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7 Questions on Leadership with Amber McMillan

Name: Amber McMillan

Title: Chief Visionary Officer

Organisation: Rogers Society

a.k.a. The Feisty PM - Impact Coach, Executive Educator, PM Thought Leader specializing in impact & interest-holder and communication management. A diversely skilled professional, Amber specializes in all aspects of leadership, communication and interest-holder management. She has a unique aptitude for leading complex conversations and works hard to create and sustain productive dialog through team building exercises, positive motivation and her own contagious enthusiasm.

With tangible credentials and over 30 years of experience in both profit and not-for-profit environments, she is committed to learning and growing while continuing to practice her profession. Amber excels as an empathetic visionary, establishing creative ways forward in complicated multiple interest-holder communities. Often referred to as an ‘agent of change’, with wide-ranging communication and service experience, her passion continues to drive innovation in her work. She is eager to share both her successes and failures in benefit to others, reflected in her favorite quote:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou

Interest-holders who work alongside Amber appreciate her honesty, transparency, unique insight and tangible advice for immediate use.

She currently serves as Chief Visionary Officer of Rogers Society and Co-Founder of Everlearn College, Past President of PMI Vancouver Island/Yukon, Past Chair of the International Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration and Executive Educator for York University/Schulich School of Business, University of Victoria - Gustavson School of Business, Continuing Studies and BioMedical Engineering and UBC-BME.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Amber's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

Initially it was me. In the early stages of my career I excelled at what I did, becoming a taskmaster and achieving remarkable metrics through sheer determination. I pushed myself to the limit, often operating in isolation due to my relentless pursuit of perfection. However as time passed, I realized that I had distanced myself from the people around me.

Looking back, I've come to understand that my achievements were a diversion from the essential work of self-discovery. About a decade ago I faced a significant setback when I was terminated from my job, ostensibly because I was a woman in a predominantly male environment. This experience prompted a soul-searching examination of the true cost of being perceived as the 'best' at everything. My accomplishments had not only made me unapproachable but also rendered me dispensable as a team player.

I struggled to function effectively within a team dynamic, and lacking ultimate authority, I became a liability that reflected poorly on others. The excuse given for my dismissal – that as a woman, I was not as important as my male colleagues – shattered my sense of strength, turning my hard-earned excellence into hollow achievement.

It became evident that I was my own obstacle. As a leader, I had attracted followers through my achievements, but I came to realize that my leadership style was based on fear. People followed me because I was impressive but also intimidating, and this revelation was eye-opening for me.

Today, I actively work to embrace vulnerability. I share my insecurities openly to underscore my commitment to serving others. Working to break free from perfectionism and tame my ego has been crucial in uncovering my true talents and skills, enabling me to inspire them in service to others. This journey of growth is ongoing, and I've found that my failures have become invaluable opportunities to overcome my own limitations.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

The summer of 1990 marked a pivotal moment in my leadership journey. At the time, I was serving as the Program Director at a bustling horse camp with over 100 participants. Our challenges surfaced in the kitchen, and the situation reached a tipping point when the frustrated camp chef abruptly quit two days into the program. I vividly recall one of my staff urgently informing me of the chef's departure after lunch, leaving us with no one to lead the kitchen team for dinner.

In that moment, my instinctive fearlessness as a leader took over. Despite having no expertise in food, cooking, or managing a large-scale dinner service, I threw myself into action. I assumed the role of head chef for the remainder of the week while continuing to direct the overall camp program.

Balancing both responsibilities, I survived on a few hours of sleep each night, powered by coffee and adrenaline. Miraculously, we pulled it off. Despite the initial anxiety among the kitchen staff, my authoritative approach provided a sense of relief and success followed as we achieved a seemingly impossible feat.

Reflecting on this experience, I recognize that my command-and-control style of leadership was precisely suited for that challenging situation. In moments of crisis, people crave decisive leadership and clear direction. It was during that intense week that my foundational leadership style emerged, and I would go on to find myself frequently in crisis leadership roles.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

In my ongoing journey to shape my leadership style with a focus on empathy for others and self-awareness, I've come to realize the profound impact of my daily practices. Amidst the hustle and bustle of my schedule, filled with back-to-back Zoom calls, classes, speaking engagements, and board meetings, I prioritize certain rituals that contribute to my overall well-being.

I start each day with a refreshing glass of lemon water followed by a precious 3-5 minutes of silence, immersing myself in what Julian Treasure aptly describes as the 'hidden choir' in his book How to Be Heard. After this mindful beginning, I dive into my calendar, identifying the top two challenging tasks that demand my attention. Tackling the difficult tasks first, I find that the easier ones often fall into place effortlessly.

Almost every day, I commit to practicing 'Deep Work,' as advocated by Cal Newport in his book of the same name. During these focused blocks lasting 1-2 hours, I intentionally shut out distractions, allowing for heightened concentration and productivity. Midday, I take a break to walk my dogs, using this time to disconnect from the digital world and rejuvenate my mind.

Physical health is a cornerstone of my routine. I incorporate long walks, shorter runs, and engage in dragon boat sessions twice a week throughout the year. These activities, devoid of critical thinking and personal devices, contribute significantly to my overall well-being and focus.

My commitment to a balanced lifestyle extends to my dietary choices. While I aim to have one home-cooked meal a day, the constraints of my schedule lead me to rely on a meal delivery service for convenience. By entrusting food experts to curate my menus with fresh, local ingredients, I've not only found this approach to be more affordable but also beneficial for my health and time management.

As the day winds down I make time for stretching, incorporating a few of my favorite yoga poses. To cap off the day, I occasionally savor a glass of wine, prosecco, or a local craft beer. Through these intentional practices, I strive to cultivate a leadership style grounded in both mindfulness and balance.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

One profound lesson that continues to resonate with me, often requiring reminders, is the importance of stepping aside to allow others to shine. In my earlier years, I embodied a leadership style characterized by strength, fearlessness, and unwavering confidence, employing a command-and-control approach that aligned with my high-output and accomplish-aholic mindset. However, this method inadvertently isolated me from the very individuals I needed to collaborate with, leaving me alone in many crucial situations.

While the inclination to take charge remains a part of my leadership style, I've come to understand the transformative power of recognizing and leveraging the unique gifts and skills of others. This realization has been a game-changer. By intentionally surrounding myself with subject matter experts, I've unlocked the potential to work more efficiently and achieve greater outcomes.

In essence, it's about embracing a collaborative and empowering leadership style. The key lies in appreciating that the collective strengths of a team can magnify the impact of our individual efforts. It's a shift from the isolated accomplisher to a leader who can harness the diverse talents within the team, creating an environment where everyone contributes their best, fostering innovation and achieving collective success. This approach not only eases the burden on the individual leader but also cultivates a more dynamic and collaborative work culture. The lesson I've learned is clear: by getting out of the way and letting others shine, we collectively illuminate the path to success.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

It's a daunting task to pick a single book that has significantly influenced my leadership journey, given the plethora of impactful reads, both classic and contemporary. However, a recent gem that has left an indelible mark on my perspective, particularly regarding navigating change, is Imagine It Forward by Beth Comstock. This book offers a profound and insightful exploration into one of the most remarkable careers at the pinnacle of leadership.

Beth Comstock's narrative is both challenging and inspiring, providing a firsthand account of her journey as a woman at the forefront of change. What struck me most was her candid reflection on the highs and lows of being a changemaker. Her transparency about personal failures resonated deeply with me, offering a refreshing perspective on the evolution of leadership.

In Imagine It Forward, Beth Comstock doesn't just share success stories but delves into the transformative power of setbacks and the resilience required to lead through change. Her willingness to expose vulnerabilities and openly discuss her own leadership evolution creates a narrative that feels authentic and relatable. It's a guide not just for leaders in traditional corporate settings but for anyone seeking to navigate the complexities of change in their respective fields.

As I reflect on the profound impact of Beth Comstock's insights, I'm compelled to encourage fellow leaders to delve into Imagine It Forward. It's more than a book; it's a roadmap for embracing change, learning from failures, and evolving into a more effective and authentic leader. Beth's wisdom serves as a guiding light, offering invaluable lessons that have enriched my own leadership journey.

Honourable mention goes to Carl Honore’s book, In Praise of Slow which was the first book I read that turned my attention to intention when it comes to what I do, how I spend my time and what I decide is meaningful and valuable. It’s about counter cultural choices one can make to create a more beautiful life and I loved it!!!

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Know yourself for effective leadership. Engage in personal assessments, confronting uncomfortable truths about yourself to create meaningful change. I've experienced the transformative power of embracing my flaws, fostering self-awareness and being proactive about my own evolution. Use self-discoveries for growth, constructing a leadership style that reflects your values. Embrace failures as learning experiences, adapting your strategies with a resilient mindset. In essence, intimately knowing yourself equips you to lead authentically, better embrace change and learn from your failures. It is an ongoing introspective journey and though it’s not easy, it is always worth the challenge.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

As Board Chair, I once made a well-intentioned but misguided decision. A board member faced a massive change in their personal life, and without seeking clarity on their needs, I assumed they wanted an 'out' from responsibilities. In a board meeting, I publicly offered them this space, unaware that it could be perceived as undermining their capabilities. My gesture, meant to be supportive, shattered their trust and alienated them from the group. Despite mediation and apologies, their trust was irreparably broken.

The lesson here is profound: never assume you understand another person's feelings or situation. Each individual's experience is unique. Using authority to 'create space' without understanding their needs is not gracious but rather foolish. As a leader, I've realized my responsibility is to create a safer environment for everyone. This involves taking the time to understand the needs of my team, approaching them with empathy, and treading carefully to avoid unintentional harm. In essence, true leadership requires thoughtfulness and a genuine commitment to understanding the perspectives and needs of those we lead.

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