C-suite talks HR: Michael Burns, CEO, Invictus Games

In the first part of a new series, the philanthropic business exec shares why great leaders give back

C-suite talks HR: Michael Burns, CEO, Invictus Games
Michael Burns is a man best known for his giving.

A successful investment advisor, entrepreneur, executive and well-known philanthropist, he’s now the CEO of the Invictus Games. The multi-sport event for military personnel and veterans launched in Toronto at the weekend, with founder Prince Harry in attendance.

Burns’ passion is giving back – he co-founded the True Patriot Love to support military families, and as chair of the Michael Garron Hospital Foundation Board, he led a team that secured a $50 million donation.

He says anyone who wants to be a great leader should know the value of lending a hand to others.

“We all have a responsibility to give back, and whether that’s a few hours a week or more, it’s important,” Burns told HRD.

“Just from a work-life balance [perspective], if you’re just absolutely consumed about selling the next product or service – as exciting as that can be – I just don’t think it covers everything that you need.”

He admits he’s preaching to the converted when telling HR professionals to value the people around them, but he urges any HR leader with an eye on a seat in the C-suite to “be prepared to do anything and everything” for their people’s success.

“Great leadership is about we and not me, and as a leader, you’ve got to be prepared to sacrifice and do everything for your team – whether that’s a team of three that you’re managing, or 300 or 3000.

“Strategies will come and go, things will change, if you don’t have the best available talent that can adapt and change, then you’re not going to be successful. That’s why everything starts with your people.”

His recruiting strategy is to hire the best talent, regardless of whether there’s an existing role for them.

“Don’t worry about which seat you’re going to put them in on the bus, you’ll figure that out. People are not only your greatest asset and greatest resource, but they have to feel as though they’re part of something bigger than just a product or a service that you may be selling or promoting.”

With Games week in full swing, Burns says staying calm under pressure, and continually motivating his team, will be his priorities as “number one cheerleader”

“We’ve got a good plan, now it’s about execution. For me as the leader, I’ve got to obviously look over all of it, but at the same time, we’ve hired certain people for a reason: because we trust them, we have confidence in them, and they were the best at it. Now it’s time to let them do their thing. They don’t need a micromanager right now.

“Even when things may be going sideways or off the rails, the team [doesn’t] need a lecture, they need somebody who’s there to support them, know that they’ve got someone who has their back, and is hearing the encouragement that they need.”

Knowing the right message, and how to tailor it to the moment, are key attributes for other leaders, he adds.

“Every locker room or every boardroom or every staffroom has different personalities, different people are motivated different ways, different people need to be approached in different ways. You’ve got to customize your outreach to your staff in a variety of different ways. It’s all about execution.”

The best leaders, he said, are those that foster future leaders – quipping that he hopes one of the dozen or so future leaders he’s helped create at the Invictus Games will give him a job one day.

Burns urges HR leaders, when hiring or developing talent, to aim for “better, smarter, more capable people” than themselves – and not to be insecure about being overshadowed by others.

“Great leaders have to have absolute and total humility. They have to be prepared to hear the bad news as much as they hear the good news, and be able to process it, listen to it, and then act on it. And that is a major issue for leaders – too many of them are caught up in their own press, they’re surrounded by yes-men and they have a very difficult time hearing feedback that isn’t always good,” he says.

“If I’ve got a senior leadership team or a management team that is going to sit there and just say ‘yes’ to me, they’re useless. You have to – like Lincoln did – build a team of rivals. You want people with strong opinions, you want people with a diversity of backgrounds and skill sets and you want people that are prepared to challenge you.”

Related stories:
Should firms build or buy top-level talent?
Should every employee get leadership lessons?

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