Jobs and the Future of Work

10 things you should do to become a successful business leader

Peter Vanham
Previously, Deputy Head of Media at World Economic Forum. Executive Editor, Fortune
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How do you make it to the top of a global company?

It’s a question many of us ask as we move through the ranks. We learn, by trial and error, which strategies work and which ones don’t.

Why not ask someone who successfully made it to the top?

Patrick De Maeseneire, CEO of Adecco between 2009 and 2015, successfully climbed the ladder: Adecco is #347 in the Fortune 500, and is the largest human resources company in the world.

I recently interviewed him for “Before I Was CEO”, a book listing lessons from leaders.

He shared his professional “ten commandments,” learned over his four decades at companies such as Arthur Andersen, Apple, and Adecco.

1. Only do a job that you like to do.

“You study until you’re maybe 23, and you work for the next 40 or so years,” De Maeseneire said. “That means you’ll be well over 60 when you stop working. So don’t do a job that you don’t like.  Not only will you not succeed, it will frustrate you, it will kill you.”

Instead, he says, it’s worth finding out, in the first 5-10 years of your career what you’re really cut out to do. De Maeseneire started out as management consultant at Arthur Andersen, then went to work for IT company such as Apple and Wang Computers, and finally realized he got most excited by a sales and marketing function.

2. When starting out, go to a well-organized, well-structured company.

“Go as broad as possible at first,” De Maeseneire said. “Don’t go for the money.” As said, he started working first for management consultancy Arthur Andersen, now Accenture. He saw it as an extension of his studies – everything was well structured and set up so you would learn the most and work as efficiently as possible. And that’s a good thing.

“These kinds of companies invest in youngsters and give you a short term career path,” De Maeseneire said. “As a consequence, you learn a lot. At Arthur Andersen, we had a book for everything: ‘The F***ing Green Book’. It taught us a lot about everything: how to talk, how to sell … We even had a book about how to have a meal with a customer. It went that far.”

3. If you want to change jobs, do it, don’t talk about it.

After a three years as a management consultant, De Maeseneire wanted to change from the passenger seat to the driver seat. “I left because I wanted to have a real job,” he said.

In 1983, he switched to Wang Computers, then a state-of-the-art PC maker, but also a newcomer in a sector that was just getting developed. Logically, there was no ‘green book’, and everything he had to do, like deciding how much to sell the Wang computers for, he had to do himself. That was a shock at first, going in such a chaotic environment, but he was happy he did it: “I did what I wanted to do.”

4. Keep in mind: You are never fired by your boss, but by your own people!

“Don’t try to climb the ladder too fast, as it might backfire,” De Maeseneire warns. After success at AA and Wang, higher-ups tapped him for a more senior management position.

But the man that offered him the position then retracted his offer. “You are so ambitious that you are going to move up like a rocket, and fall down like a stone,” the man in question, Libert Van Riet, then CEO of computer company Data General, said.

“Why don’t you take your time? Go up the ladder more like ‘zigzag, zigzag.’ Take three years for every role. You’re going to learn more about your role and people will appreciate it. So I’m not going to hire you now but you can come back in three years.” De Maeseneire said it was one of the best lessons he ever had.

5. Go international as soon as you can!

De Maeseneire, originally from Belgium, moved to The Netherlands for his next job, at Apple. It taught him to deal with people from a different culture and with different business practices. Later on, he moved to the US and Switzerland.

Like many other CEOs I talked to, he remains convinced to this day that going international as soon as you can is absolutely key to making it to the top eventually. The company he headed until September 1, Adecco, has offices in dozens of countries. You can’t be an effective global leader of such a company if you haven’t lived at least one international experience.

In the case of De Maeseneire, he even regretted that he didn’t build a truly international profile earlier. While at Apple, he was offered a job in Cupertino, California, but didn’t take it for family reasons. While he stands behind that decision, he said it he did always regret it. When we has later offered a job at Adecco in New York, he didn’t even blink – he accepted it straight away and is happy he did.

6. Never be the first CEO to work for an entrepreneur.

Look at companies such as Nike, Starbucks or Apple: The first outside CEO of a company is rarely successful. Often, the founder will come back, either because he or she missed it, or because shareholders and employees simply aren’t used to having a different CEO.

“It’s better to be the second outside CEO,” De Maeseneire said. “Then the owner and company are already more used to it, and they cannot allow for another defeat. It must work.” 

He learned this firsthand: After a successful stint at Apple, De Maeseneire went on to work as country manager for a large European tour operator, Sunair. It was a challenging opportunity — the company was still largely led by its founder, which gave De Maeseneire limited leeway to make his own decisions.

“If I asked someone to set prices in a certain way, or make a brochure, they usually pushed back and said: ‘[the founder] has to make that decision.’ It taught me that you should be very careful about choosing the company you become manager of, and that you should be very well informed before you start.”

7. Don’t be afraid of taking a step back.

After Sunair, De Maeseneire on paper took a step back, from country manager to country commercial manager at the leading national commercial TV station. But he said he didn’t worry about that step back – as it was only on paper.  “If it’s planned, and as long as your next move is above the previous one, it can be a good decision.”

8. Never compromise on your crucial job criteria – not even for money

More than your formal title, at some point, it matters that you have well defined criteria for judging your current or future role. De Maeseneire has five of those: the position, the industry, the company, the salary, and the boss. And they should all be perfect. “You should never, ever compromise on any of these!” De Maeseneire said.

Each of these criteria could turn out to be deal breakers later on. Imagine you don’t like your boss: no matter how great your role is, you’ll run into trouble. Or imagine you’re not passionate by the industry: for sure you’ll burn out after a while. “And keep in mind: money cannot compensate for this,” De Maeseneire said.

9. Tactics matter, but you can only move up the ladder if you deliver the results first

In his next job, De Maeseneire moved to Adecco, where he would eventually become CEO. At first he was only country manager, but soon he was promoted to regional manager of three core European countries.

The direct trigger for getting the promotion, was that he impressed the major shareholder and chairman with a well-made presentation at the company headquarters. He made sure he knew what kind of personality the chairman was, which proved crucial.

He learned, for example, to say “I don’t know, let me get back to you tomorrow”, if he didn’t know an answer, rather than to make something up on the spot. “My Dutch colleague who did the opposite was fired,” he said.

But what really got him the promotion, he insists, is that he delivered excellent results in the first place: The tactics of a well-made presentation and knowing your audience are important, but nothing trumps results.

10. Your salary is paid by the customer, not by the shareholder

In his final ascent to the top, De Maeseneire was asked to become CEO of Barry-Callebaut, the world’s largest provider of chocolate to food companies such as Nestle, Mondelez, or Mars, with revenues in excess of $6 billion per year.   

Again, he got the job thanks to being spotted by the majority shareholder: “I’m not a networker,” De Maeseneire said. “I calculate that my time is often better spent at the company, in the field, than at receptions. But some people know me, and I know them.” In other words: his network is small, but powerful.

But again, it can only get you so far. “My motto here is if you do well for your customers and good for your people, your shareholders will be happy as well,” he said.

These are the 10 commandments that made De Maeseneire rise to the top of not one, but two global companies: first Barry-Callebaut for 7 years, then Adecco for 6 years.

At the end of the interview, I asked him if there is anything else you should know about making a career.

“Well, yes,” he said. “First, I learned that there are only two things that happen in life: those that you want, and those that you are afraid of.”

And second? “If you are not in business for fun and money, you shouldn’t be in business at all,” he said.

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Peter Vanham is a media strategist at the World Economic Forum and a freelance business writer.

Image: A businessman walks on the esplanade in the financial and business district of La Defense. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkGeo-Economics and PoliticsEconomic GrowthBusiness
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