A Thought Or Two For the 'Up And Comers'

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


I: When I was thirty, my Dad sent me to Calgary to run EllisDon's Western Canada Operation. Obviously, there was nepotism involved, but there was also lots of premature ambition on my part, and also the fact that no-one else would take the job. The last four or five Area Managers had all been fired in reasonably rapid succession; I was the only candidate standing.

When you are an inexperienced leader - OK, let's be honest and say that I was incompetent - you still think that you have to visibly lead all these people who are far more knowledgeable than you. So you throw your weight around a bit so that they will respect you and understand that you are the boss and in control. You bark out orders and send stupid memos. I realized later that most of those people wanted me to succeed, because if I failed it would make their life worse. But at the time I didn't know whom to trust, and was obviously pretty nervous. They probably looked at me and were equally fearful.

I got lucky. We had a very capable Senior Project Manager named Fred Wray, who took me under his wing. Technically, Fred worked for me; in reality, he led and mentored me. He told me nicely to be quiet and just listen. Without Fred's capability and generosity, I would almost certainly have failed.

II: A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a very good subcontractor and I asked him how EllisDon was doing, and what we were like to work with. His main criticism was that, as we have grown in recent years, we now have many young people in leadership positions. He said that, while our more experienced and knowledgeable leaders would listen, learn and discuss issues, our younger leaders showed an annoying tendency to be arrogant towards people (subcontractors) who could help them succeed, and who knew and understood what had to be done - the ED 'leader' just had to be quiet and listen a little. I told him "Trust me, I get that. That used to be me." So we discussed the insecurity of being a 'less experienced' leader (something I am very experienced with), and how people often try to win respect by doing things that are the opposite of what will gain that respect, resolve the issues and enable them to succeed. I could probably write a book on what not to do, but perhaps it's not that complicated.

III: So, twenty-five plus years later, Fred Wray is still with EllisDon. I guess he wasn't as old back then as I thought. His resume of success is beyond impressive. About four weeks ago, walking through a grocery store, Fred had a heart attack and collapsed. He was basically a goner except for two things: There was a defibrillator in the store and someone that knew how to use it, and there was a bystander who knew CPR and worked on Fred until the ambulance arrived. We are now putting defibrillators in our offices. Long story short, I was talking to Fred today, he is at home resting and complaining that 'the Warden' won't let him do much. But he said that he is going back to work next week. I said that I would leave that between him and the Warden.

And that's how life goes, I guess. Have a great day.