Podcast: Advancing & Transitioning Your Career – with Executive Career Coach Bob Ryan

By Published On: November 30, 2021

Hosts: Rodney Apple and Hinesh Patel

In This Episode:

We speak with Bob Ryan about his mix of career experiences in supply chain and how it influenced how he works with executives developing their careers or looking for their next opportunity. He talks about his own experience being on the client-side, then switching over to coaching.

Who is Bob Ryan?

As a partner and executive advisor, Bob helps senior executives with career transitions and leadership development. Throughout Bob’s career in business, he has been known as “Coach”. As a trusted advisor for all levels of the organizations, he helped develop leaders and future leaders and this has been his passion for more than twenty-five years.

[00:01:57] Let’s get a little background on you personally, you want to give us a 30 second, minute summary.

I am Canadian and American. I grew up in Canada, went to college in Canada at McGill and Carlton universities and studied mechanical aeronautical engineering and decided that after some really terrific summer jobs that I wanted to have a team, that I didn’t want to go into pure engineering. My first job was at Proctor and Gamble that I’ll talk about more in a moment.

[00:02:23] Give us a sense of some of your greatest influences that helped to get started and helped you along the way.

I mentioned the summer jobs I had while I was in engineering school. It really gave me an appreciation for supply chain, manufacturing and more rolling up your sleeves type stuff, as well as managing people. I got managed actually very poorly as a student and had a chance to manage a team at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, which kind of dates me a little bit. But, that was probably the biggest influence because as I got out of engineering school, I thought for sure, I would be designing gas turbine engines. I could even tell you which engine I was interested in. But didn’t spend a minute in that industry. I wanted a team and started at Procter and Gamble in a diaper plant, Bellville, Ontario.

[00:03:10] Could you cover some of those key roles that you held and we’d love to hear about some of the lessons learned as you transitioned between them?

The first one, and I have often said this. Almost everything I know I learned in my first three years as a line shift manager, making Pampers diapers in Bellville, Ontario. When it’s the middle of the night and you don’t want to call your boss because you have a problem, you’ll figure things out. And I was lucky enough to have that role for three years, with four other engineers. The five of us just worked very well together. I learned how to ask for help, how to figure things out on our own. And also to manage in a technical environment, just loved it. So that was a real great way to set the foundation for my career. After doing this for three years, I did some engineering roles, helped start up Love’s, which was the first hourglass shape diaper. And then went to a temporary assignment for development, three years in HR that then lasted 27 years with various companies.

The transition from engineering production management, to HR in a supply chain environment happened in a five second conversation in the parking lot. The head of manufacturing said, Bob, you want to do some time in HR? I said, sure. So the next week he flipped the two of us. That could only happen at Proctor. They have engineers doing everything back in manufacturing in those days. My role was to be the HR leader for a very large plant in Hamilton, Ontario.

Easy transition. Moved around a bit with Proctor and then decided that I wanted to make a change. And this was probably one of the more difficult transitions I had. It was my decision to leave Proctor because I just decided it was time to be for a change. I actually responded to an ad in the paper, which doesn’t happen much anymore and ended up working for a company called Griffith Laboratories who was looking for an engineer who was in HR because they needed that process orientation.

Was there for about 12 years, a really nice ride. They moved me to the United States to work out of Illinois. Although from Chicago, Griffith moved me to the UK, to France and then back. And then eventually, I made the decision again, it was time to change and went to work for a Bombardier. Bombardier was starting up the Johnson and Evinrude outboard engine plant and that was just a natural fit for me. It’s French Canadian company. I’m French Canadian, spoke the language, and the other thing was they needed an HR guy that could really get along with the research and development crew in Chicago, Waukegan. That gave me instant credibility with them because of the fact that I was an engineer who happened to be in HR.

The next transition was not my choice. Some advice that I would have for anybody in transition is get help. And I’ve worked with a coach that was the first time working with a coach. And that led to the next role. And did the same thing again with the very next role and ended my career with a company called Tate and Lyle. Then once again, got myself a really good coach. I’ve had a very interesting career. But each one of the transitions, I think I got better at, as I was going along because I was doing more reflecting and I got help.

[00:06:25] It looks like now you’ve graduated to the level where you’re able to coach and in many cases, very senior level people. Tell us how that transition happened.

Yeah, that was fascinating. I came to be a client with the company that I now actually am a co-owner of. One of the first things we do in our process is we do assessments and we have an industrial psychologist that sits down with you and your significant other, your life partner and just talks about the data, talks about life and so on. And I was thinking, I’d do one more corporate gig. And I was 59 at the time. And the psychologist said, have you ever thought of coaching? And I said, well, you can’t make a living coaching. And, of course, my coach is sitting across the table and she says, I beg to differ. And I had already, along the way, I’d become certified as a coach, which I thought made me a better HR person.

It was a natural switch, but a switch that I had to get help to figure out, because I don’t think I would’ve gotten there on my own. And that’s what I’ve been doing now for eight years, but coaching only senior people, C level executives, either in transition or in their positions, requiring some development, mostly high-potentials.

[00:07:36] Give us a sense, of how you help them how you serve them, the value you provide, so our listeners can get a window into a senior level consulting.

One of the things that we are not very good at is reflecting. Actually pausing and thinking about stuff, whether that’s your own career or any part of life. A good example would be a person goes to college, they get out of college. They start with a big company. Somebody likes them, they get promoted. And the next thing, you’re 55 years old. And you’re trying to figure it out, what are you going to do next? And what I tell people, actually pause, and reflect on where you are in your career and where you want to go. Create a vision of not just what you want to do in your career. But also, what you want to do after the corporate career. It’s extremely important because in fact, we’re all gonna live a lot longer than in the past, and you actually could be doing your next next longer than what you’re doing right now. So, it’s really important to reflect. The first step is reflecting.

The second thing is as a coach, I’m your conversation partner. And sometimes that’s just listening. I’ll have a session with one of my clients where I hardly say a word and I feel at the end, I haven’t contributed. And they’ll say it was the best session they ever had because somebody listened. I guide them through reflecting on things, by asking questions, which is what a coach does. Occasionally, because of my areas of expertise that I’ve picked up over the years, I’ll provide some advice, but a coach mostly asks the questions to bring the answers out of the individual that you’re coaching.

[00:09:11] And as you see these people and help them along the way, can you give us a sense of how do you help them and how do you course correct?

The most important thing is teaching people to pause and take a breath and reflect, as I mentioned before, and actually think, not just about what’s happening with your career, but what’s happening with all of your family, all of those things. Just pause. So that’s one of the main things that I’m telling people to do. And I can ask questions to help them and guide them through that reflecting process, and then come to some conclusions. I also think it’s important to write down those conclusions so that you can actually share it with other people, whether that’s your spouse or your business partners, but it’s clear that the most important thing is just to pause.

Like I said, you get out of college and then you’re 55. You might’ve had a great career, but have you ever paused to think, what is it that I really want to do? Where’s my skillset. And am I happy? Especially after you’ve been working for a while, maybe the first few jobs are a grind, but eventually you really deserve to work at something that you enjoy so that it isn’t a grind every day. And try to position yourself in a role where you really are enjoying the work. That’s an easy question for me to ask somebody, are you enjoying your work? And the answers I get are across the board. Sometimes people would just pause, stare at me and say, no, I don’t. Okay. What are we going to do about it? That’s the second point, reflecting, and then doing something about that as part of your career.

The other thing, the average age of the person I coach is 55. And if we’re talking about those people that I’m coaching that are in transition, they’ve gone through

their life and all they’ve done is work. And they find themselves at average age, actually 53, with a spouse who is a life partner, who is a great roommate, no friends, or very few friends. No hobbies. If they’re faced with having to maybe stop working, have no idea what they’re going to do. So at some point in time, it’s really important to take that pause and say, am I really leading a full life or am I only working? That’s what I see the most is people that just haven’t taken the time to think it through.

[00:11:26] What would you recommend, do you recommend folks typically at the end of the year, you’re thinking about what did I accomplish, goals wise, and what am I going to do next year? That’s a habit for a lot of people, but what do you recommend?

I’m an engineer, so I like structure. And so, what I do recommend is that you do add some structure to this reflection. Maybe not so much to the period of reflection, but when you’re going to do it. For me, I think quarterly is good. Just maybe a light touch quarterly. And then every couple of years you really do need to think things through. I suggest every couple of years talking to a couple of recruiters. See what the market’s like out there. Many times, you’ll convince yourself you’re in the right spot or the person that you’re talking to will tell you that, Hey, do you really want to change? You’ve got a good thing going. But every couple of years, maybe it is time to say it’s time for a change, knowing what your vision is. The other thing I’ll add here is as an observation, is that something happens around 50 years old with a lot of people. And they’re not always sure how to deal with this, but something happens. The ego becomes less important and mind and body wellness all of a sudden is the priority. And mind and body wellness doesn’t mean you stop working. It just means you got to make sure that you’re enjoying what you’re doing and that you’re taking care of yourself and building a life around you rather than shooting for that next CEO role.

[00:13:14] We’d love to hear your perspective on networking. I know you do a lot of executive level coaching. I’ve always found that most people that make it up to that C-suite tend to be excellent networkers. They give back, they help people get up the ladder that they ascended. What are your thoughts there?

One of the worst things you could do is just do your networking while you’re doing the job search. Networking is a lifetime endeavor. Whether you like it or not, you’ve got to do it because it’s one of the most important things that you can do is build these relationships over your career. Let’s get back to that 55-year-old corporate warrior. One of the things I’ll ask them is how’s your network? And say, well, I’ve been working too hard to have a network. Well, I said, let’s download your outlook contact list or Google contact list onto an Excel spreadsheet. You can Google how to do that. And inevitably, there’s one to 2000 names on there. And I’ll say, there’s your network. Now, what are we going to do with it? How are

we going to mine that network? It’s just the most important thing that you can do. It’s rewarding. It’s a two-way thing. A network isn’t something that you always ask for something.

One of the best examples is Hinesh, Hinesh and I stay in touch, whether I have a need or he has a need or whatever, because he is an important part of my network. Let me talk about an article that I wrote a while ago, that was actually written about what I do. I also have a virtual board of directors. My virtual board of directors is eight people. Six of those eight have been my virtual board. That by the way, they don’t know that run my virtual board of directors. I just imagined them around a table helping guide me. And my goal is to call them every quarter. Usually I don’t have a need, but at least we touch base once a quarter. And I’ll have to say that if I go back in the last, it’s more than 10 years now, I probably haven’t kept the once a quarter part, but at least twice a year. And this is a network that I can get advice from. One of the secrets is that it has to be very diverse, diverse in age, diverse in industry. And if you look at my virtual board of directors, the person that has given me the best advice over the last 10 or 15 years is a country singer. Not an engineer, not a business person. She’s a country singer that I’ve, that I met at coaching school many years ago. And at the same time, I’ve given her advice.

Adding structure to networking helps, but it is really, really important to build those relationships. LinkedIn is a very powerful tool. We tell our transition clients it’s more important than your resume because LinkedIn is who you are, not what you’re doing this moment. And it’s where people go when they hear your name.

[00:15:49] You’ve had some really interesting and diverse set of jobs, you’ve made significant career transitions. And now it’s part of your job. We get a lot of inquiries around someone who wants to take over a large operation, but they’re coming from another career area and they want to make that transition. What kind of advice or guidance would you give people?

That’s a big topic, but let me hit three things that come to mind. This does take some planning and it’s a good idea to have a coach along the way for somebody to talk to, but, if you want to change functions, you want to move from a manufacturing role into a commercial role. It’s really hard to do that by changing companies. It’s much easier to do that within the company that you’re in. When I see somebody that is in transition and wants to make a big change, it’s tough. You are who you are at the moment. And that’s what the market will see you as. They won’t see somebody that’s been in manufacturing the whole life as a commercial person, but your company might that you’re in now. So, it’s best to make those changes within the company that you’re in.

The other piece of advice I would have is if you’re unhappy, if you’re thinking of making a change, humor yourself and think about what has to change in the job you’re in to make it more enjoyable for you and less of a grind. And before you leave that company and leave maybe some equity behind or whatever, reflect upon what has to change and which one of those things are in my control and which one of those things are not in my control. I’ve seen with several clients is

that have come to me because they’ve been unhappy. We call them stealth clients, cause they’re still working, is they’ve been able to break down the barriers to enjoying their jobs and they stay. And they’ve been very happy. If things are not in your control, well, then who’s controlling at the end, then go talk to that person before you leave.

Third thing that comes to mind is we only have one life and be conscious of the fact that there’s more to the pie of life, different slices. There’s a slice for your work. Usually too big. There’s a slice for your family, usually a good size. But there’s also a slice for yourself. When I talked to my clients, I asked them to draw that pie. And I noticed almost a hundred percent of the time that that slice of the pie for themselves is missing because they’re so busy doing their job and they think that that’s who they are, but that’s not who you are. Who you are, your brand is something different. And so, when you think about doing things for yourself, it doesn’t necessarily just golfing, or whatever, but it’s doing things that helped grow your soul.

[00:18:24] Fascinated by the personal advisory board. It kind of links in with mentorship and we’d love to hear your philosophy on mentorship and any advice you’d like to share with our audience for getting started.

First of all, let me talk about the difference between a mentor and a coach. A coach is usually somebody that you hired that holds you accountable. A mentor is a gift. Having a mentor is a relationship that is built completely on trust and great conversations and learning and very, very different than coaching. It is essential along the way that you have mentors. It might be an old boss that you had. It might be an uncle or whatever. But usually those relationships last a long time, and you don’t have to meet every week with a mentor. It might be just once a year. It requires some work on your end to keep it going because your mentor might be a really busy person, maybe CEO of a company that you were in 10 years ago. You’ve got to make the initiative to stay in touch with that person, and you need to take the initiative to decide how you’re going to communicate. Is it going to be by phone? What’s the easiest for that person, zoom or in person, ideally meeting your mentor face-to-face once or twice a year is great, but it is a very powerful tool, Rodney, it’s a real gift. And being a mentor is also very fulfilling. So, think about who you can help, where you can help and who needs help and reach out to them.

[00:19:52] We’re talking a lot here about how we can grow as professionals. One way people grow is by broadening out their functional sets. They may have one or two functions and they want to have three, four or five. As people think about that, how should they plan? How should they get exposure, et cetera, to broaden out their span of control and grow their career?

The first step is to think of yourself as a business person and not a plant manager, not a procurement officer, or think of yourself as a business person first and your functional role second. In all of the years that I was in HR, and

somebody asked me what I did, I would say I am a business person and I just happened to be working in HR. When you start thinking of yourself as a business person, you go to meetings with a different lens and all of a sudden, you’re contributing beyond just your function. It’s a good way to break down silos. When you, as the plant manager, is also interested in the commercial side of the business, and you can show that in meetings, provide ideas, gain equity with the other people in the room, that can help lead to broadening your career. It also makes it a lot more interesting when you understand the whole picture. And when you’re involved in the strategy of a company, even though you might have a functional role, you also have a role as a businessman or businesswoman. I told every single HR person that worked for me to think of themselves as a business person first and an HR person second. Now engineers and people in supply chain have those opportunities all the time, because they’re part of meetings that include the business. They have to be. And if you’re not, you better get involved in the business because it’s having an impact on you and you’re having an impact on it and start thinking of yourself through the lens of the big picture, not just your function.

I would play this game in meetings, if I didn’t know who the crowd was, spot the HR person and every once in a while, you can’t, because that person is talking like they are a business person and contributing ideas, actually go beyond their scope.

[00:21:58] Curious what you’re hearing in the marketplace as you’re coaching these senior executives. We know that there’s talent shortages, just would love to hear your perspective on that and any kind of trend analysis that you’re seeing because building a high performing team, that’s the job of an executive. That’s how they get to that level. A lot of people in the space we recruit in supply chain it’s their number one concern right now.

This is a tough time to find talent. But the fact is, the talent is out there. What I like to do is build a community of people that are interested in your company and so that you can draw from that community. The other thing that’s really important is purpose. A lot of people that are thinking of making a change are looking for a role that has purpose or a company that has purpose. And get out there with your purpose, your identity, as a business leader so that you can attract people. And these are the questions they’re going to ask you if you’ve got them on the phone, or if you’ve got them in a zoom call, they’re going to say, what’s the purpose of the company. They’re going to want to know what the purpose of the company is. And purpose goes beyond profit, in this time, which is a very good thing. People are saying, I’m not just going to take any job. I’m going to take a job that I’m going to enjoy. That has purpose where I have some flexibility, et cetera.

I’ll tell you a story. One of the things I like to do when I’m speaking about this topic is ask the audience after I’m 20 minutes into it. I’ll pause. And I’ll say, so audience, how many of you have spent more time thinking about your career in the last 20 minutes than in the previous 20 years? And almost everybody puts their hand up because it’s the first time. Oh my God. I shouldn’t be thinking about

my career. It’s a really important thing. I shouldn’t let it just happen to me. I need to take control of it. And that’s the message that I want to leave here today, is pause. Think. Reflect. Am I on the right path? Am I using my skills? Am I enjoying what I’m doing? Whether you’re in supply chain or any other role.

[00:24:01] One of my favorite sayings. If you don’t plan your career, someone else will do it for you.

That’s exactly true. That’s exactly right. And then the next thing, you’re 55, trying to decide what to do next. You want to be able to look back and say I’ve added value. I did a study a long time ago. I did this study about 12 bosses in their lifetime, and they will remember a couple of them because they were really, really bad. They will remember a couple of them because they had really positive impact. So, if you do the math, there’s a bunch of bosses that you don’t remember at all. Now, which one do you want to be? I learned more from really bad bosses than bosses that I don’t even remember their names. And so, which one do you want to be? So, you’ve got to stop and think, am I impacting people? Am I helping people? Am I helping the business? And am I doing what I really enjoy? And when I look back and I’m trying to decide what to do next, can I look back and say, what is success? Is success making a lot of money? Not necessarily. Money gives you options maybe. Success is having developed people and having a full life yourself.

[00:25:05] Would love to hear some of the best advice that you’ve received within your career and anything additional that you’d like to add for our audience.

I actually just wrote an article and gave a talk on gratitude has no statute of limitations. You’ll find it in my LinkedIn. What I talk about is thinking back to people in your career that made a big difference and it might not be the most obvious people. And there were two people that stand out to me. One was a professor in engineering school who really believed in me and helped me focus. The second is one of the bosses that I would have said was a bad boss. Hope he’s not listening, but I would have said he was a bad boss. It took me 15 years to figure out that he was probably the biggest impact that anybody had on me because I could not, and nor did I see the purpose of being able to speak and things like this, or in front of people. And he pushed me to do that. He pushed, he made me make every presentation. Every time the general manager would come up, I was the guy making the presentation. I would be completely nervous until about the 10th time. And since then I’ve become a bit of a ham. I really enjoy speaking in front of groups and it’s one of my pleasures in life. I had just done a presentation, I was living in France at the time, and I thought, how can I do that when I couldn’t do it 15 years ago. And I called this guy. And I thanked him. So, gratitude has no statute of limitations. Think back to the people that helped you. And give them a call or send them an email. You can do that these days. You can find everybody.

[00:26:40] When people are thinking about their career ambitions, how do you see the effective people that link their ambition with their strategy? Meaning how do they link the desired next job with how they’re developing themselves, how they’re marketing themselves now.

You do have to think about the long-term. What’s next. Creating a vision of where you want to be in five or 10 years and being able to answer the question, why do I want to be there? That’s really important. The other thing is I love meeting with the kids of friends and clients who have just graduated from college. And the first question I ask them is what’s your brand. And that is a question that we don’t actually think about too much, but what is your brand? What are you, what are you really good at? What are you giving to the universe? Where are you going to have impact or do you want to have impact. What’s your brand?

And so, the brand is an important part of the strategy. If you look at a lot of people’s LinkedIn profiles, you’ve got your picture. And under the picture, there’s the most important piece of real estate on LinkedIn. And that should be your brand, not your title. Who are you. I’m a supply chain executive. This is what I like to play. And these are the skills that I bring. And I love to think the money ball here is often two skills that you have that don’t normally come together, like results, orientation, and creativity. You don’t often see that. Usually you have people that are good at both of those things, but if you’re good at both where those two things intersect that’s your Moneyball.