Dr Lynn Tanner is TEC Canada’s founder, CEO and longest-serving Chair. With a history in merger integration consulting, he found the TEC group he encountered in the US to be an extension of the work he’d already been doing, and an entrepreneurial concept that piqued his interest. Dr Tanner very kindly took the time to speak with me about how he came to the role of a Chair, and what he sees as the defining facets of the role. What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion, in which he talks about the evolution of a group and challenges facing members.
As the level of trust builds, I mean, much like the economic data, market’s down six hundred points, we’re watching the trust relationship inside the financial world causing a lot of concerns, and even banks are not trusting each other, and so as that trust framework builds, people share a lot of things, personally and organisationally.
Do the issues of concern to members change over time?
A lot of the issues change that you want to have change: You want everyone to have an exit strategy. How are they going to monetise their business and for what, at what level? When in their career can they plan to move on to something else? Or maybe they just want this to be a cashflow long-term.
So as you push these kinds of questions, then of course they’re going to change from the nuts and bolts of ‘how do I better set up my warehouse’ or the nuts and bolts of new equipment, or ‘what’ve I got to do to break into a new market’, or ‘problems I’ve got with my partner’, or strategising in advance and getting new lines of credit in place, even though you might not need to use them – and we do need them even though we don’t use them because you never know when something might come along like a competitor that you might want to buy and if you have all of that in place, you can act very quickly. So the question then is how do you capacitate the individuals and their companies for action on their visions and strategies for growth? Or for concluding their business?
What do you see as the biggest challenges in business?
Canada right now is a different country than it was five years ago because we have a majority government that is pro-business. It’s changing its strategy in relationship to foreign trade and we’ve recently cut a variety of new agreements with various countries, in Central and South America, or for that matter our relationship with China.
So I think the biggest challenge for a lot of Canadian businesses, is that they primarily think of the United States as their biggest market. I’ve watched this over the last fifteen to twenty years. When we first started TEC in Ontario, we were very much pushing having Ontario and Quebec companies do more market research and develop their markets in the United States. It was very successful – very many of our TEC members expanded their markets into the US. In the past they were just selling east-west. And that has really changed a lot.
So many of our TEC members have developed very active businesses in many countries around the world, and we’ve watched it here in Alberta as well. We’ve had companies start up operations in Russia and former soviet republics, the far east. A lot of international business has been discussed inside the group and then actioned upon, very often because of those discussions. Many people have seen other members do it, have gained confidence and saw that they could do it as well, and that they had a pool of intellectual and business talent in that group that they trusted. I saw one of our members save seven million dollars, he reported, just in buying new furniture for a move to a different office tower as a result of one of the other members in the group who put him in touch with an office furniture manufacturer in China. As a result it allowed him to do a bunch of other things with his company. So there’s a variety of ways in which these things come up and very often they’re serendipitous as a result of who’s in the group, and the level of discussion that is led by the chair in the TEC group.
How about work-life balance?
In other words, what do you do with a workaholic?! I mean many of our members are workaholics. I’ve been in a number of one-on-ones with new members – and some of my current members – and I know this is true in the other groups, where I ask ‘what are you doing for hobbies?’
“I don’t have any hobbies.”
“What do you do for fun?”
“Basically, I work. I pretty much work 7 days a week.” That’s not an uncommon statement. Or at least six days a week.
“How often are you travelling?” I went through this myself building TEC. There were years – it went on for over ten years where I was on the road more than two hundred days a year. And one year it was two hundred and eighty. So the reality was that I was nearly as bad as some of my members and they told me so. But I’ve had members say “I’ve never really been able to. I have a wife, children, I had to put them through university. My business going through all these up and down cycles. And so that literally has been my life for the last twenty-plus years.”
“So when you going to start?”
“I don’t know how to.” Or for some of them in that way, they’ve incurred a divorce, so suddenly the person’s alone. So then they have to begin to experiment with what it is that they do like, is it a motorcycle, is it a horse, fishing golf, a girlfriend, or multiple girlfriends – they’ve never really had them before. A variety of areas where there is a lot of real hesitancy and questioning as to whether or not in fact they can give themselves permission to break out of this regimen that they’ve been in for often multiple decades.
And when you think about the real consequences of that; yes, they’ve created jobs for people, they’ve provided continuity and regularity over time, paycheques and vacations and paying taxes, and renting office space. They’ve been real generative citizens of Canada, but they haven’t really had time for work-life balance. And sometimes the result is divorce, sometimes they just hold it in – sometimes depression, sometimes bewilderment. Their life is suddenly more than half over. And this gets raise in one-on-ones – “I really don’t know what to do” and so then you watch and try to support and the group tries to support and to encourage this incrementalised exploration into other dimensions of life.
And moving towards more balance, towards happiness, and at the same time continuing the growth and development of their company.
Do the members find this personal side more challenging?
Yes, and the other thing I find is that the people I interact with are really good people. They really care about their employees. They are very heartfelt. The old stereotype that they are cold assholes is truly really wrong. They can’t go out and say ‘that’s not me’ to their employees, but in their own quiet and very private way, they have to go out and explore all of this themselves. And that requires some fear, some trial and error, some cautious exploration, and support from their fellow TEC members and their other friends and, most importantly, the permission that they give themselves too, as adult human beings who often have a lot of toys, but never have time to use them. A lot of people have more than one house, but how much time do they really spend there? Not that much.
The big issue and the big surprise when they start to take time: The company continues without them. Their quality employees that they have developed, grown and encouraged, step up to the task. They come back after two or three weeks, or a month after the first time and find that ‘hey, it didn’t fall apart. I didn’t lose everything.’ And then they have the confidence to do it again. The idea that the boss is always out playing, in my experience, is not a very accurate perception.