In the early '90s, Dave Angus called the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce for help. As the owner of a small family business eager to expand, he'd run up against a snarl of rezoning red tape and couldn't understand the opposition to the plan.
"After trying to get support elsewhere, I called the chamber out of frustration and immediately discovered they had an understanding of what we were trying to do," Angus says. "I was relieved to find a support group, which also turned out to be a peer-to-peer learning ground for me plus a means of growing my business network."
After nearly a decade as a member and then board chairman, Angus became president and CEO of the chamber in 1999, when the association adopted a corporate business model. Since then, it has grown to 2,000 members from 1,300 and has held a spot in North America's Top 10 chambers of commerce for new member growth three years in a row.
The chamber's three-tiered mandate is to provide community leadership (collaborating on initiatives such as Crime Stoppers and Yes Winnipeg); advocacy (serving as the voice of business on issues like employment standards, Sunday shopping hours and the national transportation policy); and member services and support (such as establishing a small business group plan insurance program) as Manitoba's largest business network.
"Since 1873, the chamber has viewed the ups and downs of this city through a business lens," Angus says. "Today, we still take a lot of pride in the fact that we are an organization that reflects the unique diversity of Winnipeg's business community."
Q: How does being CEO of a member-driven organization differ from being a corporate CEO?
A: I have access to some of the best expertise in the world through chamber members -- there isn't a single area of learning I can't access through a discussion over the phone, around a committee table or during a networking luncheon. The quality of knowledge we have access to is amazing and I consider it among our biggest assets. As CEO, I also get to work with a new board chair every year. In my tenure, it has been a privilege to have worked with 11 business leaders who each brought a unique perspective and from whom I have learned a great deal. There are also challenges to running a member-driven organization. We have 2,000 members who effectively "own" the chamber and who have a wide variety of interests. We want to make sure each member's needs are being met and that their voice is being heard. But when you have a membership that is as large and as diverse as ours, it can be a challenge to be all things to everyone. For example, as a lobbying organization, we ourselves get lobbied to champion very specific needs and we unfortunately have to turn some of these down because they're not consistent with policy or would consume too many resources. At the same time, we realize how fortunate we are to have such diverse interests represented in our members because the strength of our membership is really what leads to the strength of our policy development.
Q: What is the most important message you and your staff try to convey to members?
A: We want our members to know we care as much about their business as they do. We have tried to create a supportive environment that conveys that their success is our success, so that when they look behind them, they see our entire chamber membership cheering them on. I would also say we try to emphasize that one member can make a big difference. Years ago, one of our members had come across this incredible drive-through light park where you could set your radio dial and hear a special message while admiring the elaborate displays. He thought it would work in Winnipeg and we agreed. So the chamber went to the city and we started talking to a few other groups, including the Red River Ex. Canad Inns Winter Wonderland is now a holiday tradition in our community, but if it weren't for that member's suggestion, we would not be so fortunate to have it. One member can make a huge difference and I am so proud when the chamber is able to be that vehicle for them.
Q: As an employer, what types of people are attracted to working at the chamber?
A: We have a staff of 18 and tend to attract people who want to be part of something special. They have a demonstrated passion for our city and the role of the business community within.
They feel a connection to a bigger mission. On the whole, the people we attract are not the ones who want to do accounting for a non-profit; they want to do accounting for a non-profit that has significance in this community. There's also an "insider" element to working here and getting to interact with our members. The chamber is connected to what's happening around Winnipeg and we certainly try to bring our staff into that reality as much as possible. This gives them an understanding of the dynamics behind the headlines, especially when they know the key business and political players involved.
Q: What sort of retention strategy do you have in place?
A: The chamber is a non-profit organization, so we can't compete against our members when it comes to compensation. On top of this, because a large portion of our staff regularly interacts with members, we can be something of a recruiting ground when word gets out about how good our people are. However, we have been very successful in retaining people by ensuring they understand our vision and mission; are passionate about it and see their connection to it. A big role for me is showing how the things our people do on a day-to-day basis makes a difference. If you work in accounting or administration, it may not be obvious to see how the Yes Winnipeg initiative, for instance, came about because of your specific efforts, but it absolutely is a contributing factor. Also, because we're a public organization, there's a sense of pride that goes along with working at the chamber that tends to include our employees' families. They may be out at a gathering when someone will comment on one of our initiatives and that makes them feel good. So we know that when we're hiring, we're not just hiring that person -- but the support network around them as well. That's why we fully encourage spouse and family participation in our community philanthropy, planned social activities and staff recognition awards so that they can share in our employees' passion and feel part of the chamber, too.
Q: In your view, what is one challenge business leaders face in terms of people practices?
A: I think that for many leaders, myself included, it's a struggle to find a balance between the time you spend out in the community, travelling or making business deals and the time you spend in the office. I agree with Tom Peters' principle of Management by Walking Around which is about staying in touch with the folks working for you. As a CEO, your presence has a huge influence on people while an absent leader creates real challenges to an organization. But it's a fine line. You don't want the staff to think you're micromanaging them or that they have to vet every decision through you. But you want to be visible so you can lead by example and lend moral support, to recognize their efforts and to live your brand. Last year, I had a ton of travel built into my schedule and saw it reflected in our staff that I just wasn't around enough. This year, I've been spending a lot more time here in the office and they've been asking, "So, when's your next trip, Dave?"
Q: What is some of the best piece of leadership advice you've ever received?
A: My first job was working for my uncle, who owned a computer product company and was a true mentor to me. At one sales meeting, he passed out copies of Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence by Ben Carson. In the book, there was a real message to me: You only go through life once, so don't miss the opportunities to think big. When you're looking at an issue or coming up with an idea, how can you make it bigger? How do you get more people around it? Make it more significant? Since then, I've always carried Think Big with me. Right now I'm reading Ken Blanchard's book, Leading at a Higher Level, and it's about empowering your people by allowing them to take risks and if they fail, calling it research and development. As leaders, we need to be committed to the vision and to be able to communicate our expectations as to what employees are accountable for, but then we need to step back and stop over-structuring the workday so that we can give them the flexibility and freedom to be creative and find innovative ways to achieve outcomes.
-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai
John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at email@example.com.