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the ladder

Pam August, director of culture activation for Calgary-based WestJet, says she loves learning about learning.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Pam August is director of culture activation for Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd.

I've had a very eclectic and very non-linear career path. After graduating from high school in the eighties, I worked as a corporate secretary at Scotiabank, left to travel and returned to waitress at the Foothills hospital [in Calgary]. I also taught aerobics with leg warmers and big hair.

The turning point in my career was when the director of food services tapped me on the shoulder, and said: "Pam, I know you have secretarial skills; can you come help me?" So I literally went to the office in my waitressing uniform.

There I discovered a love of nutrition and went on to graduate with a nutritional technology diploma from SAIT [Southern Alberta Institute of Technology]. That led to a career in corporate wellness in marketing and sales, and teaching fitness and lifestyle education.

My food and nutrition mentor hired me back to teach in the SAIT Health Sciences faculty, but then I moved to Faculty Development to teach teachers how to teach. I realized I loved learning about learning. I had young children so I worked part-time.

It's important to remember none of these jobs paid very well, at least not at the start. I could have have made more money in the corporate world. But I followed what I loved to do.

Start with your strengths. I was told, "you would a great lawyer," "you would be a great HR manager." But none of them was me.

I had applied to WestJet in learning and development but heard nothing back. Later, I was teaching instructional techniques and there were some WestJet trainers in the class. They encouraged me to come to WestJet. I arranged an information interview and was hired later as an adviser in leadership development.

I learned how to coach other leaders because it was the same as teaching faculty how to teach.

One of the most influential authors for me is Brené Brown who writes on vulnerability. Some people roll their eyes initially, but she's real and her research has substance. The leaders that I have worked with who have been the most successful are those who are most real. They share personal stories about what matters to them and this connects people to them.

I continued my education online while working and earned a B.Ed. in adult education from the University of Alberta. Now I'm working on my master's degree in leadership at Royal Roads University. I'm a life-long learner. I'm a brain-gym instructor, a yoga teacher and a mindfulness practitioner.

To be successful you have to be able to form strong relationships. Every organization says that – at WestJet it's a deal-breaker. Be curious.

My biggest on-the-job challenge came last year, as I was just about to join 500 WestJetters at an event in Toronto. I got a call that my mother suddenly passed away. The way my organization took care of me solidified that WestJet is an organization that truly cares.

My leader asked me to imagine the culture of WestJet in five years. I took a year to imagine my current role. I'm responsible for leading our culture road map for the next five years.

If your organization is just chasing numbers, you will never build the type of passion and commitment that you are looking for.

Culture is our strength. I'm trying to support a culture of care and of an owner's mindset, where people take personal ownership. It is a place of high personal spirit where we come from a positive outlook. We have a high sense of control and go above and beyond.

We keep it real through key practices. For instance, we don't do automatic deposit for profit share. We print and run cheques so leaders can look their people in the eye and say "thank you."

As we grow, we are designing key connections so people feel like they are part of something. We are rolling out a program called Base Camp; we're sending leaders out into our operation. Most WestJetters don't work in an office.

Own the moment. What we have control over is the experience in the moment. That's how we want to distinguish ourselves. We all have the opportunity to own the moment while working in a challenging industry.

As told to Janice Paskey. The interview has been edited and condensed for length.