Leadership: Property developer Renee Wasylyk shares some home truths

There is no perfect leadership style—no prescription that will work for every CEO, or every wannabe, in every enterprise. Check the back issues of the Harvard Business Review, and you'll find a long history of leadership fads, many of which still have merit. But for Renee Wasylyk, founder and CEO...

Credit: Darren Hull

Wasylyk forged her own path in the real estate development business by seeking advice from others and choosing collaboration over confrontation

There is no perfect leadership style—no prescription that will work for every CEO, or every wannabe, in every enterprise. Check the back issues of the Harvard Business Review, and you’ll find a long history of leadership fads, many of which still have merit. But for Renee Wasylyk, founder and CEO of large-footprint property development and construction firm Troika Developments, the time of the overbearing, my-way-or-the-highway boss is long gone.

There are two reasons for the change. First, every new hire from the past 10 years has a box in their closet overflowing with participation medals and trophies; millennials have been told their whole lives that their contributions would always be valued. As a result, “Millennials are more demanding,” Wasylyk says. “They want a transactional boss.”

Second, those new hires have entered the workforce at a time when the influence of women has softened the edges of traditional leadership practice. That’s both noticeable and surprising in the development industry, which is well known for its toughness and is still heavily male-dominated. But it’s the world that Wasylyk chose, and although she says, “I don’t think about being a girl,” she also knows that she is, by nature, “more relational, more collaborative.”

All this came into clearer relief recently when Wasylyk was having lunch with a newcomer to the 70-person team at Kelowna-based Troika, which specializes in residential and commercial projects. “I asked him how it was going, and he said that he’d been watching me. He said, ‘I think I could do what you do. But I’d be a lot more savage.’” Wasylyk’s response reveals her self-image and her own toughness. She told him, “Then you couldn’t do what I do.”

Troika’s developments, in Kelowna, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg, and its more than $60 million in annual revenue, suggest that Wasylyk’s mentee—and everyone else—needs to keep watching.

Renee Wasylyk was born in Drumheller, Alberta, in 1976, but moved almost immediately to southern California, where she grew up in Orange County. After high school, she was drawn, mysteriously if irresistibly, back to Alberta—to Edmonton, where she did a BA in religious studies and a master’s in theology at Taylor University College and Seminary (then affiliated with the University of Alberta). She met and married another Albertan, and when she got pregnant with the first of their three children, they moved to Kelowna—“for a year.” That was in 1998.

There being no jobs to her liking, Wasylyk created one. She’d been fascinated by real estate development since high school, when she job-shadowed a project manager at Irvine Co., which, dating from 1864, is one of the oldest and most successful development firms in western North America. Yet when she bit off her first venture, a small mixed-use building, Wasylyk says, “I knew enough to know what I didn’t know.”

So she went looking for advice from some of B.C.’s best developers: Joe Segal, David Podmore (Concert Properties Ltd.) and Peeter Wesik (Wesgroup Properties and ParkLane Ventures). She asked each of them three questions: What would you do all over? What would you never do? What would you tell your younger self?

“These guys were so kind in giving me time,” Wasylyk recalls. “It was like I was young and female and didn’t pose a threat.”

The most memorable counsel came from Podmore, who told her that if she wanted to succeed in development, she should also start a construction company. Otherwise, when the market is hot, it’s a constant—and incredibly expensive—hassle trying to get your projects done.

Wasylyk took the advice and built an empire, an integrated development and construction firm with a full complement of tradespeople: framers, electricians, plumbers, drywallers, cabinetmakers—the works. By the mid-2000s, when one of her children asked her what she did for a living, she said, “I feed 180 families.”

When the economy tanked in 2008, that turned out to be about 100 too many. Troika was sitting on quality projects, but it couldn’t get past the cash crunch. “In the 1980s, money cost 18 per cent, but people would still lend it to you,” Wasylyk explains. “In 2008, no one would lend you money at any rate. It was catastrophic.” She says she could have declared bankruptcy or just cut loose all the tradespeople and suppliers. “Or I could sell my assets at pennies on the dollar and make sure everybody got paid.”

That’s what she did. Wasylyk thinned out the organization, ultimately dropping from 180 to 70 full-time employees, but she did it slowly enough that everyone had a soft landing. “I didn’t want to be a developer who chased the market,” she says. “I wanted to be a community leader and builder who was here for the long term.”

Wasylyk’s leadership advice now? Go ask someone in your business her three questions. The answers may be complicated, but there is wisdom in listening.

And does she recommend her own industry? “Absolutely. If you like roller coasters, you’ll like development. Just close your eyes, put your arms in the air, and enjoy the ride.”

How would you describe your leadership style?
Relational and transformational. Organizationally, we don’t have a hierarchy; we have a matrix. It’s not an org chart; it’s a circle. You’ll never hear anyone call me cutthroat or shrewd. I’m always looking to find the greatest win-win.

What’s a common myth or misconception about leadership?
That leadership is glamorous or easy. It’s lonely and isolating. And you never really know what people think. You really have to have intrinsic motivation—to do more, get better, listen more.

What three things would you tell a young person who aspires to become a CEO?

1. Don’t worry about becoming a CEO; worry about becoming a better person. 

2. Leadership isn’t about position; position will never make you a leader. People make you their leader.

3. Be careful what you wish for!