We know exceptional leadership when we see it. And in the coming months, we’re inviting the voices of more exceptional leaders onto our blog, to share what they think is important to focus on now.
In this edition of Conversations with Roy, we sat down with WildPlay Element Parks CEO and co-founder Tom Benson. Tom cut his teeth in mountain guiding back in the 80s and 90s, managed a division of a software startup and then, with a couple partners, started a poky little adventure park company in 1994. The WildPlay empire has since expanded across North America, offering ziplines, bungy jumping, adventure courses, freefall jumps and axe throwing.
But it’s not all about the rush. What particularly impresses us is the cohesive nature of WildPlay’s culture. So we invited Tom in for an interview.
Here, Tom talks about the value of leading through principles, finding the levers for big change, how to know when fear is operative on your team, and — most exciting for us — what happens when you build a culture of playing for each other.
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The pandemic presented remarkable challenges to your company and your industry.
Sure, closing our parks and pivoting and moving into a whole new realm of safety processes. But that’s not the story. The story is: it’s been an opportunity to make sure that what I believed is true, in terms of leadership, culture, team, and the robustness that you need to go forward in business.
Okay, unpack that.
It feels like this time is what I was made for. It’s what I prepared my whole life for, all this stuff that’s here right now. I look at what’s happening in the world, and the relationship between what I believe for myself to be true and how I relate to the others around me, and the work of building leadership — like, actually actively and consciously focusing on helping other folks get to that place where they are empowered and powerful to do what the world’s going to need them to do. That’s really where I’m at.
You’re crossing that threshold from leadership into mentorship.
The greatest challenge for me is: How can I do as much of that as possible? Is it through my business? Is it through something else that I don’t know yet?
Like, what are the levers?
What are the levers? What are the mechanisms to make the greatest difference? Generally, people don’t do amazing things based on fear. They do amazing things based on love. They do amazing things based on a sense of possibility, right? People with a sense of impossibility aren’t doing the amazing things. So how do you open up the world of possibility? It’s been interesting some of the discussions we’ve had in WildPlay about leadership. Oftentimes what I find is people get confused between management and leadership. And they’re not the same thing. I think it was Peter Drucker who said way back when, “Leaders know the right things to do, and managers know how to do things right.” I use that now to help the team understand, Hey, are we looking at a management thing or are we discussing leadership here? Because they aren’t the same thing.
Do you always want people to reach for the leadership approach or is it often useful to take the management approach?
For the practical part of what I do, the management acumen has to be there. But I focus on leadership as the core thing. WildPlay is trying to create a culture that is around growing leaders, growing that culture, growing our influence and changing the world. That doesn’t happen from managers. That happens from leaders. And not just the ones internally, in our ranks.
You want to help people get to that level where they’re tapped into their power and are using their energy to help the world get to where it needs to be. So how do you get people to know the right thing to do?
Well, leadership is the ultimate pyramid scheme. The first thing a leader approaches anyone with is a gift. You’re bringing something that is an opportunity to this person to develop in some way, to change in some way, to see something, to slow down, to observe. Whatever it is, you’re bringing the potential for that to become part of their hardwiring. It might be they have to do it a bunch of times so it gets locked in, but your hope, if you think of it as a pyramid scheme or as an investment, is that it doesn’t stop there. (I think that’s important.) Because if you think that it stops there, you can go, “My job is done.” But the job is not done. Everything that you do has to be about helping people to take that thing that you’re sharing and pay it forward. It’s also helping the people that you’re working with to understand what you’re going through and the value of that for you, so that when they are in that position, they have the same understanding. Because that’s how it continues on. They will say, “I absolutely must bring this to other people. I must help other people to have less fear. I must help other people to lead themselves. Lead teams. Lead in society.”
Is that the trickle down, then? That you will bring someone into a greater state of leadership and in so doing, they will then do that for more people?
At an individual level, there’s fear and there’s love. And if we can eliminate fear, then we have more room for love. The same thing is true about leadership. It’s not that leaders should be fear-less. It’s that despite those things that are indicating that we should be afraid or concerned, we still act. Leadership is acting despite the forces that are trying to constrain that action. Don’t get me wrong about the utility of fear. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute is probably pushing the limit. There’s no question that fear is there for the right things. But I think that when we as leaders talk about the right thing to do, it’s like, “OK. I see this thing. And it concerns me. I might be afraid of it. What am I going to do with that? How am I going to demonstrate that to those around me? How am I going to coach someone through that?” Because most of the time, even when we’re coaching or helping someone to see their way through something, when we start at that place of fear or trepidation, almost always that’s where the lockup is happening. I’ve talked before about both fear and leadership from the point of view of a pebble.
OK. Metaphor me. Pebbles?
Well, coming from the mountain guiding background, you’re very aware from a risk point of view that something little — raindrops, right? it could start to rain — could grow big. We think, “Oh, it’s just rain.” But in the mountains, if you’re walking in places where you’re exposed, that’s not just rain. That’s a change. It’s something that’s hitting something, and that something’s going to hit something else and that something’s going to hit something else. That simple rain could ultimately deliver a load of falling rock. It’s not always a negative spiral. At WildPlay, I look at what we do as: We’re a pebble that’s being thrown against a rock, and the rock is going to bump up against a boulder, and the boulder is going to create an avalanche of an outcome. So while our influence in scope is small, in effect it is large. I look at leadership in the same way. So our little company out of Canada can take this approach to fear or leadership — I see them really tightly related, actually — and make a difference that makes a global shift stemming from these little “pebble bumps”.
Tell me more about how fear shows up on a team.
Not wanting to make mistakes. It’s often associated with failure. Fear shows up on a team in ego or invulnerability.
Yeah. You can tell that fear exists when people aren’t willing to be vulnerable. One of the things that our team has is we’re pretty vulnerable with each other. We’re pretty open in ways that wouldn’t be normal in a workplace, but they’re real. I think fear shows up in a team trying to make everything safe or having rules. Whereas love shows up as principles.
What’s the difference between rules and principles?
We try to control people and events, and we end up bound by these rules. Yet there’s no way to control everything through rules. That’s insanity. And yet the world tries to do it. But principles, we can all understand those pretty quickly and we can actually work with them.
Do principles translate to values?
Directly. When you start to think that way, and you’re building a company or leading teams and you focus on principles first, you have a huge advantage. It’s really simple. It’s easy to remember. It’s not a thousand things. It’s, like, four things. You know, like, we don’t hurt people. We build people up. We have each other’s backs. What we say we’re going to do, we do it. Whatever those things are. Those are principles. They’re easy to guide your actions by, individually or collectively.
Is it useful for you to articulate WildPlay’s values as a way of showing people what you mean? Were those the ones you just listed off?
No, WildPlay basically has four values. The values are: Circle of safety. Share the fruit. Taste the dirt. Nurture the pride.
Taste the dirt. I love that. Can you walk us through them?
Circle of safety means make it good for people to be able to be vulnerable. Everything we do at WildPlay is entirely dependent on trust. And so we cannot break trust. Make it that people can place their trust. That goes into how we design an element, how we run the business, how we work with each other. I would say at the core of that first value, that’s the word: it’s trust. It is both noun and verb. And we need to trust as well. That’s the other thing about how fear shows up in a team.
A lack of trust.
If I don’t trust you, then how the hell are we going to make it through this thing where, you know, I’ve got to know you have my back because I can’t even look behind me — I’ve got to run in this direction. Leaders need to actively focus on reducing these fears. They need to build trust. It’s cyclical: if we’re going to build trust, we’ve got to reduce fear. If we’re going to reduce fear, we’ve got to improve trust.
Do you want to talk a little bit about share the fruit?
It’s making a difference in the communities that we work in. It matters to us a ton. Long before we were making a penny, we were giving our pennies away. We’ve made a huge difference for Mental Health Recovery Partners on Vancouver Island, and the Brain Injury Society in Victoria and Nanaimo. And like Roy Group, we are members of 1% for the Planet. Wherever we can, our business is pushing to make a difference in these communities. We work really hard to do it. We’re excited by it. A business that doesn’t understand this idea of sharing back is missing a huge opportunity. This is part of the blueprint of business in the future. If you don’t understand this blueprint today, you will not make up this ground with salaries, you will not make up this ground with bonuses. That is not going to matter to human beings in the same way. People need to be able to make a good living and survive, there’s no question. But that’s not where people’s hearts and minds are going to land. People are really voting with their hearts and minds.
We see it now, don’t we? This Great Resignation.
I look at that as a great opportunity. Where do you want to come to work? What kind of environment do you want to be in? How do you want to feel? What difference do you want to make?
Would you say organizations need to get clear on what they’re contributing to the world, so people can find their alignment?
If you don’t have an understanding of the purpose your business operates with, what are people aligning with? Hardwire your business around your purpose. By God, if you’ve built something that’s fake, just watch how quickly that sniff test is going to break you. Going back to the conversation around trust. People trust less now than they ever have. If you’re going to go and lead a company and lead teams and you’re full of shit, you’re going to get called on it, and there’s no coming back from that. You broke trust. If you’re laying this out there and you aren’t willing to actually put skin in the game and really put yourself at risk through your values, they’re not going to mean anything. And if you break them, you’re in trouble because that’s how people are making their decisions about who you are, or the approach they should take. So put it out there. Get behind it. Be prepared for the storm that you’ve created for yourself. Live by it, and at least you won’t be alone.
Wow, I can feel my wings filling with air. You’re inspiring when you get on the soapbox! What about taste the dirt?
When we started the company 16 years ago, we knew the environment matters — and we knew it was really going to matter. Our belief is that if you aren’t creating meaningful experiences for people that they can associate something emotional with, you’re not going to create stewards of tomorrow’s natural spaces. Not unless people have touched them, felt them, had experiences in them. The masses generally are not doing that anymore. We want to change that.
And nurture the pride?
It’s an acknowledgment that our people are everything. We have people that have been here since day one. That doesn’t happen in most companies. We have people that have left and come back two or three times.
That ties to retention, right? Having that stance that your people are everything. If your people believe in your purpose, if you’re positioning them in that leadership pyramid scheme and giving the gift, if you are creating opportunities for people to push past their fear or to take on more leadership…all of those things are motivating. They deepen the love and deepen the trust so that it becomes this virtuous cycle.
Yeah. That value is pointing at the core of: we care about the person, and in many ways the outcome for the person, more than the outcome for the business.
Hmm. Say more.
I love people to stay in my company. But if the best thing for them to do is to take everything that they learn here and to carry on the mission in some other form or to carry on their own personal purpose in some other form, that’s a good thing. The other thing about nurture the pride is the things that we do are about taking care of each other. We don’t look at revenue as this thing that creates profit that lines our pockets. We look at it as a hunter-gatherer thing. First and foremost, revenue makes sure that we’re okay and that the people in our organization are okay. When we have a new park that opens somewhere, they might need the support of the revenue of the other parks to get to a point where they’ll be okay. It may seem like that’s just simple business: you move money around. But we don’t look at it that way. Because culturally, it’s an entirely different mindset for me to go, “You know what? I’m grateful for the fact that the rest of you who are in this position have helped me in my business unit to get to this point. And when I am at the point you are at, I will now understand that is part of what I do.” It’s a very nuanced cultural difference, and it matters.
Most times people see their job as the company paying them, but they don’t look at each other as key parts of a well-functioning machine. That supporting your colleagues to do their best work ultimately helps drive revenues and makes everyone better off.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. Going back to trust, and the relationship between company and employees.
It’s an ecosystem.
Exactly. We are an ecosystem. It’s all totally interrelated and it is not about “company” and “employees”. It is not.
Drucker again. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Tom, the world has much to learn from you. Thank you for being such a mentor to so many.
The mission keeps me centered. Evolve the human.