It’s a frigid minus 20-something night in December and Matt Austin is driving to Toronto’s Pearson Airport for work. On the way, he’ll pick up one of his long-time friends, John Clemens.
“We fought 100 metres from each other on the battlefield,” Matt explains. Both men served together in Afghanistan as part of the Canadian Forces.
They’re working on something quite different tonight, but they’ll use many of the skills they learned from their years in the military. They are members of Legion Construction, a business Matt started in 2016.
Creating Legion wasn’t the first thing on Matt’s to do list upon his return from Afghanistan. In fact, it wasn’t even part of the plan.
“I started applying to all of these different jobs, and with your experience [as a veteran] – you have an incredible skill set with everything that you’ve done – nobody wants to hire you.”
Then, riding a wave of disappointments – an opportunity. The government of Ontario was seeking veterans to help build wind turbines across the province. Matt was hired and that experience led to the creation of Legion Construction.
Legion Construction builds high-profile installations, often involving very large digital signage mounted high above the ground. There is literally little room for error – the installations require accuracy to the centimetre.
The team is largely made up of veterans and soldiers, uniquely qualifying them to tackle difficult jobs like these. The skills they’ve learned in the military, including extreme attention to detail and a focus on safety, are adaptable to the construction site.
But something else from their battlefield days has developed a hard-to-duplicate level of teamwork: the camaraderie and intense bond that often grows among members of the military.
That bond allows for a vulnerability that is rare among co-workers, and a comfort level that encourages Legion’s employees to broach even the toughest conversations. For soldiers and veterans who have served in war zones and may have experienced trauma, those conversations often surround mental health and disabilities.
A 2013 Statistics Canada study found that almost half of regular Canadian Forces members experienced alcohol abuse or dependence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder and/or panic disorder in their lifetimes.
Although he does not have PTSD himself, Matt clearly remembers some of the more difficult days in Afghanistan – and that allows him to relate to his employees who do have PTSD.
“There were traumatic moments. I can visualize those days again and again, which I do every so often and it just takes you right out of what you’re doing. Those are the scars you can’t see.”
The deep bond creates for a powerful coping mechanism for Legion employees, who are comfortable enough to discuss some of their toughest moments on the battlefield.
“When we’re all together, we can talk about those [traumatic moments]. And we can understand those things, because we’ve been there and we’ve done it,” explains Matt.
In many other workplaces, such candid discussions about a disability may never occur, leaving employees to suffer without support. Matt, however, encourages disclosure of a disability from the outset of the employee-employer relationship – right from the job interview – by sharing his own past vulnerabilities to develop trust and comfort.
“It’s really about how open and vulnerable can we open ourselves up to that member so they can share their side,” Matt explains.
“In [a recent phone interview], I had [the applicant] open up to me, and that was excellent. I said ‘that’s amazing, thank you for sharing that, I fully respect it and I’ll see you on Monday at work.’ And they’re on board, they’re working hard right now, and they’re doing a great job.”
Encouraging disclosure of disability allows the Legion leadership to assess and place employees in roles that best utilize their skills and strengths. That’s exactly what happened with one Legion employee, who has attention deficit disorder.
“He was initially placed in a position where he encountered a lot of chaos and random tasks coming in his direction,” says Matt. “He wasn’t feeling comfortable. It was actually really stressing him to the point of not being able to execute properly.”
Together, the employee and his foreman found a position that better suits him. The duties are more routine, allowing him to better anticipate what his day will look like. Equipped with a to do list, the employee finds confidence in methodically working through his list – and he does it in record time.
“[He was] working faster than I could work. It’s really impressive,” says Matt.
Finding that sweet spot where an employee feels comfortable, confident and challenged is what Matt hopes to achieve with Legion.
“That’s pretty much our purpose…to help soldiers and veterans in their quest for self-fulfillment.”
That purpose is impressed upon Legion’s leadership who understand it is their responsibility if an employee has not found that ideal role.
“How bizarre would it be to have a conversation saying, ‘This guy can’t pull his weight’ in a company whose purpose is to empower those guys who are overcoming diversity and limitations?” Matt asks.
“That conversation is not allowed to happen, and that conversation cannot happen. If it is happening, then we are failing as leaders to find ways to challenge that member in a way that empowers them.
“We are failing as leaders when we say that that person with a disability can’t do good work. We’re failing them. We just haven’t found an avenue for that person to achieve what they want to achieve.”
Travelling in the car together to the airport, Matt and John are chatting about the seeming irony of how some of the toughest men and women in the world are able to be so candid and sincere with each other.
“It’s from the levels of trust that are established,” says John. “It’s from surviving stressful situations with each other.”
It becomes clear how such a strong sense of closeness and duty has developed among Legion’s members.
“It’s all ingrained [in the military],” explains Matt. “You will care about the person beside you, you will take care of them.”
“We’re each other’s family,” says John. “We’re our whole support system.”
Learn more about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.