Kindness is key to success, says honorary degree recipient Colleen Johnston

Graduands of the Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA program at York University’s Schulich School of Business listened to an inspirational talk on kindness during their convocation ceremony on Oct. 12.

During the fifth ceremony of Fall Convocation, Schulich alumna and leading business executive Colleen Johnston was recognized with an honorary doctor of laws. She delivered a speech urging the graduating class to always consider kindness on their path to success.

From left: Chancellor Gregory Sorbara, Colleen Johnston and York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

Johnston has been praised by her peers for her visionary leadership in the emergent financial technology space, and spent 14 years at TD with 10 of those years as chief financial officer. Her career in the industry spans 30 years, and during that time she championed the role of women and encouraged emerging leaders to gain the confidence to strive for more.

As an active community member, promoting health and well-being, she chaired the boards of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Bridgepoint Health and the ShareLife Corporate Campaign, she sits on the boards of St. Michael’s Hospital and the Shaw Festival, and she is a member of the Schulich School of Business Dean’s Advisory Council.

Colleen Johnston

“Today, your talents, grit and determination are well rewarded,” she told graduands. “In the time I have with you today, I’d like to focus on personal reflections and some personal advice. These aren’t usually found in textbooks, but are – in my opinion – the foundations of a successful and rewarding career and life.”

Johnston focused on three themes during her talk, beginning with thoughts on creating a kinder world.

Despite living in a time of tough headlines, the world is more prosperous and peaceful than ever with increased globalization, advancements in technology and diversity and inclusion being valued in society. But, in a rapidly thriving world many will be left behind, she suggested.

“As you leave this school and blaze your trail, remember that society only thrives when everyone in it has the means to succeed,” she said. “Give your time, your know-how, your empathy to those who do not have your advantages. Don’t wait to give back. Find a way today, in small ways and small gestures, to make a difference. You too will be enriched.”

Never forget your humanity, she advised, as it is required to be tough and resilient. But – do not confuse being tough with being hard, she said, because it’s not just what you accomplish that counts, but it is also the ‘how’ that will define you.

Her second piece of advice was to be patient with success.

“You will change the world, but it won’t happen right away,” she said. “The road to the top is not smooth and it’s not always quick. I won’t sugar coat it – there are a lot of menial tasks you’ll be asked to do. Do them. And do them with enthusiasm. Lead by example.”

Embrace starting small, and expanding contributions as your career advances, she said.

“When you achieve success in your ‘circle of influence’ – what you control – you can use it to benefit your ‘circle of concern’ and contribute back to causes you care about in bigger ways. It’s a virtuous circle. And it makes life’s journey so much more enriching.”

Lastly, Johnston urged graduands to consider kindness towards themselves. The more you take care of yourself, she said, the higher you will soar.

“You need to build your energy and resilience through sleep, vacations, eating well, taking care of your body and maintaining a positive outlook,” she said.

She also touched on perfectionism, and letting go.

“True confession – I’m still a recovering perfectionist,” she said. “Perfection is boring and it drags you down. It’s also unachievable. My advice: find ways to reflect and learn from experiences – positive or negative – and then re-set and move on. Give yourself a break.”

Don’t forget, she said, to find joy in small things.

“Let’s work together to make the world a better place – a kinder place.  Be patient – it won’t happen overnight. And finally be kind to yourself,” she said.