The Willingness to Recognize What He Still Needed to Learn

June 11, 2014

As the leader of a highly complex global business unit with general management responsibilities spanning R&D, business development, and new product marketing, Juan Ramón Alaix proved he could effectively run a business.

But was he ready to be a CEO?

After rising through the leadership ranks, with years of progressively more demanding and broader-in-scale responsibilities under their belts, many motivated and high-achieving leaders will immediately answer that question with a resounding “Yes!”

But often it’s those who are willing to say “not yet” who end up being most successful in the top job.

That is Alaix’s story.

In a remarkably forthright “How I Did It” segment for the Harvard Business Review, Alaix shared how his willingness to recognize what he still needed to learn, along with a commitment to his ongoing professional development, has helped him be successful as CEO of Zoetis, the animal health business that spun off from Pfizer in an IPO in 2011.

The kind of frank honesty by Alaix—with himself and with others—shows a level of self-awareness and vulnerability that is not always typical among rising CEOs. In fact, a lot of CEOs don’t like to admit they weren’t born as fully-formed executives.

“Often,” one Seattle-based CMO told us, “a CEO isn’t willing to show that kind of vulnerability publicly, even though his team—and possibly the entire organization—can see a different side to the leader.” As he observed, a CEO who can’t show vulnerability is in fact one who could benefit the most from ongoing development.

A recent HBR blog, “To Create a Real Connection, Show Vulnerability,” by Michael Simmons elaborates on this and explores the mistaken assumption that if people find out who we really are underneath, they’d remove themselves from our lives.

Simmons writes: “Only presenting an idealized version of ourselves separates us from others.” The reality is, if we share the ups and downs of our human experience in the right way in the right context, we build deeper connections.

Alaix’s journey from successful business president to successful CEO included a relationship and connection with Patrick Gournay, a Merryck Mentor who previously held the top job at companies like Arc International, The Body Shop International, and regional leadership roles at The Danone Group.

An independent outsider who had been through it himself—and knew what Alaix would be facing—Gournay had no stake in the game at Pfizer. His only agenda was to help Alaix take a step back and get clear on what the role would require of him, what would be different and how he would need to adapt.

After reading Juan Ramon’s story, a CEO of a $200M business shared with us this response: “If someone with Mr. Alaix’s background and accomplishments had no problem admitting he could benefit from training, then there should be no shame in my doing the same.”

So yes, it takes a willingness and an openness. But the results speak for themselves. As Alaix put it: “I’m a big believer in preparation and the need for training, no matter where you are in your career or how high in a corporation you’ve already risen…The time I spend getting ready for a challenge and the openness I have to coaching are investments that always pay me back.”

It’s an interesting benchmark for a leader: How honest is he or she willing to be about their own professional development?

Click the link to view our recent blog: What Can Mindfulness Do For You?, or check back for more on business leadership, team development, and thought leadership.

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