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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

How not to be a train wreck: Keeping your career on the rails

  • Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Oct 2, 2020
How not to be a train wreck: Keeping your career on the rails

This blog is the first in a series derived from the insights shared by leaders in the public, private and not for profit sector during Ivey’s Learning from Leaders course.

On 24 September, Jon Hantho (MBA ’89), President and CEO of CBI Health Group, participated in a class discussion on career derailment. Sparked by questions from Professor Gerard Seijts and the students themselves, Hantho covered a lot of ground spanning from the behaviours he has witnessed that have derailed promising careers through to leaving a professional legacy. While his advice was sage and candid, it was also compassionate and steeped with the knowledge gained through Hantho’s years of experience at the helm of several companies. Here are his top four rules for keeping your career on the track.

1. Don’t be an impatient, arrogant asshole

Although careers can certainly careen off the rails at any point within one’s professional trajectory, Hantho highlighted three factors he has witnessed that have contributed to career derailment in young professionals specifically: impatience, succumbing to cliques or corporate politics, and arrogance. While acknowledging that today’s generation complete their (expensive) education and enter into a hyper-competitive job market— one filled with the pressure to always be seen as moving forward and upward— he cautioned that impatience for that next promotion, or (even worse) next title, reveals a “lack of awareness and experience to know that a career is a journey that is only accomplished through actual experience.” Experience is a one-track train ride; there are no short cuts to the aggregate wisdom gained through the accumulation of successes and failures.

Another “derail-er” is being drawn into office politics or cliques. It is natural to want to fit into the corporate culture and connect with colleagues on a human level, but it is often a slippery slope that can lean towards negativity or gossip and away from the core substance of the business. Hantho’s advice: don’t even get on board.

Lastly, arrogance is another weakness in character that is also derived from a lack of awareness, or more so, the ignorance of not knowing what you don’t know. Hantho encouraged students to always have the humility and understanding that it is okay to ask for help or to just say ‘I don’t know’. In fact, he believes that by doing so, it will not only reveal your willingness to listen and learn, it will also earn you credibility and trust in your authenticity with your team or colleagues. On the flip side, it is never acceptable to believe that you are the smartest person in the room, ever. In fact, he shared that one of his executive teams would use the “no asshole rule” (based on the eponymous book, see below). This rule allows for colleagues to challenge each other in respectful ways, but leaves no room for arrogance, or disparaging or inappropriate comments. Hantho reminded students that the inverse of the no asshole rule is the golden rule – so whether it be in business or in life, always treat people with courtesy and respect. Hantho's hint: if you need to open the book to look up the definition of an asshole, you probably are one.

2. Dials not switches

Leadership is always contextual and as a leader, every situation will require you to draw upon a varying set of skills or character dimensions to create the desired outcome. However, in relation to both leadership competencies and leader character, it is a mistake to view them as switches you turn on and off. Rather, Hantho recommends envisioning them as a collection of dials that need to fluctuate or be adjusted to meet situational demands. For example, in some instances it is prudent to collaborate; in others, a more directive leadership approach is warranted. This need for measured agility has become especially apparent to him during the coronavirus crisis, a global situation that is so pervasive, so inescapable and so unprecedented that there is nothing within anyone’s experience that has created a comparable impact—on businesses, on society, and on our personal and familial lives. Hantho found that amid the constantly changing landscape wrought by the pandemic, he was (and continues to be) required to dial up or down his various skills and character dimensions to meet the needs of the day. At the same time, he also wanted to ensure he took the time to reflect upon the outcome of his various choices and behaviours. In fact, he has been keeping an almost daily journal that contains his “pandemic lessons learned” to ensure his experiences and insights are codified in such a way that something good can come out of a dark situation. This also allows him to see where he has made mistakes and nip them in the bud. Hantho feels it is critical that you call your own fouls in real time, and if you can’t or won’t, then it will create deeper problems.

3. Travel with a mentor and make their journey light

Hantho has been in the roles of mentor and mentee throughout his career and has continued many of those relationships to this day. While he acknowledges the value of company mentorship programs, he feels that external mentors provide a safe space for unencumbered conversation and help to cultivate a broader view because they don’t carry the baggage that comes with being a part of the same organization. But speaking of baggage, as a mentee, don’t become a burdensome load—you need to do the heavy lifting. Hantho councils that these are professional relationships and provides three tips to being a good mentee:

  1. Be remarkably prepared. Provide your mentor with an agenda a week or so in advance of your scheduled meeting that details 3-4 items that you wish to discuss.
  2. Be precise about time. People are busy and appreciate those tight, 30-minute conversations.
  3. Send a quick follow-up email that lists your key takeaways from your conversation. This shows that you were truly listening and valued their time and insights.

But irrespective of the format, length, or tone of your relationship, always remember that a good mentor is Socratic. Their role is to provide you with the space to probe your own thoughts in a new way. They are not there to tell you what to do or upload their advice, but to tease out your own answer and help you think through a problem, so in the end, you own the solution.

4. Write your career obituary

No, not because a crash is inevitable. This advice is so you can envision your destination station and whom or what will be greeting you there when your professional journey ends. Your obituary helps you stay on track. Hantho learned this lesson during a job interview when he was asked by the potential employer “if I were reading your obituary today, what would it tell me about your career?” For Hantho, he instinctually eschewed what might have been the typical response – a litany of titles, profits, or returns on investments, and instead tapped into his dimensions of humanity, humility, collaboration and transcendence. His ideal career obituary would include that he “had the privilege of leading an organization and raising its game” while “lifting up the careers, and indeed, lives of individuals, in ways they could not imagine.” Hantho believes that, ultimately, your legacy will be not be based on what you said or did, but how you made people feel. Legacy is about impact and whether you chose to enrich the lives of the people you lead.

Lastly, he hoped that his obituary would include that he left the organization in such a place that his successor could make it even better. As Hantho put it, this is “so the organization doesn't peak with me, it peaks with somebody else.”

To be clear, writing a career obituary does not need to encompass a vision of the entirety of your professional life. Every job, every role, we take on has its own legacy to it. So, will you derail early on because of arrogance or impatience, later on because you fail to continue to listen and learn, or will you reach your destination with a sense of pride, satisfaction, and exhilaration for a journey well travelled? What will your legacy be?

Jon Hantho’s recommended reading: