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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > Raj L Gupta

Tips on climbing the corporate ladder

November 29, 2005

I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. -- Martin Luther King, American civil rights leader, 1963.

There probably isn't a person in the world who would not wish for a fair chance, and an opportunity to succeed. We would all prefer to be measured by the content of our character. In the business world, this translates into an opportunity for a rewarding career.

American companies like Rohm and Haas have been working for more than 40 years to be more inclusive, to put the diverse talents of their workforce to full use. There's no doubt that significant progress has been made, and no doubt that more needs to occur. For that to happen, both individuals and corporations need to take responsibility to effect change.

There have always been differences between perception and reality. During my career, I have observed that the perception of a successful leader in a small, entrepreneurial company can be quite different from the perception of a successful leader in a large corporation. In an entrepreneurial organisation, one's success is almost always the result of individual performance. Measurement of success is absolute -- and can be tied to the amount of money one makes, or the amount of individual recognition one achieves.

In a large corporation, success is somewhat dependent on individual abilities, but also heavily reliant upon team performance and influence skills. Here, success is relative -- one's degree of success is measured against the performance of others, before the next move up the corporate career ladder.

Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own careers. However, it is important to know and understand the impact of perceptions, and a willingness to recognise that companies expect different skills at different points in one's career.

As a man of Indian ancestry, I have developed my own beliefs about the perceptions of Indian professionals. These are my personal opinions, and may not reflect reality, but when I mentor or speak with Indian groups, these are some of the perceptions we discuss:

  • Excellent academic credentials
  • Smart and aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • Very good individual contributors
  • Good communication skills
  • Good functional leaders
  • Not necessarily good leaders of large, diverse organisations

What's the missing link here? Strong influence skills.

Whether you are Asian, African, Japanese, French, Polish, Brazilian or American, the skill sets expected of you will change as you rise through an organisation.

Early in your career, you are known for specific, often specialised skills. For example, you know the intricacies of tax law especially well, or you are up to date on the latest generally accepted accounting rules. People seek you out for your expertise, individual knowledge and aptitude.

Those incredible skills you had at the beginning and middle part of your career -- in accounting or tax -- become less important as you move higher up in an organisation. These skills are replaced by your ability to influence and persuade people -- often your peers, or people higher in the organisation than yourself.

In these later stages, people seek you out because of your collective experience across many endeavours, and for the people you know both within and outside of your company. Your ability to move a project forward that involves many team members is valued. You bring solutions to the organisation even before they realize that a problem exists.

These are the skills to develop in order to reach these higher levels of performance:

  • Learning agility: The ability to learn new things even as you let go of outdated concepts
  • Flexibility: Being multi-dimensional
  • Risk-taking: Get out of your comfort zone and try something new
  • Focus on results/performance
  • Surround yourself with positive thinkers
  • Form deep and meaningful relationships, personally and professionally
  • Find mentors/sponsors within and outside the organisation
  • Deliver on your commitments
  • Behave transparently
  • Confront reality
  • Find the right balance between work and the rest of your life

These are characteristics to avoid:

  • Rigidity, being one dimensional
  • Playing organisational politics to the exclusion of developing your own skills
  • Cynical/negative thinking
  • Making false promises
  • Harbouring hidden agendas

Above all, as you make this journey, be true to yourself. You will not get ahead by trying to act like, talk like or behave like anyone else. You must be sincere, open and straightforward.

The best advice I ever received was to find the kind of company whose value and standards most closely match your own. You will spend a large portion of your life in the work environment, and you will struggle if you constantly feel different than others around you. Seek out a company where it feels 'right' -- where you can use the full extent of your intelligence, passion and drive -- to move both your career and the company forward.

A good company will value the differences it sees in the workforce. A smart manager will understand that there are legitimately effective ways to get things done that might look different than the path he or she would have chosen. A smart employee who wants to be a successful manager will understand that influence skills really are a combination of aptitude, attitude and approach.

I'm talking here about diversity. In my own company, diversity is an essential component of our business strategy.

Diversity of thought; sensitivity to regional differences, a sensitivity to gender, race, ethnicity and sexual preference -- along with an understanding of the common business trends and principles that transcend political boundaries -- are essential to our longterm survival and success.

We take diversity so seriously at Rohm and Haas that I am accountable to our board of directors on this topic on an ongoing basis -- and they are not shy about encouraging our efforts toward further improvement.

I have also been the personal beneficiary of working for a company that has valued diversity throughout my time here. When I first came to Rohm and Haas 34 years ago, I was not quite feeling at home anywhere. I was young, living outside my native land, and new to the chemical industry. However, I can say with assurance that, early on, my colleagues made me feel welcome everywhere, enabling me to develop my own career in part with their help and guidance. This is a tribute to the culture of Rohm and Haas, its core values, and the values of my co-workers.

Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, made an observation that I happen to agree with wholeheartedly. It sums up my belief in what every leader needs to do to ensure success: 'We spend all of our time on people. The day we screw up the people thing, the company's over.'

The discovery, deployment and development of talent is the lifeblood of any company, and the competitive difference in the ability to bring innovation to the global market.

If we believe we should all be judged by the content of our character, then an ongoing commitment to diversity is an integral part of being citizens and companies of the world.

Diversity just makes good business sense.

Raj L Gupta is chairman, president and CEO, Rohm and Haas, a Philadelphia-based Fortune 500 firm that makes products for the personal care, grocery, home and construction markets, and the electronics industry.

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Number of User Comments: 9

Sub: nice and insparing article

lots of good and practicle tips have been found here. the most imp line of this article is that one has to find an organisation ...

Posted by jayanta

Sub: Fine article..!

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Posted by Divya

Sub: re: how to climb corporate ladder

it is good article, how you get along with people really determines your success in personal as well as professional lifes. Regards Santosh Pania ...

Posted by Santosh Pania

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