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.
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.