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Ivey’s Leadership Summit: Lessons learned

  • Jess Orchin
  • |
  • Mar 4, 2020
Ivey’s Leadership Summit: Lessons learned

Cheryl Pounder, two-time Olympic gold medallist, was a keynote speaker at the Ivey Leadership Summit

Jess Orchin is an HBA2 student at Ivey Business School and a special guest blogger for Ivey Communications. She reflects on the lessons learned at the Ivey Leadership Summit, presented by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto on Feb. 28, 2020.

“Pressure is a privilege.”

Cheryl Pounder’s words have been resonating in my mind since Ivey’s Leadership Summit on February 28, 2020.

I felt overwhelmed with gratitude as I sat in a room with highly-accomplished business leaders and listened to thought-provoking discussions about leadership. The conference was a celebration of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership's 10th anniversary. 

My experience as a student at Ivey Business School has been deeply marked by the Institution’s focus on leader character development. The Leadership Summit is an experience that I am grateful to have attended as I near the end of my time in the HBA Program at Ivey. The lessons that I learned at the conference perfectly complemented the character development that the HBA program has encouraged in me over the last two years.

The key lessons I learned were:

  1. Pressure is a privilege;
  2. Focus on the orchestra;
  3. Excellence is a result of abnormal behaviour; and,
  4. Strong reflection is key to leader development.

The privilege of pressure: A lesson in intentional gratitude

At Ivey, someone once said to me: “Sometimes your bag of gold is really heavy.”

I remind myself of this quote often. To be in Canada, in university, with the opportunities and pressures that I have, is truly a privilege. Two-time Olympic gold medallist Cheryl Pounder said, in preparation for the Olympics, she and her team grounded themselves in this notion that pressure is a privilege.

The weight of this privilege can often feel overwhelming. When life feels heavy, I have learned to root myself in gratitude for the experiences that push me outside of my comfort zone.

Pounder spoke about the importance of owning your intentions and goals. Once you say that you want to be the best, you want to reach for a goal, you want to lead, the ownership is now yours to deliver on those words. When you see those golden opportunities and decide to grasp them, it is your responsibility to carry the weight of that privilege.  

It can feel paralyzing to know that you have the opportunity to deliver great value for yourself and your organization. Listening to Michael Friisdahl speak about his experience transitioning from Air Canada to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) gave insight to the immense weight that successful leaders carry. What I learned is that courage is key to navigating the discomfort of being accountable to a large team. To lead effectively, you must have the courage to trust yourself and your ability to have a powerful impact on your organization.

I learned that the privilege to lead comes with an immense amount of pressure, but that pressure is the weight of gold.

Focus on the orchestra: A lesson in humility and trust

Friisdahl said that one of the best pieces of advice he received in his career was to treat his team as an orchestra.

An effective leader acts as a conductor. A good conductor focuses the attention on the orchestra, even to the point of turning their back to the audience. Only by focusing on directing your orchestra, and taking the spotlight off yourself as leader, are you able to deliver the greatest value for your audience. To be a successful conductor, you must trust yourself and your team to perform.

This sentiment was echoed by Pounder, who never spoke about the fans. Instead, she talked about the importance of her team and the leadership within that team. The women on Team Canada held the strong character the team needed to win, and grew by focusing on the orchestra.

Similarly, veteran journalist Anna Maria Tremonti never spoke about the listeners, she talked about the importance of revealing the interviewee's perspective. In her keynote, she barely spoke of herself, but rather, what she learned from the people she has met. Her humility graced the audience when she spoke. It became clear to me her career as a leading journalist has been as the conductor, pulling greatness out of her interviewees.

All of these leaders have the intrinsic ability to focus on what matters – the team, rather than themselves or the people watching. This focus can only be achieved through humility and trust.

I learned that focusing on the orchestra is a performance of trust and humility that will ultimately leave your audience applauding for more.

Set yourself on fire: A lesson on the importance of moments and choices

Pounder described key moments that changed the trajectory of her career. Her thoughtful reflection about the little moments that impacted her life demonstrates a choice to constantly develop her leader character. Her advice was simple:

  1. Seize the opportunities you are given; and,
  2. Be the person who helps.

As a leader, you must know how to recognize an opportunity, big or small, and be ready to dial everything you have into making the most of it. This is the difference between participating in life and engaging in life.

The metaphor she used to describe what it takes to reach for greatness is lighting yourself on fire. Great things are rarely the result of stagnant and comfortable behaviour. As a leader, if you want to achieve excellence you must be prepared to light yourself on fire. To me, this metaphor represents the pain and sacrifice that leaders willingly endure to achieve victory in their field.

For Pounder, strong leader character is also about being the person who uses power to help others, in big and small ways. If you have a voice, a platform, and the privilege to lead, it is your responsibility to use your judgment for positive change.

Tremonti caught my attention right away when she spoke of her experience witnessing leaders who leveraged war simply for financial gains and did not consider the affect of their decisions on society. Business leaders must assess the impact of their decisions on people and not just profits. 

I learned that character development is a choice and if you willingly enter the flames you have to decide what impact your fire will have on the world.

Reflection is key to developing as a leader: A lesson in learning

Strong leaders demonstrate the willingness to reflect on the times they failed and succeeded. They are deliberate in understanding the actions and consequences of negative outcomes, and take ownership of the results. Each speaker reflected on the journey to becoming the leader they are today. My biggest take away from this underlying theme was the reality that good leadership is not an end state, but rather a continuously-evolving process of development.

Reflecting on this, I came to realize that in life and leadership, the answer is rarely clear. At Ivey, we use the case-based learning method. With cases, there is seldom a right or wrong answer. There is only strong and weak analysis.

I believe that Tremonti’s strong sense of empathy and curious nature have driven her success as a journalist. She does not claim to have the answers, but rather searches for insights into compelling situations.

Tyler Shultz and Erika Cheung demonstrated courage and humility when they spoke about their experiences with Theranos. Neither of them claimed to know the whole story, but they were brave enough to stand behind their truths and come forward when many chose to stay silent.

The deep reflection that each speaker shared with the audience at the conference was a captivating instance of vulnerability from highly-successful individuals. As someone just beginning their career, I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to listen and reflect on each person’s story.

I learned the importance of showing vulnerability, intentionally reflecting, and recognizing that leader character development is a process, not an end state.

As my time at Ivey ends, I am excited to take the lessons I have learned about leader character development forward with me. I am proud to attend an institution that focuses on character development because leadership matters, and I believe it will be the driving force behind how the world changes.