Five tips for climbing the corporate ladder
'When you become CEO, you're not done,' one boss says
Since the job of running a company typically doesn’t fall into someone’s lap, the people who eventually sit in the CEO chair are usually the ones that look and act accordingly – and it doesn’t hurt to start practicing early. “It’s really a mindset. These are people that really want it and they focus with a ferocious resolve,” says Allen Snart of Western Management Consultants.
The Edmonton-based business consultant says focusing on a senior management position will lead to tough choices. It might mean taking a job you don’t want, but which will give you valuable experience. It also might mean turning down a glamorous job if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. “Ambitious candidates are always thinking strategically,” Snart says.
When it comes to the traits of people who are strategically planning their career trajectory, there are plenty of shades of grey. Assertiveness and confidence can be perceived as arrogance and stubbornness when not sprinkled with the right amount of humility and integrity. “People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they think of themselves less,” Snart says. “The truly successful leaders have integrity and they’re whole people. For the oil patch this is important because so many decisions come under public scrutiny.” Volunteering with a not-for-profit organization or for a board of directors can be helpful, while getting involved in sports or arts in the community can also broaden experience.
It may sound like a lot is involved, but as Bonavista Energy Corp. CEO Keith MacPhail points out, there isn’t just one thing that will get someone to the top. Hard work is important, but passion and a keen interest in the work are also essential. “A thirst for knowledge helped me,” MacPhail says.
It took MacPhail more than a decade before he earned his first chief executive position, taking the reins of Bonavista in 1997, which brings up another aspect that can’t be overlooked: patience is a virtue. Tim Marchant, professor of strategy and energy geopolitics at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business says, “it could take 20 to 25 years to groom someone.”
For those with a yen for life in the CEO role, here is some advice from experts in the field on how to make it happen.
Stay in School
“By and large, our industry is run by technical people and it’s a technical industry, so that type of education opens a lot of doors,” says MacPhail, who leads the Calgary-based intermediate company that produced 67,900 barrels of oil equivalent per day during the first three quarters of 2011. “When I think of many of my peers, they have equivalent education backgrounds with undergrads in science or engineering.”
Education is a vital component in becoming the top executive in the energy sector. Obtaining an MBA isn’t manditory, but it can signal interest in general business and equip a candidate with decision-making skills. “It will provide the fundamentals and if you want to get good, it helps to learn it right,” Snart says.
While a technical or professional educational background will provide the base, learning additional fundamentals are what will allow someone to move up in a corporation. “Somebody has to have a single strong skill set, whether it’s an engineer or accountant or lawyer, and the people that stand out are the ones who develop skills to complement those,” says the University of Calgary’s Marchant. “Engineers have the analytical skills, but they need to learn contracts, organizational structures, human resources and people management,” he says.
Get it Done
Book smarts and formal education are a good start, but learning on the job and an inquisitive nature will bolster that technical background and help when seeking promotions. “The best education is learning by doing,” says Alan Cadotte, president and CEO of Calgary-based Newalta, which provides oilfield waste recycling and recovery services. “How do you know due diligence on acquisitions? You do two or three of them.”
In 10 years with Tricil Ltd., Cadotte was able to learn all aspects of the business and he gained experience in managing capital budgets, environment, health and safety, human resources, marketing, due diligence and integration of acquisitions. Cadotte was actually working on integrating assets Tricil had acquired from Newalta in 1993 when it offered him the CEO post. “While I was grinding them away at the deal, they offered me the job,” Cadotte says.
It was his first chief executive job and it took more than a decade to reach, but becoming a CEO was something Cadotte worked towards. “I didn’t focus on the CEO job, I just tried to learn skills required to run a business,” he says. “I went from head office to operations and that was a bit of a demotion. You have to be prepared to move laterally and take jobs for the learning experience, not just for money. If you have to take a step down, that’s fine. You don’t have to progress up the ladder like it’s a ladder.”
While learning new skills and different aspects of the energy business will keep a career on an upward trajectory, it will also provide better perspective when you reach the top. “A good leader is somebody who can get down in the trenches and work with anybody, but also elevate themselves and see where things are going two years down the road,” MacPhail says. “A broad knowledge base is critical for a successful CEO to understand everyone’s role.”
Asking for It
While taking on new projects will provide valuable work experience, not every task will be exciting. It’s hard to be passionate and work hard on an assignment you don’t want, so be proactive and ask for assignments in areas of interest.
“You have to tell them, ‘my initiative will create value in this way and I think I’d really enjoy it,’” Cadotte says. “I was inquisitive and restless, and would propose assignments and projects I could work on. I would say, ‘I want to do this, but I’ll need support.’ If I waited for my boss to give me work, I’d still be doing the same job today.”
Of course, if you say you’re going to deliver value, then you better follow through. “Being a good leader is all about other people’s confidence in your ability to do what you say you will. That’s what people recognize and that’s what they reward,” Marchant says. “A person who leads right through to the end of a project and maintains excitement can be thought of as a leader. They’ll say, ‘she made it happen, let’s give her a bigger project.’”
And if you want to pick that next project, start planning for it once you begin the current project. “Don’t do anything in two years that you’re doing today. Someone told me that early on and it stuck with me,” Cadotte says. “Start tomorrow getting rid of stuff and your job should totally transfer in two years.”
Follow the Leader
“Having a mentor is a very critical piece to the puzzle,” MacPhailsays. “I was very fortunate through most of my career to have one or two of them to help and look out for me.”
Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to be a formal mentor relationship to be a learning experience. “If you want to develop good leadership skills, poke around a bunch of leaders and learn from them,” Cadotte says. “I was always a bit like a sponge. You observe, take note and some of the skills you try to adapt. But you have to work it into your own style. It has to be natural.”
For every additional rung in the corporate ladder, there are additional responsibilities, so when you get to the top there will be a pretty hefty pile of obligations waiting. While it’s important to delegate tasks, Cadotte says there are certain things that the CEO has to take care of and if you don’t manage your time properly it’s easy to lose your way. “It’s a constant struggle,” he says. “I do a pretty tough review once a quarter to make sure I’m on track.”
With meetings scheduled every half hour, keeping on track is a priority, especially when there are dozens of topics to cover in a day. “You have to make decisions; that’s why they come to you,” Cadotte says. “Say you can’t multi-task. You have to focus on each task and be able to turn things on and off to give 100 per cent attention.”
The ability to face multiple questions on multiple topics in a short period of time is one area where studying for an MBA could come in handy. “By using case studies, students are given an awful lot of information. A student rarely has time to understand all the nuances, but they have to make decisions,” Marchant says. “Technical people are taught that if you study it more and get more data, you’ll get a better answer, but as you rise up the ranks you’ll find you won’t always have all the data. It’s about being able to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.”
The Buck Stops Here
MacPhail held a series of senior roles prior to becoming CEO of Bonavista Energy. At 29, he became general manager at one of the smaller business units of Poco Petroleum. He later got hired on with Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) and progressed up the ranks, ending up as executive vice-president and COO.
“The biggest shock for me was to come to grips with where the buck stops and that’s with the CEO. Even in my time at CNRL, which was almost nine years in a very senior position, there was always someone above me I could go to,” MacPhail says. Most employees are aware that nobody is perfect. Employees expect their CEO to provide guidance and a vision for the company, so they can focus on their daily tasks. “You never want to go out on a limb and take chances,” MacPhail says. “But you can’t be right 100 per cent of the time.”
Making decisions is easier when an executive surrounds themselves with the right people. Nobody can do everything by themselves, and as well as making better choices, being surrounded by smart people will also help with that quest for knowledge. “Skill development for CEOs is ongoing, even today I’m learning,” Cadotte says. “When you become CEO, you’re not done.”
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