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Stepping Up — without Stepping On Toes

(Local lessons on getting ahead in Hawaii)

The view from the corner office, no matter what floor you're on, is gratifying. But if you're not careful, it can be a lonely vigil. Climbing the corporate ladder isn't a game of king of the mountain. You have to measure your steps carefully, keep your ambition in check and help others along the way.

To help those who aspire to be captains of industry and be listed in Hawaii Business' Black Book, we spoke to a host of the Islands' top executives, read a book or two and came up with eight helpful hints on how to climb the corporate ladder without falling out of the human race.

Be Introspective

illustration: istockphoto.com/halfshag

Effective leadership begins with a good, long look in the mirror. Not so you can check your hair or make sure your shoes match your belt (although a clean, professional appearance is a must for corporate climbers). It's more so you can really assess your personal strengths and weaknesses. Once you begin to delineate your strong traits and areas for improvement, you've taken your first step toward becoming a better boss.

In the best-selling book, "Now, Discover Your Strengths," the authors stress the importance of discovering your natural talents so you can play those up, while delegating tasks in areas in which you're weaker to colleagues who may be better suited to do them. For example, if you're a great project manager, but aren't so good at facilitating meetings, have someone else run the show while you keep the idea flow going. Of course, it's still important to work on correcting your weaker traits, but just enough so they don't begin to undermine your strengths.

Don't Be The "I" In Team

No doubt, there are executives all over corporate America who have clawed their way to the top by stepping on toes, being deceptive and hoarding information. But most great leaders know that no man is an island, and the more they can get out of others, the more they can ultimately accomplish. Kirk Belsby, vice president of endowment for Kamehameha Schools, believes that focusing on one's own career isn't necessarily the best way to get ahead in the corporate environment.

"Many iconic CEOs weren't out to make a million dollars or climb the corporate ladder so much as they were interested in helping others succeed along the way," says Belsby. "That's not to say [those CEOs] weren't interested in a higher salary or promotion, but they realized that true, sustainable success results from the rising tide created by the people around them."

Dig Deep

Take a second to thumb through the Black Book executive listings. Notice a common theme? (Okay, besides that they're all golf fanatics.) The majority of the Top 250 executives are involved on some level in community service. And that's because, in Hawaii, people on top know that "From those whom much is given, much is expected."

"Everyone here has something to give, whether it's donating to the community or helping out at their church. But those who are successful have more resources and more influence at their disposal, which they can use to help build a stronger community," says Susan Au Doyle, president of Top 250 company Aloha United Way. "It's important for those moving up that ladder to remember that greater responsibility."

Read, Write And Speak

Not long ago, in the staff offices of City Mill, an email was circulated that misrepresented the words and actions of company president Steven Ai. An employee had simply written that Ai had said "No" to a request another employee had made. Although technically accurate, the message lacked context or explanation, and therefore didn't cast a particularly favorable light on the big boss.

"It just didn't translate well, and it sounded like I hadn't given the matter any thought, and that happens a lot with email," says Ai. "That's why I believe face-to-face communication is very important." And it absolutely is. But Saint Louis Schools president and headmaster Walter Kirimitsu says that even the gift of gab is not enough: "Future leaders need to be able to express themselves in any kind of venue, whether it be a one-on-one conversation, writing a memo or making a speech before 500 people." In other words, master all styles of communication, not just the ones you're adept in.

Balance Your Ambition

No one's ever won a marathon by sprinting all the way through. And the same can be said of the quest for the corner office. While there's no doubt it takes drive and ambition to get to the top, many local executives caution corporate climbers against rushing through the rungs. "Raw ambition needs to be tempered," warns attorney Jeff Watanabe. "The willingness to openly achieve success at all costs generates mistrust."

In Hawaii, where executives rarely do business with those who don't first establish sincere motives, taming your inner power monger is particularly important. Business owner Barbra Pleadwell, of Hastings & Pleadwell Communications, says letting your actions speak for you should do the trick: "Overconfidence can be deadly in a careful city like ours. If you can't show what you're made of by doing, then don't bother trying to articulate it."

Up Your Charisma Quotient

People often say "It's lonely at the top." But we're here to tell you, it doesn't have to be. There are CEOs on Bishop Street and beyond who have earned both the respect and friendship of their colleagues and staffs. And before you get any ideas, no, they didn't bribe anyone … they simply sharpened their people skills.

Remember, locals build relationships first, and do business after. Those who possess that charisma, that element of personal magnetism and charm, that ability to know when to empathize and when to throw some humor on a situation, tend to get ahead further and faster than those who don't.

So as you climb that ladder, practice your people skills by networking, sincerely engaging with co-workers and, above all, following the Golden Rule. Forget fixating on what one or two people at the top think of you and, instead, make nice to everyone you encounter. Chances are they'll do the same for you … even when you're the one signing their paychecks.

Differentiate Between Managing and Leading

Great managers are a dime a dozen. Great leaders, on the other hand, are few and far between. That's why, when Keith Vieira, a senior vice president of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, seeks new management hires, he looks for the latter first. "We have tons of managers. They manage budgets and schedules and metrics," says Vieira.

"What we look for are leaders. People who care about making others successful, who listen intently to those around them, who are constantly self-developing—all these things are very different from what we view 'management' to be."

That's not to say that management skills aren't important, but, if you want to remain competitive as you climb, developing your leadership skills is an absolute must. In Hawaii, there are lots of resources at your disposal. Start by reading leadership and motivational books. Then apply to leadership development programs, such as the Pacific Century Fellows Program. Finally, seek out training and workshop opportunities, with a focus on building your strong traits and minimizing your weak spots.

Look Up

Walter Dods wouldn't be The Walter Dods without the sage advice from his council of mentors. And you shouldn't even think about becoming the next Walter without first finding some mentors of your own. Christine Ing, owner of the online mentoring service, Ingage Mentors, recommends first asking yourself what it is you'd like to gain from a mentor relationship. Do you want someone to bounce ideas off of? Are you looking for someone to teach you a specific skill? Once you've narrowed down what you're looking for, find mentors who you trust, respect and admire.

And don't be afraid to approach people you don't know, or that you assume are too busy. The worst they can say is no. You'll also want to seek out several mentors, with varying sets of skills and experiences. Those relationships could prove to be the strongest tools in your arsenal in your struggle for the corner office. And if you don't believe us, then take it from Walter himself, who emailed this note from his BlackBerry on a recent visit to San Francisco: "The most important thing I can think of for young people climbing the corporate ladder is finding formal or informal mentors to help or advise them." Now, whether Walter would be interested in mentoring you, we're not sure. But it can't hurt to ask.

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