Sunday, June 5, 2011

From Young Executive to Chief Executive: Pathways for Sustainable Growth

Each generation tends to be more knowledgeable and more aggressive than the previous one. The current generation of job aspirants is no different. If at all, Internet, social networking and media have brought globalization and growth on to the forefront. These forces are the strongest in the generation that sees industry and business as the most relevant canvas to lay out one’s career aspirations. This generation, which knocks at industry gates and corporate portals also realizes that there is no longer a classic and proven educational or experience paradigm that propels one to the top crust. The bottom of the pyramid that seeks to grow to the top is larger than ever, even as the competition to excel in the process is fiercer than ever.

When an interviewer quizzes on the career goals of a young aspirant it is now passé for the candidate to say that he or she would endeavor to perform the best in his or her job and leave the rest to his or her management. It is no longer blasé to answer that he or she would like to be in the interviewer’s chair or become a chief executive in a couple of decades or so.  An aggressiveness or ambition to set the highest goal and then set out a work path seems to be the order of the day. It could be difficult to second-guess whether the nonchalance is borne out of confidence or casualness but it is easy to predict that if the aspirations are not backed up by achievements the aspirants as well as the organizations would be in churn. The pathways to growth must therefore be well understood in terms of both opportunities and impediments.
Multiple learning needs
There is a considerable concern that the roadblock to India’s quest for the first world status if at all would be the talent or skills shortage. It is feared that the expectations with which industries and businesses are being set up in India are unlikely to be met in full as the requisite talent is either in short supply or pricey. There is yet another concern that even the premium educational institutions of India are not as world-class as they ought to be. There seems to be, however, excessive externalization in these matters. Even if the hypotheses were to be correct, neither India Inc nor the aspiring talent pool can wait for years for a restructured education system to emerge. The available systemic outputs, which are in fact not inadequate, need to be honed and harnessed to make the best fit of talent and opportunities.
Education, anywhere in the world, does not provide one with readily deployable knowledge. The domains are so varied that no standardized syllabus can meet thousands of work variations. Yet, what education provides is a set of knowledge elements and analytical tools that can be further developed or customized to meet a variety of job needs. It is entirely in the realm of possibility for organizations to leverage the basics to build futures. Similarly, prior experience often teaches many domain fundamentals and process skills which may not be exactly applicable in a new job situation but lay the building blocks. The first job as well as the new job on one hand, and the college fresher as well as the lateral mover all present opportunities which the constituents of the organizational processes in India are ignoring. Rather than blame the educational systems or work environments, employees and employers need to focus on multiple learning needs as manifold opportunities to grow would emerge in the Indian economy.
Grasp beyond curriculum
A young executive who aspires to be a chief executive cannot predict for sure if his or her first company would be the home for him as a chief executive too, or if his core domain would be the perfect launch pad for the career journey. Students in India, or probably even abroad, choose courses based as much on aptitude as by a host of external factors such as demand-supply factors, parental advice, affordability considerations and vagaries of government policies. While the choice of curriculum may also decide the choice of the first company there is no set rule that the pathway to career progress is domain based. There is no such division as technical or non-technical in one’s progression to the top. The ability to grasp new knowledge beyond the curriculum together with the ability to apply all knowledge to new applications is the first prerequisite for being on the pathway to a chief executive position. This is because unlike any other job, the chief executive job requires continuous learning and adaptability to new situations.
It is well established that chief executives demonstrate a remarkable capability to go beyond the core curriculum to gain knowledge of new domains. This needs to be a deliberate process objective of an aspiring executive from the very beginning of the career. Executives who remain devoted to their functions, not bothering or attempting to learn other functional contours, would be cloistered and find it difficult to become multi-function leaders. Organizations when they recruit young executives must focus on their ability for flexible and continuous learning rather than go by only the knowledge-function fit. In many ways, it is necessary for an executive to start a new learning journey once he joins an organization, developing new aptitudes and acquiring new knowledge sets. This does not require that a finance executive should become a physicist or that an engineer should become an accountant to grow in career. The concept of grasp beyond curriculum, however, requires that the executive must understand the drivers of other functions in terms of overall operational and business impact, and the connectivity to his or her core curriculum.
Customer centricity
The essence of growth for corporations as much as for chief executive aspirants is customer centricity. This is both an aptitude and a skill. Product or service-driven organizations are, in fact, customer centric organizations. Their chief executives convert their personal passion for serving the customers with new products and services into a drive for the creation of innovative products and services. It is interesting how passion for customer centricity could be built up from the very beginning of one’s career. The contemporary organizational value chain comprises not only the three core functions of product development, manufacturing and marketing but also a host of other functional specializations and sub-specializations that make the core functions delivery optimally. These supportive functions are, for example, quality, regulatory affairs, production planning, corporate planning, business development, information technology, finance, human resources, and so on. In addition, umbrella functions such as environment, safety and health, ethics, compliance and risk management, corporate social responsibility determine the values of an organization.
The key to appreciation of customer centricity by a young executive lies in an awareness of how each function, regardless of whether it has a direct interface with the customer or not, has a significant contribution to make for organizations to achieve customer delight. It is easy for young executives to understand how the core functions serve the customers in terms of developing, manufacturing and selling products. They do not easily understand how they would be serving the customers when their jobs are in other specialized and supportive functions. This is where organizations need to develop the value chain perspective in the young executives. Young executives need to appreciate that quality is a value differentiator, regulatory affairs is a specifications optimizer, production planning is a timely deliverer, corporate planning is a priority balancer, business development is a customer seeker, information technology is a business connector, finance is a resource manager, and human resources is a talent provider. Each of the functional specializations delivers specific value to customers by optimizing the core functions. The young executives need to appreciate that customer centricity can be achieved by serving the internal functional customers as well.
The ability of a young executive in a function, core or supportive, to connect with internal functions is the foundational component of his or her ability to achieve a mastery of the organizational value chain. It is easier said than done as under the concept of focus and specialization, departments tend to operate as silos in organizations. In such vertically run organizations departmental managers tend to discourage cross-functional collaboration at the mildest, and promote turf wars and inter-departmental politics at the severest. Young executives who acquire and develop value chain perspectives larger than departmental priorities naturally run a better chance of becoming chief executive. Organizations, and its leaders and managers, have a major responsibility in enabling such a developmental eco system. This is also a self-validating and self-fulfilling hypothesis as young executives with such broader perspectives would be the ones to accept and benefit from job rotation programs, thus enriching their careers even further.
Many young executives and chief executives ignore the relevance of, and challenges inherent in, ingraining internal customer orientation as an organizational mindset. Value chain eco system needs a broader business understanding and a deeper multi-functional appreciation. Corporations would therefore need to provide comprehensive value chain indoctrination to new entrants to establish comprehensive multi-functional appreciation and collaborative cultural moorings in young executives. Departmental managers must eschew the temptation of placing the young entrants in narrow jobs before they understand how they can effectively develop as total organizational personalities, and not merely as cogs in organizational wheel. To enable this, even organizational design may need to be reinvented. Quite apart from the silo design and operation of departmental units, organizational performance appraisal and reward systems tend to encourage individual performance. Instead, well designed and well operated matrix organization structures and group incentive schemes linked to collaborative effort are required to support broader perspectives. More fundamental would be the young executives’ passion for knowledge acquisition and an organizational culture that promotes a spirit of enquiry.
Ten essentials
While realization of the concepts of acquiring knowledge outside the core curriculum and native departments are as much dependent on organizational policies and culture as on the young entrants’ passion and perseverance, there are ten essential personality goals which young aspirants must keep in mind and assiduously fulfill to become well-rounded executives, justifying a consideration to grow in organizational hierarchy. These are: respecting higher order values and ethics, reflecting a persona of trust and transparency, understanding the product-market scope, learning the product and manufacturing intricacies, appreciating the importance of time, integrating a culture of continuous improvement, establishing a level of credibility, mastering the inter-personal subtleties, fostering the spirit of innovation and preserving the freedom of expression. These need to be taken up as personal developmental objectives by young aspirants on their own, even though the process may be greatly helped if they are provided with or able to secure mentors who can help in mastering the Ten Essentials.  
There is a simple dictum that if one does right things in life the right results will follow. It is important that a young executive should voluntarily follow a set of higher order ethics and values from the beginning of career. One would be advised to not only inculcate an organization’s published values and ethics but also search for and absorb what other ethical and value parameters are observed by other leading corporations. Many times, walking the talk which is a litmus test of leadership gets inculcated from the young age as one gains strength of character through ethical behavior.
In business dealings as in social relationships, trust and transparency are critical. A Young executive must learn to align his thought, talk and action in a trustworthy and transparent manner. Hidden agendas destroy trust and transparency in organizational relationships. An executive who is known for his transparency is invariably trusted with more responsibilities and partnerships. Trust and transparency arise from a conviction of doing the right things and a confidence of delivering performance against promises made.
While behaviors and values are important, alignment with organizational business goals is equally important. As business grows on products and markets, youngsters need to achieve a complete understanding of the products and markets, not merely by names but also by characteristics. Understanding product-market scope is not a responsibility only of sales and marketing personnel; rather it is a requirement for every professional employee. A young executive who fails to grasp the product-market scope early on in his career would never be aligned with the broader organizational value chain.
In an organization, if products constitute the engine of growth, the shop floor is the platform where manufacturing value is created. The early months of joining an organization is the right period for a young executive to learn the specifications of products and parameters of manufacturing processes. Early integration of a value engineering philosophy vests in the young executive an ability to participate in the value creation activities of the organization with greater authenticity, be in products or processes.
It is important to realize the importance of time both in personal and business contexts. Time management helps an executive not only to be productive in business but also establish an optimal work-life balance, customized to one’s needs. In business, go-to-market time or a project launch time are critical, with each participant in the value chain complying with timelines to ensure timely end-delivery. A young executive’s time management in business or industry would help him become a reasonable manager of time in his personal and social life as well.    
Integrating a culture of continuous improvement (kaizen) is an essential part of a young executive’s career journey. Raising the bar of competitiveness through higher performance on a continuous basis is the way of growth for organizations. A young executive’s opportunity and challenge in career lie in his ability to constantly improve. The promising young executive typically refuses to accept the status quo and tries to discover ways of doing things better. A spirit of continuous enquiry needs to be the essence of an aspirant’s career journey.  
A willingness to set stretch targets and a capability fulfill the promise through performance lends credibility to a young executive’s profile. While a policy of ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ is an accepted strategy, true credibility comes with setting challenging targets voluntarily and exceeding them consistently adds greater credibility to a young executive’s profile. This stems from an ability to conceptualize and analyze the task at hand, estimate elemental times and resource requirements and successfully execute. A successful chief executive would be one who has been, and is, a thorough project manager
A young executive needs all the guidance and support from his colleagues and superiors to learn and execute. Unfortunately, human dynamics often destabilize organizational relationships, more so when organization design and management processes encourage silos. A young executive needs to treat each colleague as a collaborator and demonstrate how he himself could be a good collaborator. Gaining acceptance of colleagues, treating each one as an internal customer, needs interpersonal skills which in turn require an understanding of human motivation, organizational behavior and more importantly an understanding of one’s own self.   
As one progresses in business or industrial life, competition for leadership tends to be fierce and generic. What differentiates one aspirant to chief executive position from the other would be the degree of innovation one brings to the job. A young executive who is innovative in his endeavors carves out a niche for himself in the organization. The stamp of innovation could be seen in product creativity, manufacturing efficiency, operational excellence or business effectiveness. Aspirants for career growth must focus on being innovative in whatever job one does, enhancing organizational competitiveness in the process.
Most important in a career journey is the ability of an executive to be independent in thinking and execution, within the boundaries and responsibilities set in an organizational system. Freedom of expression must be the cherished trait of an executive as he or she progresses in the organizational journey. The ability to be independent and expressive arises from a sense of rectitude and diligence. Imbibing and demonstrating such ethical behavior, one also acquires the stature to express the pros and cons fearlessly, and take the organization on a competitively and ethically correct path.
Bonsai managers and Banyan leaders
Given the pyramid organizational structures, not all young executives can become chief executives in their home organizations but most young executives can become operational and business leaders of substance and stature in native or other organizations through a combination of behavioral initiatives, knowledge endeavors and execution efforts. Executives and organizations must collaborate to create organizational eco systems that facilitate development of grassroots leadership than a crop of ‘bonsai managers’ and ‘banyan leaders’.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 6, 2011.

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