Quick Link: Solitude and Leadership

Go here to read all of William Deresiewicz’s speech to the plebes of West Point in October 2009. Relevant quote:

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

Being a leader is about asking questions, challenging assumptions and the status quo. It’s about being willing to stick your neck out to do something you believe is right before anyone else is willing to follow you. What Deresiewicz describes in the quote above is a manager, not a leader. You don’t manage any organization into a bold new direction. To set the pace, you need leaders.

If You Want It, Take It

As I’ve mentioned previously, I spent the majority of my career as a corporate financial analyst. On any given day, that could mean very different things. While having the job title of “Financial Analyst”, I’ve had duties ranging from performing journal entries to reconcile expense accounts to doing due diligence on potential M&A projects. The common thread that ran through it all, however, was that I hated it.

So, when given the opportunity to move out of the finance realm and into a more operations-oriented position as a Supply Chain Manager, I jumped at it. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, but it was better than being a spreadsheet jockey.

What I really wanted to do was work in a cross-cultural environment, specifically in Asia. I have an MBA in international management from the US’s finest school for that particular sub-discipline. When I was in the military, I was trained as a Chinese Mandarin linguist. Everything I’d done in my adult life over the past decade or so has been geared toward working outside of the US. I wanted a position working directly with my company’s Mandarin-speaking suppliers and contractors, with an eye toward an eventual expat assignment in China, so that I could improve on my language ability and learn the ins and outs of working in Asia.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t panned out. Every job that I’ve pursued with my current employer has been accompanied by vague discussions of the potential to meet these goals, but they’ve never panned out. It’s been frustrating, especially since I’ve worked so hard to become uniquely qualified to do this kind of work.

A few months ago, the business unit I work in was undergoing a reorganization. Due to some shuffling of personnel at the top, I was slated to move from one group to another. My new boss wanted to sit down with me and discuss the organizational structure he envisioned and show me where he saw me fitting into it.

As we talked, I looked through the organization that he had proposed, and I noticed something that irritated me. In this organization was a proposed position for a “Subcontractor Relationship Manager”, dealing with our current group of subcons (located in Asia) on all business-related issues.

As he was explaining his vision for the organization, I cut him off.

“I don’t want to be rude,” I said,”but I want the Subcon Manager position”. He looked at me, puzzled.

I asked him, “Did you know that I speak Mandarin?”. He didn’t.

“Were you aware that I have an MBA in international management, focusing on dealing with business issues in a cross-cultural environment?”. He wasn’t.

The first thing that ran through my head was, “How many people do I have to tell about this stuff before someone actually listens?”. It’s become a running joke with the folks in my business unit: any time I’m introduced to someone new in the presence of some of my colleagues, they’ll say, “Did you know he speaks Mandarin?”. I tell EVERYONE at any relevant time what skills I have and try to see how I can use my abilities to help them do their job better.

I presented my new boss with an electronic copy of my resume, as well as some talking points as to why I’d be the most logical choice for this position. I knew he’d have to discuss with our general manager to get the transition approved, because my old position would need to be backfilled. I wanted him well-armed when this discussion happened.

A couple weeks later, I was informed I’d gotten the job.

So, what did I take away from this?

First, you’re often going to need help getting what you want. If you want something, keep telling people in a position to get it for you. Sometimes you can get what you want on your own. But, many times it pays to have people in your corner.

Second, don’t assume that everyone knows what you want, no matter how many times you’ve mentioned it before. It may be embarrassing at times, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. No one is as concerned about your goals as you are, so you need to advocate for yourself.

Finally, do a good job even if the position you’re in isn’t ideal. I wouldn’t have had the chance to get this new position if I hadn’t excelled in the ones I’d had previously. I’ve always tried to, at the very least, provide more than was expected of me. Work toward doing the best you can at all times. You won’t always get there, but you’ll be happy at the unintended consequences.

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