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Peter Wong (not his real name) was a rising star in of one of the largest global banks in the world. Starting out in Asia as an entry level hire, he steadily made his way up after completing several expatriate assignments across the globe. At the rate he was progressing, it would only be a matter of time before he would make it to the C-Suite. However, at what seemed to be the tipping point of his career at the big bank, he surprised everyone by quitting his job to take up a position in a small Southeast Asian bank. Many questioned the wisdom of the move but he was unperturbed. Three years later, he is now Deputy CEO of the Asian player, and since his arrival, the bank has acquired assets in 4 countries in the region. For the next five years, the bank has aggressive growth plans, both organic as well as through acquisitions.
I chatted with Peter at a recent social event, and asked him to reflect upon his decision, and the experience that followed. Here’s what he said: “Everyone thought I was crazy to leave the big bank, but I did it because I wanted to broaden my experience. I was growing steadily at my previous organization, but my trajectory was limited within one silo of the bank. I joined the small bank because I would get to do a bit of everything, and face the challenge of delivering aggressive growth without the benefit of the global brand or huge stockpiles of cash….”
“And how did it actually pan out in the last three years since you made the move,” I asked. Without any hesitation, and with much excitement in his voice, he said, “It was undoubtedly the best move I ever made. Since coming here, I have made four acquisitions, expanded into two new business areas, and am dealing with issues and challenges that I could never have imagined at the big bank. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I have learned more here in the last three years than I learned in 17 years at the big bank. If I had not done this, I would never know what I did not know.”
Peter went on to tell me how important it is to work in a small organization at some point in one’s career, and believed that a start-up experience would be even better. When I asked him what convinced him to ultimately take the counter intuitive step of leaving an international marquee name for a relatively unknown smaller outfit, he said “It was my move to Guam as country manager six years ago. I had very little direct supervision as my boss was in Hong Kong, but I had to deal with all kinds of issues I had no idea about. I often found myself learning on the fly to solve problems for which no guidance was available anywhere in the global system… besides it being one of my best learning experiences, I found the Guam stint very rewarding. It was highly gratifying to see our various initiatives going all the way from conception to fruition… So when the headhunter called about the regional bank, I knew it was time to replicate the Guam fun on a slightly larger platform. I knew instantly that the Southeast Asian bank job will give me the opportunity to operate on a scale much bigger than Guam, and yet it will be small enough to manage effectively”
I have not stopped thinking about our conversation since. As I reflect upon my own career, I could not agree more with Ron. He is dead right. By 2009, I too, had spent 20 plus years at blue chips like American Express, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Coca-Cola. At the last two, I was Chief Learning Officer. In other words, I had reached the top of my career in Talent and Leadership Development – the field I absolutely love. Unless I ventured into general HR or moved into a business division – both of which I had ruled out a long time ago – there were no bigger jobs for me to be promoted into. This was not an issue at all because the money was good, the work was satisfying, and I could do a CLO job comfortably and happily for the rest of my career. The only problem was, I wasn’t growing in terms of experience or intellect.
I asked myself what I wanted next. I thought to myself, if I get bored with my industry, I could always look for a CLO job in another industry. If all I wanted was stability for myself and my family, I was in the right job. But is that all I wanted? Clearly, I wanted to continue growing. So I started laying the groundwork to start my own consulting firm. Before actually quitting my job, I decided I would write a book – something I had always wanted to do. I spent the next year researching and writing the book, while at the same time made preparations to start my business. At the end of the year as I was finishing up my manuscript of what ultimately published as “Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders,” and as I was giving final touches to my business plan, I thought it was time to take the plunge.
However, before I could do so, a unique offer came along – an opportunity to move to Malaysia to head a not-for-profit executive education and research center that had ambitions to grow all over Asia and the Middle East. Even while many around me told me not to take the risk of going to a small outfit in Malaysia, I knew at once that it was the exact opportunity I was waiting for. I would be the perfect platform for me to work with a small team and offer meaningful leadership development programs, research and consulting to organizations that needed it the most. So after due consideration, I took the challenge and moved to Kuala Lumpur with my family.
As I look back over my career so far, I can safely say I have learned and grown more in the last four years than in the previous twenty. The first of the four years was dedicated to writing the book and shaping a business plan in New York. For the following three, I have been in Kuala Lumpur as CEO of the Iclif Leadership & Governance Center. Writing the book has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. For years I had told myself that I did not have the time to write, but when I actually did it, I realized I had not learned so much in years. Later at Iclif, from understanding customer needs to creating new products, to learning how to navigate in a complex Asian market, to dealing with disappointments and recovering from mistakes, to developing and implementing a growth strategy, this job has been one continuous process of learning and growing.
Perhaps the biggest learning came from the need to shed the senior executive mindset and adopt an entrepreneurial way of operating. Without the comfortable cover of a globally recognized brand name on my business card, my small team and I had to create and grow a business from scratch. I quickly realized that the things that mattered when I was a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company (e.g. internal politics, the next promotion) did not matter at all any more. Amongst other things, I had to learn to work with limited resources, and stay focused on the thing that mattered the most – growing the business. I had to learn how to be confident and humble at the same time, and to stay resilient in the face of setbacks. And even while this is the hardest I have ever worked in my career, it has been the most gratifying and emotionally rewarding. As the business (and the number of employees) is growing faster than we expected, we are now learning how to shed the startup mindset and operate more systematically in order to keep on top of our growth. I can easily see myself doing what I do now for the rest of my career because each day brings a new challenge, and the learning never stops.
Peter and I are not the only ones who have such experience to report. Many who have left big firms to join or start boutiques report a similar level of learning, growth and fun. I have had the pleasure of listening to over a thousand career success stories, and have found a common theme: Two career transitions provide the biggest opportunities to learn and grow –
- Making a move to an entirely new area of work that you are passionate about
- Working in a small start-up or an existing small set-up where one has end-to-end responsibility
Early in my career I was a currency trader at a bank. When I realized that I wanted to work in the talent and leadership development arena, I switched to HR. Most around me thought it was a big mistake, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made because I found my calling. Years later, deciding to become an author and researcher was another key decision that I will always be glad I made. Finally, as I said before, moving to Malaysia to head and grow Iclif has been the most fun I’ve had in my entire career.
Are you learning and growing as much as you would like to? Are you having as much fun in your job as you deserve to? Do you have the above two transitions (aka risks) in your career portfolio?