Leadership 2021: Pandemic has pushed leaders to be more transparent with their people than ever, says YVR boss Tamara Vrooman

Developing soft skills is the hardest part of leadership, says YVR president and CEO Tamara Vrooman.

When Tamara Vrooman was committing early last year to take over as president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, her new employer gave her an out.

“The board and my board chair, to their credit—it was clear that the pandemic was already in full swing and was likely to have a huge impact on our business,” recalls Vrooman, who started the job in July 2020 after stepping down as president and CEO of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union. “And they said, Are you sure you want to do this, to take this opportunity at this time? It’s going to be a challenge. And I said, Absolutely, and I’d answer exactly the same way today.”

After traffic volumes plunged in COVID’s wake, YVR took the opportunity to do things like invest in technology, modernize its food and beverage services, and prepare for higher cargo volume due to e-commerce, Vrooman says.

But for her, people are the airport’s greatest assets. “[I’m] very much a believer in achieving our purpose through our people,” she says when asked what it’s been like for her as a leader. “The way I normally do that is by connecting with people and understanding their work and supporting them and developing and coaching, being transparent and having open, collaborative exchanges.”

That’s been tough, partly because Vrooman still hadn’t met all of her 400 staff, many of whom work remotely. She also finds talking to people onscreen more formal than in person. “You don’t get the body language and the cues,” Vrooman notes. “The interaction between people is hub-and-spoke as opposed to a collective, which is key to collaboration.”

Then again, the pandemic has shown that hybrid and flexible work can be productive, she says. If striking the right balance is tricky, she doesn’t see YVR going back to the old way of doing things. “But I do think contribution to the culture of organizations is really important to our performance and to our business outcomes,” Vrooman says. “So building that cohesive culture is a work in progress, and I think we have to rebuild it a bit using this hybrid way of working.”

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Since the pandemic began, Vrooman says, employees have come to expect their leaders to lead not only in business but in other areas that matter to them, whether it’s diversity, community or climate. “The expectation that leaders are transparent is heightened, I think, because they don’t get the opportunity to just see the leader casually in whatever business context,” she adds. “So I have found that you have to work even harder at being transparent.”

At YVR, that situation has turned Vrooman into something of a video personality. Every two weeks she hosts a virtual open session, nicknamed Live TV after her initials, that gives all staff a chance ask questions and share what’s on their mind. The connection isn’t quite as deep as it would be in person, Vrooman admits. “But they’re very much, What do you think about this? How are you seeing that? What are you doing?”

On that note, what advice does Vrooman have for aspiring leaders? Soft skills—the ability to communicate, listen, motivate and display empathy—have been the “glue” throughout the pandemic and will remain important post-COVID, she says. “But we also know that the soft stuff is actually the hard stuff,” she adds, describing it as the most difficult part of leadership. “So for new leaders, thinking about how to cultivate, take advantage of and pursue opportunities that allow you to do the hard work of developing soft skills is vital.”

Vrooman’s second tip: “I read somewhere, and I believe it, that the most important business skill in the next 10 years is going to be the ability to recruit and identify talent. And I see that. We are going into a different period in the labour market.”