Leading Questions: Interview with Paul Guindon, CEO Commissionaires Ottawa

January 4th, 2018|Insights|
  • Leading Questions

Originally published by Tim Redpath


Leading questions is a series of interviews with successful leaders conducted by TEC Canada Chair, Tim Redpath.

Paul Guindon is a distinguished veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and CEO of Commissionaires Ottawa. Paul served in the Royal Canadian Navy for almost 33 years including two deployments in a theatre of conflict. In 2004, he transitioned to civilian life becoming the CEO of Commissionaires Ottawa, which has tripled in size under his leadership.

We identified a possible hostile aircraft, coming straight toward us.

I was in control of Canadian destroyer in the Adriatic Sea during the Baltic conflict when we identified a possible hostile aircraft, coming straight toward us. I had to make an instant decision to fire, or not. The crew had fingers on buttons, waiting for my command, but something felt wrong, so I let it go. I made the right decision because it turned out to be a friendly commercial aircraft. If I had said “Kill” we would have shot the aircraft down within seconds and I would have had a different career path. A military leadership career teaches you to make these fast life-altering decisions, under tremendous pressure. It’s not as simple as just making a decision though, as it draws on an intimate understanding of your trade/profession.

In my job today as CEO of the Ottawa Commissionaires, nothing is ever that urgent.

You are born a leader. Leaders can not be made.

I always knew I was a leader. I was a hockey coach at 12 years old – coaching kids my own age on outdoor rinks. I can’t claim I was a great coach at first; I think I became a good one. In my last year of high school, I dropped out to play hockey. That summer, one of my dad’s friends said they were opening a new school and he asked me to come back and join the school council. I guess I was flattered and I ended up becoming the school president.

After school I joined the military and I was quickly identified as having leadership potential. In boot camp I was asked to lead my platoon through the woods on a long march and I did well. A few days later, another guy was leading us. We hiked for hours and hours and ended up cold, wet, miserable and lost. At the lowest point, the platoon commander turned to me and said, “Guindon, get this platoon home”. It gave me the confidence to embrace my role as a leader and I started to recognize the men I would follow and those I would not. After that, as a young man in the Canadian Forces, I found myself regularly leading men older than me.

Leaders have an aura about them

There is something about great leaders that lets them command a room. I think leaders have an aura about them. You can be a leader without the aura, just not a great one. My first ship’s commanding officer was a good sea-going person. He taught me a lot about how to trust, care and behave with integrity. We were returning from a challenging five-month deployment to an admiral who was known as being very difficult. My commanding officer stood up to the admiral’s egotistical directions and basically resigned rather than follow them. Not many leaders would do that – you need guts to follow your inner leader.

Wanting to win is part of leadership

I was born a winner and that desire to win is a big part of leadership. The hockey players I coached were willing to go through a lot to win and I see the same desire with my leadership team at the Commissionaires. You cannot be an effective leader if you don’t care about winning. Every time we bid for a new contract today I want to win. It’s in my DNA.

I know the type of person I am talking to within two minutes of meeting them

A good leader selects the right people and takes corrective action quickly if they get it wrong. In most cases, I know the type of person I am talking to within two minutes of meeting them. It helps that I was a recruiter for two years in the Canadian navy, doing up to six interviews a day. It’s a learned skill and I am sure I made lots of mistakes. I remember recruiting one guy who started on a Monday and firing him on the Friday. Leaders need to quickly assess talent – it’s the key to success.

I interview two levels down. It’s all based on experience. Firing people is just as tough. Those that are left behind are not fools though – they see the problem and they see your leadership. As a leader, you need to distinguish between making the right decision and then taking the tough action.

When the right people are put on your leadership team you see immediate changes in attitude and output, all the way through the organization.

A friend of mine answered the phone and said, “I am taking over your closet”

When I was a young officer, one of my junior NCMs (Non-Commissioned Members) came to see me at sea, in my cabin. We were on a long deployment and he started crying. He said, “I just called home and a friend of mine answered the phone and said, ‘I am taking over your closet’. What do I do?” I was 23. What did I know? I called in my Chief Petty Officer and talked to him about it. I said, “You’re divorced – tell me what to do”. The three of us talked over a couple of beers and addressed the NCM’s concerns. As a young leader I needed to know my limitations and when to ask for help.

There is a place for compassion in the workplace

My dad ran multiple businesses and I remember him giving the last pay cheque to an employee who was crying. The image stays with me because my dad was a compassionate guy and he knew he was putting this person out of work, with no income. He had no choice and he did it because he was losing money because of him. There is a place for compassion in the work place, but you must take care of business first.

I have learned to listen more

One of the things I have learned as a leader is to listen more. I embrace diversity of opinions now and we have strong debates at the board table. Once the arguments are aired and the decision is made though, the dissent has to stop. We leave the room with one voice.

Leaders have a best before date

Good leaders can provide the right vision and energy to the same group of people for a long time. As a leader you can’t sit still for too long. If there is not much happening a good leader will get bored and will look for new challenges. If that leader cannot find or create those challenges within his own organization then it’s time to go. You become complacent and everyone will start working the clock.

Curiosity is a great driver of leadership

You must be a curious leader, all the time. What are people doing? What are they going through? What is motivating them? Curiosity is a great driver of leadership. If you sit in your office the whole day you are not being curious. Even if you say, “I have an open door” very few people will use it. I have learned my whole life from being curious about other leaders and other people’s experiences.

I have also found I have an ability to de-clutter situations which comes from my military life. I can clearly and quickly decipher things, especially when it’s not black and white, which brings clarity to my leadership team.

Our prime minister is authentic; the jury is out as to whether he is a good leader

Authenticity is a buzz-word these days – it’s about honesty. Just because you are authentic you are not necessarily a good leader. I think our prime minister is authentic – his tears are genuine when he feels emotion; the jury is out as to whether he is a good leader. We’ll see. You must be careful not to replace leadership with authenticity. I like to think I am authentic and transparent as a leader because what you see is what you get.

Leadership in the military and in society has changed a lot

Leading in the military and the private sector are not much different nowadays. Military leaders have much more power, of course, which can be good or bad, which adds to the complexity of leadership in the military. Leadership in the military and in society has changed a lot over 50 years. The military was and is like society: before, people accepted being told what to do and few questions were asked. Today, society has evolved a lot – people are better informed, values and expectations have changed and we have to lead in that environment.

After 50 years of leadership positions I have confidence in myself and my team.

My leadership style has not fundamentally changed since I was a 12-year-old hockey coach on outdoor rinks. It’s all about consistency, fairness, drive for excellence and being positive