A commitment to valuing the people around you and engineering their employment experience to prioritize day-to-day job satisfaction. That’s what being a #PeopleFirst leader means to Jason Fleming, Principal of Maxton HR and former VP of HR at MedReleaf.

Every few weeks, I chat with a #PeopleFirst leader that I admire and respect and put them in the hot seat to learn more about the leadership lessons they’ve learnt that make them the #PeopleFirst leaders they are today.

Who in the world 🌎 is Jason Fleming?

Jane: What was your first job growing up? Did you have any memorable life lessons that you gained from this experience?

Jason: My first job was working at a marina in my hometown of Penetanguishene, Ontario where I was responsible for fueling yachts and pumping out their septic systems. The key lessons I learned were mainly around customer service. How do you keep a cool head when things were going wrong? How do you build positive relationships? Sometimes it starts with simply being aware that someone is having a bad day, maybe something has gone wrong at home, and showing that you empathize with them.

Jane: Do you have a role model you look up to for becoming a better leader?

Jason: Mark and Joe Shannon are two of my role models. When I was at the Seaboard Transport Group, I worked for the Shannon family who own Seaboard and a number of other companies across Canada. I reported to Mark Shannon, President of Seaboard, and had many opportunities to interact with his father, Joe Shannon. Joe is in the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and an extremely successful entrepreneur. Working with them closely for six years, I was able to see up close and personal what it means to lead and build a values-based business. I’ve worked for a number of companies that place high value on strategy, which is a critical part of building a successful business; however, it’s just as important, if not more so to run your business in a way that is consistent with your core values. Working with the Shannon family, I got to see what it means to let your core values act as a compass for running the business. There are times when values-based decisions resulted in the path of greater resistance, but ultimately, you can go to bed at night feeling proud about what you’re doing.

Leadership Lessons through Jason’s Glasses 😎

Jane: What do you believe is the most important characteristic that every leader should possess?

Jason: Empathy. As soon as you have your first direct report and start managing someone, empathy has to become the foundation for how you approach your responsibilities as a manager. Rather than asking “What do I need of this individual to accomplish my goal?” think of yourself as the link between your direct report and the organization. It is your job to ensure their career planning is done properly and that they have an advocate and supporter in the business. You must recognize that they have unique plans for their careers and personal lives. I believe empathy is the key to being a positive influence on your employees’ performance, work experience and job satisfaction.

As soon as you have your first direct report and start managing someone, empathy has to become the foundation for how you approach your responsibilities as a manager.

– Jason on a must-have leadership quality

Jane: What’s one thing you wish you had learned earlier as a leader?

Jason: When you’re young and just starting off in your career, you can be easily enamored by the executives running the companies you work for. You assume that they’re doing everything right and that they don’t need your advice or suggestions for improvements. Thankfully, I had some great mentors who taught me that was simply not true. Early on in my career, I was hesitant to challenge the status quo. However, Seaboard had a very progressive and encouraging environment that made it safe to challenge the most senior people in the company, to debate and to make suggestions for improvements. I learned the you have to speak up and regularly challenge the people and assumptions around you in order to be successful and make an impact on your work environment.

Jane: I’m interested in the two sides of what you just said about challenging the status quo and creating an environment that encourages suggestions and debate. From an individual standpoint, what would you recommend young leaders do to challenge the status quo? And on the other side of the equation, how can companies foster a workplace environment that make it easier for anyone, no matter what position you are in, to challenge the status quo?

Jason: As an individual, it’s about developing confidence in your ideas and opinions. It’s important to trust yourself. Without years of work experience under your belt, this can be tough. However, if you’re actively researching best practices and learning from your colleagues, your opinion is just as important as anyone else’s and should be shared.

As an organization, it’s about creating a set of corporate values and a cultural charter that encourages discussion and openness. I’m extremely proud that we did this at MedReleaf. We created a cultural charter that emphasizes candor, risk-taking, a flat organizational structure and openness. Emphasizing those types of values and cultural pillars in an organization and openly acknowledging and recognizing people who challenge the status quo sets a tone for everyone in the organization that we practice what we preach.

MedReleaf Cultural Charter

MedReleaf Cultural Charter

People and Culture at MedReleaf

Jane: MedReleaf grew a huge amount in a short period of time. Have you had to change your Cultural Charter to adapt to the growth?

Jason: We grew exponentially. The company is now over 300 people spread over six different offices. And Yes, we adapted our Cultural Charter to the growth to ensure our core culture wasn’t diluted as the company grew. An interesting example is our Cultural Charter element #4 “Rules, processes and policies must exist to service a genuine business need; employees must actively prevent bureaucracy in order to remain agile.

The story behind this is that a lot our executives had come from large and sometimes bureaucratic organizations. One of the things we loved most about being at MedReleaf is that we got to build the type of organization that we were pining for over the first part of our careers. When we started we were focused on being an agile organization that prevented bureaucracy. As we grew and expanded, we realized that we were at a turning point where we needed to start formalizing and building out official programs and policies. At the same time, we recognized that we had to maintain the flat culture that was one of the reasons we were so successful at attracting and retaining talent.

Result? We made sure we had a Cultural Charter element that addressed the need to “actively prevent bureaucracy”. Whenever someone proposed a solution, program or policy that appeared to be a bureaucratic way of doing things – we call him or her out on it.

What does being a #PeopleFirst Leader mean to you?

Jane: Last question. What does being a #PeopleFirst Leader mean to you?

Jason: It means valuing the people around you and engineering their employment experience to maximize their job satisfaction and comfort. This is an ongoing commitment. A commitment that you consciously and continuously make throughout your career. You need to sustain it when things are going well, and most importantly, when you’re dealing with challenges. Sometimes you don’t see immediate results, but you need to trust that putting people first will result in a better performing organization and greater meaning in your career.

Thank you Jason for sharing with us your stories and experiences as a #PeopleFirst leader.