Part One: Building The Better Boss: The Challenge

In my role as Director of Design at Refinery, I’m often asked to describe our approach to leadership development and even more often asked to comment on what sets our work apart from other offerings. Because these are frequently asked questions, I like to think I’ve mastered a succinct enough response to capture the essence of what I think is ultimately work that must be experienced to be fully understood. 


Refinery’s focus is on human development. The goal is to take participants beyond cognitively understanding best practices in leadership and organizational effectiveness (training) and move them to a place of real, meaningful, and sustainable shifts in behaviour (development). We do this by ensuring every learning initiative is experiential, perspective-shifting, and filled with space for meaningful discussion and deliberate practice. The design is always highly customized, informed by insights we gather from and about our target audience and founded upon 20 years of research and experience. 


Let’s hypothetically say that the target audience is a population of leaders who are experiencing change at an accelerated pace, in an environment of elevated uncertainty, complexity and volatility. Suppose these leaders have recently had their beliefs challenged, values questioned, rituals redefined, and behaviour examined. Imagine that they’re up against a global pandemic, major social, political, economic, and environmental issues, all competing for their attention and airtime on the global news stage. Some of them work from home while simultaneously trying to home school their children and care for elderly parents; and some have not been able to see their children, parents, or friends in far too long. Some of them are coping well, and some are just coping. How would you go about designing a program for that audience? 


First, I’ll validate your suspicions and admit that the above is not a word-for-word retelling of one specific conversation; rather, a smattering of many conversations, thoughts, pain points, and sentiments we’ve heard over the last couple of years. To do our work well, we have to be in tune with the real-world challenges our leaders are facing – ignoring them in our leadership development efforts, unfortunately, doesn’t make them go away. So how would we go about designing a program for that audience? A program that focuses on leading ourselves and others in stress, while simultaneously elevating our overall mental well-being and that of others? 


Because in this line of work we love questions, we decided to pose another one for ourselves: How might we take what we do at Refinery – make people better versions of themselves – and support their personal development in areas that would specifically equip them for success in a world that’s wreaking havoc on their mental health? 


In my next blog: Building The Better Boss: The Why, I’ll talk more about the correlation between leadership development, psychological resilience and safety as a means of reducing workplace stress and mental health-related workplace issues. I will also dive deeper into the importance of having leaders understand their own triggers and responses during stress, and how that affects their employees. 


Jelena Vath is the Director of Design at Refinery, a global leadership development firm that specializes in experiential leadership development programs.