For many, it’s about taking a tried and true approach. You can start by being identified as top talent. Then streamed into an executive development program. Move around from function to function to understand how the company works. Take an international assignment to broaden your perspective. With some hard work and even a little luck, you may be promoted to the corner office.
However, there are roads to the top that are less travelled. Like the one that Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer took.
In a recent interview for Business Insider, van Boxmeer talked about the unusual path he took to Heineken’s top job. Rather than training in what van Boxmeer called the “New York-London axis,” he spent the first decade of his career with the world’s third largest brewing company toiling in Africa, specifically Gabon, Rwanda and Congo.
During his time in Africa, van Boxmeer learned his business against a harsh backdrop of political uncertainty and violence. He worked in Rwanda just before the tragic genocide, and then transferred to Congo, where he witnessed a mass influx of Rwandan refugees fleeing the violence.
As the refugees flooded Congo, van Boxmeer realized that some of the people arriving were in fact Heineken employees and their families. He told Business Insider he felt obligated to help them find food and shelter as they arrived.
“If you work with people, you have no other choice than to give, or you’ll fail,” he says. “It’s very important, even if it isn’t easy, because the larger the company, the larger the stakes. But you have a social contract with your own personnel. It’s one of the crucial elements for a leader to remember and live by.”
Van Boxmeer would go on to work for Heineken in Poland and Italy before becoming the company’s CEO in 2005. In his first decade at the helm as the youngest CEO in Heineken’s history, van Boxmeer helped grown Heineken into a $20-billion company.
When I heard Van Boxmeer’s story, I recognized it as a real life example of the wise words of Robert Frost who said, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
I was so impressed that he could rise to the very top of his organization without taking the well-worn path that so many leaders took. He faced a lot of adversity, and had to make a lot of unconventional decisions. It seems pretty obvious that he, and his company, have benefitted from the leadership path he took.
As compelling as van Boxmeer’s story is, it seems pretty clear to me that not many other aspiring leaders would agree to take the same path. Not everyone has the same intestinal fortitude to place themselves in challenging situations like these.
Yet in our complex and ever-changing world, the tried and true path becomes less valuable. Challenging yourself by taking the road less travelled provides a richer journey of experiences that become a foundation for how you lead. What is it in your career? Are you playing too safe, sticking to the road that is well-worn and well-known?
This week’s Leadership Gut Check question asks: do you have the courage to take the road less travelled?
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About the Author
Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.Follow on Twitter More Content by Vince Molinaro