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The Four Career Knockout Punches

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains the experience you need in four key areas to work your way to the helm.

Here’s a scenario for you: There are four top candidates for a CFO position, and they all portray some stellar qualities. The first is an internal candidate who worked her way up for the past 20 years—an anomaly of sorts, these days—guiding changing projects in operations, marketing, and technology. The second candidate comes from stints in China and Brazil, bringing great global perspective. The third led a start-up during its nascent years, showcasing his ability to be adaptable through funding ups and downs and staffing fluctuations. And the fourth candidate turned around a retail shop by helping speed up the overall flow of operations.

Which candidate do you choose? It’s a tough call. Alone, each presents talent that is necessary, but maybe not the total package. Together, though, they have the magic formula—experience in four key areas, described below, that are akin to a coat of arms. 

To form your shield, the omission of any one quarter will be a “knockout punch” that will likely preclude you from moving into senior leadership, and keep you from top-level promotions. The sooner you can begin to master these areas, the faster you’ll be a strong candidate for leadership.

The omission of any one of these areas will likely preclude you from moving into senior leadership.

Go global.

At some point in your career, you’ll be required to show some global experience—an international assignment or, at a minimum, work on a global team that requires significant travel to operations or clients abroad. Such experiences are crucial for developing a global mindset, which every leader must possess to compete in a marketplace that is both borderless and heavily influenced by local nuance. You’ll deal with different languages, cultural norms, and business rules, which will provide you with opportunities to grow and stretch. You’ll also develop cross-cultural agility, enabling you to work with and relate to people across multiple cultures. Some leaders say their time abroad was the most influential in helping them also develop their right-brain or people skills. 

Deal with ambiguity.

One of the trickiest traits to master as a leader is being able to deal with ambiguity. Studies show 90% of the problems confronting middle managers and people in higher positions are ambiguous—neither the problem nor the solution is clear. Dealing with ambiguity means making good decisions based on limited knowledge or the information you have at the time. If you can deal with ambiguity, you can effectively cope with change and decide and act without knowing the total picture. That allows you to shift gears comfortably, and handle risk and uncertainty. 

Handle and manage change.

Organizations today are dealing with unprecedented levels of change. Consider the rapid advancements in technology: artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Internet of Things, and the disintermediation that continues to disrupt industries. Not to mention mergers and acquisitions, which require large, often disruptive reorganizations. Being comfortable with change means not only reacting to it, but also being a catalyst for it. You must demonstrate the ability to handle and manage changes by putting new ideas into practice and being highly interested in continuous improvements. You are cool under pressure and can handle the heat and consequences of being on the front line of change.

Master a faster pace.

Along with widespread change, businesses are experiencing a faster pace of play. Everything from product cycles to time-to-market is being compressed, so you must be able to handle the faster pace. You know how to encourage others to work smarter and use technology to their advantage. But it’s key that you also don’t push the organization at a pace faster than it can handle.

Adapted from Gary Burnison’s book, Lose the Resume, Land the Job.

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