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Roy Osing is the former executive vice-president of Telus, educator, adviser and author of Be Different or Be Dead.

Many people want to provide advice on how to have a successful career. There are teaching professionals, mentor consultants and professional coaches who offer their services to help guide you on how to maximize your potential.

Many of these individuals have limited experience in terms of living in a real organizational environment where politics, personal bias and subliminal discrimination are alive and well. To advance in such conditions requires much more than an academic perspective.

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Roy Osing

I was never educated on what textbooks said were the right things to do. I had a basic university education with mathematics as my major and computer science as a minor – if you consider batch processing of Fortran IV, COBAL and ALGOL programs a meaningful foray into the digital world.

The point is, my academic background didn’t help me prepare to take on corporate life and to figure out how to more than satisfy my career ambitions. However, it did teach me how to solve problems – which I quickly learned was an extremely valuable asset that not everyone possessed.

I began my career journey at age 23 working for a telecom company and achieved a VP marketing position by 39 in an engineering-dominated culture. From there, I was fortunate to earn several executive positions, culminating in the president’s role for our data and internet company and CMO.

I left the company when I was 54 years old after an interesting ride through changing markets, regulatory upheaval and a corporate merger.

My journey taught me a lot about how to achieve what you want to in your career.

Here are some of the things I learned:

Say ‘yes’

Show an open willingness to take on whatever you are asked to do – even if you’re concerned about not being able to do the task. That demonstrates you want to experience – and learn from – new things, which broadens your value to the organization.

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From “yes,” a component of my brand evolved to being a fixer, someone who could be called upon to go into an organization in distress and fix it. At first, I found it terrifying, but once I had my rhythm, it was exciting and an amazing source of learning.

Learn offline

Determine what expertise is needed for your organization’s success and acquire it on your own time. Show that you understand what competencies are needed and that you have the commitment to learn them.

Early on in my career, I figured out that the telecom business was going to move rapidly from a monopoly to an intensely competitive market and that marketing was going to play a critical role in the organization’s success. I decided to become an “expert” in the discipline, which was a challenge because my formal education was in mathematics. But I learned and practised all I could on the subject from a variety of sources. I believe this was a tipping point in my career that led to my appointment as VP marketing.

Find one mentor who believes in you

There are many individuals who will be willing to serve as your mentor. You should do everything you can to assemble a diverse team and use their counsel and advice to help you navigate through your career journey.

But try to discover that gem of a mentor who is all in with you. Someone who believes in you so strongly that they stop at nothing to see you succeed and in fact will put himself/herself at risk to back you in situations he/she perhaps shouldn’t.

I had such a person look out for me. He was a VP who came to our organization from the retail sector. For some reason, he adopted me. He supported me inside and outside the organization. He praised me. He took chances for me. He was my loyalist, without whom I would never had succeeded.

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Find a believer and watch the magic.

Take a punch and keep the long term in perspective

Bad stuff happens to everyone in their career, but the deciding factor is what you do afterwards. Once the dust settles and you have finished licking your wounds, what action do you take?

It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction when you are in pain, but the right thing to do is to take a deep breath, step back and consider your options. Make your decision based on long-term possibilities, not on a short-term emotional responses.

When we merged with another telecom company, I found myself outside the new leadership team looking in. My previous direct report was given the role that I believed should have been offered to me. I was demoted.

Amidst the clatter of advice telling me I should quit, I decided to stay and see how the new guy played out. Good call. Within a year, he performed below expectations – as I suspected he would – and I was asked to take the job.

Be thoughtful when things don’t go your way. Think beyond the next hill.

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Never lose sight of your goal

Keep your eye on the prize. Regardless of the chaos around you, always keep your personal end game in front of you. You will find that this focus will subliminally guide you to make the right career decisions. You may not be aware of it until you reflect on your journey and be struck by the fact that things just seemed to work out. Your plan was somehow successfully implemented.

I had an audacious objective to become a VP by the time I was 40 in an engineering-dominated organization that was slow to promote younger people. I looked at every opportunity that came my way through my “VP by 40” lens and made my decisions consistent with that target. It led me to leadership positions in operations, startup divisions and eventually the CMO.

Learn how to be an inspirational communicator

Public speaking doesn’t some easy to anyone. It is an acquired skill, honed by constant practice. But incredible careers are made by being brilliant communicators – layered on top of competence in a relevant field, of course.

Being the person who can talk about a subject and get others excited over the prospects it has for them is an amazing gift that gets you noticed.

My career path was studded with communication moments. Although at first I stumbled through presentations, I found that through relentless practice and listening to feedback from my audience, I increased my competence in getting my message across and triggering an emotional response from my listeners.

Be informal, really know your topic and be passionate about it, talk in simple language, lose the podium and inject some humour along the way.

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Be different

Successful careers are built by people who stand apart from the crowd, who make the conscious decision to display a needed skill or competency in a way that is different. It’s difficult to notice an individual in a herd. Everyone looks the same and acts the same. And if a person isn’t noticed, he/she will miss opportunities.

You need to find a way to be different and it doesn’t require a silver bullet. Look for little things you can use to differentiate yourself from your colleagues who are all vying for a limited number of jobs.

If you’re not different, you’re dead – or soon will be.

If you are to have a successful career, it will not be based on your schooling. Not every MBA makes it. Not every PhD can reflect on an illustrious past.

The tipping point for success is what you learn “out there” in the real world with dynamics that can’t be formulized. Find people who have made it by navigating messiness, not preaching from a pulpit. Add their experiences to your dossier, practise them and let them be your guide to a successful career.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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