Jim Lightbody
Credit: Tanya Goehring

To get results at the Crown corporation, Lightbody puts others first and gives everyone a shared goal

At age nine, Jim Lightbody found himself thrust into a leadership role. In his native Victoria, Lightbody belonged to a talented soccer team, some of whose members went on to play in the National Hockey League (ex–Vancouver Canuck Geoff Courtnall) and represent Canada in soccer and rugby. The squad had no permanent captain, and they never lost a game—until one day they did. “It was like the world had ended,” says the president and CEO of British Columbia Lottery Corp. (BCLC).

What happened next changed Lightbody’s life. “After that game, our coach said, ‘Jimmy Lightbody is going to be your captain from now on,’ because he saw something in me on the field that he knew his team needed,” he recalls in his gravelly baritone. “He gave me an opportunity, and what it gave me was the insight that I really enjoyed being a leader. I get a lot of energy from inspiring others and aligning people together toward a common goal.”

The two-time Senior A box lacrosse national champion—he won the Mann Cup with the Victoria Shamrocks in 1983 and the New Westminster Salmonbellies in 1986—flashes a broad smile that telegraphs grit and compassion. Asked to describe his management style, he says he’s a servant leader who cares about how he shows up in front of his colleagues. “I place myself at the bottom of the pyramid instead of the top,” explains Lightbody, who rode the elevator down to greet me in the lobby of BCLC’s Vancouver offices. “I look at how do I serve people’s needs, and how do I make sure that I’m leading them in a way that is going to inspire and get them to be engaged in what they’re doing for our organization.”

To that end, Lightbody is big on communication. Since he took his current post in 2014 after serving as vice-president in charge of casino and community gaming, he’s emailed a weekly letter to employees, outlining what’s happening in his own life and at BCLC, and recognizing people’s achievements. Besides regular town-hall meetings, he holds annual staff gatherings in Vancouver and Kamloops, home of the company’s head office.

 

At BCLC, Lightbody oversees some 900 staff and three business lines: lotteries, casinos and e-gaming. Before he arrived at the Crown corporation in 2001, he spent more than 25 years in the consumer goods industry in B.C., Alberta and Toronto, working in sales and marketing for companies such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Nabob Foods Ltd. In those organizations, he noticed that some people thought a leader should have all the answers and tell others what to do. But one boss at Nabob was open to feedback and input, Lightbody remembers. He “would listen to everybody’s perspectives and then say, ‘OK, here’s where we’re going to go, and here’s why we’re going to get there.’ And then people would spring to action and work together toward that goal, even if it maybe wasn’t where they thought they should go the first time.”

The takeaway for Lightbody: “You can’t dictate if you really want to be successful. You’ve got to align and get people feeling like they have an ownership position in that vision.”

That didn’t save him from learning a hard lesson when he started at BCLC as VP heading the lottery division. Asked to transform the business, he went away and crafted a one-page document. “I go to my leadership team, and I say, ‘Here’s our vision,’ and they all go, ‘This is great, Jim,’ and all these nodding heads.” The rest of the division nodded dutifully, too. But then nothing happened. “It just fell like a wet noodle on the floor,” Lightbody says. “They didn’t feel like they were part of it because it was foisted
on them.”

Next time, he got the whole leadership team involved. “It was an understanding that our people, you almost have to treat them like they’re customers,” Lightbody says. “With customers, you try to learn what their needs are, you try to communicate what the benefits and features of your organization or product are, and then you try to earn their loyalty.”

Throughout his career, Lightbody says, he’s been an engaged employee when given a challenge—and the autonomy to solve it. “That’s what we try to do here, is give our people challenges to overcome, and to work in teams and to really collaborate to solve problems or capitalize on opportunities.” BCLC also supports future and current leaders through two efforts: its Emerging Leaders program and another it developed with UBC’s Sauder School of Business. In the latter program, a cohort of about 20 spends 18 months learning about everything from finance and marketing to innovation and product development.

At BCLC, Lightbody wants leaders to make the business nimbler by pushing as much decision-making as possible down to the appropriate level. “It’s what a lot of entrepreneurial organizations do every day,” he notes. “We are really trying to push that agility around this organization by saying, ‘Don’t have email chains going around. Get the appropriate people in the room, solve the problems, and then move on.’”

What qualities does a successful leader need in today’s world?
Be calm. I saw this as a manager, as a player—if the coach or the boss was blowing his top, disengaged or screaming, it didn’t inspire me, and I know it didn’t inspire any of my coworkers or teammates. You start to worry: does this person know what they’re doing?
Ensure that you get the perspective of those around you. I’m really committed to diversity and inclusion in our organization. If we want to make better decisions, then I want to hear very diverse points of view. I don’t want to have yes men or yes women around me; I want to have people who are going to say, “You know, Jim, that light that you think is at the end of the tunnel is actually a train coming right at us.”


What’s a common myth or misconception about leadership?
“He’s a born leader.” I think leaders are developed. You have to be born with an energy that you will get from leading people, but once you have that energy, you need to practise to become a better leader, just like any vocation or sport or skill.

What three things would you tell a young person who aspires to become a CEO?

1. Be patient, because it doesn’t always happen overnight or as fast as you want it. And you have to sometimes have a little luck, to be in the right place at the right time.

2. Choose the right company. Don’t go for the title. It might mean you’re taking a job title that doesn’t sound that great, like sales representative. You might be vice-president of sales at XYZ company, and you’re just a glorified sales representative. Or you could be a sales representative for a company like Procter & Gamble, and you can get a lot of autonomy and responsibility with a company that really is committed to developing their people.

3. Be the leader of your career. Seek out mentors. It doesn’t have to be a daunting task: “OK, will you be my mentor?” It can be, “Can I buy you a coffee, go for a beer, have lunch, and let’s have a great conversation.”