Less than an hour into his first day as NAIT’s sixth president, Dr. Glenn Feltham stands in a training room in NAIT’s fitness centre, waiting to see what’s going to happen to him next.
It’s early morning, and he’s well into his first order of business: a complete physical assessment by Personal Fitness Trainer chair Leanne Telford and her staff. He’s wearing decade-old but near-mint Adidas sneakers, shiny blue shorts to the knee and a NAIT T-shirt crinkled with newness and bearing the year of the school’s beginnings, 1960.
“NAIT and I were born at the same time,” he quips to Telford. “NAIT has stood up far better.”
It’s an unusual introduction to a workplace, but it’s exactly what Feltham wanted. It’s come to be known as Project President. Telford has promised to evaluate his strength, flexibility, posture, cardiovascular fitness and diet. She’s also interested in his long-term health goals.
“We joke in our program that we have the magic pill for lifelong health,” says Telford. “Well, we do.”
Feltham has the spirit, if not the body, of a jock, eager for challenge and competition. He loves sports, especially collegiate, played football in high school and rec hockey until he was 35.
But careers like his take over: schedules and stress can take their toll. During the seven years previous as dean of the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, he put on 30 pounds. Over the years, he’s lost 50 yards on his golf swing. Naturally, he’d like to lose the former and regain the latter.
Mostly, though, at this point of transition, he’d like to establish habits his three children and wife Tammi need him to adopt – for his sake and theirs.
As Feltham remembers, “My wife pulled me aside and said, ‘Glenn, the last seven years haven’t been kind to you. What are you going to do to live through being the president of NAIT?’”
But that isn’t the only reason Feltham is subjecting himself to stretches, pushups, sit-ups and analysis of his vital signs (“So, there is a pulse?” he asks as Telford takes his resting heart rate). During his first weeks at NAIT, Feltham intends to tackle hands-on activities throughout an institute marked by what he sees as a near-dizzying array of programming, participating in cooking to crane operating and everything between.
His physical assessment is a key part of his quest. While immersion might prove the best path to truly understanding NAIT, the approach is also indicative of an enthusiastic, unapologetic extrovert, eager to be amongst staff and students.
“People have to get to know me,” says Feltham.
As the tests wrap up and Telford and her staff have the information they need to plan the president’s eight-week personal training program, he assures them he’ll do whatever they ask of him.
“I think this is going to be fun,” he says with a smile.
Despite being new to campus, Feltham comes to NAIT familiar with its reputation.
After seven years in Winnipeg, his trip from one end of the Prairies to the other represents a homecoming.
Feltham was born and raised in southern Alberta. His father was a school board administrator; his mother was involved in construction and development, and politics as a reeve and then Member of Parliament.
“So I grew up in a family where we talked a lot about business and about politics,” says Feltham, “and an awful lot about community.”
Building on those early lessons, Feltham amassed an education that includes two bachelor’s degrees, an MBA, a law degree and a PhD in taxation and finance. All of it helped shape the Asper School of Business into an economic centre of gravity for Manitoba with strong links to the real world of commerce.
“The dean of a healthy business school has one foot firmly planted within the school and the other firmly planted in the business community,” says Reg Alcock, the former MP and Treasury Board president who served as Feltham’s associate dean and is now the school’s executive in residence. “That defined Feltham to a T. . . Glenn believes that being responsive to the community is one of the responsibilities of a post-secondary institute.”
Following his parents’ lead, Feltham ensured that he, too, was responsive. In Winnipeg, he contributed by chairing the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and serving on the boards of the Winnipeg Airports Authority and Manitoba’s Crown Corporations Council.
Though he’s still identifying similar roles to play in Alberta, he’s already had a strong impact on building community on campus.
While cheering on NAIT in a variety of sports – even before his first day on the job – he introduced himself to the men’s Ooks basketball team by awarding gold medals for its Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference championship win in early March. In free moments, he tours campus to meet staff, ready with new steel-toed shoes for viewing shops and labs. And, in those instances when a connection can’t be made in person, he picks up the phone.
Leading up to NAIT’s Instructional Excellence awards, an annual recognition of teachers by students, Feltham called to personally congratulate each of more than 30 nominees, including George Onyschuk.
“It’s not every day that the president calls you,” says the Respiratory Therapy instructor. “I’m very impressed with the personal, human touch Dr. Feltham brings to our institution. He seems very genuine – and very interested in and concerned about NAIT students and staff. You could feel just as much at ease with him in a social setting as in the boardroom.”
Trial by fire
That’s not to say Feltham is a pushover in the latter. About two weeks into the job, the president encounters his first trial-by-fire at a senate meeting of the NAIT Students’ Association.
Following a congenial get-to-know-you dinner (keeping with his new diet, he skips the crème brûlée), Feltham delivers a state-of-the-institute presentation on funding and tuition.
News of a deficit tips off a heated discussion of increased athletic fees that bring NAIT in line with Alberta’s other post-secondary schools.
The association is the students’ voice to NAIT administration and government, and it takes that job seriously. For the better part of an hour, the association executive and 17 student senators debate the fee.
Vice president academic Tessa Cocchio questions the institute’s spending priorities, including the investment – unique amongst similar-sized Canadian schools – in full-time coaches in select sports.
“NAIT’s primary goal is not athletics,” she argues.
One of Feltham’s leadership credos is to “never let people leave believing they haven’t been heard.” He doesn’t; but in this case, he stands by the prior decision.
“I think we can agree to disagree on this one,” he tells Cocchio. Two days later, the two work amicably side-by-side at a planning session for the upcoming Academic Council meeting. There are more challenges to come. Just as he explained in his presentation, Feltham’s first year will bring no increase in government funding. Thanks to the downturn, so will the next.
While Feltham recognizes the need to deal with the here and now, “Economies change,” he says, with equal parts pragmatism and optimism. “I think it’s dangerous to get too fixated on the short term. One always wants to look forward rather than down at your feet.”
For Feltham, that involves strengthening the connection NAIT already has to its community – thereby improving the student experience.
His work at the Asper School of Business was defined by the pursuit of relevance and adaptability. He believes NAIT has those fundamentals in place.
“Everything we do has direct relevance to our province and to building wealth in our province,” he says. “For the future, we need an even sharper focus on meeting not just current needs, but emerging needs.”
Alcock wouldn’t be surprised by Feltham’s attitude. “NAIT is getting somebody who will drive you to think beyond the campus,” he says. “He never gets too far in front of the collective wisdom of the organization, but he’ll push it and keep it on its toes. He’ll take NAIT somewhere better.”
To make that happen, Feltham is determined to develop his own solid foundation of knowledge about NAIT, turning up in classrooms, shops and labs, as ready to be a part of the educational experience as he is to administer it. Driven by that inherited tendency toward community-building, he has assigned himself the role of “chief cheerleader” for NAIT and, through it, the province he has returned to.
But just as his family has stressed, his success will depend on his personal well-being. Back in NAIT’s fitness centre, as Feltham’s first morning on the job draws to a close, Telford delivers the results of his assessment. His blood pressure and heart rate are good, and he’s strong – for a man his age, Telford reluctantly qualifies.
That said, his flexibility is awful, his diet needs work and he needs to be much more active. But, overall, he’s well prepared to “live through” his midlife career change. Feltham finishes the assessment ready for training and insisting he be held accountable. Besides the four and eight-week checkups, he asks for a reassessment in a year.
He’s clearly excited about what he’s about to embark upon, even if he knows it won’t necessarily be easy. Telford doesn’t hide that he has serious catching up to do. She’s impressed with his attitude, but she knows he’s facing a challenge.
He knows it, too, but like an athlete on game day, he’s unfazed. “This is a good way to kick things off,” says Feltham.