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Career Success
DEC 18, 2012

Who Becomes Top Management, Who Doesn’t?

By Tomoya Nakamura, Photographer Katsuo Sugano

It has already 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 six years since its founding, the Graduate School of Management, GLOBIS University has seen a number of MBA graduates go on to launch venture companies. Many of the corporate executives that I taught– or “learned with”–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 final career outcomes. This article describes some of what I have seen.

I think 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.

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 on it, 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 reached the age of retirement and left the firm. They were in general “good people” and “hard workers.” What was the difference between the two who went on to lead their organizations and the others who did not? 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. 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 a trading department you would 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 because of them, 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.

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 attracts business people and 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 simply, 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, but instead were avid learners–indeed, voracious learners–because they wanted to grow. They also had a realistic image of how each class and course fit in to the overall framework of corporate management. Though in a classroom and engaging case studies were written on paper, they were able to run simulations in their minds and make the problems their own. That is why they were able to understand the essential issues. This in turn allowed them to utilize limited time and energy to maximum effect when they engaged in real businesses. They have also deeply invested in developing their capabilities and shaping their personal mission.

Thirdly, I would like to consider the idea of “overcoming the self” from a lecturer’s perspective. 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 for them, asking them to use what they have learned in the work and training to that point and bring it together in a final group presentation for the top management (in most cases, the president). Their status as executives earns them no special privileges during the final presentation. If things have not been thoroughly thought out, or the presentation is hard to understand, they can expect withering criticism from their superiors listening to the performance. This training is for executives who are already on track for top management positions, and 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 obviously, some never do. Where is the dividing line between the two?

As I think back on the people who became presidents, most of them 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. However in the inside, I felt that the person was setting his or her resolve for future improvement with true passion.

I have described the three qualities that I believe define CEOs: curiosity and a willingness to take on challenges, an attitude towards learning, and the willingness to overcome oneself and do better. Finally, I would like relate these concepts to 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. On these occasions, people are releasing the energy, the “Ki,” for their pursuit. Self-improvement is likewise cleaning and preparing themselves for Ki to enter inside them. The willingness to overcome oneself and do better is accumulating the Ki for their future opportunities to improve.

After all, what is interesting about us human beings is that we are composed of two elements, the psyche and the body. Sometime these two elements move together hand in hand, but sometime these two elements move in the opposite directions, similar to the way a yin-yang symbol spins through time. If you divide the yin-yang circle along the vertical and horizontal axis, you can imagine four quadrants, each with different degrees of yin (black) and yang (white). At different times, the psyche and the body can each fluctuate on their own between yin and yang, which is represented as the yin-yang circle, changing from quadrant to quadrant. Now, in the yin-yang symbol at right, think of the exterior symbol as the body, and the interior symbol as psyche.

If we look at the symbol from the right side, we can see only yin. If we look at the symbol from the left side, we see only yang. But, in the inside of the symbol there is half-sized yang at the top. If we rotate the circle clockwise from the top to the bottom, the exterior yang appears at the bottom, and if we rotate more, eventually it will be united with the interior half-sized yang. As the exterior and interior both turn to yang, the body and psyche align, drawing out ultimate, maximum energy.
I hope you can understand how curiosity, ambition, learning, and self-improvement can spin the yin and yang through Ki. We also have the capability to turn this yin and yang through the past, the present and the future—not just one tense, but all three tenses. It is this spinning of the yin and the yang through the three tenses that allows us to generate the Ki energy that can raise us up, levitate us, and turn us into those successful CEOs, the ones who ride upon the upward wind and dance across the sky like dragons.

(This article was written in Ho Chi Minh.)  (Photo by Katsuo Sugano)