John Boynton - Exclusive Interview

John Boynton - Exclusive Interview

President and CEO of TORSTAR Corporation and Publisher of the Toronto Star

Being a Canadian, it’s always an honour to interview another fellow Canadian leader such as John Boynton. While being a highly respected CEO, John has made it clear that he is not only passionate about his work but more so about being a dedicated father and husband. In the high-stress, fast-moving world of media, it’s refreshing to see someone like John who clearly has his family's priorities at the top of his life’s agenda!

DAD.CEO: How do you ‘unplug’ with your kids?

JB: As a family, we generally vacation together to different places around the world so that my kids can experience the world and different cultures. We’ve been doing this since their childhood until now.

We also have a cottage that is on an island in Georgian Bay, Canada, and the unique thing is that this cottage has no electrical power and is uniquely solar powered with no internet or Xbox, etc. In a way, it forces everyone to connect, play board games and socialize and to connect on a human level.

Individually, I like to try and get away with my kids in a 1-on-1 format for such things as a sporting event or a weekend jaunt somewhere that allows me to spend more quality close-up time with each of my kids. This gives us the time to have more in-depth conversations together, and it helps me to learn more about their lives and what’s going on in general. 

DAD.CEO: What traditions have you continued from your childhood to your children? Or have you created new ones with them?

JB: We have the traditional ones such as Sunday dinner, but we have a kind of interesting one when on Christmas Day we grab newspapers and we tape the papers across the door to the room where the tree and presents were (so the kids couldn’t see what's under the tree) oddly enough as I work in the newspaper business. We have a long Christmas breakfast and then the kids tear through the newspaper all at the same time to get to the presents. We have almost 20 something years of pictures of the kids bashing through the newspaper wall so it has become kind of a silly but fun tradition. As well, going to the cottage, traveling to exotic places, etc. 

DAD.CEO: When it comes to traveling, could you recommend a location for other DADs to take their kids?

JB: That’s a really tough one to answer as it all comes down to your kids, your risk threshold and your tolerance level. We’ve done Kenya, Morocco and, Thailand. For example, we went on an adventure tour in Costa Rica where we did rock climbing, zip-lining and, rafting, etc. Those fall in the more high-risk adventure travel destinations. But you could do something more conservative such as England or Hawaii. But we like to move around and really see and experience a country as much as possible while other people might like to relax and unwind in one place. As I said, everyone is different and you need to choose what is more to your taste and comfort level – especially when traveling with kids.

The one thing I have tried to give my kids is something I never had the chance when I was a kid is to see and experience the world. To understand that there are so many places where you can live and work which are so radically different than ours which helps us build that tolerance in our kids. It’s good to grow up and understand the filter bubble and that you are not restricted in that you can live and work anywhere as long as you are passionate about what you do.  

DAD.CEO: What top 3 lessons did your father/mother or mentor leave you with that you feel are still relevant in today's digitally connected world?

JB: They may not be specifically related to digital, but my grandparents where entrepreneurs and my grandfather said a couple of things that really stuck with me:

1. Find something you are truly passionate about because you will be doing it for a very long time.

2. You have to outwork everybody – you need to be the hardest working person in your company.

3. You can always get better. So, don’t get too high on yourself as you can always improve and get better no matter what you are doing. 

John Boynton with the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau

So, it’s sort-of-like a work ethic from a generation that was passed on to me and in a way to my kids as well. Sometimes you can’t be the smartest person and you really have to work incredibly hard at it and sometimes it really is just sweat and toil and you need to throw in some elbow grease as they would say. And when you are really passionate about it, then it doesn’t feel like work and you get to enjoy it. 

My grandfather's advice has served me very well in my career as I love what I do. I don’t mind going to the office at 07:00 in the morning as I really look forward to getting in the office, fire up my computer and get going for a full and productive day. But just to make it clear, I don’t make others do it by arranging 07:30 meetings, as I recognize that this is my thing. And I see that in my kids when they put in the hours in things that they are very driven by and this makes me really proud when I see this happen and I love seeing how they are progressing.

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DAD.CEO: The word ‘NO’ is a powerful word in business, but how does its meaning work as well in your home? Or is the opposite of YES more effective?

JB: We have this really unique thing that we do in my household that when someone says “NO”, someone will always say “NOT NO!” It’s sort of a joke, but in a sense, you are pretty much calling a person out on something who immediately disagrees with something instead of maybe listening a bit more and understanding the opinion of the person. So, this has sort of become a ‘trigger phrase’ that basically says anyone can have an opinion regardless of your age or experience and that you should not be dismissing it so easily. So, it’s done in a fun way, but it’s actually an important part of our lexicon at home and it’s kind of a ‘secret word’ that ensures there is an open debate that encourages a deeper and more open dialogue on any given subject.

DAD.CEO: You're known as a ‘turnaround specialist’ in business. Do you have a formula on how this could apply to home situations with kids that would warrant a ‘turnaround’?

JB: My immediate reaction would be no as those are 2 different worlds. But, thinking a bit more on the difference between the two is that at work you get to pick your team and you get to find people that are better than you at everything and then you just have to direct, support and encourage them. 

Obviously, at home, it’s not the same case. So, what’s left is more about how you enable and encourage them. Sometimes the turnaround at home is making sure they have a ‘safe harbor’ and if they have this, then it’s ok to have debates and have your kids talking to you directly because often, most kids will not want to speak to their parents because they are afraid to do it. In our house, I think our kids are comfortable to bring things to us that are sometimes really tough to hear where my wife and I have to bite our tongues as they are sometimes really not easy things to hear. But we need to hear these things as its important that we react in a way where they feel that they have a safe harbor where they can tell us openly or else they won’t want to speak to us openly again.

The second thing is that we are constantly encouraging them where they need to feel that we have their back so they feel they can make it to the next steps. 

And finally, at work, when you have a high powered team, it’s simply required to lead by example. They are going to take a lot of cues from their parents, friends, and situations and that gives them a lot of clues on how to deal with their own situations.

To sum it all up:

“Provide a safe harbor, always have their backs and lead by example.”

DAD.CEO Looking back, what would you have changed on being a father considering the huge responsibilities and sacrifices of being a Leader/CEO?

JB: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t look back and doesn’t wish they could have changed something, especially when it comes to raising their kids. A lot of us, let’s face it, go through it with some sort of moral compass, but some of it we make up as we go along. So, who doesn’t look back and wish they could have done things differently? 

The thing for me was that it was never really a matter of spending time as I always made sure that I was present for their events and activities, etc. I have/had a very regimented system for the last 30 years or so that I do only 1 work thing at night per week and I won’t let my assistant book more than 1 and I always make sure that I am home by 6:30 for family dinner. This is something that I have ‘anchored’ on myself in being there for my family. 

If I could have done something better on top of that was not necessarily the time, but more so in being more mentally ‘present in the moment’. I think the tough part of being a CEO and having the pressures of turning around businesses is that it’s often really hard to switch your brain off. The struggles to not be thinking about work when you’re at home. I can truly say that only in the last 5 or so years that I have started to get better at that and I still have a long way to go. 

Trying things like mindfulness and restorative yoga, things I would never have done in my 30s and 40s and I probably would have rolled my eyes are things that now I understand how important they are and how being in the moment and listening is what really matter most. Those things are as important as the time you commit. I wish I had started to work on that and gotten better at that much earlier.  

It’s really difficult for CEOs to turn their brains off and to be in the moment, but it's something that is truly important to master for your family’s sake.

DAD.CEO: Do you have time management tricks to balance work and family that you could share?

JB: 

“Don’t try to overthink it.” 

For myself, I am ready to sacrifice breakfast in order to get to the office early, but in return, I demand to be home for dinner so that I can hear all about their day at school. This system has made an impact for me as being a CEO, the calendar and the demands will just keep flooding in and you need to stay firm when it comes to your time constraints. I’ve had serious discussions with other CEOs on certain situations where people who tried to book on top of my dinner by saying how important it was. I would answer that it’s not that important that it can’t be scheduled for first thing in the morning. This is my time and it needs to be respected. But, sometimes there is an emergency and you need to make a sacrifice. If you can make it 80% of the time, then it will make a big difference in your family life. As I said earlier, I instructed my assistant not to book more than one night a week for a work function and that means I am more selective and thoughtful about what that should be. I won’t go running around to networking events across the city and not see my family. That’s not something that interests me.

If people really need to see me that badly and the subject is incredibly serious, then they can come and see me at 07:30 – and if they don’t, then you understand how not important it was or that I really didn’t need to go to that event after all. 

DAD.CEO: You’re the CEO at Torstar, a major publisher in Canada. Who’s the CEO in your home?

JB: My wife is extremely organized and very smart and more importantly she is an amazing sounding board for my kids and they can call her almost daily even though none of them now live in Toronto. No matter the problems they might have, they are always calling her for advice. She not only runs the family, but she runs the house. She works in the financial industry but still managed to control everything in our house. She really is a super-human kind of an impressing type of person. 

DAD.CEO: How do you want to look back and be remembered as a father and a leader?

JB: I had dinner a while back with a friend and we got to an interesting question:

“When you look back at your career, what do you want to be the proudest about?” 

For me, it was an easy answer, because I don’t remember any targets I ever hit, any EBITDA or revenue numbers, etc. I don’t think of it, I don’t remember it and if I did, I have no fondness for them. But looking back, I look at the people who used to work for me and what they are doing now. That someone who used to be in a junior position is now a VP, Director or Chief Marketing Officer. I look at the people who grew in their careers and have gone on to do all these great things in the city and across the country, etc. 

John Boynton leading a strategy session at The Toronto Star

Over time, you will have a lot of people who worked for you, so when I go to events, I run into people who once worked for me who now have very senior positions. This really makes me feel proud that somehow, I hopefully impacted someone’s life for the positive who then went on to become bigger and hopefully better than myself. So, for the work part, it's more about the people and less about the numbers.

On the father side of things, I do worry a lot if I am a good father or not. I’ve had discussions with my wife about this and there are definitely some things I wish I had done differently. But what I hope one day when my kids think of me is that they know how much I loved them and how much I am proud of them and how I was always here to support them. I hope they remember these things about me and they believe that because of all these things that they are able do something truly great with their lives. I hope they believe deep down that something great is going to happen to them and that somehow I contributed to that. 

DAD.CEO: Being a CEO in the high-stress world of publishing, can you advise us on how to not let it affect your relationship at home?

JB: I think when you are younger in your career you see things in fairly black and white spaces and you tend not to think about yourself a lot and you start making trade-offs between your spouse, kids, work and, friends, etc. 

As you get older, you realize that you do need to look after yourself and I don’t mean just going to the gym, I mean your state of mind, your mental health such as mindfulness, being present and knowing how to calm yourself and also your physical and social health. 

You also need to make sure the people you are socializing and surrounding yourself with are the ones you truly appreciate and in turn, they appreciate you in a way that equates to deeper and more meaningful friendships.

Finally, you need to discover your non-family/non-work things that make you happy – as some people would call hobbies. Finding those things that you can do that are quiet and that give you peace of mind, such as playing a guitar or painting. Whatever it is, those activities are very important because as you 'get older and wiser', you start to look at yourself and you think in a more holistic way so you can deal with the incredible stress at work in order to avoid bringing too much of that back at home.

"You can’t just flip a switch."

I used to come home when I was younger and take conference calls on my phone all the way home and I was just not able to make the transition when opening the door. Now, maybe I’ll have one every 2 weeks and instead, I’ll listen to a podcast or listen to music. I’ll try to do something that helps me to decompress so that the further I get away from the office, the closer I get to home. 

DAD.CEO: How do you balance genuine down-to-earth home life with your kids and family when everyone at work is prone to elevate you because of your CEO status?

JB: I think it’s great actually. While every home is different, in our house we have a lot of healthy debates. It’s a safe place to express our opinions and the kids are encouraged to be active at the table in joining in on the conversation even if that means using sarcasm when you start to step out of your space. If I go into on of my speeches such as “Well, let me tell you how it really works…” then I will get a quick quip back telling me they don’t need a lecture. They can be really tough on me and actually they should be because no one cares what you do at work at the end of the day when you’re in your house because no one is impressed with work titles. They simply see you as Dad and I think it’s good for you to give them the opportunity to call you out on it when you deserve it and you can’t get offended with that and simply you need to recognize that you were doing it again and you can continue on with the debate. 

John Boynton may be the CEO at work, but at home, he simply goes by the title of DAD.

DAD.CEO: Do you believe it’s smart for a parent to invest financially in their kid’s start-up?

JB: My first gut response would be to do anything to help my kids. If you’re ready to do anything for your children, then that has a broad set of places that it can go. I would definitely want to invest in anything that my kids would want to do, but I would want to make sure that it’s clear what I am doing and what they are doing and to what point would I be investing up to? It would have to be clear from that point that it would have to be all them. It all comes back to what my Grandfather thought me about working hard and having a true passion, etc. If that means money and encouragement are what is needed, then I would be happy to invest in them. I have absolutely no problems in trying to help my children in any way that I can. 

Truth be told, I will literally do anything to help them if that means helping them get into university, getting a job interview, I will do whatever it takes to help and whatever strings I can help pull for them but, that has a limited shelf-life and then they need to go and do it on their own. It’s always hard getting that first money, that first step and I’m thrilled to be able to help them get started, but it’s all them after that.

DAD.CEO: Can you give us 3 tips that a father should be teaching his children on finance/money so they may have a better chance to succeed in life?

JB: When I look back at my childhood, I can’t remember my parents teaching me about finance and money. It was never even talked about at the dinner table. Therefore, I believe the best thing parents can do is to talk to kids about budgeting and their realities in terms of revenue vs expenses. 

My wife is really good at this as she set up a spreadsheet for my oldest son where they itemized his expenses and created a forward projection on what he could afford and the trade-offs and the sacrifices he would need to make and how he would need to save on the road to compound interest, etc. And for the most part, he stuck with it and was really good at it. I think it’s because he’s both smart and pragmatic. I have 2 kids who are in postgrad right now and one who is finishing undergrad. So, we really just have the oldest one who has finished his undergrad and had a period of work for about 5 years as an engineer. I think he is a good role model for his siblings on how to get things done. He’s now back in postgrad and my other postgrad kid is graduating. So, I’m sure that will be another exercise on budgeting depending on what part of the world she plans to work in and what the costs of living will be there.

My youngest son will be graduating soon, but I expect him to live at home for a little bit more, but eventually, he will want to move out and be on his own and this will create another budgeting discussion. 

I don’t think you can really talk about these things in a generic sense, but rather I think it’s best when there is a spreadsheet that is unique to them that they are making the trade-offs on how they will move the money around and at the end of the day how they will need to save as well. I think that one thing which is helpful is my wife’s position in the financial industry where she is CFA in a small wealth management company that manages people’s money. I think my kids look at her as an extreme subject matter expert who is really knowledgeable on the subject. I think this gives them a sense of comfort that when she is telling them something… they better listen!

DAD.CEO: Do you find it’s right to have an open conversation with kids about the costs of life such as their education, house bills, trips, etc. in order for them to get a better appreciation/understanding of the sacrifices you are making?

JB: I think we are doing it slightly differently and I’m not sure if there is a right answer or not. I grew up in an environment in the family where the attitude was “Don’t talk about money. Don’t think about money. Don’t act like you have a lot of money and most importantly, Don’t spend a lot of money! Don’t go buying fancy homes and cars. Be like everyone else and money is for saving and for providing to the next generation.”

My wife and I are not flashy with our money and we don’t hang out with the crowds that do that, even though we may be similar financially. So, with our kids, we don’t really speak about money, but what we do tell them is what the cost is for what they are spending. So, we will tell them how much this and that is such as how much your school is costing and this is how much it costs to fly this country and how much the family trip will cost and so on. They are getting the sense of “holy crap things are really expensive! and that I really need to save otherwise I’ll never be able to afford certain things.” I think it’s a good thing as it just shows that you need to go hard on the savings early, otherwise you will simply never have that lifestyle. 

DAD.CEO: What would be your top 3 tips for being a successful DAD.CEO in today’s fast-moving digital world?

JB: First and foremost, you have to find that window of time that is non-negotiable for family time. Whether that is breakfast, dinner or something else, you need to be steadfast on this and be willing to take some career hits on it for holding your ground. If you outwork everyone else, then it won’t matter to your boss or partners, etc. 

The second thing is when people say:

"It’s not the quantity of time but the quality of time." 

I feel those are people who are not spending time with their kids and I believe you have to do both. You do need to be there, take part in their activities and vacation with them, etc. Because it’s not enough to just show up every blue moon as they say and have a deep conversation. I believe shear time matters a lot. 

And finally, the third thing is you need to be honest with yourself whether you are creating that environment where your kids feel like they can do and be anything. A place where they feel encouraged and motivated and willing to take risks to aspire and not feel awkward or embarrassed about aspiring to something more. Having that ambition instilled in the house over a period of time is really going to set them well and I think my kids are going to do some amazing things. My son was designing gas-fired and Geo-Thermal plants for clients around the world and he was really off the races right out of the gate and I can’t wait to see what my daughter will do in the non-profit world and what my son does when he graduates from engineering. It’s like a chapter in a book that I can’t wait to turn the next page on. 

They learn and feel that at home and they need to truly feel it and not just learn it. It’s all about the environment you create. Really think hard if you are doing that or not because many people think they are, but their actions and suggestions show otherwise. 

DAD.CEO: Any last words of wisdom?

JB: One thing I believe which is a generational thing is how our grandparents were in a certain way and our parents were another way and I think we’re the cross-over dads. I think we are the dads that are crossing a big gulf that our fathers and grandparents were not even close to in being a little more open with our kids in the sense of telling them how we feel about them and being more affectionate with them. My father never hugged and therefore I’m not really a hugger. Learning to hug my kids and telling them that you love them and learning to constantly tell them how proud you are of them. These acts are really important things and not something that was historically a generational thing, at least not in my family tree. 

I think that as men, we’ve relegated that to women, who let’s face it are so much better at it than we are because as men, we are not even close. So, what do we do? We relegate that duty because we feel that this is a mother’s role and that’s just not good enough and I think our generation of dads is now finally crossing that chasm and our kids will become way better at it than we are. I think our generation of fathers is the first to smash through that barrier, but we have a very long way to go as men. We can’t just relegate the role to mothers because we say they are better at it than we are. That’s just an excuse. 

“Our kids deserve better from us and as men, we really need to STEP UP TO PLATE.”

About John Boynton

John Boynton is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Torstar and Publisher of the Toronto Star. He was appointed to the position in March 2017. Mr. Boynton had previously served as Chief Marketing Officer of Aimia Inc. since 2014.  Before joining Aimia, he worked at Rogers Communications Inc. for 12 years, most recently as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer.  Prior to working for Rogers Communications, he held senior executive positions with a number of companies including Sprint Canada, AT&T Canada, Scott's Hospitality and Pepsico.  He is Co-Vice Chair of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, a member of the board of the Canadian Marketing Association and the Canadian Cancer Society, and a former member of the board for Prostate Cancer Canada.  He is also a board member for Vertical Scope, Blue Ant Media, Canadian Press, Black Press, and INMA (International News Media Association). He is also a joint owner of GRB Restaurants and Dynamic Brand Restaurants. Mr. Boynton is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario, Richard Ivey School of Business.

www.torstar.ca   www.thestar.com

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