Learning the Recipe of Refinery’s Secret Sauce

When Rhonda Gorman first joined the Refinery team in February 2019 in a business development role, she wasn’t sure if she had made the right decision or not. Of course, she knew of Refinery, but like many others that she now comes in contact with on a daily basis, she didn’t yet understand the full extend of how Refinery was different.

Rhonda would learn  that it would take her close to a year to really understand the ‘secret sauce’ that made Refinery Leadership such a powerful resource for business executives.

We recently spoke with Rhonda to learn more about her experience with Refinery.

What is your role in the company?

I’m VP of Client Leadership, which means that many times I am the first point of contact for organizations who are simply curious about Refinery. This curiosity could be based on conversations they have had with others who have worked with us; or they have hit a wall in their traditional development approach and are searching for something different; or they are intrigued by our website (www.refineryleadership.com ) which is a bit edgy.


Define what Refinery does in your own words.

Simply put, we create change by challenging leaders to look at their roles in new ways, dig deep, embrace meaningful change and ultimately broaden their perspectives.   All in service of becoming better leaders.

Our approach is built on 3 tiers:

  • The content-teach piece based on adult learning practices
  • An experiential component to experience the physical and emotional triggers that cause them show up the way they do.
  • The “sense-making” to understand why they showed up like they did AND what they need to do differently

It’s those 3 things together and the practice of taking it back to the real world.  Our work shows people how to take those behaviours back to work.


What were the biggest challenges you came across in your first year and how did you over come them?

I had a trusted relationship with the CEO (full transparency we were/are also friends) and while I didn’t understand why Refinery was ‘so great’ I decided to take the risk. How hard could this be to figure this out? It’s leadership development for God’s sake!  And thus, my humbling year began. As the months went by I still didn’t get it. “Why is this so great?” I secretly kept asking myself.  “Did I make the right decision?” I was constantly challenged about my beliefs of what I felt effective leadership was.

Fast forward several months later, and there I am observing a new program we were delivering with 26 Frontline Energy leaders and I FINALLY GOT IT! After the euphoria wore off I panicked. Now how the hell was I going to translate my experience to prospective clients, so they also GOT IT?  It’s funny, Warren Baxter,  our “Leadership guru” always tells me that I have the hardest job because I have to ‘sell’ what we do.  Trust me, it’s taken me close to a year to figure this out because a lot of what we do defies traditional methods of leader development. Many times I find that trying to encourage people to broaden their perspectives is like asking them to walk a tightrope with us.  As our CEO says, ”We are not for everyone and we are good with that.”   If you are the kind of person who wants an experience where you can tick the boxes and know what to expect it it’s likely you’ll be disappointed. I guarantee you, it will be different than you expect. But—you will LOVE IT!  Trust me, I can confidentially say this because this is what our clients tell us, time and time again.

So, what was it that enabled me to ‘GET IT’?  I can simplify this down to a few things:

  • Our facilitators are risk-takers. I recall in the opening morning of the first session I attended our facilitator told the participants that it was OK if they didn’t initially ‘get’ what they were going to be asked to do. He encouraged them to just lean in and go with it and think about ‘what if you tried something different’?  That spoke so much to me, it gave me permission to push my preconceived opinion to the side, relax and let it ride.
  • The next few days were filled with what I can only describe as ‘pure Refinery’ — lots of shared storytelling; activities that pushed some people out of their comfort zones; simulations that included complexity for the participants to elicit really uncomfortable, and sometimes not very flattering behaviour. And, then the sense-making began, which is the most important aspect of our work.  It’s during this time, post-simulation, post-exercise, where leaders make sense of how they were triggered and how they behaved.  They then ultimately decide what they might want to practice doing differently—beginning immediately.
  • There were ongoing conversations about vulnerability, personal triggers, psychological safety, and reflections back on models and concepts that were introduced to them. Our perspective on leadership models is that it’s less about memorizing a model, and more about being able to use it in the moment.  It’s not about knowing a theory, it’s about how you’re going to make the theory real for yourself.
  • This may all sound pretty simplistic, trust me it is not; this all came down to the effortless expertise of our highly skilled facilitator. Truth be told, we are very picky when we choose new consultants to join the Refinery team.  I recently had a new facilitator take me aside and share how uncomfortable and completely out of sorts he was initially.  For him, it came down to a few things: 1)  he was used to a more traditional teaching approach; 2) he needed to follow an agenda, and admitted that he needed certainty, and couldn’t deal with all the interruptions;  and 3) he found it difficult to  course-correct and meet the participants where they were in the moment.  And while this facilitator admitted that he had loads of preparation for this engagement, and felt very confident initially,  he shared he was totally unprepared for what actually happened.  The experience provided him with the opportunity to personally dig deep, show his vulnerability, be honest and stop trying to “teach”.


It strikes me now that one of the reasons it’s taken me close to a year to ‘buy into our approach’ was largely due to my own ego.  In order to shift my own mindset about what leadership development should be, I had to be open to challenging my perspective and admit there are other, better and more effective ways to develop leaders.  I fought this perspective for so long because I would have to admit that my own belief of, ‘what got me here would not keep me here’ was actually preventing me from broadening my own perspective to ‘what if’?

So many leaders tell us ‘I’m a better leader, a better partner, a better parent, a better friend’ as a result of their experience with Refinery. This is truly the essence of what we do better than anything I’ve ever experienced; this is why I am a Refinerite proud and loud.

And finally, for me, the best part of my humbling year-long journey is that I am a better leader, friend, daughter, sister and mother.

To learn more about what Refinery Leadership does and how you can get some of its secret sauce for yourself, please visit the About Page on our website. Or get in touch with Rhonda who would be more than happy to help you set up a workshop or leadership session for your organization.

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