Dan Pontefract of TELUS on how culture fosters learning and why you need to get behind, not get ahead

Dan Pontefract is the Chief Envisioner and former Chief Learning Officer of TELUS, a leading Canadian Telecommunications company that is revered for its customer service and culture. Dan is a highly regarded author (OPEN TO THINK, THE PURPOSE EFFECT and FLAT ARMY) and speaker on leadership, culture and learning, who frequently contributes to Forbes and the Harvard Business Review. Prior to joining TELUS, Dan held other senior leadership positions in high-tech and the education sector. He holds an MBA (Royal Roads University), a Bachelor of Education (McGill University) and continues to be inspired by his wife Denise and three kids whom he affectionately refers to as “The Goats”. Visit Dan at http://www.danpontefract.com

Looking back ten years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?

My career has honestly been a lot of zigzags and I never originally set out to accomplish many of the things that I have. Whether that be writing three books, being a two time CLO, contributing to the Harvard Business Review, doing four TED talks or leading an intrapreneurial consulting firm inside TELUS where I can help different organizations solve their leadership and culture challenges.

When I was 16, I set my sights on becoming a physiotherapist after experiencing a traumatic soccer injury that left me in a body cast for a few months.  During my rehab period, I was inspired by the work that my physiotherapist and his colleagues were doing as they helped put their patients back together. I’ve always wanted to help people and that route was appealing to me. After landing at McGill for my Bachelors though, I realized that I hated blood and immediately switched from pre-med to education. I thought I was going to be a high school teacher for the rest of my life.

After working in high school education for about three years, I transitioned to the world of higher education as a result of the Dean of Computing at the British Columbia Institute of Technology taking a chance on me. That experience was fantastic because we were truly helping adults change the trajectory of their careers. Having been in the public sector for almost ten years however, I wanted to transition to the corporate world so I  joined a high tech company called Crystal Decisions, which was acquired by Business Objects, which was then acquired by SAP. I held senior roles in the Educations Services and Learning Team. From SAP, I moved over to TELUS and was thankful to be a part of its cultural and business transformation. The organization looks much different now than when I first started there. Like I said though, I never thought my career would have turned out this way. It has been a 25-year journey but I’ve always been guided by my purpose, which is “we’re not here to see through each other; we’re here to see each other through.”

What inspired you to start writing as much as you do now?

My desire to write stems from the fact that when I was young, I used to write songs and poetry. When I left SAP and joined TELUS in 2008 however, I made the conscious decision to put myself out there and started to write and speak about leadership and culture. I didn’t care about what other people thought about what I was doing, I just followed what I was passionate about. In 2012, an agent from Wiley saw me speak at an event and that is when I realized I should write a book. Since then, writing is something that I’ve continued to do because it is fulfilling. Writing has also been a great tool of reflection and reflection is something that I’ve always done throughout my life. Continuous reflection is a key to finding fulfillment. You should always be asking yourself questions in order to see what else you could be doing to make yourself more fulfilled.  It is not about doing more, putting more pressure on yourself or just doing more with less. It is about taking a look at yourself often and seeing what could be next.

You have been instrumental in helping TELUS develop the culture that it has now. How do you create a true learning organization?

Being a learning organization is mostly about culture. Culture is the central nervous system of any organization and that will dictate the nature of how people learn and what they do to learn. In my first book Flat Army, I explored this idea of pervasive learning which is centred on three key pillars: formal, informal and social learning. Depending on culture, each of these methods show themselves in different ways. If the organization itself doesn’t allow for informal things like coffee chats, walks and casual honest conversations to occur, true learning will be challenging. The same goes for social. If employees are not allowed to post internal blog posts that challenge the company to be better, it will be very hard to build a company that has a real culture of learning. Leadership needs to foster the kind of culture which creates the opportunity and environment for real and authentic learning to happen.

What does leadership look like to you and what makes a great leader?

Leaders first and foremost need to be humane. If a leader doesn’t love him/herself, their team or their organization’s mission, it is very easy to lose sight of how to be humane and do the right things. If you can’t get to the bottom of why you are in the position you are in, it is very hard to be a leader. It comes down to even the smallest things like holding the door open for people, saying “bless you” when someone sneezes or asking questions about the families of others. Tom Peters talks about this as “Managing by walking around”. I would say that it is more than that. I think about it like, “Managing by hearting around”. Leaders need to be compassionate and empathetic in both good times and bad.

I often find myself in focus groups with frontline people who haven’t had a meeting with their boss in two years. Things like that are examples of bad leadership. On the other hand, when I have 1-1 meetings with Senior Executives and their perspective on leadership is only around managing the bottom line that is also a form of bad leadership. Managing the bottom line is important but it is not everything. It is only part of being a great leader. We cannot forget our humanity, the reason we are on this planet in the first place.

What are some of the important business lessons that you have had to learn the hard way? How have they made you more successful?

The hardest thing that I’ve learned is that whenever you are going into a new company, there is always an existing culture present that you need to figure out quickly if you are going to be successful. It took me six months to ultimately join TELUS because I spoke with over 15 TELUS employees and alumni about what the company was like so that I went in with my eyes wide open. These days, people focus way too much on things like Glassdoor when trying to assess the culture of a company that they are considering joining. You need to do your own investigative journalism when it comes to those matters.

What would be your one piece of advice for those in the workforce today to get ahead and find work that is fulfilling?

One of my biggest pet peeves is actually the term “get ahead”. I argue that instead of trying to “get ahead”, we need to spend more time “getting behind”. If you want to be successful, you must first get behind yourself, your pursuits, your passions, your network and your fears. There is so much power in understanding your past alongside the successes and failures of others. Doing that helps you understand who you are. Learn how to answer questions like: “What do I like?”, “What am I good at?”, “What do I dislike?”, and, “What do I need to do in order to be happy with how others feel about me once I leave the room?” The hallmark of success is ultimately what people say about you after you leave the room and that has nothing to do with getting ahead. We need to spend more time thinking about how to get behind others.

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