Last month Steve Smith was one of sixteen speakers at the McMaster World Congress. What follows is a condensed version of the talk he gave on that day.
The first challenge for anyone embarking on a career after business school is landing that first job. The more difficult challenges are keeping that job, getting the promotions, and keeping your career headed in the direction you want it to go.
In my career since graduating from McMaster with an MBA in 1979, I’ve learned a few things about how to make the most of a career and how to avoid some pitfalls that can have very damaging effects. These are not the things traditionally taught to students in business school but they are the kinds of things that can make or break a career.
Never say anything negative about anyone, any time.
You will be surprised how small the world really is. A negative comment about a co-worker in one context can come back around and bite you in another context. You never know who is listening and how they’re connected to other people. Further, people generally want to work with positive people. Nobody wants to work with someone who is always saying what can’t be done. Remember that when you are negative towards a person or an idea, it says more about you than it does about the other.
Always do a great job no matter what it is your boss gives you to do.
Don’t expect to be given the coolest jobs on day one. For the early part of your career, you will likely be tasked with the mundane and routine jobs. Do your best on these tasks and you will prove your worth for more interesting assignments down the line. Doing a mediocre job merely because the task is boring does not instill confidence in your supervisors. At some point you might ask about more challenging work, but never complain.
Your peers aren’t always rooting for you.
Many people seem to think that when they join a new team, that the team is as excited as they are. This is often not the case. New team members can be seen as threats either to their chances at promotions or to the productivity of the team. Your best strategy is to stay humble, listening and observing while building trust. Always be a good teammate and do your best to make the boss look good, not yourself. And, as mentioned earlier, always be positive.
Your career is the start of a whole new learning – and now it really counts.
Most students think that landing that first job is the goal – that their learning stops and they’ve made it! High school students think this too and then find themselves at university at a whole new level. Your first job is like that – you’re starting over again and this time it really counts – there are very few second chances. You’ll need to learn how your new team operates, what the culture is. You will be judged as much by how your team performs rather than how you perform.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) and common sense are just as important as academics.
You’ve learned a lot in your years at university. It’s tempting to discount fellow employees who do not have a university education. However, some of the smartest people I know don’t have degrees – for a variety of reasons. There will be many employees with less education, but far more experience than you have. Listen to them and involve them in the decision-making process.
Before you speak, think about how you will be heard.
You will have lots of new ideas when you arrive on a new team. However, you have to think carefully about what your new idea says about your team. Pitching your new idea could be perceived as criticism for how things have been done. It’s more important to think about how you will be heard than what you say or do. I could have avoided many unfortunate situations if I had simply asked myself “What will they think?”
Find yourself a mentor.
This is the best piece of advice I can give. Like a big brother (or sister) on the first day of school, a mentor can help you avoid some of the traps I’ve mentioned already. A mentor can help you understand who has power and who only thinks they have power. They can alert you to personalities to avoid. Even if your mentor is from outside your company they can help you understand the culture you’re in and how to understand it and excel within it.
Mimic those you like – do the opposite of those you don’t.
When you recognize the people you like and respect within your company, copy them. Do what they do. The person that everybody likes has a secret – something they’re doing. It may be something as simple as always calling people by name – making it a priority to memorize every name. There is something to learn from the people that everyone dislikes. Perhaps it is negativity as I mentioned above. Whatever it is, identify and avoid it.
Seek feedback from others and own it.
Like any game, sport, school, or even relationship, it’s important to know how well you are doing. The scale in your bathroom gives you feedback on your health, the speedometer in your car gives you feedback on your driving. You need feedback on your performance as well. Your boss is your best source of feedback, but get outside the formal annual performance review. You will have to ask, but “How am I doing?” may not get the feedback you need. I found it was better to say “Give me one thing I can work on.” which made my boss’s job much easier. When you get the feedback, you have to own it. You can’t get defensive because that discourages further feedback and doesn’t move you forward. Accept the feedback and improve on it.
Begin with the end in mind – look ahead and plan your career.
I decided very early on that I was only interested in the top job at whatever company I was at. I wanted to be the CEO. When I did my MBA here at McMaster, I deliberately chose a general degree rather than a specialization so that I could have as broad exposure as possible to all aspects of management: finance, human resources, marketing, and operations. As my career progressed, I made as many lateral moves as possible to broaden my experience. Had I not planned my career carefully, I may have myself at the top of the finance/accounting ladder as a CFO, but without the experience and skills necessary to jump to become a CEO.
So good luck in your chosen vocation and career – and I hope you avoid more of the pitfalls than I did – but as long as you learn from each one, you’ll do well.
Steve Smith has been the President of four airlines in Canada, including Air Ontario, WestJet and Air Canada’s ZIP. His most recent position was Senior Vice President, Customer Experience for Air Canada, where he was responsible for the 14,000 employees who touched the customer.
Steve is currently an Executive-in-Residence at both McMaster’s DeGroote, and Western’s Ivey Schools of Business. He graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Mathematics and from McMaster University with an MBA.