March 11, 2024

Fortune Favours the Bold

Entrepreneurial executive search leader and UCalgary grad Jane Griffith, BA'96, MA, targets excellence.
Business people

The philosopher doing the headstand on a green carpet inside the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) got kindergarten-age Jane Griffith thinking much later in her life: you know, it’s kind of fun and fulfilling to turn things upside down, upset the status quo and perform bold moves. 

What we retain as vivid memories can be strange and oddly prescient, bearing the early imprint of who we may grow to be.  

Griffith, BA’96, MA, is now the Toronto-based Managing Partner and Founder of Griffith Group Executive Search, which celebrated its third anniversary early this year. She works for University’s, recruiting their next presidents, senior academic and administrative leaders, Vice Presidents and others leadership roles.  

When she would visit her father, Dr. Bryant Griffith, a lifelong academic who was working at OISE at the time in the 70s, his friend, who was in the humanities faculty, would pop out of his own office and do a headstand to delight her.  

She’d take the elevator up to her father’s floor, wearing her favourite Cookie Monster hoodie and corduroy pants, and step out and into a place that promised sparks of surprise like the headstand, within the comforting, musty smell of a library. A Hogwarts, of sorts, with a different kind of magic at play. For her, academia has always been familiar footing as well as a launchpad for growth.  

“I can still feel myself in that hallway, being a bit in awe as a child,” says Griffith. “Given that I do a lot of work now with academic institutions, my family’s history in education is very much a part of who I have been, and who I am.” 

Jane HeadShot

To the academic manner born 

Her grandfather, John Yolton, was a Rhodes scholar and Acting President at York University (1973-74) in Toronto, as well as the founding Chair of the Philosophy Department and one of the world’s foremost scholars on John Locke. His wife, Jean, a university librarian who was literate in seven languages, would unearth rare Locke texts for him in antique bookstores. Their house teemed with graduate students. 

Griffith’s father, who would become a Professor and Associate Dean at UCalgary in the late 1990s, and later Regents Professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, got his double PhD when she was a toddler. Her mom, Karin, who also worked on her own master’s degree in English Literature during Jane’s adolescent years, was a senior university administrator and leader, steering and guiding student experience from registration to graduation and operational excellence within Fine Arts,. 

“My dad was a philosopher and a historian and a senior statesman for me. We had a strong connection. He helped me to understand people’s humanity, how to work with them, how to learn from them. When I talk with my clients today, considering problems and solutions, I can apply what I learned, and it’s almost like I’m still talking to him.”  

Both her father and grandfather has have passed on.  

Griffith was steeped in learning by people who were drawn to ideas and curious about how they shaped themselves, others and the world. She would come to see education as part work, part playground and part laboratory for determining how to live. 

Philosophy, the practice and consideration of it, clasped the family like the spine of a book. 

“Even as a child, I saw that people can engage in discourse and disagree in a way that continues the conversation, considering differing opinions in a collegial manner,” she says. “We were a family always immersed in learning and inquisitiveness.” 

Young Jane

Leading with firsts 

Crucially, Griffith came to understand that learning needs to be translated into action. She has enacted thought leadership with vanguard decisions impacting herself and the business sector in which she works, including her efforts in the LGBTQ+ community.  

She’s not afraid to start something, risk failure doing so, speak truth to power and push boundaries as an outlier. 

In situations where she has been the youngest, the first woman or the only gay person in the room, she has aimed to be bold without being reckless and point the way forward for others, while acknowledging that others have done so for her. 

“I was the first person in Canada to be named a national diversity leader with the title (Partner and National Diversity Leader) to support and commit to equity deserving folks in the executive search industry,” she says. “It has caused systemic change in the industry nationally and I’m very proud of it.” 

Energized with entrepreneurial spirit at UCalgary 

Her years at UCalgary were formative, fuelling her entrepreneurial spirit and the ambitious drive that led her to start her own company during the pandemic. The university’s work ethos of “optimism and success” within the context of Alberta and Calgary’s boom and bust resilience gave Griffith the confidence to push boundaries. 

“Calgary and the university are all about learning to fail and getting back up and gaining confidence to be successful,” says Griffith, who moved to the city with her family when her dad took a faculty position. “The outlook is so different from Toronto and other cities, and there is a boldness to it that spoke to me and it has become part of me.”  

She was a part-time manager and hostess at Calgary restaurant Teatro when it opened as one of the frontier establishments downtown. The youngest in the role there at the time, she learned to understand people, know who they were and, importantly, what they liked, which flowed into her capabilities as a successful executive recruiter. 

Later, when she became the youngest person as a partner in a search firm, she realized that the city and university “gave me the permission to say, if not, why not, and if not, why not me?” 

UCalgary Department of History Prof. Emeritus Louis A. Knafla, was a teacher and a mentor for Griffith, who herself has gone on to mentor others. 

"Jane was an outstanding person and a dedicated student, keen to excel to the best of her ability, always challenging intellectually, and a delightful person with whom to discuss historical problems,” he says. “The world needs more women like her." 

Jane Family Photo

Giving back to community 

Before working in executive search, Griffith worked in fundraising for the United Way of Greater Toronto, the York University Foundation and did other not-for-profit consulting. She founded the LGBTQ+ Corporate Directors Association and is Executive Director. She is also involved in various diversity and inclusion initiatives. 

“I know that I am in a position of privilege,” says Griffith,. “I have always wanted a space at the table, and I want to make spaces at the table for others.”  

Next steps  

Her strong foundation of education has helped to steady her when making decisions. She has pushed back against male counterparts who she says have represented a “boy’s culture” in business, whether it’s telling her how to dress for a work role or directing staff in ways she believed weren’t respectful. She has quit jobs over disputes about values and ethics. 

Sometimes, the unpredictable, topsy turvy aspect of living fires momentum. As one door shuts, another opens, and you walk into a previously unimaginable opportunity for change. Recognizing these moments requires a willingness to advance on unfamiliar, sometimes frightening, sometimes awe-inspiring, new terrain. 

Her next steps include growing the company, while rising to inevitable challenges and always considering others. A summit always beckons. 

While her next challenges awaits, next steps also include a recent honour, harking back to the spirit of entrepreneurialism and boldness she embodied from her time at UCalgary. Griffith has been nominated through Women of Influence for a 2024 award, through the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards. 

Just as when she was a child marvelling at the person doing the headstand in an office corridor, she realizes that events and people can change the way you think by flipping things upside down and providing you with a new view. 

“My decisions have led me to who I am today,” she says. “I’m always learning , always asking questions, always looking for points of alignment to solve problems and build. It’s not easy for me to rest. I would rather act and fail than get stuck. At night, when I lay my head on the pillow, I ask: how have I helped to move things forward today?”

To learn more about Griffith Group Executive Search, click here

To learn more about LGBTQ Corporate Directors Canada, click here

To see past recipients of the Women of Influence Award, including the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, click here.