Should You Be A Career Lifer?

Should You Be A Career Lifer? was originally published on Ivy Exec.

By Antoine Tirard and Claire Harbour

The stories of three executives “lifers” who found flourishing while working in just one company.

We have been writing about radical career changes for almost five years until this question came up: What about those who don’t alter their careers?

Is it their choice, or is it luck? 

Anna Thompson – Swire Group (28 years)

After living in the United Kingdom for a long time, her father got a job offer, and the family moved to Tokyo. She woke up every morning to the amazing, urban landscapes, as well as the sign of the Swire Group on a neighboring building that housed the company’s local headquarters. She got acquainted with some of the management trainees of the firm, and she fell in love with the life they led, which included frequent changes of location, roles, and functions. The Swire Group’s underlying assumption about mobility and long service is that all house staff stay “for life,” and answer calls for job transitions willingly and quickly. Anna didn’t have a problem with that as long as she was learning, exploring, and having fun. 

It wasn’t easy initially to get into the firm since they weren’t accepting female candidates in the program then. Luckily for her, one of the authors of this piece (Claire) paved the way and became the first woman to join, so Anna’s route was now open. She spent 14 years working at the group’s airline, Cathay Pacific and stretched as country manager, then general manager of the SE Asia region. 

Now she works at Swire Properties and leads the HR activities of that burgeoning business. Anna’s also 9 years away from retirement and sees a future of another two more “important” roles. 

Perhaps you wonder if she had ever been tempted away by other offers?

She said there were some interesting offers, but nothing could exceed what she has. She believes in the quality and value of Swire wholeheartedly. And as she says, “why would I leave a company in which, unlike most of my peers and friends in other careers, I absolutely adore getting out of bed every morning to go to work?”

What’s next? More learning and stretching the brain and soul further. She currently spends time thinking about how to ensure young millennials and dual-career couples entering the company will be able to end up as long-serving and enthusiastic as she is. 

Amadou Diallo – Deutsche Post DHL (23 years)

Coming from an “illiterate” family in Senegal and being the oldest of nine children put a certain expectation on Amadou from the onset. By the time he entered his first graduate program, aged 25, after completing two bachelors’ degrees and an MBA, he had also accumulated almost twenty years of work experience, much of it full-time. How’s this possible? He started working at the age of 6 at the Bata shoe store  managed by his father. And by the age of 12, he was managing the store single-handedly, where he learned sales. On top of that, he had to do well in school and get the best grades possible. 

After completing high school, he went to Paris with the plan to enter a French “grande école”. But he struggled with the approach and instead took himself off to London to improve his almost non-existent English language skills.

Soon after, Club Med in Tunisia benefitted from Amadou’s talents and charisma for just over a year. He was Financial Controller during the day and Bob Marley’s cover version singer in the evenings. “A brief return to Paris gave him further qualifications in IT and he was hired by his first German company, Deutsche Bank. Soon after, he found a role in a transport company where he got promoted to the role of CFO at age 27.” 

With his mix of skills and savvy, along with being the right person in the right place at the right time, he not only survived a succession of mergers which eventually led to him being part of the DHL empire but played an instrumental role in managing their successful integration. “This is what I call my major stroke of luck”, says Amadou.

Eager to expand his experience beyond integrations, Amadou asked for a “proper business” role. He went into a five-year stint in Singapore, from where he developed DHL’s freight business across the whole region and began to get involved in boards and NGO’s. He was rewarded with his current role of CEO Middle East and Africa of DHL’s forwarding business.

So, what has kept Amadou? 

First and foremost, a sense of gratitude and duty to the company that had given him endless opportunities, as well as having shown faith in him when he was “just an immigrant with poor German” at the beginning.

He does, and always has, received calls from headhunters, but “no big salary will replace my family.”

Dek Pillegera – Li & Fung (30 years)

Meet Dek, a Filipina who fights fiercely for her dreams and doesn’t take no for an answer. She got her degree in Economics, but she had always wanted to be in retail or trading. The Philippines of the 1970’s though, did not offer many opportunities in the retail industry, so Dek struggled to find work in her target area. Her friend Lulu, however, worked as a merchandiser in Swire agency, and Dek was deeply envious of her. 

She finally got the first, the second, and third interview at Swire agency but not the job yet. Dek put on her business clothes, walked angrily into the boss’s office, and told him that if he doesn’t offer her the job this time, she would not even answer the phone if he called her again. Two days later, she was asked to join.

She was the queen bee of the office. Her perfectionism and demanding approach to her own performance tended to overflow to others, and she was not reputed for her “niceness.” 

However, Dek was a brilliant trader and adored by all clients.

Soon, she was packed off to Indonesia for a couple of years as a divisional manager to learn how to manage people and smooth off her harder edges.

Sure enough, she returned to manage the country office in Manila, though fortunes had changed during her absence, and the operation was making losses, with two huge claims from clients. 

Her job was to do a turnaround, and a stretch role for her. Once the business was rebuilt, it was sold to the Hong Kong upstart Li & Fung. She soon took on substantial regional responsibilities, running operations for all hardlines (non-apparel) businesses across Asia, and managing a more diverse range of clients. She has been constantly promoted, stretched, rewarded, and then started again, reaching the vice president ranks, which she could never have dreamed of when she began so modestly. 

Her hard work has paid off and given her the prize, though “it has not all been roses.”

However, she was clear on one thing: “This is the company that gave me my dream, so I will stay as long as I am happy and will not bite the hand that feeds me”. 

Headhunters? “Constantly, but I have never been tempted, as not only have I always been given a chance to grow here, but the financial and other benefits are unmatchable. There is no price to a dream. I will always have loyalty and forever be grateful”.

Ultimately, it may not matter much whether the big changes come inside one organization or in a series of moves from one to another. The shift from one country or culture to another seems more crucial, or from a corporate function to operational deployment. Disruption can come from anywhere, and the propensity to seek it out is not limited to those who make grand external moves.

This article was originally published on INSEAD Knowledge here, and a more detailed, full-length version may be accessed here.

Antoine Tirard is a talent management advisor and the founder of NexTalent. He is the former head of talent management of Novartis and LVMH.

Claire Harbour is a global talent expert, offering services as a coach, adviser, speaker and writer on topics related to people, talent and culture.

Antoine and Claire are the co-authors of Disrupt Your Career: How to Navigate Uncharted Career Transitions and Thrive


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