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A $3,000 retreat aims to build a better male leader

At exclusive B.C. retreat, three women and a football player help men improve leadership skills for the modern workplace
"You’re in this log cabin, there’s this fire burning, and you’re having these conversations the likes of which, for men, you’ve probably never had before” | Shutterstock

Last spring, Kirby Brown found himself in a log cabin near Whistler, sitting in a circle with 10 other men. They had spent the morning running through the forest and throwing axes at a pile of railway ties, and now they were about to share their deepest thoughts and emotions.

“It’s hard to describe – you’re in this log cabin, there’s this fire burning, and you’re having these conversations the likes of which, for men, you’ve probably never had before,” Brown recalled. “The depth of conversation was absolutely unique for me.”

Believe it or not, the experience was work-related. Participants had paid $3,000 each to get, in Brown’s words, “disassembled … pointed toward our life purpose and reassembled” by three women in their 50s: Judy Brooks, a co-founder of Blo Blow-Dry Bar; Mary Prefontaine, a leadership trainer; and Sharon Duguid, director of PwC’s family enterprise centre.

Brooks said she and her co-founders got the idea to found the sessions, which they call Brew, after realizing there was a total of 32 organizations in British Columbia devoted to helping women succeed at work, but nothing similar for men. 

With women in Canada earning on average 20% less than men and occupying only 6.6% of corporate board seats in B.C., it might seem that women need more help. 

But Brooks envisions Brew as a way to make men better leaders – and, by extension, more supportive of women in the workplace – by helping them tap into more “feminine” leadership qualities, like empathy and good communication. 

Kirby Brown, general manager, Sea to Sky Gondola: a retreat designed to help men get in touch with their feelings has improved his leadership skills | Dave Buzzard

“In one of the big accounting firms or big law firms, if you’re a young man on partner track, the role model that you will have will not be living the same life that you are,” Brooks said. “At some level we’re still socialized that they get into their late 30s and they have a couple of kids and success is still defined for men by money and … power.”

Brooks tapped her son-in-law, Shea Emry, to run the physical activities. Emry is a linebacker with the Saskatchewan Roughriders who has been outspoken about mental illness, bullying and the damaging pressure to “be a man” and not show emotions or weakness. 

Emry said he was on board with Brooks’ plan from the beginning because its goals are similar to those of Wellmen, an organization he founded that focuses on men’s emotional and mental health through retreats and exercise.

“I was all for it because it runs to the same issue: that men are afraid to express themselves,” Emry said. “That’s the solution to the grandiose problem we have as men, wanting to be ‘manly’ and not share our feelings, when there’s strength in that vulnerability and openness.”

Brown acknowledged that the experience, which is by invitation only, was unusual. But he said it made an almost immediate difference in his career. After completing the two weekend-long sessions, he took a new job as general manager of Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish. It’s also changed the way he interacts with his staff, who just happen to be all women. The team now makes decisions by consensus. 

Brown and Emry said having three well-respected women in their 50s guide the sessions made all the difference.

“There’s not this egotistical and peacocking relationship with another man in the room,” Emry said. “There’s a definite level of respect that the men in the room have for the three women.”

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