This is the second post in our two-part Leadership Series. View part 1 here.
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 in their evolution as leaders, and what they look for in the people they hire.
Follow your passions
Rick Nino started out as a human resources specialist in industrial companies, and he liked what he did. But as he got older, his widening interests took him into corporate strategy and business development and ultimately into the investment community. It never bothered him to switch disciplines – he was curious about all kinds of business. That flexibility became his calling card, and today he is a central player in leading fund manager Fiera Capital’s expansion in the United States.
Follow your passions is his motto, and Nino has been just as engaged in pursuing personal interests. He has been able to maintain a very rich non-business life despite the hectic pace of his job. Coming from an Italian Canadian family in Sault Ste. Marie, family life has been centred on food.
At the moment, “I have this passion about creating the absolute best pizza,” he says. He has gone to Italy for cooking school, and he likes living in north-end Boston with its lively mix of Italian restaurants. A restaurateur friend provides some space for him to experiment on weekends.
Right now, he is scouting for a pizza oven in Italy, which he will ultimately install into the family cottage on Lake Superior just outside the Soo.
His advice: “Try to follow those instinctive passions that are at the heart of what you truly enjoy.” If you do that and not be unduly influenced by detractors, you will succeed. “I always knew I wanted to get into business and I had a passion for investment which I didn’t pursue until I was 40.”
But when he did switch to investment management, he was all in. “Try to be opportunistic and when you see something and it feels right, go for it. You can always reset. I am the model for that – I have reset many times and it has worked out.”
The process of learning
Brad Hardy’s education in writing continues to this day. Even a simple email memo needs a plan and Hardy has an approach that works for him. He knows people higher up the chain of command are impatient with emails that bury the conclusions at the bottom. They don’t have the time to wade through long documents to get to the point.
So he writes the email out and then cuts and pastes it into what he calls ‘a reverse format’ – that is, making sure the main point is at the top of the memo, followed by background and explanation.
And he is still learning the finer points of writing for the email age. He is often accused of being terse in emails, which can leave the wrong impression. He concluded he was typing too many messages on the fly – such as on his commuter train — with an iPhone or BlackBerry. “You are trying to be succinct and it comes across as terse.”
His conclusion: “In the morning I should send fewer emails from my handheld device and just wait till I get in the office. Then I will write a more thoughtful response which will come across to the reader better.”
The exchange student
From the moment she stepped foot in the DeGroote School of Business, Danielle Guzman was intent on a life in global business. So she leaped at the opportunity when the school offered her the chance for an international student exchange*. She was given the choice of London, Singapore or Norway, and she picked Norway.
She felt London and Singapore were familiar to her in terms of business culture and she could easily operate in English in both spheres. But Norway, perched on the northern edge of Europe, seemed like more of a challenge – in culture and climate.
“I wanted to push my boundaries from a personal perspective and it was phenomenal,” she recalls.
It set her off on her pattern of seeking tough, improbable challenges. Now an executive with global insurer AIG, she admits she was not thinking of a career in insurance when she was at DeGroote but certainly she was thinking that financial services would be a strong candidate. “It was a global industry and I knew that’s where the action was and I wanted to be in the action.”
On the job refinement
Over three decades in advertising, Fiona McBride has learned how to present a proposal to a client. “The biggest thing to learn was figuring out that you had to craft your argument differently depending on your audience. Every client has different needs – both the corporation and the individual you are talking to. The individuals have their own motivation and how do you craft the argument that meets their needs.”
In the same way, business writing was something she largely refined on the job – how to edit, how to be straightforward in your writing. Her rule, as with Brad Hardy, is to say what you have to say in first paragraph and then back it up. “It is not writing an essay,” she says.
One of the big lessons over her career is you have to be a self-starter in everything you do and at every level. “You have to earn it — hopefully with a smile and a joke along the way.”
The human factor
You might think Kevin Lockhart has a soft spot for liberal arts students because he was one himself – a music graduate from McMaster, who rose to the high echelons of investment banking. But the fact is that he often finds people with a non-business background to be very strong performers. So much of the investment banking discipline is learned through on-the-job apprenticeship. Arts-trained graduates might have to take some time to learn basic concepts but in the end they do succeed.
And often their potential is much higher because of their communications skills. One of his clients today is a liberal arts graduate whom he once hired for his own firm. The young person became one of his best analysts – a rock star, Lockhart says. His apprenticeship delivered the basic tools, but he had the capacity to reach a higher level. “What skyrockets people are the presentation skills, the ability to write and deal with people.”
The latter factor is critical. He does not see the same level of loyalty in banking that there used to be – fewer customers say, ‘Hey this is my bank.’ But the business is still about relationships. “Regardless of price, in the end nobody awards an important piece of business to someone they don’t trust, and to trust someone is to get to know them a little bit. We’re humans.”
* Learn more about DeGroote’s exchange program.