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Jim Lightbody
Jim Lightbody

LEADERSHIP LAB

Lessons learned from my first year as a CEO Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

I’ve always wanted to be a CEO. Some kids grow up wanting to be professional athletes, lawyers or astronauts. Not me. Well, maybe I wanted to be a professional athlete at one point but kidding aside, it was when my soccer coach promoted me to team captain at an early age that I knew I wanted to be a leader. From there, I was steadfast and intentional about paving my way to the top.

Some people may believe you’ve got to be a “born leader” but like anything it takes a lot of practice and a burning desire. So I started honing my leadership skills on the soccer field and in the lacrosse box long before entering the business world.

Early on in my business career, I took a keen interest in watching leaders and I learned by osmosis – the good, the bad and the ugly. I made note of who I wanted to emulate and who I didn’t; paying attention to the little things helped me identify the type of leader I wanted to be.

The truth is, I’m still learning and growing as a leader which is why I wanted to reflect on my top lessons from my first year as CEO at BCLC, the Crown Corporation responsible for gambling in British Columbia.

Be aware of how you show up

As a leader and especially as a CEO, you have to be self-aware because everything you do or don’t do gets noticed. And you can’t have a bad day. For example, it might be the first time someone in my organization gets to meet with me and I can’t afford to make a bad impression. Everyone in the organization should feel they make an impact and I’ve learned when you’re at the top, you need to be even more aware of your presence and how it can positively or negatively affect others.

As part of BCLC’s onboarding process I meet with all new employees in small groups to welcome them. Recently one of our new hires told me she really appreciates my friendly and open nature because at her previous company, people were instructed not to address the CEO directly. If you were in the elevator you weren’t even allowed to say hello or make eye contact. What is this, the corporate mafia? Again, take note of the kind of leader you don’t want to be.

By nature, I’m a social person which helps in the CEO role. It doesn’t take extra energy for me to pull up a chair beside a group of people in the cafeteria or take an interest in my people when I run into them in the hall. Those small gestures go a long way and make a big difference in morale and employee engagement. But that’s me. You can’t fake it. You have to be authentic.

Lean into your newfound impatience

It’s safe to say once you arrive in the C-Suite, you’re pretty far removed from the day-to-day operations of your business. I no longer have an in-the-trenches visibility on projects which means when there are delays, I tend to ask tough questions. The key is asking the right questions with the goal of removing obstacles or roadblocks for various teams. I’m not an impatient person in my personal life, but as a CEO I’ve found I can be and it didn’t take me long to learn this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when used correctly.

Also, having insight into your key performance indicators helps you ask the right questions. An example of my impatience and the benefit of leaning into it relates to our recruitment process. I recently asked my vice-president of human resources – why does it take so long to fill our vacancies? Kudos to her for leading her team to map out the process only to discover there were more than 100 steps and on average, it took 100 days. They identified redundancies and streamlined the process by more than a third, which was a big victory for our HR team and our organization. While I didn’t do this work, it was sparked by me leaning into my impatience, which led to a change that will help accelerate our business effectiveness and reduce frustration across the workforce.

It’s important to challenge your people and the way things have always been done. As a leader you have the power to remove barriers but you need to ask the right questions and keep focused on the drivers of your business.

Don’t forget about yourself

At first blush this lesson seems like common sense, but I learned it the hard way when I was promoted to CEO. I was initially travelling quite a bit, putting in long hours and packing in too many meetings and, at the end of my day, the last thing I wanted to do was hit the gym.

It was clear this lifestyle caught up to me when my doctor told me I could afford to lose a few pounds. He fell short of wagging a finger at me but was blunt in saying I needed to make time for myself and build exercise into my schedule. I won’t even tell you what the nutritionist said, but let’s just say I’ve made some life changes that give me more energy and focus at work.

I ultimately learned how important it is for leaders to set the tone for the whole organization in the work/life balance arena, while recognizing it ebbs and flows. You might have a couple months where you need to put in extra hours to get the job done and your work/life balance is off, followed by a slower month that you can maximize time for yourself or your family. I believe it all evens out in the end.

You can’t please everyone

This is a truism in business and in life but as a new CEO, I worked against logic and tried to please everyone. This approach inevitably didn’t last long and I was forced to shift my mindset.

My leadership legacy is to do the right thing. I discovered early on that if I fall back on doing what I believe is the right thing, it makes the job easier. That way I can sleep at night even if I know the decision might have ruffled some feathers or earned me a few more critics.

Whether you’re the captain of a lacrosse team or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, it’s important to be aware of how you show up. Strong leaders are always learning and growing – regardless if you’re on the climb to the top, or you’re already there.

Jim Lightbody (@BCLC_CEO) is president and CEO of BCLC.

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