At age 26, Robert MacLeod changed jobs, packed up his belongings and said good-bye to his life in New Brunswick. His mission: criss-cross Canada as leader in sales for McCain Foods. For a small-town boy with powerful family connections to New Brunswick, the experience was challenging but deeply formative — his first entry point into the rich, multi-cultural world of global business. But as he moved up the ladder, taking on increasingly senior leadership positions within the company, Robert couldn’t escape the sense that despite the wonderful experiences the world had to offer, there was no place like home. Today, as leader of Invest New Brunswick, the newly-minted crown corporation responsible for investment attraction in that province, Robert MacLeod is bringing the world to New Brunswick’s door. And when it comes time to decompress, he picks up a paintbrush, and gets to work on his labour of love — a 176-year-old heritage home in Sussex, New Brunswick.
You learn a lot from bagging groceries. My father owned a grocery store and bowling alley, so I was raised in the business world. I was a student of people – constantly watching how my father interacted with customers and employees. And the work! We worked all the time — bagging potatoes, sweeping the gutters at the bowling alley. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes without a great deal of effort — and a lot of potatoes.
If you want a kid to love people, stick him in the basement. Before I was old enough to bag groceries, my father would put me down in the basement bagging potatoes. I’d have to take these huge bags and make them into smaller bags for increased profit. Every now and then I’d hear a bell ring, which meant that all employees were to come out front because the cashes were busy. I wasn’t allowed to work the cash; but, it took everything I had not to go up there. I just wanted to be where the people were, to talk with them and interact with them. I’m still like that — I love people. And I think it defines my leadership style — putting people first.
If you think you’re leading followers, you’re not doing it right. I don’t see myself as leading followers — I’m nurturing other leaders. When you put people first, you begin to see their successes as your own. I see my responsibility as a leader is to ensure everyone on my team is successful — whether they still work for me or not. If someone who I worked with goes on to get a significant promotion, I see that as part of my business success. They grow and I grow.
If you came within five feet of Harrison McCain, you could feel the energy coming off him. I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with some of New Brunswick’s greatest leaders — Robert Irving, J.D. Irving, Richard Hatfield, Wallace McCain. If there is one common thread that unites them and their approach to leadership, it’s this: single-mindedness of purpose. They focused on the task at hand and leading the organization. And that focus translated into tremendous drive. Another quality I observed in these men was their ability to empathize with others. That’s what reinforced my decision to put people first.
Never underestimate the value of good, strong roots. New Brunswick is home to some of Canada’s biggest business empires. I often think it’s because most come from good, hardy immigrant stock. We know how to be resourceful, and we understand the will it takes to succeed. My biggest challenge as a leader is ensuring I’m moving at the speed of change. That’s true not only for me, but for Invest New Brunswick. It’s critical that we not only respond to change, but that we stay on the leading edge of it. That we actually anticipate what’s coming over the hill and ensure we are there soonest.
Interviewed by Anna Stuart, vice president, Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette — Atlantic Canada’s leading recruitment and human resource consulting firm.