Did you click on the link to this blog because you have aspirations to be the CEO of your company?
All of us have dreams about our professional careers and when we embark on our careers, fresh out of college or MBA school, we may have lofty ambitions which may seem fuzzy in the long distance and are more focused on the next step or two, perhaps because youngsters can only take baby steps. However, when one enters into one’s thirties, the longer term goals could become clearer and I have come across many who make a move to have the possibility of being on the fast track with a new employer, since he is falling behind in the race to the top at his present employer. By the time you reach the end of your thirties or in your early 40′s, it could be clear whether you have a reasonable chance to make it to the top job or not ….
However, those dreams of becoming CEO don’t die so easily and I have encountered quite a few senior management professionals during my headhunting days and now as a career coach, who want to find some way of fulfilling that dream before they retire,,,,
And more often than not, they make a move that is quite risky or even foolhardy – just to fulfil that dream
I am going to narrate four stories, which some of you who are in the second half of your career may find familiar, not because you may know the characters involved but because you may be in a similar situation. Hopefully there will be some learning and a rash move will be avoided in the process
Ravi’s story: (all names changed though the stories are real) – Ravi was my classmate who had worked for a few years before enrolling at IIMA. After his MBA, Ravi joined a large PSU and moved up in seniority to the middle management cadre. However, he wanted a slightly faster career path and decided to join a large MNC in India. Being the hard-working, non-political person that he is, Ravi’s career plateaued, perhaps because he was not a good upward manager, and he decided to leave the company when he was in his early 50’s to try to achieve his dream of becoming CEO elsewhere. He initially tried to run his own boutique consulting firm (where he was naturally the CEO), but that didn’t take off and by then when he was already in his late 50′s. In order to fulfil his dream of being CEO, he joined a small ITES company (a sector that he was completely unfamiliar with). The company was too small to have any sort of critical mass and hired him at a very low salary just to play the role of an administrator. Though the stint didn’t last very long, Ravi achieved his dream of being CEO but at a huge price. The decision to leave the MNC was not well thought through and he should have either decided that he would be more focused on “upward management” (a very difficult ask since it was against the grain of his personality DNA) or he should have recalibrated his dream and instead counted the blessings of a steady income and a retirement nest-egg, by remaining at that MNC for the next 5 to 10 years till he retired
Ashok’s story: Ashok was my business associate in the mid 1980’s and we have remained in touch as friends since then. He was a finance professional who had a steady career, made a few moves and rose to become the CFO of a multinational in India. When he was in his mid 50’s a couple of years back, he was passed over for the CEO’s job which went to the Marketing Head. Ashok was very disappointed because his ambition of becoming CEO at that MNC disappeared. Ashok then met an entrepreneur who was in his late 60’s and wanted to retire from running his SME manufacturing unit. The entrepreneur’s sons were not ready to take over the reins and he therefore invited Ashok to step into his shoes on a profit-sharing basis. Of course, the SME unit could not afford to pay Ashok’s relatively huge fixed compensation at the MNC and he would need to take a huge hair-cut in fixed compensation in exchange for the share of profits. Ashok was very tempted to take up the offer because of the opportunity to be CEO combined with wealth creation potential. We chatted over coffee about this move a few months back. He told me that his wife was very averse to the move – apart from there being no necessity to create a larger financial nest-egg (both his daughters were married and he had saved a fair amount over the years), she felt that their stature in the wider friends’ circle would be drastically reduced since he would be moving from being the CFO of a well-known MNC to the CEO of an unheard company. I asked him how other members of his immediate family and his close friends felt about the move. This set Ashok thinking and he told me that quite a few of the significant people in his life didn’t seem to be keen about the move. Since some of them had not expressed their views openly, I requested him to have a frank conversation with a few of his friends whom he considered as mentors. After speaking to them, Ashok decided that he should not make the move and will continue to ride the wave at the MNC till he retires in 2014.
John’s story: John is an IIT engineer who has had a fast track career in sales and marketing. He didn’t feel the need to do an MBA because he was a high-performer at work and his role was constantly expanding, through promotions and by a couple of job moves that turned out to be excellent ones, in hindsight. He moved to the telecom sector when it was just emerging 15 years ago and is now part of the senior management team at one of the Indian telecom companies. He is almost 50 years old and feels that the lack of a management qualification has closed the door to the CEO’s corner-room suite. John decided to quit his job recently (partly because of fears that he may become embroiled in the legal cases related to 2G scam) and is very actively thinking of doing a short-term Senior Management Program at one of the leading US business schools. He is going to finance this expensive program himself (approx USD 100K, which in pre-tax income is a lot more) and consulted me before taking his decision. I spent several hours playing devil’s advocate with him, so that all the key factors for his decision would emerge. I did this because I felt that his heart was all set on the program and his head was being completely over-ruled by his heart. There were two factors that finally emerged which will probably lead him not to do the program – Firstly, I asked him to think of a couple of dream jobs that he would like to have and assess the attributes needed for those roles. It became clear that his experience and track-record would be paramount and that his academic qualifications (or lack thereof) may not be an important factor. Secondly, he had not factored the loss of salary income he would incur by attending the program. In actual fact, the cost of attending the program was more almost triple the USD 100K he had initially computed and he could buy a small apartment in Mumbai for one his young-adult sons, with the same amount. John is probably not going to the US to do the program and will instead focus on how to be selected for his dream job
Rashid’s story: Rashid is an IIT Engineer who did his MBA at one of the IIMs and then was selected by one of the leading FMCG MNCs in India. He was an above average performer (just a notch below the top performer category) at the MNC and was deputed on some excellent roles, with a couple of international postings. However, his career plateaued when he was in his early 40’s (3 years ago) and he decided to look for another role. Since making a move would mean a loss of 2 decades of “brand equity” that he had built up at the MNC, he felt that only a CEO level type of role would make his move worthwhile. He didn’t make it on the initial shortlist for any such roles at other FMCG companies (because there were always candidates who didn’t need to make such a “big step-up” move and so were better qualified than him for the job). Rashid was then offered an SBU Head role at a retailing company, which was part of one of the major Indian business houses and just starting up. There was a dearth of relevant talent in the retailing space 3 years ago and Rashid was a sought after candidate with his pedigree qualifications and his track-record for almost 2 decades at a major FMCG MNC. However, Rashid didn’t enjoy the stint and has recently decided to move back into the FMCG sector. Three issues that he didn’t envisage when he made the move were – the very different work culture between the MNC and the Indian business group, the fuzzy code of ethics at the Indian business house and the lack of support systems, partly because it was a start-up situation and partly because the Indian business group wanted to limit its investments & overheads till returns were at least on the anvil.
So what are some of the common themes of these perhaps familiar stories?
- One needs to do a periodic reality check on your career aspirations. It may be helpful to speak to mentors or trusted friends, especially when your thinking is clouded by emotions. Only very few make it to the CEO’s corner-room suite. The rest of us need to recalibrate our expectations or reinvent our careers from time to time
- Keep all your career goals in mind simultaneously. Don’t just focus on just one of them and shrug off the others as unimportant (E.g. you may fulfil your dream to become CEO but lose out on financial savings towards the end of your career or your social stature)
- Academic qualifications become almost irrelevant toward the latter part of your career and taking time off to attend a short-term programme can be very costly
- Never lose sight of softer factors like cultural fitment and that your employer’s ethical standards need to be totally in synch with yours. These softer factors are not easy to define but the reputation (or lack thereof) of certain business groups is well-known. If you are unfamiliar with the business group, ask some of your friends, I am sure some of them will give you invaluable advice
If you have other learnings or insights from these stories, please post a comment below so that others can benefit from them. Also, feel free to share this on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter or pass it on to anyone who may find this blog useful