Most new leaders feel tremendous pressure to succeed. The scrutiny is particularly intense for those joining their family business, replacing a legendary executive, or taking over for a beloved former leader. I recently sat down with Iwao Aso, a member of YPO Japan, to discuss his experience of learning to lead when there are big shoes to fill.
Aso was born into a family business that's almost a hundred and fifty years old. With operations in Asia, Europe and the US, Aso Corporation works in infrastructure, environment solutions, medical and health care, education and training, and lifestyle services. While he has served as its president since 2010, when he first started in 2000, he had to find his own place in the company. With the family motto "Moderation is a virtue, idleness is a sin" Aso has the unique perspective of someone who started at the top and must uphold high standards.
1. Duty over Ambition
Ambition may get someone to the top, but it won't keep them there. Thinking has to adjust to fit circumstances. Personal aspiration has to give way to responsibility. Aso knew from the time he was ten that he would have an important place in the family business. Without the uncertainty of whether or not he would "make it," he drew his motivation from a sense of obligation to serve the legacy he would inherit: "Because it was my duty, I didn't have to be nervous." Whether you win or inherit a top spot, remember to shift gears once you're there.
2. Pick a Passion Project
Rather than resting on the laurels that your predecessors have earned, use the power and influence of your position to pursue something you genuinely care about. Aso realized his employees were capable enough that he didn't need to do much to keep things running smoothly. He told me that in his first year as president, "They said, 'You don't have to do anything. Just sit there in your chair and let us take care of things.'" But Aso didn't follow that advice. Instead, he turned to his father, who told him to look around the organization. He was free to choose a department that interested him, or start something new. Aso did just that, launching a hospital chain that expanded medical care in a range of places. Success doesn't mean rest, it means you get to work on what matters to you.
3. Play Fair and Be Nice
Aso credits his father with having the largest impact on his leadership style. "From him," Aso said, "I learned the importance of fairness." He recommends treating front line employees with care and respect. "You can get tough with your executives," he argues, "They know when it is time to be serious. But to everyone else, focus on being a nice guy." Employees who feel well-treated by the most senior leadership are happier and more productive. "The best way to show appreciation is just to be nice," he says. Niceness is a trait that can get lost on the scramble to the top, but it's crucial once you arrive.
4. Keep Growing
Having arrived doesn't mean you're done. "Arrogance kills success," Aso asserts. To maintain success once you've achieved it, he recommends practicing patience and curiosity. "If you want to grow, be able to learn something from everyone," he says. Remember--excellence is not a "once and done" thing.
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