Launi Skinner
Business Administration Diploma, 1985

After spending more than a decade as a senior executive at Starbucks, Launi Skinner returned to Canada in 2008 and is now the Chief Executive Officer at First West Credit Union based in Vancouver.  Named one of “Four Women to Watch” by Fortune magazine and “Best Canadian Executive” by the Stevie Awards – the world’s premier business awards – Launi is blazing trails all over the place.  Launi recently made time in her very busy schedule to chat with us.  Click here to read about Launi’s career experience and to get her advice on what she looks for in her team members.

Q: You are often referenced as one of the many Okanagan College success stories.  We know that many young people who are starting out their careers look up to you as a mentor.  Was there anyone in particular that you looked up to or who served as a mentor while you were building your career?


A: I certainly have a few people over the years who have been mentors of mine.  It actually goes all the way back to high school. I had a job at a pharmacy and my boss was a mentor.   He was the type of man who would tell it like it is.  He taught me to get over things when I needed to.


Over the years, I’ve had a number of leaders who have mentored me, particularly at Starbucks.  There was Howard Behar, Jim Alling and Jim Donald.  All of those mentors were great because they cared about you as a person and were candid with feedback.  They all saw their role as a leader to determine how best to set you up to be successful.  They recommended lateral moves that helped develop additional skills or use existing skills in different ways.  They challenged assumptions about me; they took risks on me.  They were all coaches and helped provide guidance and perspective. 


In addition to my internal/organizational mentors, I’ve also had external mentors.   When I was in Seattle, I met with Eric Boles, a coach and mentor, every couple of months.  Eric coached teams at Starbucks as well as me individually.  Now that I’m back in Vancouver, I meet with Rich Simmons. 


All of that said, I do strongly believe in mentorship.  It’s important to have people who challenge you and help you think outside the box. 

Q: How would you advise students to go about getting a mentor?

A: Students need to be open to asking people.  If they don’t know where to begin, they can ask their instructors for suggestions. They can also ask their network.  There are a number of organizations out there to help develop your career from local chambers of commerce to young leaders groups, any BC Business Council to the Minerva Foundation here in Vancouver. The right mentor might not be part of that group but there might be someone there that students can ask.  There are a variety of people and programs to help people develop their careers whether they are executives or just starting out.

When identifying a mentor, look to business people that you respect.  If they aren’t in a position to mentor, ask them for a suggestion for someone that might be a good fit and to make an introduction.  The key message here is that people just have to be willing to ask. 

Q: Looking at your LinkedIn profile, you’ve certainly had a really solid career progression into senior positions, which as a female executive, makes you not only a trail blazer among women, but also a minority.  To get to the executive level in business, do you feel that you – or women in general - had to work harder to compete in a male dominated environment? 

Yes, I would say for the most part, I have had to compete harder.  I don’t really think of it in that lens very often though.  I’ve been fortunate to work at organizations for most of my life that focus on diversity and foster inclusive cultures.   Although I didn’t feel as though I had to compete intellectually with male colleagues, there are certainly social differences that I had to work at that the men just didn’t think about.  I realized that I had to gain confidence in those situations.  I realized that although we didn’t have many of the same things in common, we were able to connect on those things.  As an example, my husband reminds me of major sporting events and who’s playing in those games so that I can participate in conversations.   Because most men like to talk about sports.  And although I really like sports, I don’t have the time to commit to following the events.  So, my husband gives me insight so that I can throw out a comment about a game, which gives me the opportunity to be part of the conversation. 

Where we have to work harder is to understand that social interaction with men isn’t the same as with women.  Sometimes women feel like if they can’t comment or they have to be quieter in these situations. It was those social interactions where the challenge came for me.  

Q: Your executive career includes top jobs at one of the world’s largest coffee retailer, a junk removal company and a credit union.  These companies seem vastly different from one another yet you have been at the helm of each of them.  What is the common denominator among them that attracted you to these companies? 

A: There were three primary factors that attracted me to all of the companies I’ve worked for:

  • They really had strong cultures and a strong focus on people – they all empowered and valued their people.  It was just part of company’s DNA.
  • Each of the organizations’ product or service have been primarily customer service focused in their delivery.  They all focus on high level of service.  Their product or service helps people in their life.  With the examples you gave, 1-800 helps people get rid of messes, First West helps people buy their first home or gain credit to build their business, and in terms of Starbucks, it was their third space.  Coffee fills an emotional need in that moment.
  • I’ve always wanted to be part of companies that do something in their local communities.  All of the organizations support their local community in a variety of ways. Even an international organization like Starbucks supports community initiatives through their store managers.  That community connection is really important to me.

Q: What was your biggest professional misstep and what key lessons did you take away from it?


A: Oh there have been several but I’d have to say that the biggest misstep would be the changes in my career where I should have done more research.  With McGavins and 1-800 I hadn’t done enough of my homework to understand whether I could grow with their organizations - that we could grow together.  I didn’t explore whether their organizational culture was the right fit for me and whether I was the right fit for them. 


At the time, I wasn’t used to not having a job. And when you’re being recruited and the company makes you feel great and builds your confidence that it’s the right place for you, you start to second guess your instincts that are telling you that it might not be.  I learned to have confidence and to ensure I’d done my due diligence.  That means talking to enough people to ensure that it’s the right company for you.  That was a huge learning curve. 

Q: Some of the words that have been used to describe you include: inspiring, exceptional, influential and a natural leader.  How would you describe your leadership style?


A: You know, Howard Behar and Jim Alling gave me a plaque when I was at Starbucks that says: candid, caring, courageous.  I think that those terms suit me.  I have the courage to have honest, yet difficult, conversations that are delivered with care.  It’s about trying to get to a good place for everyone and I’ve typically been able to do that.I believe in hiring great talent and supporting them to be the best that they can be.  I am there to coach and mentor, not giving specific orders. 


Q: I know many students whose career aspirations change once they have some college courses under their belt.  When you first enrolled in college, did you imagine being in a top-level executive or did your aspirations evolve over time? 


A: (With a chuckle) No, I wasn’t that aspirational.  I didn’t intend to be a CEO but I loved business and figured that I would get out and run a business one day.   Once in the business world, I developed a passion for developing and managing people.  Although I’m just on the cusp of being an extrovert, I’ve always had a diverse group of friends and gained a lot of energy just by being around people.

Q: You’ve opted to keep a connection with Okanagan College since you graduated in 1985.  As busy as you must be as a top business executive, why is it important to you to maintain that relationship?

A: I think it’s important on a number of levels.  I give back to help create future leaders.  I think that it’s important to be appreciative of who helped you to be where you are.  Also, I find it inspiring when I get involved.  I get to meet students who are doing inspirational things. Now with First West, the College is part of our community.  Part of supporting our community is to ensure that we have a healthy capability for students to gain skills.

Q: Here at the College, we are always trying to encourage students to develop their soft skills in addition to their technical skills.  As a business leader, what qualities are you looking for in your future employees that you would suggest students develop and why?

A: A critical skill that students need to develop – and more critical in the last 5 years than ever before – is collaboration. People need to collaborate in cross-functional groups, with people with different lifestyles, and across different forms of technological media. You have to be able to understand different people and connect in different ways now more than ever before.  Information is changing so quickly and everyone needs to be able to collaborate to bring groups together toward a common goal/cause. 

Students also have to know how to take risks.  People should set their lives up in a way that is conducive to taking risks.  For example, don’t get yourself into so much debt that you can’t leave a job that you don’t enjoy.  That will give you the freedom to take the risks that you want to take when you want to take them.

The last thing is that people should be continually learning.  Technology helps that.  We have to be constantly learning and trying new things and it should be in that spirit of collaboration. 

Q: What, if any, guilty pleasure do you indulge in, just for yourself? 

A: I work out with a personal fitness trainer twice a week.  It’s something that I invest my time and money in. I like it because I don’t have to plan my workout or make any of the decisions. I don’t have to think about pace or the distance I have to run, I just show up, work hard, and trust the workout my trainer has chosen.


© 2013 Okanagan College. All rights reserved.