“Smash! That’s the sound of the glass ceiling breaking.”
So exclaimed Tania Johnston, CEO of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada (MCAC), during her recent keynote address to delegates attending the two-day Celebrating Women in the HVACR Industry conference online.
The event was presented by the Ontario Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (ORAC). Johnston assumed the CEO’s job at the MCAC in March and told the audience that the journey to chief executive was bumpy, beset by self-doubt, concerns about work-life balance and a previous pitch for the top MCAC job in 2018 that met with rejection.
The second time she applied for the position, in February this year, she had transformed herself into a person who had taken all the right steps to fix holes in her resume and attained a state of readiness for the job.
“It’s been an incredible and crazy few months,” Johnston said. “My first weeks on the job was literally when COVID hit.
“Our industry was shutting down. I was thrown into the job faster than you can say fast.”
Johnston is now in a position where she wants to be a role model to women like those attending the ORAC event, she said. And the lessons learned from the disappointment of her 2018 leadership bid are now part of the inspirational message she can deliver.
“Most importantly I am very proud of what I have accomplished, and yeah every now and then when someone calls and asks me to speak I give myself a little pat on the back,” she said.
“Actually, most important of all, I want to be a role model, whether it’s for my daughter, her friends, you, other women in the industry — don’t ever count yourself out.”
Johnston was raised in Moncton, N.B. Being a Maritimer helps explain her outgoing nature, an asset when it comes to networking and getting noticed in executive circles, she said.
She attended Mount Allison University where she completed a Bachelor of Education, then taught in the east and subsequently in Ottawa where she moved with her future husband. She started a family, had other jobs and then came the opportunity to work at the MCAC.
“It was a six-month contract that has turned into the best 20-year career that I could have ever asked for.”
But travelling for the job caused her struggles, she said. Could she be the perfect mother, perfect wife and perfect employee?
“It was a total balancing act that was often very off balance,” she said. “The guilt would set in and I would ask myself, can I do this?
You know what? I could and it has been wonderful.”
She proved her value to the association in various roles including serving as national program co-ordinator with the Canadian Mechanical Contracting Education Foundation.
“I was able to run golf tournaments, met countless members, worked on committees, increased our education offerings, all while they left me alone to do my job and I did it well.”
In 2018 the CEO announced his retirement and she was encouraged to go for the job.
As an 18-year employee she should have felt confident entering the interview room, she said, but instead she allowed herself, she told the delegates, to let too much “B.S. get into her head.” Would they hire a female CEO? Could she fill the shoes of the previous CEO? Would they hire from within?
“I literally self-sabotaged myself with doubt. And guess what? I didn’t get the job.”
After initial grief, she asked herself what she was going to do about it. She established a plan that included: stopping whining; self-reflection; and asking herself what she was missing and setting out to acquire those skills.
The new CEO Pierre Boucher came to rely on her and presented her with new opportunities. This time she took advantage of them to show her colleagues what she could do. She made her achievements visible, and established a presence, including running a major conference in Nashville.
She also took networking more seriously including through LinkedIn, met with mentors and acquired more swagger.
“I realized that it didn’t come naturally for me to share my achievements…As women, we struggle with self-promotion, we don’t want to look arrogant or cocky. We are generally less assertive on job applications when declaring our qualifications.”
When the CEO unexpectedly retired this year, it was a different Johnston who applied for the job — and got it.
Her career advice for the ORAC delegates? Surround themselves with allies and mentors. Find an advocate. Join peer groups. And get a coach, she has two.
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.