Leader’s Insight

Play it well, play it strong

She was 38 and a mother of three young children when she decided to pursue a Ph.D. Many of her future colleagues called Martha Crago crazy for trying to launch an academic career “so late.” But boldness, strategic thinking and a keen sense for survival built her career. After holding senior administrative positions at McGill University and the University of Montreal, Dr. Crago joined Dalhousie University as vice-president of research in 2008.

Learning to speak Inuktitut made the difference. In the early 1980s I was hired by McGill University to travel up North with my eight-month-old son to train Inuit teachers – who taught children who only spoke Inuktitut – about how children learn language. I quickly discovered that what I had been taught about language acquisition did not make sense – Inuit children were doing things with language that our “southern” English- and French- speaking children could not do until they were two years older. This turned certain prevailing theories on their head and taught me about the richness of our Aboriginal cultures and their languages.

You have to do what you want. And you have to do it now. I grew up in a family of four girls. A cancer gene runs in my family. Fortunately, I do not have it but my sisters all died from cancer. When the sister to whom I was closest in age became seriously ill at age 40, I began looking at my life in a whole new way. I realized that I would not be here forever, that I had to figure out what I truly wanted to do with my life and get started. Now.

Be bold. Boldness helped me kick-start my career. Colleagues thought that at 38, I was too old to try for a career in academia. Doing bold Ph.D. research led to important things for me – I challenged accepted theories and had the chance to be a part of important, leading edge work. Never do something you’re just sort of interested in. Do something you’re passionate about.

She who plays by the rules gets ahead faster. Early on, a mentor gave me a book that explored the stories of women academics who failed to get tenure or otherwise fell off the academic track. The book suggested that they failed because of certain decisions they made. For instance, many of the women did not play strategically or pay attention to the rules of the game. They spent too much time mentoring students versus building their own research careers. That book woke me up. I told myself, “Be smart. Do not mess this up. There are expectations. Take them seriously. Do what is required.”

What I needed to know about leadership I learned from tennis. I’ve never played tennis. But I love to watch the game. Pete Sampras was a great model of mental toughness. I remember watching him play Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open years ago. Sampras was ill, he was exhausted, and he was down two sets. Everyone figured he would lose. But he didn’t let up, he kept competing hard until the bitter end. And he came back and won. Leadership takes tenacity and grit. You have to persevere even when you don’t achieve early success.

Work-Life balance is a myth for me. I prefer to think of integration. When I worked in the North I used to take one of my three children with me on every trip. I truly love my work – it’s my passion and my hobby. You have to set things up so that the things you value in life can integrate with your work.

About Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette

Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette is Atlantic Canada’s leading recruitment and human resource consulting firm.

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