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Young Executive: Martin Zalewski

Executives, Your Vikersundbakken is Calling

The first line is usually the hardest to write, especially since it has been 3 1/2 years since I last put my thoughts to paper for BusinessWeek, then as an MBA Journals writer with a freshly minted MBA degree. It's been quite a journey from the thought-provoking lecture theaters of London Business School to the reality-biting hallways of the corporate world, so you could only imagine the number of topics rushing through my head to make the preamble.

Why is today the perfect day to launch a new column? Well, it was actually a dream I had last night—or more like this morning—that gave me inspiration for this week's story to catch up on the years.

This may sound odd, but I dreamed that I won an Olympic gold medal in ski jumping, a sport I barely know, let alone practiced. I found myself on top of one of the highest ski-jumping hills: the Vikersundbakken. Wanting neither to disappoint my nation, although it didn't come to mind which country I actually represented, nor all the youngsters wanting to be in my place one day, I found myself motivated to discover an innovative way to master the sport in the nick of time. I braced for the task, took a leap of faith, and ended up in the middle of the trophy podium.

I'm no dream interpreter, but I can see the parallel to real life. We tend to set goals for ourselves that may seem out of reach. Sometimes we triumph. Other times we fail—or even worse, do everything it takes to shy away from the spotlight by not even trying. Only true leaders know when to take a bow or how to rebound to be an even greater victor.

So what is this column destined to be? Why should you click on it every other week? It's a candid reflection on becoming a young global executive, with lessons I hope many of you will find can enrich your professional development. As I am also a firm believer that personal happiness is just as important as business success, there'll be plenty on living a fulfilling life.

the abuse of "leadership"

I struggle a little bit with the word "executive." I think of it as being more reminiscent of American business in the '90s, representing someone who is rather austere, self-centered, proud. And I don't think that's what corporations, institutions, or the world at large needs right now. What we need is leadership in the guise of people who are open, inspirational, and altruistic.

At the same time, I don't want to fall victim to the new fad and overuse the term, as nowadays "leadership" seems to be a darling of every human resources department. That's why it was not surprising to hear a friend who has just started his MBA at a top 5 b-school telling me that a significant part of the lecture on general management was dedicated to the abuse of "leadership" in business today.

Don't get me wrong, I, too, like using the word, but to me leadership represents something bestowed upon oneself by others. Leaders are chosen, never self-appointed.

The overall notion of leadership is very close to my heart, and certainly it is one of the reasons I selected London Business School, both for my MBA and now as my employer. I think of it as the cradle of pragmatic, transformational leadership that teaches one how to utilize personal qualities to inspire and turn one's team into believers of a vision, not just blind followers and tools used to implement an agenda.

I vividly remember the day I threw my graduation cap in the air, eager to change the world the very next day. I was confident I could do it. After all, I was equipped with the best international management toolkit, propelled by my achievements in the MBA program, and recognized with a top leadership honor. Then again, that's how every graduate feels. The reality is much different.

"mission:" change a company's culture

I used the experiences in the program as Phase One of what was to come. I am proud to have influenced the lives of many of my classmates. The lessons learned during my time as a student at LBS have certainly affected the three years that followed. One of the most important lessons I learned was about staying true to my values, the fundamental blocks of my character and personality. I also realized that the most effective solutions are often the simplest, unique to an individual or organization.

I went to school not to discover those values, but to figure out how to make them relevant and find out how to act on them. I wanted to figure out how to make a difference in the world. (No wonder my top three courses ended up being change management, negotiations and bargaining, and corporate turnaround.) There was, however, an event that influenced me the most. It was when I was asked unexpectedly during a class to take on the role of a CEO whose mission was to transform the culture of a newly acquired company.

Even though I had only 10 minutes to prepare—not much more than many executives get in today's ever-changing environment—I knew I could do it. I gave it my all, just as in my Olympic dream. At that moment, I realized where my values would be most appreciated and saw the career path I wanted to pursue. Even though it will take years to get to a similar position in the real environment, I know I'll be ready when it comes.

Changing the world isn't that simple, but I've tried to play my part. Immediately following graduation, I took the route of an independent consultant, a journey that took me on a rural electrification quest to Gambia and Uganda with a green-energy developer—a priceless opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who have so little. Just imagine the face of a child seeing for the first time a bulb light up—in a country where only a tenth of the population has access to electricity. Think of the educational potential you create, the glimmer of hope that is now offered to her and her family.

My interest in leadership development then took me to a management role in a top global mentoring business, exploring the relevance of the topic to today's top bosses while expanding the company's operations throughout Europe.

breadth, not depth, counts today

From there I moved to GE (GE), where I was given the opportunity to join the world's top commercial leadership program for experienced managers (ECLP). We were "parachuted" into distant parts of the world to solve some of the most perplexing problems while rubbing shoulders with the very men and women who define the word leadership. From there I went to my current position as chief of marketing and retail sales of London Business School, executive education.

What have I learned so far in my journey? First, while depth of industry knowledge is important, it is no longer essential as the global landscape of business evolves. I believe my own career is proof of this. Over the past eight years, while much of my work has revolved around finance, allowing me to develop expertise in retail financial services, I've also successfully led projects across a spectrum of industries as diverse as energy, logistics, and publishing. I was able to do that by focusing on the functional skills that were instrumental to the design and deployment of each initiative.

As a commercial leader, my blueprint consists of marketing, strategy, finance, sales, systems, development, and operations. Then there are situational skill sets that vary, based on the role—change management, for example. Finally, there's knowing how to get things done well and with credibility. Often, depending on the position, you need to know just enough about the content, context, and process. The remainder rests in your ability to leverage relationships. That's where the other half of leadership comes in—emotional intelligence.

Business no longer functions in silos. In a global economy, everything is interdependent, and one cannot succeed without mastering the arts of networking and communication. In every step you take, you either affect or are influenced by others, and the trick is how to manage relationships and convey a message. You will find more on the things that worked for me—and the ones that weren't quite on point—in future editions of this column.

I hope that my experiences prove useful to anyone who finds himself or herself in a job-hunting situation, especially within the context of changing industries. Focus on your transferable functional skills rather than worrying if you've got enough industry expertise to apply for the job. And watch this space in a couple of weeks for advice on landing your next dream assignment.

Martin Zalewski is chief of marketing and retail sales of London Business School, executive education. Zalewski has contributed to BusinessWeek's MBA Journals, spoken on leadership development, and judged international marketing competitions.

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