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Career Success
DEC 18, 2012

Who Becomes Top Management, Who Doesn’t?

By Tomoya Nakamura, Photographer Katsuo Sugano
Photo by Katsuo Sugano

It has been more than twenty years since I entered the working world.

My first job out of university was with a trading firm, and my supervisor from those years went on to become the president of a listed company. Another supervisor became the chairman of an industry organization. In the years since its founding, GLOBIS University has seen a number of MBA graduates go on to launch venture companies. Many of the corporate executives that I taughtーor learned withーin our global corporate training programs are now up for top management positions at listed companies, as well.

Some people achieve positions in top management. Many others do not. In my experiences as a subordinate as well as a lecturer at an MBA school, I have had the opportunity to observe many people and think about the factors that impact their career outcomes. It seems to me there are three factors that distinguish the people who become CEOs or organizational leaders.

The first is that they are full of curiosity and willing to take on any challenge.

The second is that they are good learners.

And the third is that they are able to overcome and improve themselves.

Curiosity and taking on challenges

Let’s start with the perspective of a subordinate and consider what curiosity and ambition mean. When I was at the trading firm, I had two supervisors who worked incredibly hard. I was assigned to the Foreign Exchange and Securities Department, where I was involved in foreign exchange and equities dealing. You have to be in the markets to really understand them. But just because you’re in, there’s no guarantee that you will win. With ordinary people, the job produces so much anxiety they lose sleep or they get ulcers, but these two supervisors were able to come in every day full of vim and vigor and make decisions such as whether to buy or sell the US dollar or UK sterling pound. Looking back, their energy and vitality were overwhelming. One of them went on to become the president of a supermarket chain; the other to lead an industry organization. Neither outcome surprised anyone who knew them.

There were many other people at the trading firm who were much younger than my two supervisors but never went on to top positions. They just reached the age of retirement and left the firm. They were good people and hard workers. What was the difference between them and the two who went on to lead their organizations?

Put simply: curiosity and a willingness to take on challenges.

For more than twenty years, the two who went on to become leaders outshone everyone else on that score. Don’t get me wrong, it was difficult working for them. There was always something they wanted to know, something they wanted you to look up, something they felt you hadn’t thought through sufficiently, something on which they wanted you to delve deeper. They demanded rigor.

Obviously, in trading you want to follow the flow of funds at Japanese and US institutional investors in reaction to changing interest rates, but they widened the scope well beyond that. They wanted to know what impact US/Russian arms reductions would have on exchange rates, what would be the influence of politics, economics, and international relations. The two made significant contributions to the company and ended up being promoted and rewarded, but the important point to remember is that they were not curious and ambitious because they wanted to make good. Rather, the reverse.

They made good because they were curious and ambitious.

Maximizing learning

For my second point, to discuss attitudes towards learning, let me switch my perspective to that of an MBA school lecturer. The system at GLOBIS University is to award credits if students earn passing grades in their courses. Once they have enough credits, they graduate. However, our school emphasizes practical skills, so grades are weighted heavily towards classroom comments that are applicable in real business situations. If they want to earn high grades, students must be able to explain themselves concisely and with enough passion to convince their classmates.

Several CEOs emerged from the classes that I taught, and my observation is that they were not primarily interested in earning credits and degrees. Instead, they were avid learnersーindeed, voracious learnersーbecause they wanted to grow. They also had a realistic image of how each class and course fit into the overall framework of corporate management. Even in a classroom with nothing but case studies on paper, they were able to run mental simulations and make the problems their own.

That is why they were able to understand the essential issues and, later, utilize limited time and energy to maximum effect when it came to real businesses. They deeply invested in developing their capabilities and shaping their personal mission.

Embracing self-improvement

Thirdly, let’s consider the idea of “overcoming the self.” One of my responsibilities is conducting global executive training, and most of these sessions are taught to a mixture of foreign and Japanese executives. We go out of our way to create mixed teams and define management problems, asking them to use what they have learned and bring it together in a final group presentation for top management (in most cases, the president).

The trainees’ status as executives earns them no special privileges during the final presentation. If things have not been thoroughly thought out, or if the presentation is hard to understand, they can expect withering criticism from their superiors. This training is for executives who are already on track for top management positions, so it is not unusual for people who have been through the course to find themselves as presidents of their firms a few years later.

Yet some never do.

As I think back on the people who became presidents, most were able to take scathing feedback from the management team “naturally” during their final presentations. Most people, faced with criticism, will want to explain their positions or rebut the critique:

“No, it’s actually like this…”
or
“You’ve misunderstood…”

Conversely, there are some who merely shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, this is only training after all.”

The one point that the people who rise to the top have in common is that they are able to deal coolly and naturally with feedback from the management team on the surface. Inside, they set their resolve for future improvement with true passion.

Balance

The three qualities that seem to define CEOs, then, are curiosity and a willingness to take on challenges, an attitude towards learning, and the willingness to do better. These concepts interconnect with psychological energy, or what we refer to in Japan as ki.

When someone is curious and willing to take on challenges, it means that they are putting their heart into the task at hand. They are releasing their ki for the pursuit. Self-improvement can be thought of as cleaning and preparing the self for ki to enter. The willingness to do better is accumulating ki for the for future opportunities.

What is interesting about human beings is that we are composed of two elements, the psyche and the body. Sometimes, these two elements move together, sometimes they move in opposite directions. Think about the yin-yang symbol. At different times, the psyche and the body can fluctuate between yin and yang. Think of the exterior symbol as the body, and the interior symbol as the psyche.

From the right, we can see only yin. From the left, only yang. But if we rotate the circle clockwise, the exterior yang appears at the bottom. If we rotate further, eventually the exterior yang will be united with the interior yang. Thus, the body and psyche align, drawing out ultimate, maximum energy.

Curiosity, ambition, learning, and self-improvement can spin the yin and yang through ki. It is this spinning of the yin and the yang through the past, present, and future that allows us to generate the ki that can raise us up and turn us into successful CEOs, the ones who ride upon the wind and dance across the sky like dragons.