Marketing guru Arlene Dickinson believes people are the essential resource business owners have to focus their energies on if they are to truly succeed.
"Storytelling, a personal touch, the ability to speak to people instead of at people ... it's all important. At the end of the day, what really matters is a business is built by people, not a business built by a business."
It was a nugget of wisdom also tied to her assertion that general life informs business, one of many points she drove home during her recent speaking engagement at a special event held by the Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Dickinson, owner and CEO of Venture Communications in Calgary, is best known to the public as a panellist on CBC Television's "Dragons' Den," a series where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors.
But before she became a successful businesswoman, Dickinson went through a number of personal struggles. She immigrated to Canada from Africa with her family. Shortly after moving to Alberta, her parents divorced.
After completing high school, she chose to sidestep further education and instead had four children with her husband. By the age of 30, she was divorced and a single mom, at which point she became involved with Venture Communications, which she became sole owner of in 1998.
She said all of what she has gone through in her personal life has informed her business life.
"I'm a real believer that what happens in our lives is just another version of what we do in our business. When we're managing our household budgets, we're managing our business budgets. When we're juggling 10 different schedules with kids, life, work, church, school and all the different things going on, we're juggling and multitasking just like we do in a real business.
"I hope the story I'm sharing with you is one of just remembering your past," she said, summing up her main speech. "Thinking about where you are right now and enjoying the moment, but also having an eye on improving the future is really what entrepreneurship is all about. It's really about what chambers are about - what you can do right now, right here, today. You can get up tomorrow, speak to your team, and champion them. If you manage them wisely, they will follow you to the end of the Earth."
She spoke frequently of the need to connect with people in order to run a successful business. She drew upon a recent trip to Afghanistan where she accompanied General Walter J. Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, as an example.
"We went to four different bases in a day on a Black Hawk helicopter," she said. "It didn't matter if it was a 50-person base or a 300-person base, he stood and gave a speech that was so compelling and so amazing as a leader.
"I learned so much about what it takes to champion people. It was the same speech every time, so he'd go in and he would get the troops around, do a medal ceremony, and then he would walk down the rows and give his speech. Even though it was the same speech at every base he went to, he gave it in a different way. He said it with meaning and intent. It made me understand how important constituency of message is, and how important personalizing a message is."
That personal touch was also on display when Dickinson observed Natynczyk's interactions with the troops.
"He went up to soldiers and would go, 'I met you in 1999 here in so-and-so. How's your wife?' Then he would go up to another member and say, 'Hey, I'm sorry you lost your brother.' He wasn't being coached. This was a man who knew his troops."
When an entrepreneur has their hands dipped in multiple operations, Dickinson said it is important to have a great team.
"If you want to be involved with many things, you have to be able to get out of your own way. Most entrepreneurs are their own worst enemy - they think they're the only one that can do it."
With a business plate including a dozen investment companies, spots on four boards, upwards of 30 speaking engagements a year in addition to her television work and Venture Communications, Dickinson said she has to be disciplined when it comes to prioritizing her time and empowering her staff.
"Be sure you get them to report back to you on things you care about," she said.
Commenting on the future of businesses, she said there will be a need for entities with a social conscience.
"Businesses that are just out there to make money will not, and I believe should not, exist in the future. Businesses that have social responsibility as a fabric to what they do, with an environmental consciousness as a way to do business, are the future."
She also trumpeted the merits of social media.
"Every single one of you who has a business needs to be on Twitter or Facebook - whether you want to or not."
Initially, Dickinson said she was reluctant to get involved with such websites. However, she quickly learned they play an essential role in controlling a company's message.
"It's really important you're in charge of your own voice when you're on the Internet. Because guess what? People will talk for you and say things about your business."