Imagine being so good at your job that it gets you fired. That’s the situation Suzanne West faced in the late 1990s, while working at Gulf Canada.

Suzanne West speaking at the PROFIT W100 Idea Exchange in November. Photo: Arthur Mola

“I experienced one of the darkest, saddest days of my career,” she recalls, speaking at the PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 Idea Exchange conference, which was held in Toronto on November 26th, 2014. “We were smoking our targets, people were happy and productive, and it was an amazing team to be with—and we were all fired.” West says the problem wasn’t that her division was doing better than the rest of the company, but that it was operating differently than other divisions.

West has spent almost four decades in the resource sector. She says her time at industry behemoth Imperial Oil showed her the futility of traditional corporate organizational structures. “It was the first time I was exposed to the command-and-control model, and I really thought somebody had pulled this out of the Dark Ages,” she quips. The idea of actively recruiting smart, talented, resourceful employees and then micro-managing their actions didn’t make any sense to her.

Instead, West designed her own model of how to run a business, which she employed at Gulf Canada to great success before being pushed out for not conforming to corporate strictures. The dismissal left her “just plain mad,” so she decided to strike out on her own, starting and selling four successive oilpatch firms—Touchstone Petroleum, Chariot Energy, Auriga Energy and Black Shire Energy—between 1999 and 2013. Her latest venture, Imaginea Energy, is also in the resource business, but it’s unlike any of her past efforts because it aims to make “sustainability part of the fabric of how we do business.”

READ: Meet the Woman Cleaning Up Oil and Gas »

West says her organizational model is cribbed from the natural world. “In Mother Nature, there are no middle managers—they’re not needed,” she explains. “You need strong leaders, and you need everyone to know what they’re doing.”

Here are the four main tenets of West’s highly successful model:

  1. Teach people to make good decisions, then let them: “Help [your employees] understand how they contribute to your company’s goals and aspirations,” West instructs. “If you can get them to understand how they impact others and how others impact them, they’re actually the best people to make choices.” She points out that if you’ve hired people for their expertise and capabilities, there’s little value in doing their jobs for them.
  2. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial: “In big companies it was so tragic to me to see opportunities continue to be not taken because [of a focus] on the world of the known,” West says. “Problems are a challenge to figure out, as opposed to having a pity party.”
  3. Let people be people: “The Industrial Age did the corporate world quite a disservice, because it took human beings and turned them into workers,” observes West. “A person’s genius lies in being a whole person—we’re physical, mental, emotional, spiritual people.” West believes employees’ goals and responsibilities should be designed around their “mojo,” the combination of what they’re good at, what they love to do, and what brings them satisfaction.
  4. Think of the greater good: “It was so dismaying to me to see the separation mentality, the attitude of ‘this is my budget, get away or I’ll poke your eyes out,’” she says. “We were foregoing all these amazing opportunities because we were unwilling to work together and be collaborative.”

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