Relationships foster success
Face-to-face encounters produce the best results
Q: The person who nominated you for the Influential Women in Business award said that you are the glue that holds the community together. What do you think was meant by that?
A: Really good question! I don't know! I can say that the chamber is very involved in this community. I often say that I've got my fingers in almost all the pots out there. We have had to work at identifying the areas that should be our main focus in order to make the best use of out time and talents, and so that the community has a clear picture of what we're about.
I envision the chamber like an umbrella over the community, and that umbrella is tied to the other chambers of commerce in the region. We have realized that chambers need to work together as a region, so relationships are really important.
Q: How do you go about creating relationships? Do you have social functionrs? Or retreats?
A: We do all of that and then some. I think that one of the key skills required in this position is communication. Today it is so easy to sit in front of your computer and do everything from there, but you need to get back to the grassroots level. You have to pull yourself away from the computer and get out and meet these folks. They appreciate that connection, and it fosters the relationships. Being able to relate on many levels is really important, whether it's with someone who has multiple degrees, or with someone who is running on instinct and a good idea. You have to connect emotionally. I get far more information from talking face-to-face than I ever would via e-mails.
Q: Would you say that as a board you need to have a shared vision?
A: Absolutely. I've been in this position for four and a half years, and I've always had a great working board. In this last year, we have had some struggles and questions about our purpose and our focus.
Q: What made these questions come up?
A: When openings come up on the board, for whatever reason, we seek new candidates who are energetic and entrepreneurial. I like to make sure that the board has representatives from all of the business sectors in the community. This time, when those new folks came on, they didn't take several months to begin to be active, they came out right away and said that they wanted a clear directions, goals and a plan. So we had another planning session where we really defined our focus and direction, and I found that very beneficial.
Q: It sounds like these people really don't want to waste time - was that your impression?
A: Oh yes! They recently advised me that they do not want to take our usual break in July and August; they want to keep working right through. That's fabulous because we have our direction and we are gaining momentum, so why would we want to pause? It is going to be more work, but I think that the chamber will certainly reap some benefits. We are charged and energized, and I feel good about our direction.
Q: Can you talk a little about that direction?
A: The primary focus of the board is on its relationships with our members. With that in mind, they want me out in the community more. They want to grow the membership, and retain them. Retention is the challenge. Our priority is to hear what the members have to say so that we can determine what's needed to foster a sustainable business community. We are working toward the business expansion and retention program that the board has been trying to push through for about a year. We're challenged right now and need more of a buy-in from the community.
Q: Do you have a specific philosophy or mission statement?
A: This position is so dynamic and diverse, my statement could be changed daily! Overall, though, I have found that I have to remain positive, and some days that's difficult. When I'm faced with negative comments, especially passionate ones, it can be hard to remain positive. I have to make sure I pause and realize that there's a reason for the passion and emotion, and I have to identify the core of that passion so that I can take that and move forward. The biggest thing is to be quiet and listen. These folks wand and need to be heard. Listening, and acknowledging that you've heard them is a huge part of leadership.
Q: What are some of the challenges and rewards of your position?
A: Balancing the delicate relationship between the municipality - mayor and council - and the chamber members is one. Luckily, we are working together very well, though there are times when we just need to agree to disagree. The business community gives me strong feedback that I can present to council, and sometimes the issues make for a lot of passion. Then the very next day we may be working together on rolling out Winterfest, which is a very fun event, and it can be a challenge to keep a balance. Sometimes even working with the board can be a challenge. My job is to research and make recommendations to the board, and then the board has the debate and I am given my directions. I can make all the recommendations I want, but it's a give-and-take situation.
Sometimes there's a difference between the business community's expectations of what the chamber should be doing and what the board directs it to do. Essentially I have 300 bosses: the board and the business community. Picture that! I have to pick the pieces over to figure out which direction I should choose and what's going to give the best end result. It's easy to get led astray with issues that are important to a few but are not representative of the biggest business community.
On the positive side, winning this award - even being nominated for this award - is wonderful. I sat there is disbelief when I heard about it - I thought someone was kidding me. I'm still on a high! I got a call from Alex Atamanenko, our MP in Ottawa, yesterday. He heard about the award and he phoned me with his congratulations and best wishes. I'm getting that kind of reaction from lots of people.
One of the biggest things that I get a thrill out of is getting through a challenge and being recognized for it, even in a small way. It's really rewarding when one of the directors or a chamber member says, "Good job. These are great results." On a larger scale, when we write a policy piece, being able to tell people about it makes me feel good. We have four policy pieces right now, three provincial and one federal, and I wrote those and I argued them on the floor in front of hundreds of people, and they were adopted. Those things keep you floating for quite some time.
Just yesterday I asked someone, "What do you like, what don't you like, what do you want to see more of, and what are your challenges?" The response was, "Everything is great. You guys are doing a fantastic job." Those comments keep us going.
My downfall is that I don't have a good balance between my personal life and my work. My biggest challenge is that I feel like I'm not there enough for my kids. Even when we're all together, I am still preoccupied with my job. I take everything home with me; I lose sleep and I'm always concerned about what's going on at work. I may wake up at 2 a.m. and I'll be strategically planning how I'll deal with an issue at the office.
My biggest piece of advice to anyone in a leadership role is to pay attention to your home and your family life. These kinds of jobs can come and go, but your family is forever.