In 2011, the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, an agency that has been operating Fort Henry, Upper Canada Village, Upper Canada Golf Club, Crysler Park Marina and several waterfront parks and campgrounds since 1961, was in deep economic trouble.
Customer interest in its heritage sites was declining, the agency’s operational processes were inefficient, and employee engagement was at an all-time low. Its offerings were showing a steep decrease in interest among potential visitors. It was clear that something needed to be done to get its employees interested in their work and the public back on park benches.
Enter Darren Dalgleish. Before he brought his hands-on approach to the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, Dalgleish was the president of the Ifastgroupe Corporation, general manager of Textron Canada, and chief administrative officer for the town of Gananoque. Needless to say, he had the experience that was needed to turn the beleaguered agency around.
Walking the talk
Dalgleish’s leadership style is characterized by an open charm and a willingness to listen to his employees. In part because of his laid-back nature, employees felt less shy about coming forward, whether in the presence of their colleagues or to Dalgleish himself, with new ideas for the agency. Moreover, he led by example.
“If you can truly engage people, learn from them, ask them to be part of the solution, and trust them enough to follow through with your advice, you’ll be surprised at how well that aligns with what the customers want,” he said.
Alive in five
When the agency launched its campaign to turn the parks commission around, its motto was: “Would the customer be willing to pay for that?” It asked: “Who defines value? The customer. And what is value? Something the customer will pay for.” It knew it had to act decisively to get itself back on track, so Dalgleish and his team developed a strategy that would see the agency achieve self-sufficiency within the span of five years.
The strategy included a margin-driven business plan, rather than one driven by revenue, and the agency looked for new ways to build products that aligned with market needs. It was a risky move, but Dalgleish thinks the alternatives were riskier still.
“While Alive in 5 is an aggressive strategy, the real risk would be choosing to just casually try to improve, or stay the same,” he said. “Alive in 5 gives a clear, distinct goal for everybody to rally around. Without a clear, distinct, aggressive goal, I don’t think we would have ignited such enthusiasm among the team, who, deep down inside, have been longing to come alive.”
Perhaps most radically, Dalgleish introduced the concept of “kaizen” – a Japanese term meaning “change for the good” – that encourages businesses to focus on continuous improvement of their operational processes, transactional activities, and waste elimination. While traditionally kaizen has been used in the manufacturing arena, it can be adopted anywhere, as SLPC has proven.
“I think the magic with kaizen is this notion of incrementalism,” he explained. “Make big changes to somebody’s role, and change becomes scary for them. It leads to resistance. But small incremental improvements are easier.”
Dalgleish’s advice to other public servants trying to undertake such an enormous and challenging project is simple.
“If [the project] is about business renewal or the turnaround of an organization, I think people need to remember that it’s two-phased. The first thing is to focus on eliminating waste and free up resources. The second phase is to deploy those resources towards development initiatives – things you wouldn’t otherwise have resources to deploy toward, but will improve your business.”
Under Dalgleish’s leadership, the St. Lawrence Parks Commission saw a 31 percent improvement in performance over a two-year span. Additionally, it saw substantial labour cost improvements while deploying labour dollars to the front lines instead of at the senior management level. All surplus dollars are being reinvested in new product development – such as Pumpkinferno, a four-week event in October at Upper Canada Village. The event has attracted over 55,000 visitors in two years, during a time when the Village would typically be closed.
Dalgleish received a CGE Leadership Award in recognition of his work with the St. Lawrence Parks Commission during Canadian Government Executive’s Leadership Summit in February.