A Career on Side Roads and Scenic Routes

My friends and family laugh at me during road trips. “There you go again,” they say, "always taking the scenic route.” Yes, it’s true. Throughout my life I’ve lived and worked for the experience, zigzagging my way through career steps in nine countries on four continents, serving as an Executive Vice President of a publicly held global firm, as head of Asia Pacific, and as head of Europe before starting my own consultancy a few years ago. The most common questions I get asked are, "What country do you like the most?” and “How do you deal with jet lag?” The first question is like asking me to choose between the colors of the rainbow. I have a few favorites, but it’s how the colors work together that creates the beauty. The second question has an easier answer: keep hydrated and sleep on the flight. Rarely am I asked what the real take-aways from my global career are. Here are a few of them.

I didn’t start out with the ambition to achieve what I have. Over time, with each new step, I slowly realized what I love to do, what I am good at, and what’s most important in my life. When looking in the rear-view mirror, I see that I got to where I am today by taking the scenic route and making course corrections along the way.

Early on, I learned, sometimes the hard way, to find my value proposition in every job. At 29, my first overseas posting, I relocated to Melbourne, Australia, to support the local team. The Los Angeles headquarters wanted to integrate the far-flung office into the global system and I was sent to Melbourne to accomplish this goal. I made every mistake in the book. After a month, the office head, his face burning, told me to either respect the local ways or ship out. He was right. I realized I still had one foot in headquarters. I needed to adjust and learn how best to support and add real value the local team.

A few years ago I asked an American working as an executive vice president for a global Korean company how he was able to adjust to his role: “For the first two weeks,” he said, “I just watched and listened. For me to understand the local ways, I needed to empty what is already in my head.” He was demonstrating humility in order to find his value proposition. Not surprisingly, he was a high performer. I’ve heard many successful expatriates and executives with a global career track express variations on this theme.

I also learned that executives aren’t meant to rocket to the top. Most, like me, zigzag a fair bit on their way up the ladder. This allows time to reflect on the quality of their trajectory, become more self-aware, and integrate the learnings of any hard lessons along the way. A senior executive who worked for Jack Welch once said to me that GE regretted moving their fast-track executives every two years. The practice encouraged action, but not necessarily deep learning.

In any great career there will be high-impact roles—hopefully lots of them—and other roles meant for reflection, learning, and growth. A career can become a colorful body of work; it doesn’t have to always look like a masterpiece.

My purpose didn’t just come to me. At my best, I was an innovator. I could see the big picture. My focus was on achieving results. Not a bad goal. But I wasn’t conscious of my purpose and knew that something was missing. I was not bringing my values to my leadership roles.

This became especially clear when I moved into a global position and learned that to succeed as a leader, I had to put my focus on the success of others. Through executive coaching, I began to reflect on my purpose and decided to hit the pause button, choosing to stop playing someone else’s game and transitioning into an entrepreneurial career that reflects my values to this day.

With these insights, I am hitting the road again and taking another scenic route with my firm. Today, CapitaPartners helps executives grow as effective global leaders. What I really do is to connect people to their passions, which drives bottom line performance and creates careers that matter.

All of us own our careers. We drive into the great landscape before us, take some scenic detours, add value wherever possible, and learn from the journey. In the process, I've learned to continually let go and leave something behind in order to expand and refine my purpose to create a brighter future.