My path to leadership

After decades as a CEO and years as the Dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business, business students and other aspiring leaders often ask me what inspired me to become a leader.  Was there a moment in my career when I decided that I was going to become the CEO?  Did I have a boss who encouraged me or a role model that I wanted to follow?  Did I have a plan — a clear path forward early on my career?

Looking back, there was not a single incident when I suddenly realized that I wanted to be a CEO.   I never really had a master plan.  However, from early on in my life, I have had the great fortune to learn from many excellent role models. They helped me to gain the competencies, commitment and character I needed to become a better leader.  Here are the major lessons I learned from their example and my own career experience.

I think, first of all, that the best leaders have high personal standards.  I learned to expect only the best of myself from an early age.  My mom was a nurse and worked long days.  She set a wonderful example for my sister and me, establishing in us a determination to give the best of ourselves to every endeavor to succeed. My dad was a teacher, who believed that his children could become whatever we wanted to be.  These childhood influences were important.  And have stayed with me throughout my career.

Having these high standards meant I had to make some trade-offs, particularly when it came to my time.  Anyone who aspires to become a leader must be willing to make sacrifices to get there.  You will not have as much time as you would like to devote to interests outside of your work.  You will have to be disciplined about how you use your time.  You will have to make some difficult choices about balance.  This is not easy.  You learn that time is your most precious asset.

I still work an average of 60 to 75 hours a week.  That’s a choice I made.  But when I go on vacation, I am not in constant touch with the office.  I make a conscious effort to use my vacation to rest, relax and restore my energy.  This also allows me to retain a clear perspective on the organization’s challenges and opportunities, which is so critical to sustainable success.

This is intricately linked with a second principle of good leadership that has been instilled in me throughout my career. I believe you have to remain open to new possibilities and have the courage to take risks.  For example, I attended the University of Toronto, where I studied Psychology, Sociology and English. During the summers I worked as a telephone operator at Bell Canada. I planned to enter the field of social work, but the summer of my last year at university, I changed my mind. I saw a large company with lots of opportunities.

After my graduation, I joined Bell as a management trainee, determined to succeed. As I worked my way up the ladder, I did everything from customer service to network engineering to regulatory assignments.  All of the career changes I made were in areas in which I had no previous knowledge. But, by gaining new skills sets and deeper knowledge of the company and the industry with each new role, I also gained a broad perspective of the challenges and opportunities facing my organization as a whole.

Together with an openness to possibilities, you must also have the courage to explore those possibilities.  I left Bell more than 30 years with the company.  It meant foregoing a large pension.  Many of my colleagues thought I was making a big mistake.  But when I was approached to become the CEO of Lucent Technologies Canada, I knew it was the right fit for me.  The position would provide me with fresh perspectives and interesting new challenges.  I felt the same way when I left the business world to join academia as the Dean of Ivey.  Both of these decisions had their risks, of course, but I have never regretted either one.

This brings me to a third way I believe that leaders acquire the competencies, commitment and character to succeed.  A good leader is a self-aware one.  You must know what is right for you, what you are good at, and what excites you.  Early on in my career, I had an excellent mentor, Owen McAleer, a senior executive at Bell.  He took an interest in me and my career.  We often had long discussions about leadership, what I hoped to achieve and how I could enhance my competencies.  He taught me the value of critical self reflection.  He also underscored the importance of talking things out with others.

I try to surround myself with professionals who have better skills and knowledge than me, especially in areas or functions where my knowledge is not as deep.  Whenever I have a difficult decision to make, I consult with them because they will look at the situation in a different way.  If it is a personal decision, I look to friends who know me well.  In both cases, I seek out diverse views. This helps me to gain a wider appreciation of all the issues and considerations that are required in making that decision.

Whenever I must make a major decision, I also write out a full list of the pros and cons.  This discipline forces me to think about the situation from a variety of perspectives. While it often produces a decision that I instinctively knew was right, the process clarifies for me the sound reasoning that supports my initial ‘gut feeling.’ It has taught me to trust my own intuition.

Looking back, there was not a “eureka” moment where I suddenly knew that I wanted to be a CEO.  I did not plan a clear path toward each promotion.  But, I did have role models and mentors who helped shape my ambitions and boosted my confidence.  I also took the time to know myself — my strengths and weaknesses, and my interests and dislikes.

These principles have guided me through a very successful and satisfying career that has continued to keep me passionate about what I am doing, even at the most challenging times.

My advice to all aspiring leaders, first of all, is to strive to achieve your best — to constantly stretch your abilities and strengths.  Go for the challenging jobs, the difficult assignments. They are the ones that will get you noticed. If you fail, people will appreciate that you were willing to take it on. If you succeed, your accomplishment will be noticed.

Second, embrace change.  Go for breadth rather than specialization. The demands of the workplace are changing so rapidly that no narrow set of skills is enough. So, have the courage to tackle different kinds of jobs, and within a given position, do what you can do to broaden it.

Finally, take the time to reflect on your interests — what you are passionate about in your work. Figure out what you are good at, what you really enjoy doing. Surround yourself with good people — colleagues, mentors and friends — who know you well and whose strengths compliment your own. Welcome their input, especially when they challenge you to think about all the angles in making a decision.

Remember, there are no silver bullets or quick and easy ways to make it to the top. But if you work hard, embrace change, and value the insight and perspectives of the smart people around you, you will make more smart choices than ones you may regret.  In my experience, that is how you get promoted … and promoted again. That is how you become a leader.