Vancouver Leadership Training Gets Creative (and Weird)

As organizations get flat and ?information goes viral, the era ?of command-and-control leadership is officially over. Every worker ?needs to be empowered to take ?the reins – but are local companies prepared to make that happen?

Leadership trainer Geordie Aitken (centre) helps clients get in touch with their inner ninja.

As organizations get flat and 
information goes viral, the era 
of command-and-control leadership is officially over. Every worker 
needs to be empowered to take 
the reins – but are local companies prepared to make that happen?

Rain slicks Pacific Boulevard while beneath the Georgia Viaduct, a group of 12 of us – an even split of men and women in their mid-20s to mid-40s – sidestep along a concrete abutment, nearly tripping over each other, dressed in black ninja outfits and feeling like anything but the highly disciplined martial artists our sinister costumes suggest. Suddenly one, two, then three more Vancouver Police Department cruisers, along with a dog team, roll to a stop next to the graffiti-scrawled skate park that is our informal training venue. And before anyone can say “samurai,” our gang of urban ninjas has been surrounded by a cagey contingent of officers. 

Turns out a civic-minded resident of a Main Street apartment tower had spotted shadowy, black-clad individuals conducting odd exercises on the streets below. It’s the first anniversary of the Olympic opening ceremonies, so the cops are hypervigilant for the “black bloc” protestors who trashed downtown storefronts in a pulse of pre-Games mayhem last February. When the dutiful citizen had called 911, therefore, the response was swift and serious. 

“Timing is everything,” says Geordie Aitken, our group’s 33-year-old leader, a disarming smile lighting up his youthful face as six cops, chests puffed up, exit their cars and approach with furrowed brows.

“What’s going on here?” says the officer in charge.

We’re about as threatening as a pack of panda bear cubs. Aitken, with his warm personable demeanour, makes direct and positive communication his business and quickly defuses the situation. A few phone calls and background checks later and the VPD leaves satisfied that we aren’t anarchists plotting wanton destruction. 


Aitken Leadership Group

Aitken is a partner with Aitken Leadership Group, the firm founded by his architect father, David, in 1990 to help companies and individuals develop their leadership skills, and overcome the sort of negative relationships and behaviours that Aitken says stand between mediocrity and excellence. He says his father drew early inspiration from psychotherapists such as Fritz Perls, who pioneered the Gestalt therapy approach to enhancing awareness of sensation, perception, emotion and behaviour. 

“We spend time looking into the structure of relationships, communication and accountability. These are black boxes for a lot of people,” Aitken says. The ninja idea emerged four years ago when Aitken began combining his personal martial arts practice with leadership workshops to create a “playful and creative space for learning.” 

How we ended up at this skate park is part of a game that Aitken often deploys to begin his workshops. In this case, a predetermined meeting place was established via email: Pacific Station. Once there, we identified fellow participants through eye contact and a nonsensical phrase: “I was noticing your sleeves.” Then someone in a shocking pink one-piece skin suit – Aitken, it turns out – approached each of us with a chit of paper bearing cryptic instructions to proceed to the skate park. Once there, we were formally greeted by a transformed Aitken – sans pink one-piece – and handed our ninja costumes. The workshop began with some group calisthenics and stretching, which attracted the attention of Johnny Law. Yet not until we escape the rain (and the clutches of the VPD) for a rented loft space in Gastown does the relevance of the ninja costume emerge, albeit somewhat obtusely. 

I’m reminded of the levelling logic of school uniforms; in a similar way, ninja suits aim to break down inhibitions and undermine egos. We are no longer identified by appearance, and in a subtle way, says Aitken, this liberates us for the real work – plumbing some of the ingrained beliefs that drive our behaviours. To be honest, it’s not complex stuff at the core of Aitken’s approach: don’t simply change behaviours for a better outcome; instead address the underlying feelings that drive those behaviours – financial insecurity, fear of failure, familial guilt, and so on. For Aitken, summoning the evocative symbolism of the ninja empowers people. Besides, it makes us laugh. 


SFU professor Gervase Bushe says the era of the
Captain Kirk-type leader “on the bridge, and a
whole bunch of managers beneath,” is over. “Now
we’re at a place where everyone needs to be a

“Anything that serves to disarm people from their normal egos and behaviour is a good thing. The deep work of personal growth doesn’t have to be so sincere. Young men, in particular, are not well served by traditional forms of leadership and personal development. It’s too mushy, too kumbaya. Ninja training invites the warrior back,” Aitken explains. “We build different ninja training sessions for different desired outcomes. Sometimes physical obstacles are a large aspect, sometimes complex problem-solving or code-breaking, sometimes personal reflection.”

Today’s workshop has attracted a potpourri of characters – a late-20s high-school teacher, a hotel food and beverage manager, a Gastown web marketer – each of whom hopes that Aitken can get them past the emotional or psychological barriers holding them back. However, businesses and organizations are Aitken Leadership’s core customers. As the traditional hierarchical company dissolves into a flatter, more nimble organization, management needs to be innovative and engender a sense of leadership, ownership and self-motivation in all employees. And many firms are turning to outside consultants – even some disguised as ninjas – to help them stickhandle this organizational change. 

The leadership training industry

Training is big business. U.S.-based Training Industry Inc. tracks the sector and says in 2009 North American businesses doled out more than $100 billion to train employees, customers and suppliers. Last year leadership-specific training – everything from one-time speaking engagements and weekend retreats to seminar series structured around actual business problems and certifying of in-house staff to deliver proprietary leadership programs – generated revenues of roughly $1.1 billion. In B.C.’s Lower Mainland there are at least a half-dozen leadership-training firms populating this somewhat amorphous realm of enterprise, including mom-and-pop operations like the Aitkens’ and Clear Learning Ltd., run by SFU business professor Gervase Bushe (based on Clear Leadership, a book detailing his academic investigations into the art of leadership). There are also B.C. outposts for global corporate-training outfits such as Franklin Covey Co. and the more esoteric Landmark Education Corp., whose intense three-day forums exploring personal issues, assumptions and behaviours always culminate in an evening sales pitch for aspiring friends of attendees. 

According to Bushe, who teaches leadership and organizational development at SFU’s Beedie School of Business (in addition to his past work with the likes of Telus, GM, and the Vancouver Island and Fraser health authorities), the era of command-and-control leadership is over. Bushe takes a critical look at what he calls “traditional organizations” in which people deemed to be “problem-solvers” predictably ascend the managerial hierarchy. The result is a cascade of problems – division between the so-called problem-solvers and the foot soldiers at the bottom of the hierarchy, resistance from those who had no say in the solution and, consequently, organizational failure to adapt and innovate. In the rapidly evolving digital age, where information swamps managers and decisions need to be made at light speed, such hierarchies are an extravagance that he believes organizations can ill afford.

“Managers get things done; leaders figure out what needs to be done,” says Bushe. “Leaders used to be seen as Captain Kirk on the bridge, and a whole bunch of managers beneath. Now we’re at a place where everyone needs to be a leader – and to do that, we need to create an organizational environment where learning is seen as a sign of strength not weakness.”

But as excited as Bushe is about the topic of leadership, he is tepid in his assessment of the Vancouver business community and its willingness to embrace organizational and leadership development.

“I hardly do any work in Vancouver. B.C. is kind of a managerial backwater. We have really good operational-management culture. You want trains to run on time, great, but if you want to build a world-class company, not so much,” he says. “Here you build a $30-million company then you sell it and go skiing in Whistler.”


Leading the Vancouver business community

Geordie Aitken, who joined his father’s company 10 years ago after graduating from UBC (where he studied, aptly enough, rhetoric, and later neuro-linguistic programming), agrees with Bushe. Though he admits he’s young in the game of leadership development, he also views the Vancouver business community as late adopters on the arc of organizational development: “Companies here tend to be more entrenched and dogmatic and stuck on the way things have always been done. Americans are much more entrepreneurial.” 

Bushe and Aitken may be on to something. According to a 2007 Conference Board of Canada report, American employers spent $1,134 per employee on training in 2006, about 40 per cent more than their Canadian counterparts. That may be why most of Aitken’s clients – among them, Texas-based restaurant operators Brinker International Inc., the American Council of Engineering Companies Inc. and the New Jersey-headquartered but globally active Langan Engineering & Environmental Services Inc. – are based south of the border. 

That’s not to say that Vancouver is stagnant on leadership development, but rather, in Aitken’s opinion, a little slow on the uptake. He believes too many local organizations buy into leadership training theory that amounts to “rearranging the deck chairs. Learning someone’s ‘Seven Steps’ is comforting, but sustainable personal behaviour change generally requires a deeper dive.” 


Tried and trusted leadership training

However, if Franklin Covey Co. and its approach ­– based on the philosophy of Stephen Covey, author of the 80-million-copies-and-counting bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – appears stale to upstarts like Geordie Aitken, it’s still the go-to training consultant for many organizations. Last year the Salt Lake City-based publicly traded company, which operates in 110 countries, posted total revenues of US$137 million, with its five regional North American offices realizing a revenue gain of 21 per cent over 2009. 

Tom McGovern is Franklin Covey’s area director for western Canada, managing a six-person sales team. He believes corporate B.C., like all of North America, is facing a talent vacuum thanks to an imminent wave of retiring baby boomers expected to crest in 2020. “There’s no high-value employer today that is not looking seriously at ways to develop its leadership pool,” McGovern says over the phone from his Calgary office. “But if we get a call from a client who says he has a roomful of 20 leaders and they want us to come in to give a talk, the best you’ll get is an event that will make people feel good and then they’ll go back to business as usual the next day. You may as well just buy pizza and beer. We’re interested in multi-year relationships, project-based with measurable results.”

McGovern says B.C.’s economy is skewed more heavily than other provinces toward the public sector, which has faced steadily declining budgets and staff. Downsizing means travel budgets for workplace training have also been trimmed, so Franklin Covey is adapting its curriculum to a new leaner fiscal reality, with web-based learning and coaching and less classroom time. Always on the search for clients, these days McGovern is keeping his eye on B.C.’s resurgent mining sector. Citing the Mining Industry Human Resources Council, McGovern says over the next decade the sector will require a minimum of 60,000 new workers, and the traditional focus on short-term operational objectives at the expense of long-term strategic human-resource management exposes mining companies to leadership gaps. 

There’s little doubt that leadership training can be a lucrative line of work, with companies paying consultants anywhere from $100 to $3,000 per employee per day for their services. (The higher fees are fetched by trainers with proprietary teaching materials such as Clear Learning and Franklin Covey.) And the approaches taken for leadership development can be as diverse as the shelves of a big-box supermarket, even for organizations with already high-functioning teams or company executives who seem to personify leadership. 


Leadership training at Lululemon

If anyone in the Vancouver business community fits the label “born leader,” it would be Chip Wilson, the outspoken and iconoclastic founder of yoga-apparel retailer Lulu lemon Athletica Inc. The company is known for its devotion to Landmark, and Wilson is himself a Landmark graduate; he’s been quoted touting the seminars as instrumental in creating a culture of achievement. When contacted by BCBusiness for an interview, company spokesperson Alecia Pulman declined to comment.

One organization that would openly discuss its leadership-training program is Kryton International Inc. The Vancouver-based company specializes in products that waterproof, repair and protect concrete structures, and was selected by BCBusiness in 2010 as one of the province’s best companies to work for. CEO Kari Yuers began on the shop floor of the company launched by her father in 1973, earning her proverbial stripes as a young, visibly ethnic female salesperson in the white, patriarchal construction industry. She says that over the years she’s learned from both good and bad managers and believes strongly that with the right coaching and training, leaders can emerge from unlikely individuals. 

“My style of leadership is collaborative. I have to be decisive but also surround myself with people who build a culture of respect and trust,” says the 42-year-old executive.

To this end Kryton spends approximately $100,000 annually on employee- training courses and peer-to-peer counselling. Recently Kryton’s vice-president attended the Accelerated Leadership Program through UBC’s Sauder School of Business. At $23,000, it’s not cheap, but Yuers believes it’s worth the investment. As for her own ongoing personal development, she meets monthly with The Executive Committee Canada group, and she calls it a “field day” for swapping and sharing leadership strategies and ideas. For confirmation that investing in employee and leadership training pays off, all Yuers has to do is look at Kryton’s balance sheet: she says the family-owned company, with a workforce of 40, has seen its sales grow tenfold over the past decade and it’s the people who’ve made this growth possible. “You have to lead by example and that’s been the core of what I try to do,” Yuers says.

One of the axioms Yuers likes to repeat is that “people quit supervisors; they don’t quit companies.” It’s a sentiment echoed by executives at some of B.C.’s biggest employers, including Telus and ICBC.

“Research shows the number one reason people leave a company is dissatisfaction with their immediate supervisor, so having good leaders is critical to any organization’s success,” says Dan Pontefract, Telus’s senior director of learning and collaboration. Each year, the telecommunications giant’s Leadership Now program schools 250 “rising stars” at Telus in a year-long series of seminars and workshops on topics such as emotional intelligence and leadership styles, most of which is conducted by in-house personnel.


Leadership training at ICBC

ICBC is another sprawling organization, with 5,000 employees scattered around the province, but it applies an almost scientific rigour to leadership development. In 2009, ICBC spent a total of $2.86 million on employee training, a portion of which is dedicated specifically to leadership. Like Telus, ICBC conducts most of its training in-house, but it buys content and materials from consultants such as Development Dimensions International Inc. and Edmonton-based Sundance Consulting Inc. BCIT occasionally supplies experts on topics like business writing and public speaking.

“Traditionally leadership and learning to interact with other employees without alienating them is not something we talked about,” says Michael Hancock, ICBC’s director of organizational development. “We used to incent and motivate employees solely on what they got done and not how they got it done.” 

Not anymore. Although ICBC hasn’t swapped strong management and tough decision-making for a milquetoast touchy-feely model, the organization now places much more emphasis on the soft skills of manager-employee engagement. To this end, Hancock and his team recently revamped leadership development with a range of content, from coaching on personal productivity and effective work relationships aimed at all employees to focused workshops for existing leaders on performance coaching, handling difficult conversations and leading in a unionized workplace. 

“It’s important to leverage some of the expertise of outside consultants because they bring experience and insight from a whole range of different companies and organizations,” Hancock says. The training doesn’t stop with attendance; ICBC tracks the success of its programs using the Kirkpatrick Measurement model that gauges reaction, learning, behaviour and results flowing from a course. It’s not a perfect metric, says Hancock, but it allows ICBC to quantify its return on investment, at least in ballpark terms. 

Part of being accountable to clients, of being able to show results, is avoiding the drudgery of classroom-style training. Whether it’s ninjas in the streets or invoking avatars and virtual personas, the name of the game is, inform, yes, but also entertain. And 30-something Geordie Aitken belongs to that youthful demographic for which rows of desks, blackboards and pedantic lectures create an eye-glazing scenario. 

“Traditional leadership development eschews technology, fiction and play. Even the term ‘leadership development’ is boring,” he says. Aitken believes leadership pedagogy of the future must appeal to the cyber-savvy, social-media devouring millennials. For example, a class could break into teams of three and be assigned the task of creating a Facebook profile for an ideal leader. “It’s a competitive exercise, and they have only half an hour,” he explains. “Suddenly the teams are communicating, building trust, breaking down the task, working under pressure, being creative, considering what makes a leader and also what constitutes compelling self-expression. And it’s not yet coffee break.” 

As for leadership development in Vancouver, he hasn’t given up – far from it. He sees the local business community becoming more diverse, creative and younger, which, in turn, will drive local firms to pursue learning and development experiences that reflect this creative spirit. 

“As a city, Vancouver has a sense of freedom to it, and it’s thrilling to be here at this point in its history. For the designer of immersive experiences, whether for leadership development or pure adventure, Vancouver is an incredible platform,” Aitken says. “So when it comes to leadership training, I see this city as a playground waiting to happen.”