space for them to rise to it.

To be a coach for children is to ask questions that encourage reflection and may even challenge their thinking.

Often children will ask why things are the way they are in the world. Rather than simply giving them an answer, keep the conversation alive. Put the question back to them and ask why they think it is so. Not only does this create a shared dialogue rich in learning, but it also opens the doors to possibility while fostering creativity and imagination in the process of doing so.

To be a coach for children is to hold each child accountable to being their best self.

To foster the dispositions of kindness, compassion, truthfulness, and to see the good in one another. Recently we had a child speak negatively of another child in the class. One child commented on another child as always being mean. Seeing that the child who had made this comment had the qualities of being a leader herself, I asked, “Is this always true? Is this child always mean?” I then followed with, “Is it true today?” She stopped to consider my question and after some back and forth, answered by saying no. It was a powerful moment for both of us, which changed the course of her thinking and action in the class.

To be a coach for children is to help them trust their own wisdom — what they already know.

On another occasion during journal writing, one of our students asked me to draw him a heart. I put it back to him and said, “What do you think a heart looks like?” He smiled and asked again for me to draw it. I was honest with him in my response, “I’m not going to draw it for you. I think you know how.” I asked him to close his eyes and imagine a heart in his mind. Then to open his eyes and draw what he saw. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was stuck on wanting it done right and for me to do it for him. While it would have been very easy for me to draw the heart, I simply wasn’t going to. By not drawing it for him, what I was really saying was, I believe in you and your abilities. I was rooting for him to trust in his own wisdom.

Too often we look outside ourselves for validation and for answers. This starts at a young age. It makes me wonder, where would I have been in life if someone taught me at an early age to trust myself? If someone created the space for my own knowing to come through? This doesn’t just apply to drawing hearts. It applies to knowing how to stand up for what you believe in, to be brave, and to have the courage to be who you really are.

Whether it’s learning how to draw a heart or how to walk across a balance beam, we must give children the space to rise to the occasion. We must challenge their thinking and their comfort level, and present opportunities for them to reach new heights. When we do this, not only does their confidence increase but their level of self-efficacy and overall belief in their abilities starts to permeate.

Ask questions that provoke a sense of wonder; keep the conversation alive. Encourage reflective thinking, and foster the dispositions of kindness, compassion, truthfulness, and a loving heart. We all need a chance to shine. Be the spark that ignites the light in children and allow them to shine bright.


Vanessa Braun is the founder of Storyoga.

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

Amore per la Qualità

By Ian Chisholm

Five years ago, I sat across from Dave Mowat (former CEO, ATB Financial) at a long table in Edmonton’s Caffè Sorrentino. What made the Italian spread in front of us particularly rewarding is that Dave and I had each captained a team of ATBers that afternoon in Caffè Sorrentino’s kitchen, preparing this meal. Sitting down to actually eat it represented the ultimate phase of a very colourful, competitive and energetic duel between two fairly affable captains with a strong preference for winning, and equally psychologically prepared to do whatever it took to “get up in their opponent’s kitchen.”

Perhaps it was prompted by the intensity of our duel, or the Italian context, or the amount of time we took to share the meal together — I’m not sure — but Dave began telling me about a rehabilitation community in the province of Rimini in Italy called San Patrignano (“Sanpa”). It was a special place that he had visited in person a few years before.

It was hard to imagine that Dave’s description of Sanpa was actually possible. He described to me his first impression of the dining hall, and seeing the impeccable standards to which that building had been constructed in order to house all of the community members together for meals. He told us about the detail with which the tables had been set for 2,000 people, each place setting carefully laid so that it would send a message straight to the heart of every person there that they belonged, they were loved and they were important.

Dave also told me that, if I believed in the power of enterprise, pride in one’s work and the dignity inherent in human endeavour, I had no choice but to go and see Sanpa for myself. I could tell that he meant it, so I did a little homework.

San Patrignano was started almost 40 years ago, a corner-of-the-desk project of businessman Vincenzo Muccioli. Muccioli credited the rising numbers of addictions in Italy to a society struggling with a loss of important values. He believed the answer required “life-positive” solutions to bring people back to experiencing just how beautiful life is.

While Sanpa has a colourful history with plenty of triumphs and tribulations, it is best assessed by its legacy today: nearly 2,000 residents at any time, all of whom are recovering from serious addiction. They do not pay a single euro for their cure, and the program’s success rate is estimated to be north of 70%. Over 40 years, that means thousands and thousands of people who have their lives back.

* * *

On May 29, Anne-Marie, our sons Oscar and Jameson, and I arrived at the front gates of San Patrignano to spend the day. Two resident guides who had volunteered to spend the entire day with us welcomed us warmly.

There is no program or process that people are moved through at Sanpa; rather, belonging to this community creates the context for individualized healing which on average lasts just shy of four years per resident. Vitality occurs through a carefully nurtured passion for one’s work, one’s internal experience, balance and life in community.

The 42M-euro operation includes practice groups comprising approximately 10 individuals who live and work together in 54 areas across 22 industries. Each group produces a top-shelf product, service or experience. They create world-class cheeses, specialty meats and wine. They raise first-class horses and train award-winning dogs. Their graphic design and commercial printing operation runs day and night and is a multi-million-dollar euro operation. Recently Sanpa was awarded the contract for hand-screened wallpaper for a 1,000-room hotel in Mumbai. They also run 5-star restaurants, including what has been recognized nationally as one of the top 10 pizzerias in the country. All of the shops are united by their members’ common commitment to the highest quality of craft and a deep desire to be well, addiction-free and a contributing member of society.

We would need a very long dinner together for us to communicate to you all that we observed and experienced. The best way for me to portray my experience is to tell you that I was on the threshold of tears (in a wonderful way) for hours at a time. The beauty of the human spirit revealed itself to us around every corner of this remarkable community.

Personal impact aside, I was on the lookout for some leadership principles for our clients, a group of leaders who pay as much attention to their organizational culture as they do to their strategy for the future. What kind of leadership does it take to ground a place like Sanpa? What is its guiding philosophy? How do they sustain the intensity? How has Sanpa grown to be so special in a mere 40 years? What characteristics of Sanpa can Roy Group and our clients seek to emulate in our own operations?

With these questions in mind, I plucked out the following four themes:

1. Taking Initiative Without Hesitation

One thing that you will notice when you go to Sanpa — see how I did that? There: you’re going! — is the immediacy with which people learn to craft beautiful moments. When people are in conversation over lunch – SNAP! – that and only that is what they are doing. No distractions, no cell phones; even the coated waiters (who are residents themselves) are mindful and don’t interrupt.

When someone can’t reach a tool they need in the workshop – SNAP! – someone hands it to them.

When someone asks for help – SNAP! – a community member will follow them without asking how they will be assisting.

When a group of (obviously) non-Italian-speaking guests nervously crosses the threshold – SNAP! – people stop what they are doing to look them right in the eyes, smile and say, “Ciao!”

In each moment at Sanpa, there is no hesitation: only presence, focus and a deeply practiced balancing of all that is going on. During our tour, the residents were present and gave a clear response to whatever was happening around us. It appeared they have learned (and are learning) how to weed out all of the nonsense and clutter that gets in the way of their (and our) ability to create a quality moment.

2. Engaging Conflict for All It’s Worth

One of the most fascinating aspects that we took away from our experience was Sanpa’s transformational use of conflict.

With people being in community, living in close quarters with each other and working together to attain such high standards, conflict is not only inevitable, it is the magic sauce — and in Italy, that’s saying something! In addition to uncovering opportunities for finding a better way forward, emerging interpersonal conflicts provide the fodder for all residents to convert a deeply engrained pattern of escaping what is difficult, to engaging what is important.

The very nature of conflict requires the parties involved to articulate themselves, outline personal boundaries and endeavour to understand other and self to a much deeper degree. At Sanpa, conflict is recognized as the arena in which we all deepen our awareness, re-find right action, advance, and learn to do so without judgment.

3. Valuing Apprenticeship and Mastery

Another aspect that you will notice is the seriousness with which people take their work, their learning and their craftsmanship. After the smile and the “Ciao!”, members return to whatever piece of work lies in front of them. Whether graphic designer, vintner, butcher, furniture-maker or chef, each has a visible desire for what they are working on to be better than any that have come before: a deeper expression of practice, and one step closer to masterpiece.

Where does this high degree of discretionary effort come from? By design, it comes from inside. No one is paid for their work. No one is acknowledged or rewarded publicly for their accomplishments. Consultation and specific feedback on pieces of work is sought and offered, but in the absence of any flattery or flowery encouragement from others. Intrinsic motivation is awakened, kindled and stoked, with people knowing deep down that they themselves are giving all they have and by doing so, are responsible for unleashing their own potential.

It looks, at times, as if their lives are on the line — which, in a very real way, they are. The community thrives on the intensity of each person’s journey towards mastery. Over 40 years, Sanpa has learned that neuroplasticity — our brain’s ability to rewire, change, heal and reset itself around the trauma and damage it has experienced — takes time, patience, practice, repetition, honesty and immersion within a totally new setting.

4. Setting Standards That Defy Reason

Interestingly, whatever work is in front of an individual is relatively new to them.

Residents are placed into working groups bearing little to no resemblance to their former livelihoods. One of our guides who had started in the dog-training barns had never even had a pet; the other had come from a world of high-risk investment. After beginning in the swine barns, our guide was now in charge of marketing Sanpa’s Barrique Project, which asked 40 designers from Milan and Florence how woods from wine barrels could have a “third life.” The answers were breathtakingly beautiful. The task now for the woodworking and marketing practice groups at Sanpa is to replicate these luxury pieces and to create a worldwide demand for it.

Newness to task is no excuse for a substandard product at Sanpa: the standards are zealously high. This is no therapeutic activity designed to keep people busy for the afternoon craft time. Learning curves are steep and intense – and there is a lot at stake. This is business: sophisticated, high-standard, luxury business. Every corner of the property is impeccably maintained. Its farm machinery is mostly Ferrari and Lamborghini. Its buildings are beautiful and every corner of the property is maintained by the Landscaping and Gardening practice groups like palace grounds. One is reminded often that this place exists on amore per la qualità — the love of quality — in both our inner and outer lives.

Commercial activities like this project generate 18M euro per year toward the 42M-euro annual operating budget. Sanpa accepts zero government funding, finding it easier to exist without the fickle, complicated, distracting, political and short-term nature of government funding. The rest of its annual operating budget is provided by friends — wealthy, powerful and influential friends — who are drawn to Sanpa’s story, its standards and its significance. Many of these friends spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve at Sanpa for their own inspiration and recovery. Thousands more visit each year and become supporters — all starting with a welcome as warm as the one we received.

* * *

Going on a field trip like this, on the advice of a good friend, was a reminder in itself to keep venturing out into the world to find incredible stories that will leave a dent in you. We toured most of the day and did not see all of San Patrignano, which means we will undoubtedly go back someday to learn more from all the Sanpa community is doing.

The lessons from that day continue to inspire and inform our approach to the work of leadership development. We are actively weeding out our tendency to hesitate and / or avoid conflict. We are hungrier to learn new things and are setting our standards higher than is reasonable. We are also building time for friendship into our day-to-day operations. And we are eating better food, with the kind of people who tell you that you have to go and see something to believe it.

If you are planning on being in Italy and would like to visit San Patrignano, please be in touch and we can introduce you to their International Coordinator. And then we can share the wonders of the experience (over dinner) when you return.


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

Rolling with Roy Group…for a Decade

By Brent Hesje

About a decade ago, a bunch of tennis balls, some fascinating stories about The Isle of Skye and three questions made Fountain Tire an even better place. The impetus for this change came from what I had learned through a Roy Group course, The Leader’s Discipline™.

During this experience I was offered useful and portable tools to create safe conversations back at work. The tools gave me insight on how I could learn to improve from anyone. My improvement in conversation, true listening and stronger focus on the end result nudged other Fountain Tire leaders to seek out these tools from Roy Group.

Over the years, I have wandered away from The Leader’s Discipline, yet only temporarily. The learning is so portable. It sits in my head and the memories of its effectiveness haunt me.

Recently I found myself back, this time for the Opportunity in Conflict™ experience. As expected, I was taught powerful concepts through wonderful storytelling, and left the experience with useful tools to help me personally and professionally.

Perhaps of equal importance, I left with that familiar Roy Group inspiration: that despite all the complexities and fears that are part of a leader’s life, we should all be grateful that we have the opportunity to lead.


Brent Hesje is CEO of Fountain Tire, a nationally recognized tire dealer based in Edmonton, Alberta. Fountain Tire is a member of the Platinum Club, a category reserved for companies that have been winners of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for seven consecutive years.

For upcoming sessions of The Leader’s Discipline and Opportunity in Conflict, see Open Courses.

Exploring the Shadows of Organizational Metaphors

By Ian Chisholm

A poet’s work is all about creating a language big enough to represent both the world that you inhabit and the next, larger world that awaits you. – Lisa Burrell interviews David Whyte in “A Larger Language for Business,” Harvard Business Review (May 2007)

Small, large, quirky, established, entrepreneurial, institutional — these are some of the adjectives used to describe organizations that are as varied as the people who work inside them. Yet often this wide array of adjectives is unable to communicate what it actually feels like to work where we do. That’s when we reach to the top of the language shelf for a metaphor.

The subtleties that everyday language fails to convey are often better expressed in a metaphor: management describes their current project as a trainwreck; a protégé labels her Mentor as a Jedi; a disenchanted team defines their office environment as a nest of vipers; a journalist writes how the marriage between two countries is being tested; a team refers to the next phase of their business as Everest; a school faculty terms themselves a family.

In the realm of symbol, where one thing represents another, the spare language of poetry has the ability to capture the multiple layers of meaning inherent in a situation in just a few words. A metaphor allows the listener to instantly grasp a deeper, richer meaning and to experience the feeling behind a concept. Someone using a metaphor in conversation is expressing a desire to have the listener fully understand all the aspects and unique complexities of an evolving situation. We should pay attention.

While there are boundless options for metaphorically capturing the essence of our workplaces, as leaders we would be wise to choose our metaphors carefully for, once chosen, a metaphor has the power to shape our work and to shape us.

Back to Basics: The Metaphor of Family

BARTLET: “…You guys are like family.… I love you all very much, and I don’t say that often enough. [to Sam] So, tell me what the problem is, Toby.”

SAM: “I’m Sam, sir.”

– From NBC TV Series The West Wing

Family is an enticing metaphor that has surfaced more and more across sectors in the last few years. Highly accessible and easy for anyone to relate to, since we all come from one form of family or another, the family metaphor is common in business today. But for thousands of years, family was not a metaphor at all. Family was the work unit of society: the family farm, the ma and pa shop, Vendor & Son and Acme Bros. These familiar shingles have hung throughout our history, clearly signalling that families of related people routinely worked together.

Today we’ve moved on from the actual to the metaphorical family in the workplace. We have cast unrelated people into roles where they work closely together, as “family.”

Why has family re-emerged as a symbol to engage people in the workplace?

We suspect that, with up to four generations working together and attempting to find function in their differences, organizations are trying on this most familiar of organizational metaphors. We suspect that the popularity of the family metaphor stems from organizational leaders reaching out to engage Millennials — the generation that has made it clear that they value balance, strong social connections, active feedback loops, and an emotional connection to their work and manager.

Undoubtedly, choosing the family metaphor to describe our work together is an attempt to connect with the themes around families that we hold dear. People care about each other in families. People protect each other in families. People share in families, grow and develop in families. People in families are deeply — even unreasonably — invested in each other’s success. At their core (under varying levels of crust and quirkiness), families are often tender and tenacious. We choose family as a metaphor because we believe we want to create and work in an organizational system that is loving and resilient.

Sound like a great idea? Just be careful.

Families, as fundamental to our existence as they are, have their shadow side: they can be painful, awkward and irrational. As adults, there are few of us who do not wrestle sooner or later with family-of-origin issues, the barrage of hang-ups, fears and mental models, authority figures, and/or learned helplessness that contribute to the stew of dynamics shaping who we believe we are.

People also frequently hide things in families. We sidestep uncomfortable topics so that all can save face. Often there is a strange sense of avoided accountability: “Oh, that. That’s just Uncle Fred being Uncle Fred.” Or, “It’s just always been that way.” Families can come with all sorts of unfair obligations, unchallenged truths, and compromised autonomies. Bad habits, mimicked patterns and suboptimal survival mechanisms are often acquired in families. We might be prepared to lie, cheat or steal for our family. Our souls take some bruising in families; it’s an inescapable dynamic of being human.

And then, one day, in order to fully leverage our own personal sovereignty, we leave our family (in a real or metaphorical sense) to begin our own lives. So why would we want to model our organizations after an entity that people have to leave to fully become themselves? Do we really want to work for “the family”?

Side note: There’s a reason that organized crime uses the family metaphor to get things done.

The tough thing about families is that someone has to be parental and occupy the throne of power. But in business, the metaphor of leader as parent has several serious limitations when it comes to describing the kind of stewardship organizations need today. Placed on a pedestal of biblical proportions, parents are not questioned, they are revered. What mummy or daddy says, goes.

Parents are never subjected to performance reviews, or given honest feedback or encouraged to admit that they need to learn more about their craft. We position them as unquestionable authorities who will tell us what is proper and to be valued, and what is not. Parents are not allowed to show weakness or to admit fear. Instead, we believe in the Santa Clauses they swear to be real and believe that we are safe because our parents are in control.

While the metaphor of family is neither exclusively good nor bad, we need to realize that, as Chief Poetic Officers of our organizations, when we brand ourselves with a metaphor, we create possibilities and also impose limitations where our good intentions may be matched with unintended consequences. As leaders, we must be alert to both potential outcomes.

Going Tribal: The Metaphor of Intentional Community

At Roy Group, we prefer the metaphor of tribe for organizations. At its best, it is a colourful metaphor, one with character, ritual and mystery.

In an ideal tribe, autonomy is not traded in for accountability. Individuals have responsibilities to the collective, and within those responsibilities are able to leverage themselves into the work to create a virtuous cycle that assists the self with personal growth and knowledge. This is a far cry from participating in an ongoing vicious cycle that subjugates the self to unconscious familial patterns.

As Seth Godin points out in his brilliant little book Tribes, modern-day tribes have been appearing for several years now, largely due to social media’s capacity to introduce and unite people who share a passion. We like the metaphor of tribe better than the metaphor of family because it embodies some of the strongest, best elements of the family while allowing more personal autonomy. It also invites adult-to-adult, rather than parent-to-child, relationships to flourish.

Defined by a blend of three key characteristics, the paradigm of a modern-day tribe proffers an exciting new metaphor to which our teams and organizations may aspire.

1. Tribes are fundamentally about something bigger than themselves.

Some noble promise has been made. Tribes have a purpose they pursue with focus. They are protecting something, questing for something, yearning for something. They stand for something that unites the whole.

2. Tribes value the archetype of the elder or tribal leader within the community.

An elder embodies the spirit of the community’s purpose at what feels like a cellular level. Tribal leaders have no need to explain their values or philosophy: they wear their intentions on their sleeve. They are teachers, advisors, and confidantes to the next generation. They invest in the next generation. Tribal leaders are trusted and become more potent with each organizational challenge. They invite tribal members to present their finest selves and make their finest contribution, continually fostering in others the ability to take up their own personal leadership challenges.

3. Tribes use tools, rituals and ceremonies to deal with arising concerns.

Even though the content may be new, tribes have a predictable system of practices at hand for responding to issues. They know what kinds of gatherings or discussions are needed to plan for the future, respond to a crisis or address a wrongdoing. Tribes convene whatever conversation is necessary in order to realign them with their noble promise. Moreover, there is a functional transparency of how business is conducted for all tribal members to see, which holds them accountable to each other. There is less nonsense in tribes: the costs of not staying true are too high.

Are we prepared to honestly examine our shadows, old and new?

Crafting this article enabled our Roy Group team to take our own advice: we weighed the shadow side of a modern-day tribe against its strengths before completely signing on.

We foresaw how:

  • the dark side of a strong tribal identity can tip the balance into exclusive, damaging pride;
  • all turns sour if tribal leaders cannot be removed democratically from their leadership role when they need to be; and
  • given the circumstance where an individual’s autonomy has surrendered to the collective, the tribe can become a gang and those within it unthinking thugs.

Thus, even when we embrace the modern-day tribe as a metaphor, we must keep our radar keen for signals of corruption, arrogance and insularity within our organizations.

What would it look like if your team grew into the vision of the high-quality team that has been wavering on the horizon?

As a leader in your own organization, you can connect with the upcoming generation to discover your own organizational metaphor by engaging them in a conversation. What adjectives describe how it feels to work together now? How would they like it to feel? What metaphor would invite your team to perform more masterfully, to learn more voraciously, and to engage more completely? What metaphor “represents the world that you inhabit now and the next, larger world that awaits you” at the same time?

Find an imaginative way to convene that conversation.

And choose wisely.


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

Building a Great Workplace

By Ted Kouri

A few years ago, Incite was recognized by Alberta Venture as Alberta’s Best Workplace for Under 100 Employees. We are really proud of the culture, team and environment we have built at Incite over the last 15 years, and receiving this award was certainly a special moment to honour that. It was also a great opportunity to reflect on what helped us win this award.

In looking at what makes Incite’s workplace special, there are the easily identified things like our social events (i.e. Incite Alumni Reunion), our focus on family (i.e. Bring Your Family to Work Day), and our commitment to community (i.e. Annual Volunteer Day). However, I believe it is the not-so-easily-seen operating principles and beliefs that drive us.

There are three key lessons we’ve learned in our work with Roy Group that are critical to how we operate and are important reasons why Incite is a great place to work:

1. Leaders at All Levels

Everyone can lead. Leadership has very little to do with titles and roles, and a great deal to do with empowerment, engagement, and commitment. We have embraced the philosophy of building leaders throughout our organization, and firmly believe that every member of our team can and should have the opportunity to provide leadership.

We have seen huge personal transformation in people by fostering in them the idea that they can lead. Some of our best ideas have come from what traditionally would be thought of as junior roles, and we have witnessed firsthand what happens when you build a sense of self-belief in all people in an organization. On a regular basis, our newest team members coach senior management through complex issues, and members of our admin support team participate in client brainstorms. When you recognize that everyone can lead, you unlock the potential of your team.

2. Coaching Approach to Learning

We have pursued a more non-directive approach to personal learning and development. Historically, we defaulted to a “tell people what to do” mentality that, while seemingly effective in the short term, does not foster in people the sense of inquiry, understanding, or commitment an organization needs to really raise its game.

The idea that leadership is not about providing answers but rather asking better questions has changed the way we operate and is fundamental to our belief in the potential of our people. We have developed our coaching capacity with Roy Group’s The Leader’s Discipline. This encourages leaders at all levels to solve their own problems.

3. Accountability and Feedback

Finally, and likely still our greatest area to work on, is the idea that a great workplace is not simply one where people get along and have fun. A great workplace is defined more by people’s ability and willingness to provide honest feedback and to hold each other accountable to the highest standards. While not always easy or comfortable, a true friend tells you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.

We have seen that people’s job satisfaction is highest when they are learning and growing, and when they are contributing to impactful and significant work. People don’t just want a pat on the back, they want an honest critique of their performance in a way that helps them get better. To build a culture that embraces delivering such feedback as part of its daily operations is not easy because the truth can be ugly sometimes. At Incite, this is still a work in progress, but we know it will only make us better.

Roy Group has been a special advisor, partner and friend to Incite, and we thank them for helping us work towards our goal of creating a company that helps leaders achieve their greatness.


Ted Kouri is co-founder and president at Incite Strategy.

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

The Long Game: Crisis and Engagement

By Bob Chartier

It’s the reward-and-recognition season again. Chances are high that mugs will go once more to individuals and teams who lead the charge during one crisis or another. Listen for it: fires, floods, and disasters (literal or figurative) are often the focus for our award ceremonies.

In your work life, if you have ever had the opportunity to take part in any sort of crisis response, you will know that people say, “It was our finest moment.” There is just something about blatant adversity that brings out the best in us.

I would also bet that, a short three months after the crisis, the same folks would say their workplace was back to the same old, same old. Oh, sure, people are still working hard, doing a good job and getting the work done, but with nowhere near the spirit, energy, and personal accountability that arose during the crisis.

So, the question becomes, How do we invite the same engagement that appears during a crisis into the everyday?

Lately, I have been working with an interesting leader who has been wrestling with this question. Ryan Jestin heads up the roads department for the City of Calgary and was front and centre with Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the devastating floods in 2013. In any crisis situation, transportation becomes a key factor, and Ryan’s team of over 1,000 frontline public servants responded to that flood with an ingenuity and focus never before seen, even by them. Engagement was through the roof. People felt that what they did was important.

In returning to business as usual, Ryan and his team expected that this “high” might wane a bit. What they did not expect was a complete return to the engagement levels they had before the crisis.

Ryan is ex-military and has an ability to lean into the punch of a tough conversation. He opened up the discussion, engaging in an after-action review, and decided to challenge his leadership team with the question, “Where did our extraordinary teamwork go?”

Using a collection of engagement methods I had shared with him, Ryan convened the conversation with his entire team. Here are some of our key findings that the conversation unearthed:

People capable of high performance can be engaged less than 50% for all sorts of reasons. Multiply that across your entire team and you have a seriously compromised capacity to deliver something excellent. This dynamic is presented very clearly in a one-year study conducted by Gallup around employee engagement that found 28% of employees were engaged, 54% were not engaged, and 17% were actively not engaged.

In other words, well over half of the workforce is either underperforming, or actively undermining productivity.

What we came to understand through our conversations with Ryan’s team was that if an organization was typically around 40% engaged during regular times, in a crisis situation the engagement scores would spike into the high 90s. Not magic — just people being fully engaged, counted on (a nice way to see accountability) and aware that what they were noticing and contributing was important.

How do we maintain the levels of engagement that we see in crisis situations in our everyday work affairs? Crisis is by its very nature unsustainable; it is temporary. Real engagement has to be fully sustainable, built into the everyday, and is best done through the everyday practice of those leaders who know how important it is. Engagement work must be more purposeful than serendipitous, more strategic than tactical, and more cultural than policy.

It’s a long game, not a fast hit. And if you are not getting stronger and stronger, you are going to lose ground.

Sustainable engagement is about having rituals that people can count on that allow them to have the conversations that they need to have every day — exactly the way we do in a crisis situation. Good intelligence, no-nonsense feedback and status reports, coordination of resources, a suspension of silos, and maybe most of all (around the edges): personal check-ins with people about how they are really doing. Regardless of the content that we need to tackle, we know that the processes exist for us to make sense of it together in real time and act accordingly.

The slow and steady leader wins the long game, using tools and practices every day, developing their own people to convene these conversations in a cost-effective way, and quietly but firmly building systemic engagement where the lasting difference is made — in the everyday.


Bob Chartier is Roy Group’s learning lead on engagement.

For upcoming sessions of Tools of Engagement, see Open Courses.