Best employers: The dragon dishes

Arlene Dickinson on her darkest hour, the art of persuasion and motivating workers
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17h - 2011 - Arlene Dickinson is a Canadian marketing professional and CEO of Venture Communications.
The dragon dishes
Photography by Andrew Tolson

In a red leather jacket and black slacks, arms folded over her chest, Arlene Dickinson cuts an imposing figure on the Dragons’ Den billboards towering over Toronto’s downtown. Her dark red hair, with its signature grey streak, falls around her shoulders as she casts a no-nonsense stare down the barrel of the lens. At 55, she is a self-made millionaire, CEO of Venture Communications—a marketing agency whose blue chip client roll includes Toyota and Red Rose Tea—mother of four, divorcee and most recently, an author.

In her new book, Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds, Dickinson gets personal: she writes about everything from her bad track record as an employee to the affair that led to her messy divorce. “Allowing who we are personally to come through makes us better leaders,” she tells Maclean’s. “You need to let people see you for who you really are.” Pretty bold thinking for a public figure. Most would downplay mediocrity or infidelity. But for Dickinson, transparency is power. “It’s about controlling your own narrative,” she says.

Dickinson was born in South Africa to Mormon parents of modest means. They immigrated to Calgary when she was three, and later divorced. Dickinson married at 19 and had four children in short order—an attempt, she speculates, to create the domestic bliss she never really knew growing up. She and her husband lived paycheque to paycheque, scarcely earning enough to support their young family. And she was a lousy employee, she admits—fired “more times than I care to remember.”

At 31, everything changed: she had an affair. A messy divorce and an acrimonious custody battle soon followed. She could only have her kids full-time, a family court judge warned, if she could prove she could support them financially. For days, she hid at her father’s house, sobbing on the sofa. “I wanted to be a mom, stay at home and be a wife,” she recalls. “Suddenly I needed to be more than that. I had to remake myself.”

In 1987, Dickinson, armed with only a high school diploma, pulled herself off the couch and landed a job at Venture Communications, then a small marketing start-up. As a mother on a mission, she worked hard and became a partner after a year. Within 10 years, she’d bought out the final remaining partner and become CEO. Today, she splits her time between Calgary and Toronto, running the company—now one of the country’s largest marketing firms—between speaking engagements and tapings of Dragons’ Den. She is also at work on a new CBC reality series, The Big Decision, which launches in 2012.

Dickinson, in her book, credits her difficult youth for equipping her with the skills to thrive in business. “I really believe that those hard things you learn are business lessons,” she says. As CEO, she looks to hire people who are philosophically aligned with her business-driven approach to marketing, but aren’t afraid to challenge her. And she always prefers to hire from within. Her mantra is authenticity, honesty, and reciprocity—qualities she seeks out in employees.

“You always get a completely honest opinion,” says chief creative officer Paul Hains, who joined a year-and-a-half ago. After two decades with major global marketing firms, Hains, 55, finally feels at home at Venture: “There’s no games—no hidden agenda.” Dickinson, he says, somehow manages to be both confident and down-to-earth at the same time. “It’s fascinating to watch her during client meetings or presentations,” he says. “She’s incredibly smart but so approachable—she’ll stop and ask how to pronounce a word.”

Every Thursday for the past 23 years, Dickinson’s employees close shop at 4 p.m. to gather for “beers and cheers,” an all-staff social hour designed to let them blow off steam, and share successes. “You drop everything, no matter what you’re working on,” says Hains. “That rarely happens at other agencies.” Other perks include a $500 annual wellness allowance, which employees spend on anything from yoga classes to new skates. And once employees hit the five-year mark, they receive a six-week sabbatical. “We don’t let you contact the office. We take your email away from you,” says Dickinson. “The idea is to recharge, and prepare for the next five years.”

This November, the entire Toronto staff will be flown to Calgary for a few days to bond and talk shop with the western office. It’s old-fashioned, says Dickinson, but it works. She likes to refer to the all-staff getaway as an “advance”—as opposed to a retreat—because, she says: “Anybody can retreat, right? We want to advance.”