How to Find a Career Niche

John Russo breaks down the eight steps that led him to Equifax Canada

John Russo encourages those who want to follow in his footsteps to be fearless and open-minded. And Russo should know: a dream of being a sports agent led him through a number of professions before he finally found his calling at Equifax Canada.
John Russo encourages those who want to follow in his footsteps to be fearless and open-minded. And Russo should know: a dream of being a sports agent led him through a number of professions before he finally found his calling at Equifax Canada.

1. Have a plan

A self-proclaimed sports junkie, John Russo, now vice president, legal counsel, and chief privacy officer for Equifax Canada Co., chose to attend Ryerson University in Toronto for its solid broadcast journalism program. “I was thinking that, down the road, I wanted to become a sports agent, and I thought a good way to start would be sports journalism,” says Russo, who began his career at Global Television, producing Global Sportsline, a half-hour sports show, and cohosting KidsBeat, a half-hour children’s news magazine, from 1990 to 1995. He also covered the 1994 Commonwealth Games for Network 10 (an Australian TV station).

2. Adjust as necessary

Five years into his career, Russo still wasn’t a sports agent, so he decided to make a move. “I had a lot of fun in broadcasting for five years, but I wanted to pursue my dream,” he says, adding that he began studying law at the University of Western Ontario in 1996 because he figured it would be a good segue way into sports. “A lot of the great agents in Canada were lawyers as well because it gave them an understanding of contracts, negotiations, and issues like arbitration.”

3. Bring your skills

It might not seem like cutting a three-hour hockey game into a 30-second highlight clip would be good experience for a lawyer, but Russo says the skills he learned in broadcasting were, indeed, transferable to law. “In broadcasting, you learn writing skills, but more importantly you learn to work under tight deadlines, and you learn to speak on your feet,” he says. “Live TV is all about things happening very quickly, and so is law.”

4. Broaden your horizons

Fresh out of law school, Russo worked at the Toronto firm Fraser & Beatty (now Dentons Canada). A few lawyers at the firm dabbled in entertainment law, but there was no real sports law practice. Still, Russo gained good experience in corporate law, including financial services. “It was really the best of two worlds,” he says. “I gained the traditional barrister experience, litigating before Commercial List, the commercial court in Ontario, as well as the traditional solicitor experience, drafting contracts and such.”

5. Find a mentor

As a litigator, Russo appeared often before former Justice James Farley, a respected Commercial List judge. “He governed his courtroom by three Cs: communication, cooperation, and common sense,” Russo says. “And I took that wisdom into my daily life. Be it dealing with work colleagues or family, you always want to solve the problem sensibly and amicably.”

6. Remain open

Working in private practice, Russo still had a vision of someday working for a sports team, but then an opportunity arose at Equifax Canada. Owned by Atlanta, Georgia-based Equifax, Toronto-based Equifax Canada is the largest consumer-reporting agency in Canada. “It was an excellent opportunity to essentially be my own boss,” says Russo, who first joined the organization as its general counsel. “My boss, Joel Heft, gave me guidance, but he also gave me room to grow, both as an individual and a lawyer.”

7. Enjoy the work

“There’s a sports adage that says the best defense is a good offense, so I tried to understand what drove our business and get to know the people,” Russo says. “It was with that knowledge that I came up with a plan for how things would best function between the legal department and the rest of the business units.” Those efforts—which resulted in notable programs such as a client data-breach assistance-monitoring process and Equifax Canada’s data-breach protection solution, which is a best practice worldwide—have clearly paid off.

8. Remember your roots

“Everything I learned in journalism school, at Global Television, in private practice—even the three Cs—I brought with me to Equifax Canada,” says Russo, who feels he has found his niche with a great job and a great boss. That said, he also acknowledges that you never know what tomorrow will bring. “Maybe someday the Minnesota Vikings will come calling and need a general counsel, and given that they’re my favourite team, you never know,” he says with a laugh.