Follow those that lead – Tips on Leadership – Part 1

Gordon Pitts, DeGroote Writer in Residence | Hamilton, ON | July 27, 2015

This is part 1 of a two part series on leadership. Read part two.

To survive in the demanding world of global business is hard enough – but what does it take to lead? A number of McMaster alumni have become leaders in the hurly-burly of New York City, perhaps the most competitive business arena in the world. They discuss the important learning moments on their evolution as leaders, and what they look in the people they hire.

The writing thing

brad-hardyBrad Hardy, MBA ’93, hires very bright people in his role as senior vice-president of global banking for Wells Fargo in New York. Entry-level financial analysts usually come with strong underpinning in finance, economics or accounting. But a comfort with financial statements and number-crunching is not enough, he warns.

“They need to draw conclusions and identify trends in those numbers – and they need to have the ability to articulate those things on a page.”

Therein lies the problem. Writing is often the big career block for the people coming out of business programs. “They just don’t know how to write and I don’t know how to change that,” he says with some exasperation.

In his own career as an accountant and banker, Hardy knew he needed to improve his writing and it spurred him to get training through his employer – and it did help. But it would be even better if students came out of university with some of this expertise.

Good writing is not so much about how to use adjectives or adverbs – “it is how to communicate thoughtfully.” And people don’t need to be English majors, he says. But if they took a few humanities courses, learned to write a thesis statement, and could develop evidence and draw conclusions around that evidence, they would be ahead of the game, he believes.

The student leader

lockhartHis experience at McMaster was heavily influential in making the career of Kevin Lockhart, BA ’87, now a senior executive at the New York investment house Jefferies. As a McMaster music student, he learned valuable attributes in presentation – but it was student government where he learned many of the soft skills of leadership.

One of the most important stages in his development was his stint as vice-president of the McMaster University Student’s Union. He formed a collaboration with the union president, which enabled getting the fee structure passed to support the building of the Student Centre. And at age 22, he was effectively chief operating officer of an extensive campus organization of pubs, games rooms and other facilities.

He managed a business with revenue of millions and a workforce of hundreds of people, many of whom were student part-timers. But there was also this core of long-term non-student employees, some of whom were 15-20 year veterans of the business.

It was a daunting experience for a fresh-faced kid to prove himself to people who knew the business so much better than he did. But he found good things happened just by being sincerely interested in the people who worked for him. In these jobs, “if you just spend five minutes asking how their kids are, it is a big deal for them,” he says – and makes them more engaged workers.

“Most people don’t learn that at age 22,” Lockhart says. But he was lucky that way and the exposure laid the basis for leading people through his career.

Even though he had no business training, Toronto Dominion Bank felt the experience was relevant and hired Lockhart into its corporate banking management training program. (It helped to have a strong recommendation from Mac’s then president Alvin Lee.) He graduated at the top of his cohort, which was otherwise composed of MBAs and BComs.

The book that mattered

Fiona McBrideFiona McBride, B.Com. ’84, entered the DeGroote School of Business thinking she would end up as a chartered accountant. But the more marketing courses she took, the more she loved the intellectual challenge and the lack of clear-cut answers. “Marketing was a less certain discipline than accounting – you had to work your way out of a problem.”

Then she had an epiphany. In a bookstore in Oakville, ON., she started leafing through the business classic, Ogilvy on Advertising, by legendary adman David Ogilvy. She bought, read it and decided this was the life she wanted. “Reading that book just made me concentrate much more on marketing and leave accounting behind – I took business strategy and all the marketing courses.”

As she approached graduation, she sent her resume to Ogilvy’s firm, Ogilvy and Mather and, against the high odds, she got hired. It was the beginning of a career that eventually landed her in New York City, where David Ogilvy himself had been a pioneer in building the modern ad industry.

The great adventure

guzmanFor Danielle Guzman, B.Com. ’94, being adventurous and taking calculated risks became the hallmarks of her career in financial services – right up to her role as global head of consumer insight for AIG’s personal insurance business. “Every role I step into is a role where almost nothing exists up to then – it is myself and maybe one other person if I’m lucky.”

But she would build the business and ultimately hand it over to her successor. “I enjoy the entrepreneurial aspect, the insecurities, the opportunity, the risks – I enjoy the blank slate.” As opposed to other people, who might prefer the solidity of a well defined job, she liked the adventure of ‘the build.’

She takes inspiration for something one of her mentors said: Reflect back every year on what you accomplished, what you aspired to and where you are going next. You should ask: “In each of those buckets, is the content worthy of a New York Times best-seller?”

In other words, if you were to write your memoirs ten-years from now, what would you put down? If the contents would not measure up to a fascinating read, what do you have to change?

“It makes you be awake every day to what you are doing, what you have done and what you want to do next.”

That first interview

McBride gives the classic advice for entry level jobs – Do your homework before you come to your interview. It sounds like a cliché, but many young people are not paying attention. She still meets candidates who have done just a quickie Google search of the potential employer and the industry in the elevator on the way up to the meeting. “It shows in first five minutes – it is an instant turnoff.”

She finds it baffling that people do not do the necessary ground work – it is so much easier now with the Internet at their fingertips. But you need to be thorough and delve deeply into your sources.

In the first interview, she also looks for people with a point of view on, say, a new ad campaign that is out there. “I might not agree with their point of view but at least they thought about it and I can sense their critical thinking in the interview.” That again requires some serious preparation, not just a fast surf of topics.

“I see two groups of applicants – the impressive group that did the homework and can have a strong conversation about the business that can last 90 minutes, and the others who were not prepared. There is no middle ground.”

This is part 1 of a two part series on leadership. Read part two.

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