I was 17 years old and freshly graduated from high school when my dad asked me the big question that was on everyone’s mind: what are you going to do now?
I can remember my response as if it was yesterday: “I really love business and I really love computers, I bet if I focused on putting both those things together, it might be a good strategy for my future”.
I was a tenacious young man, and I knew what I wanted my career to look like early on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a big stroke of luck for me as it’s not always easy to figure out your path. With my goal of blending business and computer science together in mind, I began my post-secondary journey, eventually earning a diploma in Information Technology, a Business Administration degree and an MBA with a major in Information Technology.
Getting an education in these areas allowed me to begin honing my skills early on in my career. Lo and behold many years later, it turns out that was one of the smartest things I did on my journey to the C-suite. Looking back on my career today, I can see how my love of all things business – from finance, to management, to marketing, to strategy and more – along with my love for technology, have truly come together.
Although education was a foundational piece of finding career success for me, education was really just the beginning. What really transformed me as a leader was the people along the way who provided invaluable guidance and ultimately helped write each chapter of my career journey. When I look back at the mentors, leaders, colleagues and amazing companies I have been fortunate enough to work at, I can say I’ve been incredibly lucky to have such inspirational and talented folks to learn from.
I want to highlight these folks as my ‘Career MVPs’ – those who helped me along the way and shaped who I am today as a CEO and business professional. Without their support, I may not be where I am today, and that deserves some recognition and celebration.
My Early Career and Work Philosophy
The first four companies I worked for were all family started, owned and operated: Fundy Communications, Shaw Communications, The Forzani Group and The Brick.
The one thing you learn while working for a family-owned company is that the decisions you make, the money you spend, the way you treat customers and everything in between all have direct implications on the people that you see every day in the office (and whose name is sometimes on the building!).
I have carried this knowledge (and felt the responsibility that comes with it) with me throughout my career. My approach has always been to treat the company like it is your name on the building – that idea really puts you in the mindset to think long and hard about every decision you make and the ripple effect that can come as a result.
My first job was at Fundy Communications in New Brunswick, and this is where I got an early example of strong leadership from Michael Hogan. I have to include a special call out to Mike, as he gave me my first (and third) job, and a lot of room to grow – and make a few mistakes along the way.
Over the years, he allowed me to work in nearly every role there was available at the company within IT: operations, development, support, project management, reporting & analytics and more. I give full credit to Fundy for helping me build my strong knowledge of IT.
I left to pursue other opportunities for a period of time until Mike reached out to me again and hired me back at Fundy as Director of IT. This was my first leadership role, and I was fortunate enough to report to another great leader, Trish Kiley. Similar to Mike, Trish provided the leadership I needed to flourish in my role, allowing me to grow the company’s IT that would enable larger organizational growth.
Eventually, Fundy grew into an ISP, a CLEC and was ultimately acquired by Shaw Communications. I look back at my years at Fundy fondly and have many good memories of working with some great people. One of my favourite “Richard-isms” that I use all the time comes from my journey at Fundy:
In business, you need to be able to build relationships where you can “trust each other to pack your parachute”
Out of all of my work experiences, my years at Shaw Communications had the most fundamental impact on me as a leader in my later career. Working with the Shaw family was not only the best on-the-job education about how to run a business, but also the best experience on how to treat and lead people and learn the importance of giving back to your community.
One of the most important things I took away from Shaw that still sticks with me today is the idea that “we are all important in the company, and all play a role in its success, we just have different responsibilities and job titles”.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the leadership of Zoran Stakic. I thought I knew everything about being a good IT leader until I met Zoran – who showed me I had a lot more to learn. Under Zoran, I learned so much about strategic planning, architecture, project management, financial management, organizational structure and the importance of hiring the right people.
From a leadership standpoint, he taught me the importance of relationships, collaboration, teamwork, loyalty, integrity and all of the qualities that make a great leader. Shaw was such a great company to work for, I stayed until I felt that I was ready to take on my first Executive role and apply everything I had learned at Shaw in new ways.
I still to this day remember the late JR Shaw’s golden words (that we all had printed out on small cards and carried in our wallets):
Watch your thoughts: they become your words.
Watch your words: they become your actions.
Watch your actions: they become your habits.
Watch your habits: they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny and who you are…
I joined the Forzani Group to take on my first executive-level position. When I look back now, I still had a lot to learn, and the wild world of retail was a great place to learn it.
Bob Sartor was the CEO at the time, and I really appreciated the energy Bob put into mentoring me and teach me the retail business. For many weeks, Bob and I would spend Friday afternoons together as he taught me everything about retail: from the math of retail, to merchandising, to visiting our stores and distribution centers.
I also have a special place in my heart for the founder of Forzani, the late John Forzani – he was a great and truly larger than life man.
He taught us all that it was okay to have a ton of fun at work – work hard and play hard was his motto! John’s love of life, people and his community were something to behold, and I will always cherish my time at The Forzani Group.
I stayed in retail for a good portion of my career, eventually moving to The Brick where I was the CIO, reporting to Violet (“Vi”) Konkle. Vi was a great leader, and I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who works harder to this day. We all worked just as hard to keep up with her enthusiasm.
What I really liked about Vi’s style was her ability to build a strong and collaborative team. Vi expected us to build our own strong teams within our particular areas, and I remember spending a lot of time on 9 box reviews, team building, succession planning and other important activities.
Having a strong team was essential, and I think Vi knew every employee by their name – she showed a real interest in everyone. Vi was a great strategic thinker and really understood the value of data and statistical analysis, she was very impressive for the details she could dive into.
I also have to say that during my time at The Brick, our Chairman, Bill Gregson, had to be the smartest mind I have ever seen with numbers. He taught me the importance of financial management. Bill knew where every dollar came from and where every dollar was spent and expected each leader to know as well. There were no days off with Bill, you always needed to come prepared to every meeting. My keen interest in financial management today and the discipline I have around managing a company’s finances I credit to Bill.
My final full-time role before I started my own consulting company was at Gibson Energy, a very complex midstream oil & gas company at the time.
What stuck with me from my time at Gibson was watching how the leaders like Stu Hanlon and other members of the leadership team led through the good times ($100+ a barrel for oil) and how they led during the tough times (~ $20 per barrel for oil).
It’s very interesting to observe how the needs of your business can constantly change as your operating environment shifts due to external factors. I appreciated the exposure I got while working with the Board at Gibson’s, as this opportunity piqued my interest to get involved in boards myself.
I also had a lot of learnings at Gibson from when Steve Spaulding came in as the new CEO. Steve was an outsider (coming from Houston, TX) and had to lead the company through some major changes. I always admired how Steve stuck to the plan at all times (regardless of the noise around him) and kept all stakeholders (especially employees) updated through good communication – both qualities I strive to emulate. I learned from Steve how important it is to be humble and authentic, to believe in your plans, involve others in your plans and stick to the plan regardless of the situation.
My Advice for Aspiring Leaders
In the interest of time, I had to keep my list of leaders who impacted me relatively short, but I want to end with a special callout to Alex MacLellan, Aaron Tai, Peter Bissonnette, Brad Shaw, Keith Lambert, Richard Burnet, Arv Gupta, Ian Burns, Jim Caldwell, Don Fowlis, Sean Wilson and the many other leaders that have been my peers, direct reports and external partners that I could write a whole book about (and maybe will someday!).
If there is any advice I could give to up-and-coming and current leaders that I have learned from some of the best, it’s this:
To be a good leader, you need to embrace lifelong learning, while strengthening your EQ as much as your IQ. Stay true to yourself regardless of where you’re working at the time, because environments change but who you are as a professional should be consistent. Always be prepared, but don’t be too proud to say, “I don’t know” or admit when you’ve made a mistake. Surround yourself with good people who have the skills and knowledge that you don’t and give them the tools they need to succeed. And finally, put yourself out there and find a good mentor! That can be a game-changer for your career.
Lastly, the one thing I will take away from my long career is that the people I have met, the experiences that we’ve had together, the good times and the bad times we’ve shared and my interactions with them have all molded me into the person and leader I am today.
Best of all, the journey is not over yet – I am still learning something new every day.