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Leading with resilience: Lessons from Ivey's MBA Leadership Conference

Mar 8, 2024

L-r : Mike Tevlin, Gillian McIver, Dave Ward, and Inka Skinner

L-r: Mike Tevlin, Gillian McIver, Dave Ward, and Inka Skinner.

Challenges push us out of our comfort zone, test our limits, and reveal what we are truly made of, bringing out the intricate layers of our character.

For a panel of Ivey alumni who experienced adversity in various ways – from the risks of entrepreneurship to breaking down barriers as a woman in a male-dominated field – those challenges forged their leadership character today.

The alumni shared advice with MBA students on how to embrace challenges and lead with resilience at the recent MBA Leadership Conference. Supported by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, the student-organized conference brought together members of both the outgoing and incoming Ivey MBA cohorts for a half-day of learning and networking.

The focus of the event was to share some leadership learnings from alumni. The alumni speakers all had unique stories of resilience. Gillian McIver, MBA ’21, Founder of Reign Wellness, discussed the difficulties of graduating from the MBA program during the pandemic and subsequently launching a startup. Inka Skinner, EMBA ’16, Lead of Data, Analytics, and AI at Accenture, shared how she distinguished herself in a male-dominated sector and became a renowned advocate for women. Mike Tevlin, HBA ’81, told of the risks of leaving his job at Loblaw Companies Limited to venture into the entrepreneurial world. And Dave Ward, EMBA ’19, detailed his leap from the non-profit world to co-founding an adult sports league provider as well as Canada’s first built-to-purpose indoor beach volleyball facility, despite his initial reservations about having a business partner.

Here are some of the lessons shared.

Build strong relationships with radical candour

Dave Ward related a difficult lesson learned early in his career that changed his future leadership approach. He told how a colleague called him out for letting his work slide during a time when he was preoccupied with his personal life and that realization helped him to turn things around. Ward said he appreciated that his colleague challenged him in a caring way – an approach that has now been coined radical candour.

Noting that there were times in his career when he didn’t deliver feedback in such a caring way, Ward said he now shares those stories and the lessons with his staff members in hope that they can learn from his mistakes.

“I try and style myself as incredibly honest and part of that is also being really forthright. I know radical candour has become a big thing recently, but I was there before people started talking about it,” he said. “I find that if I’m incredibly open and honest, it’s easier for me to build relationships … I’m pretty quick to lay my cards on the table and say, ‘This is where I’m coming from, how can we work together in a way that benefits us both?’”

Having an open and honest relationship enabled him to now have a business partner, even though he said he was initially reluctant since he had seen such situations go bad.

“Every decision is made by both of us … We’re basically an extended family. We’re in this together,” he said.

Embrace your values and who you are

Coming from a culture that focused on pleasing others, Inka Skinner said she initially tried to fit in rather than stand out while working in a male-dominated industry. She said she “sucked it up” when her colleagues made insensitive comments and even wore dark-coloured pantsuits like her male co-workers instead of the bright-coloured clothing she preferred.

But after speaking to a female mentor following a particularly upsetting incident, Skinner gained advice that motivated her to change her approach. She was told to accept what she couldn’t control, such as the uphill battle for women working in a man’s world, and focus on what she could control: her content and delivery.

Skinner said she threw out her pantsuits, added colour into her life, and has focused on what she enjoys and does best ever since – and is all the better for it.

“Sticking to your values, sticking to your principles – it took me some time to really build on that,” she said. “It took me a while to understand what authenticism means and that building relationships based on authenticism and transparency is important.”

Skinner said she has continued to challenge herself; running a half marathon, leading a United Way campaign, and launching initiatives to empower women; and her success in doing so builds her confidence.

Be mentorable

While the experience he gained at Loblaw helped to prepare him to launch a food business, Mike Tevlin said one of his greatest gifts from that work was finding a lifelong mentor there. Tevlin said his mentor, who he has worked with in different places throughout his career, has always looked out for him, teaching him about the food business, and life in general. More than 40 years later, Tevlin says his mentor is still his “go-to guy,” who keeps him honest and asks hard questions.

He encouraged the students to “make themselves mentorable” by recognizing that it’s a privilege when someone with credibility takes an interest in you.

“You have to realize that maybe I’m really smart, but this person is taking an interest in me so do I trust this person? If you do, you have to listen. There’s no greater honour than being mentored by someone who is reliable, sincerely earnest, and has integrity, who wants to help you,” he said. “And then as you go on in life you might have the second greatest privilege come to you, which is being a mentor yourself.”

Look for opportunities in unique places

Gillian McIver never followed a traditional business path. She told how she entered the MBA program with an English literature degree, had no interest in the mainstream fields her classmates were pursuing. Instead, she chose entrepreneurship, which she says has left her with unpredictable, limited income during the build up and launch, but a huge sense of excitement.

Calling it a “scary, but fun journey,” McIver encouraged the students to be open to new opportunities, telling how some of her non-business experiences helped her to become the leader she is today. For instance, being a semi-professional freestyle skier taught her to work hard, studying English literature built her communication and presentation skills, and working previously in the administrative space helped her to be prepared all the time.   

“It’s good to go into things with eyes open and just be ready to experience new things and meet new people and not really have clear expectations necessarily or put pressure on yourself,” she said. “Look for opportunities in unique places … I knew I wanted to do something on my own. I didn’t know what that looked like, but I knew I wasn’t following the mainstream … But it’s worth it and I love it and it’s been a really fun journey so far.”

The 2024 Ivey MBA Leadership Conference was organized by Ivey students Renee Hueston, Kenneth Kanlisi, Mani Mehrotra, Hassaan Shaheen, and John Webb, all MBA '24 candidates.

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