Leading Through Crisis: Michael Doyle

Michael Doyle, President, Toptable Group

Michael Doyle is passionate about growing and developing people. “I’m so proud when they become great leaders and achieve success,” says the president of Vancouver-based Toptable Group.

Ongoing, open communication, listening to staff and displaying empathy for others have always been important leadership qualities Doyle works towards every day. And, in the last few months, since COVID-19 began impacting the Canadian landscape, it has served Doyle and his team well. “My priority, now more than ever, has been our people. I’m carving out more time to listen, collaborate and make decisions together, because bringing them into the process is empowering and builds trust in a very uncertain time.”

He adds flexibility is essential during these trying times and leaders must be open and willing to adjust their strategy in order to do what’s best for the health of the overall business. “Listen to your people and have empathy, given everyone is going through a very difficult time,” he says.

Keeping his team motivated and engaged during the last few months has been one of Doyle’s biggest challenges. “There’s a sense of unknown and many people are not comfortable with that. It’s human nature to create stability and a routine,” he says, adding he holds an ongoing weekly/daily team call so everyone can share their challenges in each restaurant and their ideas on how to deal with those challenges.

“Since we’ve re-opened, there’s a feeling that we’ve gone from zero to 100, so making sure staff take their days off and have time for friends and family is essential.”

As the leader of Toptable Group — whose banners include Araxi, Bar Oso, Il Caminetto, Blue Water Cafe, CinCin, Elisa, Oceans and Theirry — Doyle has a lot of responsibilities, including establishing a clear vision and a strong set of core values.

“[It’s about] hiring the right people,” he says. “Just like a hockey team, everyone has a part to play. Everyone needs to be part of the solution for a team to be successful.”

He’s also the one making tough decisions. “This pandemic has put this into overdrive. Making tough calls across many aspects of the business has been a daily routine.”

Doyle says his leadership approach is rooted in great mentors. “I work for the Aquilini family, who have built an incredible family business. Luigi Aquilini, who is 87 years old, is as sharp as a 30-year-old. He still comes to work every day and works harder than anyone in the office. I learn so much from him and my boss Francesco Aquilini (Luigi’s son) every day. I also worked for Richard Peddie for a decade at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. He certainly had the biggest impact on my career, along with Larry Tanenbaum, owner of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.”

He adds he’s also a big fan of Bill Gates. “My second love after hockey growing up was computer science. It’s incredible how he’s impacted the world and is now focussed on trying to do good in so many ways.”

But Doyle isn’t resting on his laurels and continues to work to grow and develop as a leader. “I read a lot. I like to learn about other leaders’ perspectives and experiences and to stay on top of business trends. The Harvard Business Review is my monthly read that I’m always learning from. I’ve also volunteered on several boards, including Green Sports Alliance, Vancouver Tourism and The NHL Board of Governors.”

And, though he’s always striving to become an even better leader, Doyle believes the definition of a great leader hasn’t really changed over time. “The core aspects — a strong vision and core values — have remained the same. That’s not to say things haven’t changed over time and certainly in a time like this.”

He also has some advice for future leaders. “Don’t compromise your values. It’s very easy to get distracted or be influenced by your peers; make sure you have a clear vision and stay true to that vision; take your time hiring new people to ensure it’s the right move, but when people have the wrong toxic attitude, don’t keep them around. As Peddie always said to me ‘hire slow and fire fast.’

“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; we’re all human — the key is to learn from them. My “best mistakes” was falling in love with one of my managers, who is now my wife of 15 years (not a good idea to date staff). When we knew it was real, we did the right thing — we let my boss know and my now-wife decided to take on a new career path that she had a passion for. [She] is still smarter than me. She helps me see the light through the fog and is so supportive of my passion to do what I love.”

Doyle admits he’s constantly learning from his past and “try to push myself to ensure those lessons have a positive impact going forward.”

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