RIM exec drilled in leadership

A quick glance at the titles in the business section of most bookstores will reveal a selection that could just as easily fit into the military shelves. Angela Mondou understands why business leaders are increasingly turning to the likes of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Wess Roberts’ Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun for inspiration.

Mondou, director of business integration services at Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM), got her start and leadership training in the military, where, in her first posting at the age of 22, she was in charge of 83 people, 73 of whom were men.

Her welcome at that posting wasn’t a warm one. When she showed up on her first day, her greeting from the warrant officer was, “‘Well, if it isn’t the snot-nosed lieutenant,'” Mondou said, speaking at a recent Wired Woman meeting in Ottawa. That same warrant officer gave her one of her hardest lessons in leadership.

After putting up with his teases for a couple of months, Mondou decided that she had to deal with the matter. So she called him into her office, went through the incidents, said they were unacceptable and set boundaries. In the end, she ended up having to report the matter and take it to the base commander. She thought that this might lead to a backlash from the others under her, but then realized that someone who tests authority in that environment in the way the warrant officer did doesn’t treat his subordinates very well either.

“So by me finally getting a grip on this whole scenario, I was taking care of my subordinates,” Mondou said.

Though at first glance the military structure, often viewed as inflexible, authoritative and dogmatic, doesn’t seem like the best place to learn about leadership, it’s actually an ideal organization for doing just that, Mondou said.

During basic training, she had the principles of leadership as spelled out in the Canadian Force Publication indoctrinated into her, and has relied on them throughout her career.

“They’re common sense, but applying them in day-to-day life is not that easy,” she said.

Among the principles drummed into her were the ideas of leading by example and of always seeking out stretch roles – roles that make you uncomfortable and challenge your abilities, and make you wonder why you’re doing it to yourself.

Mondou, a logistics officer who served in the Gulf War, did just that when she asked in 1992 to go to Yugoslavia to co-ordinate the arrival of the armed forces and all of its equipment there, a massive undertaking. She had to fight for the position and when she got it, along with a flack jacket, she went home and cried. But she stood up to the challenge.

Mondou and her husband, who was also an officer, left the military in 1994 so that they could raise a family. She decided that she wanted to work for Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel Networks Inc. because at the time it appeared to be a great Canadian success story. It was an easy transition from the military world to the tech world, she said, especially given the harsh economic conditions.

“I think in general you’re talking about doing more with less,” she said in an interview.

While in Croatia, she had people from different countries working on her team and a very short time in which to work. It was important to sit down with everyone right away and learn what their skill sets were. This is something that she’s carried over into the business world. Although she can move at a slower pace there, whenever she takes over a team, she likes to get everybody talking about what they’re doing.

As a leader, you have to know your own strengths and weaknesses early on, Mondou said. You shouldn’t be afraid to delegate tasks to others or forget the value of humility. RIM has two CEOs and two COOs. The two CEOs, one with the tech savvy, and the other with the business skills, rely on each others strengths to buttress their own weaknesses, she said.

In the military, her rank gave her an instant status, but she still had to earn respect from those who reported to her. In the business world, she has learned to lead through building a consensus among her employees when undertaking projects. To build a consensus, it’s important to always communicate with your group and clearly define everyone’s roles so there’s no confusion as to who is responsible for what, she said.

Networking is also a key to success, she said. It’s important to always talk to everyone and gather as much information as you can.

You also have to be your own career coach, Mondou said. No one else will look out for you.

“Nobody takes care of you. You have to articulate what you want.”