Seven Goals for Asian Leaders

Leading others has mostly to do with how we manage ourselves. Here are some concrete ideas for succeeding in global roles.

1. Get on top of your job.

Why? When we enjoy our jobs, it shows. Getting on top of our jobs allows us to focus on strategic thinking, building critical relationships for the future, and influencing up. But here’s the rub: Studies show that cross-border, cross-cultural, and multi-functional global roles in Asia are different. They are high in complexity and uncertainty as Asia grows in size and importance. And often there is no playbook. Our challenge is to manage this surge in complexity by becoming more versatile in the way we manage data and interpersonal relationships. Listen for feedback. By becoming more self-aware of your strengths and limitations, how you make decisions, and how you relate to people, you can more effectively manage through others. (See Getting on top of the job in Asia)

2. Make your voice heard at Head Office.

Why? As the global center of gravity shifts to Asia, Asian leaders need to demonstrate greater influence on global strategy. There is a vacuum to fill and CEO’s expect you to fill it. But it’s hard, especially for Asian leaders with no experience in headquarters. One Head of Asia described her mindset shift to me. “Before I was promoted into this job, I used to think that “Corporate” decides the strategy and Asia’s job is to execute. Today I understand that there is no Corporate. Corporate is us.” Many of today’s CEOs want Asia to take the lead in strategy formulation, given the growing impact of Asia on growth and earnings. But winning a seat at the table is hard for Asian leaders. By learning influencing skills, thinking systemically across the organization, and building key global relationships, executives in Asia can begin to speak up and make their voices heard.

3. Become the go-to person across the company.

Why? Being the go-to person is a visible sign of influence. Think about it. To whom do you ask for ideas and why? By demonstrating value in everyday conversations and contributing to the effectiveness of others, you are demonstrating soft leadership. These are the leaders who get promoted.

4. Build a reputation for innovative solutions.

Why? Creating innovative third-way solutions require us collaborate with others without regard to status or who owns the ideas. At CapitaPartners, we use the term, “win-win-win solutions: I win, you win, we win.” Yong Nam, the big-thinking former CEO of LG Electronics, cultivates this enlarged definition of “we.” He once said to me, “I look for leaders who win in collaboration with customers and suppliers. The entire value chain wins.” Another friend, the CEO of a large Asian telecommunications company, says his company built their leading market share in China by ensuring that Chinese consumers won. And they did this by helping the Chinese government build the necessary infrastructure. So what does it take to create innovative solutions? My friends would say hard work, lots of humility, and an enlarged definition of “we.”

5. Build versatility in decision-making styles.

Why? Managing effectively is mostly about making good decisions. We make decisions all the time, big and small—from where to go to lunch, to how best to manage a critical meeting, to whom to hire. Minor decisions can be made on the fly. Bigger decisions, involving multiple stakeholders require an aptitude for integrative thinking—the ability to source others for data, consider multiple solutions, and connect seemingly unrelated dots. Savvy executives use multiple decision-making styles, depending on a decision’s urgency and complexity. Versatility in our decision-making styles allows us to consciously use the decision style that best suits the situation. This takes practice.

6. Build your empathy.

Why? Research shows that effective senior executives demonstrate higher levels of empathy, cultural self-awareness, and interpersonal adaptability than their less effective counterparts. Empathy allows us to step into another’s shoes. Another former colleague uses the word “executive maturity” to describe these qualities. We can grow our ability to empathize with others, starting with active listening, becoming culturally self-aware, and demonstrating respect for others. But it’s hard. The Asian virtues of humility and respect provide good starting points.

7. Find your purpose.

Why? Your purpose is your compass, your true north. Purpose puts meaning and potency into your everyday actions as a leader. It is said of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, that his success as a leader has much to do with his relentless search for truth. This in turn has shaped the Amazon culture. President Obama said of Nelson Mandela that he moved South Africa toward justice and in so doing moved billions around the world. Leaders with purpose embrace their strengths and limitations, convictions and doubts in their entirety. They speak to what is best inside us. For these leaders, promotions, security, and reputation are the not the goals but rather the results of purposeful leadership. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.” We may not all achieve this. It’s the journey that counts.

Getting on Top of the Job in Asia

Sonny got a coach and got on top of his job.

Sonny, based in China, was recently promoted to lead a 40,000-person organization across China and neighboring countries. And yet, for the first time in his career, he felt like quitting.

His company, one of the largest and most successful manufacturing services firms, had been growing at breakneck speed for ten years, riding a global boom in manufacturing outsourcing. Prior to Sonny’s promotion, he led Operations — the core growth engine for the company. Sonny ran Operations with the skill and efficiency of a highly experienced battlefield commander — calling critical shots and tending to the needs of the delivery team. Sonny loved the job. He knew the business better than anyone and was respected in local circles for his no-nonsense style. He had reported to the company’s head of Southeast Asia, who reported to the EVP, based in the company’s head office.

Two months after Sonny’s promotion to Regional General Manager-Asia, things began to unravel for him. He now led all functions within the region, including HR, Finance, Operations, and Global Account Management. Because of a re-organization, he reported directly to the global EVP of the company, based in headquarters.

Things became far more complex. Sonny was now expected to be the architect for the company’s growth strategy while leading the P&L across a diverse geography and continuing to grow at record rates. Sonny had never reported directly to a top executive at headquarters. As Sonny commented to us, “I can’t get on top of it. I have no balance. I’m spending my time fighting HR and Finance, people who have no feel for Operations. I am expected to present a strategy for growth — everyone looks to me and I’m getting no support.” Sonny also knew that his direct reports were frustrated, and one—his key HR executive—was about to resign.

Studies show that cross-functional global roles are different. Global executives experience far more complexity, flux, and ambiguity in their jobs than domestic executives, and they deal with a multiplicity of stakeholders across diverse cultures and boundaries. Intelligence alone doesn’t lead to success.

Through coaching, Sonny began a journey of change, beginning with a heightened awareness of his own leadership style. He then learned how to lead others within the team and across the organization in a global context. All successful global executives take this journey sooner or later, some more consciously than others. Executives who don’t evolve, don’t get promoted—we know this from evidence. Sonny learned how his style impacted others, including his team, and how to better influence across borders and cultures.

1. Leading Self: Sonny learned that others, especially those across the matrix, considered him “a bully, overly demanding, not strategic.” Executives at headquarters felt Sonny needed to step into the Regional General Manager role with more of a strategic impact. His decision style assessment report revealed a task-orientation style that leaned heavily on speed and action over planning, active listening, inquiring, and systems thinking. In short, the skills and behaviors that got Sonny promoted were no longer enough.

2. Leading Others: Sonny began to understand how his own style was negatively impacting himself and others. Worse, as the pressure grew, Sonny’s style became even more controlling. As a result, he became more alienated from his team and decision-making became dysfunctional.

The turning point came when Sonny decided to change. “Through coaching, I realized that my job was to create purpose and opportunity for thousands of people in this organization. My focus ceased to be ‘operations versus everyone else.’ We need to become one organization.”

Over the next six months, Sonny learned how to become more versatile as a leader and decision-maker, but it was hard. The new behaviors — more listening, probing for information, and pausing before judging others — didn’t seem natural to him and he almost gave up. Over time, however, he realized that the new behaviors were essential for success and consistent with his purpose. He couldn’t possibly succeed in his new role without the expertise and ideas of others. In addition to understanding his own style, he learned how to adapt to the style of others, a critical first step in influencing teams. In other words, he developed his ‘empathy muscles’ and used his new skills to read people and situations.

He later observed, almost by surprise, that there was no more fighting within his team. People felt heard. As he leaned on others for ideas, others provided solutions. Through greater self-awareness, Sonny began to adapt his style to each situation.

3. Leading the Organization: Although his job required constant influence — up, down, and across — Sonny lacked the skills to influence across cultures and borders. “I was impatient,” he says. “If someone disagreed with me, I wrote them off.” Through practice, Sonny became more aware of the needs of executives across the matrix. He built relationships and communicated in ways that allowed him to be heard.

4. Impact: Because others on his team were contributing more, Sonny had more time to think strategically. He began to use his influencing skills to engage executives in headquarters to shape the global strategies and policies that impacted his business and teams. He built alliances with global executives across the matrix. He showed more confidence and initiative in his communications with his boss and, as a result, demonstrated more impact at a global level. By managing himself with greater self-awareness, Sonny learned to adapt his style to meet the needs of each situation. Sonny said to us, “the business is becoming more complex, but I’m enjoying it more.”

Sonny did all the work. Our job was to show him the thread by which he could knit through the personal, relational and organizational layers of culture, complexity and chaos.

Five Steps to Making a Career Change

A leap into the deep end.

A leap into the deep end.

Over the years, I have witnessed hundreds of executives make job changes, mostly involving a bigger title, more money, or greater responsibilities. Relatively few of these executives quit to move into entirely new careers. When we see a true career shift, we tend to marvel at the executive’s courage. In fact, most executives who make the move are not thinking in terms of courage. They are making a rational decision to get more out of their lives and careers, albeit with more risk. The key is having the self-awareness to know what you want and taking the bold steps to get it.

Daniel, once a successful banker and now an award-wining film composer, is a case study in how to do it right. After meeting Daniel over lunch in Los Angeles, I thought that others might like to hear his practical insights on how to deal with the challenges of making the big change.

When Daniel took his career leap he was 35, married, had an MBA from UCLA and was already a successful investment banker on Wall Street. He knew something was missing and his gut told him to do something that was meaningful and enjoyable. He made the leap. Daniel left the prestige and trappings of investment banking to start a new career in music, his first love.

He explains his life change this way. “It wasn’t as big a step, or as courageous a step, as you might think. I had always loved playing music. I had a bachelor’s degree in composition from UC Berkeley. Obviously I also knew the business world. So I decided to put the two together.”

Here is his advice:

  1. Listen to your passions but be honest with yourself. Daniel made the practical connection between his love for music and his business experience. He took a leap but beneath him there was no dark and mysterious abyss. He was honest about what he knew and what he needed to learn. He calculated the leap.
  2. Prepare a financial cushion. How much is up to you and depends on what you value. Daniel felt motivated to live a more authentic and simpler life, to live his values. Daniel wanted to be freed of trappings and his costs were low. He had enough to live through the transition. Beyond that, he put trust in his capabilities.
  3. Write a business plan. Daniel’s first action after leaving the bank was to write a business plan. “I didn’t know the business like I know it today, but I knew I first needed to write down my goals.” This, he says, creates intent. When the plan gets on paper, it gets done.
  4. Re-tool. The next thing Daniel did was to learn the new business. He enrolled in UCLA to study composing for film. He took as many courses as he could find, including movie-making and screen-writing. According to Daniel, “if I was going to write for movies, I wanted to understand storytelling–how to convey the emotional side of a story through music.”
  5. Build a network. It was also through the courses at UCLA that he began to develop a network. Looking back, Daniel found that building his new network–in the days before LinkedIn–was slow and time-consuming. “I made cold calls and asked for endless introductions. I was shameless in asking for help and made lots of mistakes. I assumed that because I had a pedigree in banking studio executives would see me. These were totally different worlds, different cultures. I needed to adjust.” It was through this active engagement process that Daniel came to understand and adjust his style.
  6. Look up, look often. Daniel sought feedback at every step along the way. He measured his successes against his plan and make course corrections as needed.

After Daniel walked me through these learnings, I asked him what the hard part was. He says he underestimated the work involved and the impact on his identity. “Hard or painful, I don’t know the right word. The secret for me has been to act with intent–to know what I want more of and what I want less of. The hard part for me was to bore down into the fundamental questions of what I want and then to act on it. I had to do a lot of work on myself.”

I also asked him what he meant about identity. “After making the change, I slowly woke up to the fact that I needed to revise my identity. I wasn’t a successful banker any more. When I sat in the chair talking to a potential customer, I wasn’t a success. The other guy didn’t care about my past. He only wanted to know if and how I could help him now.”

Daniel summed it up his journey this way. “Even after I made my career change, I defined my success in terms of others. I wanted to be accepted by my industry, to win awards. Now I define success according to three things that matter most to me: doing good work, making enough money to live, and feeling personally happy and whole. I’m glad I didn’t wait until later in my career to make the change. This business is my life’s work.” Daniel turned his calling into his career.

Building your leadership brand in Asia

The lifeblood of every organization in Asia is talent, especially high-potential Asians. There, more than the West, top companies are reliant on strong individual leaders—as opposed to a company’s brand—to be the magnet that attracts and holds high-potentials to a company.

I was in Singapore recently discussing this with my friend Nick, who works for a top Asian multinational. Talented Asians have plenty of choices for jobs, he told me. They are more likely to join his company and stay because of him and the leadership he provides, not because of his company’s reputation for growing talent.

The idea stuck with me for two reasons. First, I think that the concept resonates with executives all across Asia who must lure talent away from the top multinationals. Who doesn’t want to be recognized as a great leader, especially in the toughest of battlegrounds? Second, it shows how success is so personal. Great leaders do it their way, after years of trial and error.

So what kind of leader attracts talent in Asia? And how do CEOs spot leaders of that caliber?

Over lunch recently in Korea, I asked the former CEO of one of Asia’s largest multinationals ($40 billion in revenues), whom I’ve known and admired for fifteen years, what he looks for. His eyes lit up. He looks for leaders who attract followers. He wants to know that subordinates love working for their leader.

This experienced Asian CEO wants to see his leaders to engage with others, eye to eye, with unyielding will and focus, to achieve big things. Moreover, he wants to see success across the entire value chain, from supplier to customer—win-win solutions. How, I asked, does he identify these qualities in others? He leaned forward, smiled with knowledge, and brought his forefinger to his nose. “I can smell it,” he said. In conversation with others he can sense these qualities. “I know when a leader engages with others to achieve great results. I look for great capacity and aspiration.” And also humility and tenacity. When they fail or hit a wall, they fix what didn’t work, and try again to accomplish the mission.

Those at the top of Asia’s best companies directly engage with others through nuts-and-bolts conversation. They operate at ground level, where their counterparts are—without bias, wishful thinking or game playing—in an effort to achieve great results. They work fast, minimize academic thinking, and tolerate ambiguity. There is no playbook.

People often talk about the “ready, fire, aim” quality to building businesses in Asia. To operate that way, these leaders need the humility to listen and find their aim as they go. Arrogance fails. And this process isn’t about perfection. These leaders who build followers and earn their trust that eventually they will get it right.

Leadership is visceral. It requires interaction and reaction, trial and error. Leaders touch their teams and push them forward. They engage when it’s easier not to, when the team needs it. And they develop in their people the capacity to thrive in this new volatile and ambiguous world.

Nick knows that the strong connection he has with his team is likely what keeps them from walking out the door. What does he do to keep the team engaged? “The team knows very clearly my expectations,” he says. “We are attacking the market every single day. We don’t wait for headquarters to tell us what to do. It’s not about me. I want our team to love winning.” Nick is building followers. And his leadership brand.

Thriving as head of Asia: a case study

It’s hard to survive, much less thrive, in a Western multinational’s top job in Asia. These roles—Head of Asia, President-China, or something similar—are high risk leadership opportunities. There are lots of reasons: failure to grow fast enough, failure to connect with local teams, inability to adapt to the ambiguity of emerging markets, failure to build the right products for local customers.

But because of the attention Asia gets from Boards and shareholders, none of those beats the biggest derailer of all: failure to drive an Asia agenda and enlist crucial support from key stakeholders. This takes a global mindset and great communication.

Figuring out how to influence the agenda at headquarters isn’t easy for anybody—and it wasn’t easy for KC, the newly promoted Chinese Head of Asia for a US multinational.

KC’s struggle was not out of lack of desire, smarts, education, tenacity, or ability to execute. He was promoted into a job for which no training exists. And as the business in Asia continued to grow in complexity and size, all eyes were on him. Like many Asians newly promoted into the top job in Asia, KC had never even sat down with the CEO.

KC put it this way: “I’m an entrepreneur. I love running a business. But I suddenly found myself head of a matrix and there was no accountability. The headquarters wanted me to run the P&L of a region and I lacked control of anything.” Here’s what KC’s bosses in the US said: “KC grew up in the sales force and was comfortable leading the sales team and driving the local P&L. But he was then promoted into a regional leadership role where success in executing across the global matrix is more important. KC didn’t engage the matrix. He didn’t speak up on conference calls. He didn’t take the time to influence peers.”

Both the headquarters leaders and KC agreed that the skills that got him to where he is today were not the same skills that will carry him forward. What happened next? Three big events, all involving better engagement with his senior colleagues:

1. KC got an executive coach.

Rather than put KC through a battery of training programs, the head of HR asked KC a simple and smart question: What’s the one skill you know you need to master in order to succeed? His reply: “managing the matrix and influencing my peers at a global level.”

This was a bold step outside his comfort zone. KC had never liked working in a matrix. A natural entrepreneur, he was comfortable calling the shots and making fast decisions. With the help of a coach, he learned that he needed to paint a picture of what the business needs to look like in a year or two and communicate this story to everyone, even the CEO. Because of the stakes, he knew he needed to get this story right, achieve buy-in, find and fix its weaknesses, and ensure accountability on the part of everyone, even those who don’t report to him.

KC found his point of view. He listened for resistance and asked for support. Asia is a kaleidoscope of changing patterns and complexities; no one person can discern the best way forward alone. Leaders engage with others to find a better way, to validate their point of view, to hear the reality checks. Rather than complain about the matrix, he used it. KC put into place specific practices that forced regular communication. He scheduled regular check-ins, probed for the points of views of others during meetings, and walked down the hall to ask his peer in manufacturing what might be missing from the picture. Even now he is experimenting with new practices, while summoning the entrepreneurial instincts that he knows works for him.

Then during one of his regular conversations with the CEO, KC had another idea:

2. KC invited the top five operating executives in the company to each spend a week with him visiting customers. He spaced these meetings a few weeks apart.

Over the course of the next few months, KC developed deeper relationships with the top executives. The corporate culture became less a mystery. These operating executives took KC’s and the customer’s messages back to headquarters. These insights led to better strategies around products, faster decision-making, and better customer support.

The third big thing came from KC’s counterpart in Europe who, like KC, was at heart an entrepreneur.

3. The company hired the best Business and Financial Planning executive they could find to join KC in Shanghai.

KC knew he needed to become a better planner. But now he had the support of someone who was an expert. The planner became a business partner and mentor. Together they ran scenarios and tested growth plans. KC became better at operations. Other leaders began to trust KC’s point of view.

It would be a mistake to assume that KC needed to be someone he was not in order to succeed in his new role. That was KC’s fear. Yes, he built new skills related to business practices, the matrix, and better communication. At the same time, he continued to do what he was good at. Through coaching, he figured out how to use his strengths while learning new skills. And notice that the entire executive team rallied to support K.C.’s development.

The CEO took a chance on KC. And KC, for his part, stepped up. He decided he was accountable for his own success. It’s taken a year for him to tackle these leadership development issues. It’s probably too soon to say he’s thriving. But he’s increased his chances for success.

The end of the expat assignment: Westerners ‘go local’ in Asia rather than return to headquarters

Take the plunge

Take the plunge

We all know that multinationals have cut back on expatriate assignments. So what are the expats doing? Also going local.

Expats and their employers—each for different reasons—are converging on a similar outcome: an end to the expat commitment. We’re witnessing the rise of the un-expat.

Bonnie, an American citizen, has shuttled between the U.S., Singapore, and Australia for most of her work life, always as an assignee from headquarters. Now a regional executive in Asia with a top-tier U.S.-based company, she was almost speechless when I asked her if she has any plans to return to headquarters. “Why would I do that? The opportunities are in Asia.” Another American, a top regional executive with a U.S. multinational who has been in Singapore less than a year, is just now coming to terms with the realization that he is happier in Asia than in headquarters. “It’s emotionally tough to consider the possibility of leaving after spending my entire life with this company. But I’ve got to look to where the opportunities are, here or on the outside. And after being exposed to the opportunities in Asia, this is where the action is.” Like Bonnie, he is open to giving up the lucrative expat deal for a local-hire package with a great organization.

There are many reasons multinationals continue to send their high-potential executives to Asia as expats, even as the emphasis has shifted to hiring local talent. Once these executives arrive in Asia, from what I see, all bets are off. For many expats, the traditional three-to-five-year expatriate assignment is a thing of the past. Over time, some willingly bail out of their expat status, recognizing these benefits as symbols of a colonial mindset or as visible and costly burdens for their employers. Others, like those I mentioned, look to stay on with their new expertise as “local” hires. At any rate, good people want to manage their careers on their own terms, while good companies are taking steps to hire and develop local talent.

For a multinational corporation trying to manage the shift, though, it’s not so easy. Building a pipeline of mature, agile, and ready local leaders is both strategic and cost-effective. But apprenticing local talent takes time. So even as they reduce their expat employees, most companies still need a blend of expatriate mentors and high-potential local talent. That’s why, the top, at the most strategic and regional levels, fully-loaded expatriate packages are still the norm. Getting this balance right, and keeping it, is tough. Especially now that the talent—whether local nationals, localized expats or strategic assignees—hold all the cards.

Indeed, few self-respecting executives would describe themselves as expats today. All talent, local or non-local, recognize the need to blend into the local melting pot to make a meaningful contribution. There’s also more eagerness to gain experience over immediate reward—a bold shift in mindset borne partly out of expats’ survival instincts and partly out of a desire to shape their own careers.

These un-expats understand that with success and the right attitude, career opportunities exist internally and externally, locally and overseas, all the time, regardless of a current employer’s repatriation plan, especially in fast-evolving Asia. Their future is determined by the cut and thrust of the market for talent, not by some executive sponsor in headquarters. Recruiters call every day. These executives are in it for the journey, not just the job; they own their careers and take things as they come. Being “an expat” is a thing of the past. They’re now local.

A multinational will win the loyalty of an assignee not with a binding expat deal, but by ensuring that the he or she receives immediate and tangible career benefits here and now (and that these benefits outweigh sexy opportunities on the outside). At the same time, let the expats “go local.” Don’t fear losing them and don’t talk in vague notions about three to five years.

All career paths don’t lead back to headquarters, after all. They lead to where the customers are.

Roads not taken: Considering the opportunity costs of career choices

Which track?

Most of my conversations with job-seekers focus more on finding jobs than on making career or life changes. This makes sense. My corporate clients are practical: they need to know if and how the candidate’s leadership skills, motivations, and competencies match the needs of the organization. Most of my candidates are not out of work; they tend to view their career as a linear trek up the ladder. They’ll ask if the opportunity provides more responsibility, challenge or pay.

And yet every step up the ladder has an opportunity cost: the road not taken. The conversation on “career changes” forces executives to ponder deeper questions relating to their basic motivations, aspirations, and dreams. What am I good at and why? What if I did follow my dreams? What are the consequences of not taking the big leap? How realistic are my aspirations? What’s blocking me from achieving them or even taking the first step?

Most of us don’t take the time to envision our future. The recent Great Recession forced many executives to re-examine their careers only after they found themselves out of a job.

When is the right time to ask these questions? Probably every year if you want to make sure your career doesn’t head off down a track you didn’t intend.

These are meaty conversations for career coaches, spouses, mentors, priests, and best friends – someone with no axe to grind, who has no other agenda than to help with your career choices and life goals. There are books written on the subject and you’ll also find links on the right side of this blog. Most of these articles or guides provide “tips” rather than start with the unique needs of the career-changer.

It wouldn’t hurt to open up to executive search consultants when you get the call – if you can find one that will care about you, the person, not you, the candidate. But the conversations need to start somewhere. If it doesn’t start here and now, then when is a better time?

Drilling down in interviews: Why do hiring managers talk instead of listen?

Research says that 64% of new executives hired from the outside fail in their new jobs, so how do we improve our selection process? Most successful leaders are taken aback when a hiring manager or recruiter tries to understand what makes them tick, and I mean try to really understand, because so few people in the corporate world try, even during a critical job interview. They’re too busy selling (as are most candidates). That’s why one of the best ways to recruit the best candidates, the hard-to-get candidates, is to drill down, understand how they got to where they are, and get to the bottom of their motivations. When you know they’re right for the job, great candidates will know it also.

Take China and Japan, two countries with critical talent needs. In Japan the danger is that interviewers, whether the hiring manager, executive search consultant or HR executive, tend to treat senior executives with the respect of an elder or become overly impressed with the executive’s track record of name brand employers which may or may not be relevant for the job. In the case of China, where everything is urgent, the short supply of talent and can lead to making the wrong trade-off decisions. Meanwhile, without better direction, the candidates themselves tend to let their status do the talking. So what should we be looking for? How do we know when the candidate has what it takes?

Successful leaders don’t just materialize out of thin air or hatch out of some top-ten business school. They somehow master their environment and emerge with a strong sense of who they are, while others come and go. So, during an interview, the executive will be taking stock of the interviewer while the interviewer does the probing. How much is shared depends on trust and the quality of the interviewer.

We would hope to hear some truths about the executive’s successes and failures, one or two watershed moments that defined his or her career. We’ll should looking for the how and why of his or her actions. This is described as ‘behavioral-based’ or ‘competency-based’ interviewing and there are books on the subject. But it’s not so easy and takes both practice and desire. Try to hear the executive’s description of the emotions around the experience: pain, humiliation, exhilaration, regret, satisfaction. You may hear about decisions or achievements, but try to learn about what matters most: how the individual mustered the wherewithal to make things work out against the odds, accept the hard lessons, and apply the learning.

You might hear about luck or good timing. But our job is to dig deeper and understand the true makings of a person’s success. Then, link these competencies to the critical needs of the job at hand. Is it that difficult to drill for the fuel that drives successful leaders? We’ve got to get better at it. Knowing that the person opposite you is taking stock, be curious, be real, and reach out.

The body of work: A career is not a ladder, but a zig-zag path through experience

Yesterday a young candidate asked me, “If you were me, what would you do? Go for this new position, stay and get promoted, or wait for something better to come along?” He seemed bewildered, almost distraught with the weight of his decision.

We’ve all experienced this feeling. I said to him, think of each career step not as a ladder to climb, a good or bad decision, but as an opportunity to stretch yourself, gain insights, and learn new things. Your career will be marked by the total body of your work.

By constantly selecting — devouring — opportunities for personal development (isn’t this what a promotion is?), you will differentiate yourself, prompting others to take notice because you become a solution to their problem. The result, over time, is advancement. The path is not linear or always up. It is a zig-zag road defined by failures, heartaches, satisfaction, and celebration. Responsibility is heaped on those who don’t always aspire to it.

Meanwhile, back to our candidate. Rather than grab every new experience that comes his way, he’ll need to establish his bearings. What is he good at, how does he need to develop, and what is his ultimate destination? The sign-post marking ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ should be based on which direction provides the best or fastest opportunity to acquire the skills and competencies that are critical to reaching his goals. Waiting for the promotion is a mindset that often results in getting passed over. Clarity of purpose will lead to a life of surprises.
Just for fun, take a fresh look at Yojimbo, the Japanese period film directed by Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune portrays a masterless samurai, or ronin, whose counsel is sought by rival gangs because of his unique ability to provide a solution to each. I’m reminded of the film because the main character also faces a fork in the road. His achievement is measured by his terms.

In the flow: Getting connected to something bigger than the individual cubicle

Do aspiring employees need to be from California to tap into the cosmos to find a more satisfying job or career? During a conversation with a colleague who seemed disconnected from the flow – she was succeeding in her narrow role but felt isolated from the broader direction or strategy of her business unit – I said, to my utter amazement, “you’ve got to tap into the universe. You need to feel part of the natural flow of a system, like the planets or stars in the solar system or the Milky Way.”

Honestly, I’ve never said this before to anyone or even to myself, and I’m from California. But I had this image of the Milky Way in my head, this cloudy system of stars and planets, all interdependent and yet moving about in some natural pattern.

Now, that’s as far as I want to take this metaphor. My message had do with our desire to be, or feel, a part of something bigger than ourselves, our need to feel less isolated, to be independent yet somehow aligned.

It’s a manager’s job to drive the alignment of each individual’s role to the broader direction and goal of the business. It’s the employee’s job to understand the role they play and push for greater clarity if there’s any doubt – and to find a way to connect their jobs to the pursuit of career or life goals.

This is not just an intellectual exercise. Ultimately, it’s about experiencing a satisfying career, building efficiency into the system, and unlocking the force of an organization. Talk about disconnects. I can still see the quizzical look on the face of my colleague when I started to talk about the cosmos.

For more on the subject, try re-reading William H. Whyte (The Organization Man), watching the old movie, The Apartment, by Billy Wilder, and reading anything by the Japanese novelist, Haraku Murakami, who taps into our feelings of isolation from the larger world.

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