The Best Career Advice From Successful People Who Made It to the Top

Article by Bruce Harpham

To build a successful career, you have to draw on several important disciplines. These time-honored practices, proven to work in every industry, are vital to the achievement of success. Whether you need inspiration to start a new practice or some motivation to get back on your career track, you can use these four leaders' experiences to bolster your own.

1. Self-Knowledge Is the Foundation

Without self-knowledge, the pursuit of success is frustrating. In the ancient world, philosophers encouraged their followers to reflect. Today's leaders use their self-understanding to define and reach success.

- "At several points, my mentors have served as a mirror for me and helped me to understand myself better," says Kim Ulmer, regional president of Royal Bank of Canada. Ulmer's responsibilities include managing more than 170 branches and 3,000 staffers.

- Dave Kasabian, chief marketing officer at Tagetik, a management software company, says, "My philosophy of growth is to look inside myself: What do I enjoy? What are my skills and passions? Based on that knowledge, I make decisions on how to develop."

- Assessment tools provide helpful insights into understanding our strengths. For example author and entrepreneur Michael Hyatt, referred to the book StrengthsFinder 2.0, a personal development favorite, when he exited a corporate career to start a new chapter as an entrepreneur. His strengths, according to the model, included a focus on achievement and the future.

Self-knowledge requires reflecting on your experiences, good and bad. Think about last week and take note of when you felt the greatest satisfaction. You might take greater satisfaction from solving thorny business problems, or you might relish the challenge of guiding a new graduate through their first few months at work.

2. Curiosity Is Powerful

An open and curious mind is vital to making the most of learning opportunities. Curiosity means looking for opportunities to learn and to apply new ideas outside of the classroom. Engagement and focus are incredibly powerful in leadership roles because your actions and words will quietly influence many around you.

- "I usually take one or two courses per year at a business school to keep my skills sharp," says Rich Crawford, CEO of Global Integrated Services.

- "I have a thirst for knowledge and regularly go out to meet with business owners to understand their situation," Ulmer says. "Recently, I found David Zinger's '10 Principles of Engagement' and have found that to be a helpful resource. It has encouraged [reflecting] on my work several times per day to see if I am truly engaged."

- "One of the most valuable books I've read in my career is Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive," says Ben Sawa, director of marketing at GEI Consultants Inc., one of the largest engineering firms in the U.S.

- Entertainment executive Brian Grazer – producer of Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, and J. Edgar – attributes much of his professional success to curiosity and learning from those around him, all of which he describes in his book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

3. Mentors Provide New Perspectives and Better Questions

Successful leaders consistently reach out to mentors throughout the course of their careers. The conversations might start with business, but the lessons are often applicable to a range of concerns and issues.

- "I have had several mentors over my career, including family mentors and those in the business community," Ulmer says. "Mentors have helped me to adopt a broader perspective and ask questions such as, 'Have you taken the time to understand the situation before acting?'"

- "Every meaningful mistake I have ever made has involved poor communication. [That's] a lesson I learned from a CFO who mentored me. That was an important insight," Sawa says. "I also think it is valuable to seek mentors who are different from you because they can provide a fresh perspective."

- "My mentors have helped me to get outside of the day-to-day flow of work to ask bigger questions," Kasabian says. "In 1994, I was given a powerful [command] from a mentor: 'Draw where you want to be in five years.' That exercise helped me to think about my career and the direction of my life much more deeply. I ended up making a move to another state, among other decisions, as a result. It was a powerful experience."

- "I'm a huge believer in mentors," Crawford says. "At present, I'm working with two mentors, and I'm learning much from both of them. I learn about industry best practices from one and work life matters from another. YPO [Young Presidents' Organization] had an excellent mentorship program that I found valuable."

4. Keep the Right Company to Achieve Your Goals

The company you keep has a major impact on your success and self-concept. Jim Rohn's observation that "you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with" rings true for many leaders.

- "My participation in Young Presidents' Organization has been tremendously valuable. It is rare to find so many other executives and CEOs who are facing similar challenges," Crawford explains. In addition to informal networking, Crawford has benefited from YPO's mentorship program and specialized educational programs that serve the needs of executives.

- "It is important to choose thoughtfully when it comes to joining organizations," Ulmer says. "I'm currently involved with Junior Achievement because they operate on a national level and work on major problems. I'm also involved with the Manitoba Business Council."

Where do you find peers to challenge you and help you grow?

A version of this article originally appeared on

Bruce Harpham is a career expert who contributes to Profit Guide,, and a variety of business publications. He runs the website where readers gain practical insights to grow their careers. He lives in Toronto, Canada.