‘We can all be leaders in our own lives’

Leadership coach Susan Elford talks about helping people identify a path forward and staying accountable to their goals

Susan Elford is a leadership coach, PR strategist and president of Lean In Calgary.

Susan Elford

I understand you’re involved as both a leadership coach and a PR strategist. Tell me a little bit about your background and history in each area.

Elford: My career in public relations began on the East Coast of Canada over 27 years ago. My early PR days were focused on rejuvenating the economy of Newfoundland after the cod moratorium of 1992 – I worked with not-for-profit, government and energy companies that were focused on developing alternate economic growth, including the offshore oil industry.

My first job out of university was with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. I loved those early days serving the political leaders of the province. The work was classic PR: managing daily media issues, attending question period, writing speeches and organizing news conferences. I ran the media room for a first ministers national conference, directed communications for the office of the chief electoral officer during a provincial general election and travelled around the province announcing some pretty exciting economic development initiatives with elected officials.

When I left government, I joined an agency where I worked with several high-profile clients in the energy, IT and tourism sectors. I felt like I was in the heartbeat of the economic pulse of the province with national and international impact. In my mind, there wasn’t a more exciting place to be. And I hadn’t even turned 30 yet.

Not long after that, I met my husband, who was from Calgary – and before I knew it, I relocated to Alberta. My experience with government and the energy industry allowed me to quickly land a role in the communications department of TransCanada in Calgary. I loved my work but when we had our first child, I realized how difficult it was to raise a family with both parents simultaneously building their own intense careers.

Coincidentally, my first daughter was born the same day I was awarded the highest accreditation for PR in my field.

To create space for my new family, I bowed out of my role at TransCanada and started my own PR firm, Elford Communications. I’ve been running my own business for almost 17 years now. That first daughter graduates from high school this June.

When I launched Elford Communications, I wanted to build a meaningful and successful career, where I could be involved in social policy and make a contribution to the community. I also wanted to get to know Calgary, a city that was still new to me. I focused on not-for-profit clients, where my heart for social causes and community services could be realized. I’ve had the privilege to serve many service-based organizations, including Calgary United Way, Calgary Counselling Centre, Calgary Horticultural Society, Calgary John Howard Society, and most recently the Calgary Metropolitan Region.

Throughout my career, I have particularly loved working with female professionals who lead at the highest level. Many of the organizations I’ve worked for have had female leaders at their helm. So I felt naturally intrigued by the world of female leadership and after a while, that led me to learn about coaching.

In many ways, I’ve been coaching and counselling leaders of organizations my entire career. However, my official training as a leadership coach didn’t come until a few years ago after I hired my first coach to help me in my career. I felt drawn to the process of uncovering someone’s leadership characteristics and motivators, with a strong desire to bring out the best in people.

Now, in the coaching side of my business, I serve women who are passionate about building their careers and businesses in the context of having a full and satisfying life. I don’t believe you have to choose between career success and having a fulfilling personal life. My clients pepper the leadership teams of organizations around Calgary, they contribute to the community and are often involved in creating social policy.

I also offer private and group coaching to women who are building meaningful businesses and careers.

Why do executives need leadership coaching and how can someone like you help them?

Elford: At its heart, leadership coaching helps an individual uncover their inner leader and what decisions guide them. Choosing to lead from your own integrity is a gift, and especially so when those qualities spur others to follow you.

I believe all people can benefit from leadership coaching, not just executives. We can all be leaders in our own lives: in our families, our community and in our organizations. A key benefit of hiring a coach is having a focused conversation with someone who is trained to bring a decision out of that conversation. The coach can help identify a path forward and keep you accountable for moving towards your goals.

The people drawn to work with me are interested in my experience building a business while leading a full family life. My clients wear many hats – in their careers, personal lives and in contributing to the community – and juggling all of those roles can get stressful and challenging at times.

While my work in PR is about discovering and showcasing the best in organizations, being able to do that for people is an obvious extension of that work. I help my clients see their own brilliance and gifts – particularly as my clients navigate that next best career choice, launch the business they have inside them or go after that big goal they haven’t had the courage to pursue before.

What are the qualities that make a good leader?

Elford: From early on in my career I was intrigued when I noticed that some organizational leaders were dearly loved, while others were despised. What characteristics encouraged me to follow some leaders and resent others?

I believe the most inspiring leaders allow others to uncover their own true worth and tap into that so they can show up with authenticity and conviction.

How do you know a good leader?

They have followers.

What are the best things about having a business in Calgary? The challenges?

Elford: Calgary has always been welcoming to me. When I first moved here, I was counselled to start volunteering to get to know people and to show the community what I was made of. That still goes today. If you volunteer and get involved with the not-for-profit sector in this city, you will be a part of the pulse of the city. The challenges are also the best things.

The entrepreneurial spirit in Calgary is alive and well. While the ebbs and flows of the energy business can play havoc with budgets in this city, there is incredible diversity in work opportunities.

Calgary has a small, homegrown spirit with big city opportunities and amenities. There is the feeling here that you can do anything you set your mind to; build what you want to build; champion initiatives you want to champion and there’s a chance that it actually might happen if you work hard and get the right people behind you.

What are your plans for your company going forward?

Elford: Every year I design an intention for my business. This year the intention for my business is to go deeper and focus on fewer initiatives in the areas of: private leadership coaching, group business-building programs, communications consulting and volunteer work.

As a volunteer, I’m the founding president of Lean In Calgary, a new not-for-profit to be launched later this year. I’m very aligned with the mission of Lean In, which is to create group experiences for women and men as they focus on building purposeful and meaningful careers in a more fair and diverse workplace. (You can find out more about Lean in at www.leanincanada.com/calgary.)

Above all, my plan is to have fun and make a meaningful contribution. This is my promise to myself. I’ll keep doing the work while it’s still fun – and 17 years in, that’s the decision I continue to make.

– Mario Toneguzzi for Calgary’s Business


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