How Terry Dillon and The Refinery Bring Out the Best in Companies

With CEO Terry Dillon at the helm, The Refinery uses innovative solutions to unlock the potential of companies all over the world 

Elite athletes and leaders have a lot in common—or at least they should.

No one knows this better than Terry Dillon. Dillon is CEO of The Refinery Leadership Partners, a Vancouver-based leadership development firm with offices in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. He’s also a former competitive rower with two Olympic Games under his belt.

“As an athlete, you understand what it takes to have a clear, compelling vision of what you’re trying to do, which is get on a podium,” says Dillon. In business, there may be no podium, but successful organizations are able to identify their version of a gold medal, and build a clear plan to achieving it.

Dillon started out as a secondary-school science teacher in the U.K., rowing on his own time and eventually competing as a member of the British national team. He came to consulting later in life, joining The Refinery in 2010 after a move to Vancouver.

The Refinery’s mission is to change the world of work—for the better. As a first step, the firm asks its clients to define their own “gold medal.”

“Then we step back and say, what do people in the organization need to be exhibiting for the company to achieve that?” says Dillon. “What’s their assessment of how they stack up?” From there, The Refinery creates a development agenda consisting of performance sprints, or measurable changes implemented on the job. “You don’t learn leadership out of a book,” says Dillon. “It’s a contact sport.” Improvement, as in sports, requires deliberate practice and self-scrutiny.

Dillon sees it as a series of choices, similar to those an athlete would make: “I’m going to choose to get out of bed in the morning. I’m going to choose to push myself; choose to get focused on how I can make the boat go faster and how, with other people, we can make it go faster together.” Effective organizations have this strong sense of purpose, from the CEO to the front desk.

So what gets Dillon and his colleagues out of bed in the morning? The knowledge that so many people go to work feeling unfulfilled.

“What frustrates me is that we know, more than ever, how to fix that. We know what is engaging for people in the workplace: autonomy. People like to feel they have some control, that they can grow and get better. That they’re working toward something that has meaning,” says Dillon. “We work really hard as an organization to create that.” One sprint at a time.