Susan Thompson is writing her literal and metaphoric next chapters.
Winnipeg's former mayor is a certified life coach, working with professionals who need guidance with personal and work challenges. She knows what it's like to deal with stress. Thompson's coach kept her sane during her tumultuous years at city hall, she says.
She's new in the field and has three clients whom she doesn't charge, preferring to be paid in feedback. When she's fully up and running, clients will make a six-month commitment to coaching and pay her $250 an hour.
Thompson, 65, is also writing two books. The first is the inspirational Moments In Time. That book will use her story and experiences to guide readers through their challenges. There will be chapters on topics such as leadership, faith, perseverance and destiny. She says it will be the sort of book people dip into when they need some advice and support. The second project is an autobiography, a book she's writing with (and at the insistence of) Terry Samborski, her former executive assistant.
The books are in progress and no publication dates have been set.
Thompson is wonderfully frank about her past incarnations and how she envisions the final third of her life. Over lunch at her Wellington Crescent apartment ("Look at your city!" she exclaims, gesturing at the panoramic river view), she says it was her destiny to serve as mayor of Winnipeg. Destiny is a word she uses deliberately, and one her advisers forbade her from uttering when she ran for office.
They thought it sounded flaky; she knew she had a sincere calling to lead the city she loves.
"The intention of my book is to nurture your heart and your soul," she says. "I'm just an ordinary person who had a number of callings come. You have to pay attention to that voice."
"I think a greater power gives you certain chances in life and you have to rely on your instincts not to mess up."
Her eight years as mayor were often brutal. She was an outsider: The first female mayor; a business owner, not a career politician; a single woman who didn't have the props of husband and children to soften her perceived edges; and an uppity female who knew what she wanted for Winnipeg. She was savaged, primarily by the media but also by many in this city's elite. Everything was fair game: from her weight, to her golly-shucks enthusiasm, to her leadership.
"The attacks were vicious and personal," Thompson says. "I had gone in to do public service. I didn't understand what it meant going from a private person to a public one. I really needed a coach to tell me how to manage."
She won't name her life coach, a Winnipeg man who helped her endure.
"I just knew I needed help. I didn't understand the world I was in. It was destroying me."
When you're high profile, she says, it's impossible to know in whom you can confide.
"The higher up you get, the lonelier it gets, the more isolated you become. You don't know who to talk to because it becomes a story next week."
People told her she needed to develop a thick skin. That was the last thing she wanted.
"My job was supposed to be to listen to the citizens. I needed to care. I wanted to develop skill sets to manage the criticism and avoid the bunker mentality.
"Most people at some stage say 'I can handle criticism'; No, you can't. In public life you are inundated with criticism. You have to learn to let it go."
As she talks, Thompson frequently flashes her mega-watt smile. She is an immensely likable woman, sincere and spontaneous. She refers to her family and close friends affectionately. She may be talking about some rough patches in her life but she's not complaining. She's honest and she's relentlessly upbeat.
"My role in life as a woman was to get married, have children and make caring for them my job," she says. "Never did I have the concept of being a career woman, a leader."
She whoops with laughter when I ask her if her mother forgave her for not fulfilling that destiny.
Thompson's career path was unusual. She married at 21 and divorced a few years later. The divorce taught her the importance of self-sufficiency. She climbed the corporate ladder at Eaton's and the Bay. She was living in Montreal in 1980 when her father visited and told her he had cancer. The prognosis wasn't good. She came back to Winnipeg to buy and run Birt's Saddlery, the family business. Interest rates soared. She almost went under. She laughs when she says John Travolta saved Birt's. The movie Urban Cowboy came out, demand for cowboy boots skyrocketed and Birt's survived.
Thompson was mayor from 1992 to 1998. An appointment as Canada's consul general in Minneapolis was in the works when she left office, but she needed to find a job in the interim.
"I was the mayor who didn't take the pension," she says wryly. She worked as a consultant for the Winnipeg Airports Authority until her political appointment came through. After her term ended, she became CEO of the University of Winnipeg Foundation.
Thompson's optimistic about her next chapter. She says she has always been a nurturer and a mentor. Life coaching is an extension of her natural abilities.
When I ask her how she sees her final third of her life, she doesn't hesitate.
"Joyful," she says.