Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chain(s) of command

From early childhood, we learn the concept of chain of command - in our homes, in school and later in the workplace. Everyone has a boss.

In each culture the chain of command plays out differently but in the end, everyone is ultimately accountable to a higher power.  Anyone that begins to climb the proverbial corporate ladder needs to learn political survival skills and that success does not always depend on what you do but how you "manage up".

One of the joys of an ex-pat's life is that often the boss is several thousands miles away - distance and several time zones tend to give the person working overseas more freedom than their peers in the home country. This was certainly true in my case. After eleven years in Asia, I was not eager to return to the US. From a business perspective, my overseas assignment had been a success. Over 11 years, sales in Asia increased >8 times and profits ~10 times. I enjoyed the freedom and the company was happy with the results. The family loved the time overseas too so it was a good move all the way around.

Unfortunately I enjoyed being away from HQ so much that after a few years, I let many important relationships grow distant. In my case "out of sight" really became "out of mind". I made the naive assumption that "results speak for themselves".  If I had only stayed  overseas 3 years as my original ex-pat agreement suggested, there would have been no issue as all the same people in "high places" were still in the same roles back home. After 5 years, things changed - I moved from Japan to China and was dealing with a very different culture and ignoring that the company culture back home was changing too. New Division leadership, new values. The people who knew me for what I had accomplished and believed I could accomplish more were replaced with people who saw me as a name on an org chart and a large ex-pat cost center. The new thinking was that "the market in Asia was growing" and I might be "just riding the wave". While I knew the reality was quite different, I made the mistake of thinking that just continuing to do my job well would be enough to demonstrate my value to the new team. I should have been more active in managing perceptions on the US side.

Fortunately, in time, the new Division President began to appreciate to some extent what I was doing but the business had grown to the point where more and more people wanted to be involved. I was told I needed to be more "inclusive" of the increasing stream of three day visitors from the US. I began to sign as many visa "invitation letters" as I did sales contracts.  More time passed; the business and the local team continued to grow. More profits and more headcount attracted more attention.

After 10 years in Asia, I was told that I would be moving back to a "global position" but was given a year to "make a smooth transition". Of course, I always knew the day would  come when we would return. The timing was good -  my younger daughter was graduating from Shanghai American School and returning to the US for university.

Unfortunately for me, about the same time corporate management changed - a new CEO and a new "Vision".  More pressure on our growing Division. More "expert advice" from people unfamiliar with  the details of our business.

My years of experience with the "old regime" became a liability rather than an asset. When my new global position was announced, the CEO and a board member happened to be in town. At a reception the board member overheard me indicate to a colleague that I really would prefer to spend a little more time in Asia. He was furious that the company would give such an "ungrateful" person a more responsible position. The CEO, who had just met me the day before was not happy. The board member was new and did not know me either. Had I done a better job of staying linked in to the new org structure it is likely my overheard comment would have been taken for what it was - a statement that I had thoroughly enjoyed 11 years overseas.

I was told by my Division leadership to "lay low" and things "will improve in time". The best line was "you are critical to our Division's success" but it is best if the CEO doesn't "hear from you directly".......

Lesson learned - no matter you accomplish in your day to day work,  you always need to be sensitive to the environment you are in. Results are great but they are only part of the package.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Old Thoughts on a New Year

Each country I have lived in or visited seems to take the "New Year" seriously - at least for the first few days of the 12 month cycle. We may not all celebrate the New Year at the same time (for example, Chinese New Year) but the desire to have a fresh start, to conquer bad habits or to work harder seems universal. Whether we watch a ball drop in a city center and proclaim this New Year will be the "best ever", visit a shrine and write down our wishes or shoot off fireworks all night, the first day of the year brings a sense of expectation.

Thirty years ago, as 1982 dawned, I wrote down several goals. One was to run a marathon (which I did - actually I ran 4 in the last 7 months of the year). Another was to start writing a book - even then I was hedging since I wrote down "start" which implied I would not finish in 1982. I neither finished nor started a book that year nor in any subsequent year. As my life got busier, I even stopped having a list of goals most years. One exception was 3 years ago when I decided to lose some weight and by June was down to a couple kilos less than my high school graduation weight. To state the obvious point - goals are powerful things.

Twenty years ago, I never expected to be climbing Mt Fuji

As I sit in my home office on the morning of the 2nd day of 2012, I have already heard from my elder daughter, who graduated from University in May. She sent a text stating her flight to NYC landed on time (7:25am) so she can get her laundry done from the holidays before going back to work tomorrow. She decided to move to NYC after graduation to pursue her dreams despite a lousy job market and no job offer in hand. The job came shortly after she decided to act. The child teaches the parent.

My younger daughter is sleeping upstairs and will fly back to LA, where she goes to University, this afternoon. She is where she is because she dares to dream.

My younger daughter - perhaps pondering her future in the Japanese Alps
 I spend a lot of time thinking about the goals of my children and how their life choices have been shaped by living overseas. My wife and I were adults when we moved to Asia 12 years ago but our girls were young and lived 8 and 11 years in Asia, respectively. Their goals and dreams are much bigger than mine when I was their age. Part of that difference is changes in the world and technology which makes the globe a more open place but a large part is having lived in two Asia culture during their formative years.

Since we left Asia 13 months ago, I have been back 9 times and will spend a good part of January in Asia and then South America. Keeping a foot in my "Asian world" helped me adjust to being back in the US but as I reflect on 2011, I realize it is time to reflect on my goals from the 30 years ago. It is time for new dreams without forgetting the old ones. I may start that long overdue book in 2012 - I also might finish it. One thing that the last 30 years has shown me is the simple concept that we can only finish the things we actually begin. Dreaming is good, doing is better but the critical thing is deciding to act.

In the past 12 years, I have spent the New Year holiday in Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, China and the US but for all those New Years, I knew I was going to continue on the path I was on as far as living and working. This year it is time to make a change. I realize I am still young enough to do something new and I have a supportive wife and family. It is time to write "the book" - at least metaphorically speaking.

New Year indeed.