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Challenging role: Forks North Portage staff need to be both specialists and generalists

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Jim August relishes the opportunity to promote Winnipeg whenever and wherever he can. In fact, the CEO of The Forks North Portage Partnership has been talking up his organization's mandate to "contribute to making Winnipeg's downtown a better place to live, work and play," and people around the world are taking notice.

"I'm a member of The Waterfront Center (an international, non-profit urban planning organization focused on enhancing communities' waterfront resources), and recently did a presentation to the group on our winter river trail, with its skating and its warming huts. It blew them away, mainly because most had never seen ice on a river before," August says with a laugh. "But they were very impressed by what Winnipeg is capable of doing despite our climate."

The Forks North Portage Partnership is made up of two separate entities -- the North Portage Development Corp. and The Forks Renewal Corp.

"We own and operate an IMAX theatre, a parking company and a public market, maintain a park, and at the same time, we're a property management company with a number of leases within our holdings. We're extremely diverse in terms of facilities and activities."

August tips his hat to the 70 people working in the organization who understand the importance of staying diligent and proactive and, yet, are cognizant of being in the public eye.

 

Q: As your organization is so diverse and has diverse needs, do you find recruiting a challenge?

A: We are fortunate in that people seem to want to work here and that we have very little turnover. But from a people perspective, one of our biggest challenges is hiring individuals who are generalists and yet, can be specialists in a particular area. When I say generalists, I mean they usually have some expertise in a field, but also have a broader background with the ability and interest to take on new challenges. For example, we have a very good relationship with our corporate sponsors. That is largely due to the work of the person who looks after sponsorship, and the interesting thing is that she didn't have any previous experience in the area, just good sensibility. Since she joined us, corporate sponsorship has gone to a new level. It has become more sophisticated, thanks to the fact that we now secure long-term commitments with sponsors rather than one-offs. That's been hugely beneficial.

 

Q: How important is hiring for fit?

A: Someone once told me that hiring staff is like putting together a hockey team. Great sports teams have players that may be transferable between positions and what matters most is that they fit the team. They should know what they're doing, but be flexible enough to take on different roles and support the team wherever needed. I've learned that when you're having trouble with fit, you need to deal with that issue as soon as possible. That doesn't mean it's not tough. It's tough on the person. It's tough on the organization. Many times people are kept on too long because it's hard to admit you made a mistake. That's why making that decision on the front end is best for everyone involved.

At the same time, I appreciate that not everyone works the same way. We all have different skill sets and some people work faster than others. Some can move quickly on things while others are not as manoeuvrable. Being able to offset each other is a good thing so we're not all running like lemmings in one direction. Instead, there are some checks and balances. It's all about how you play to people's diverse strengths in a team situation.

 

Q: As a CEO, what ongoing issues or challenges keep you awake at night?

A: I'm concerned mostly about bringing expectations in sync with reality. You sometimes think that you should be able to do more in certain areas, but get frustrated when you're not moving in that direction as effectively as you could or think you should. Often, it has nothing to do with the team or the processes in place; it's usually external factors from funding to flooding that throw a wrench into the works. Without a doubt, communication is the No. 1 challenge in any organization. When you're split between two offices as we are, there is always a concern that we might drop the ball because things are not being communicated as effectively as they should. A couple of projects are manageable, but when there are six or seven going on at once, it's easier to let something slip. I'm by no means a micro-manager, but when you're delegating and ultimately responsible for a project, you must ensure there is accountability and a system for reporting back in case things do run off the rails.

 

Q: What qualities are you looking for in future leaders?

A: In broad terms, I think it has to be good communication and strategic thinking. It's hard to spend time on the strategy side when you're being pulled into the operational side, which is probably one of my biggest personal challenges. Of course, I have fantastic operations people, but it's the nature of who we are and the meat and potatoes of what we do; this is not always as glorious as people might think. So, to answer the question, I think that the essential qualities future leaders need are the ability to communicate, to think strategically and at the same time, to understand the people working for you and what their needs are.

 

Q: How important is it to provide your team with professional development?

A: I would say it's very important. We send our people on at least one conference or workshop a year for professional development. We also try to take advantage of opportunities that come our way. For example, when we hosted Canada's NHL Face-off last fall, the NHL group that came in to organize the festivities really made an impact on our people, and vice-versa. They were blown away by The Forks, loved the venue and the way our team acted as a support system to them. In return, our people were able to glean all of this great intelligence and energy. It was a real mutual admiration. So, we invited the consulting group back at a later date to do a workshop with our group and we gained a tremendous amount from it.

 

Q: Which business leaders have most influenced your leadership style?

A: The first was a fellow by the name of Hal Studholm, a director at the YMCA. I grew up in the Y's leadership program and got my first job running programs for the North End. I remember once wondering why we couldn't have basketball on Saturday afternoons without a fee attached. Hal, being a very pragmatic guy, sat me down and worked through the numbers to explain why it wasn't feasible. It was a great lesson. Hal caused me to think about things differently in a tough economic climate, even for Saturday afternoon basketball.

I would also mention Nick Diakiw, chief commissioner for the City of Winnipeg when I was at the Core Area Initiative (eventually the North Portage Development Corp. and the Forks Renewal Corp.). Nick was a matter-of-fact guy. I remember he told me, "If you want to get to the top, make sure you don't have to work through all the steps." In other words, you'll never get there if you go the traditional route so find your own way. He also taught me that if you want to get things done, surround yourself with good people.

Finally, I'd name Bill Norrie, who was the ultimate gentleman. Even if we were late for a meeting, Bill would stop and make time to chat with people just to ask how they were doing. He was a real prince of a guy and very respectful of everyone, regardless of title. That's something I've tried to incorporate in my everyday life.

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

 

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is the executive search practice leader for People First HR Services. He can be contacted at jmcferran@peoplefirsthr.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 H1

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