Getting ahead in the world of business

by Nicolette Wong

Ambitious young professionals faced with workplace difficulties should persevere and position themselves to grab future opportunities

Most people encounter obstacles in their careers, but hard work and flexibility in tough times are crucial for long-term success. Speaking recently at CTgoodjobs' ninth Marvellous Ways to Sell Yourself seminar, former Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development of the Hong Kong SAR Frederick Ma stressed the importance of dedication and good interpersonal skills in the job market, while well-known Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao shared his insights on compromise as a means to defusing volatile situations.

kj9 - Frederick Ma
"Young people must be willing to make sacrifices before they can turn things to their advantage," —Frederick Ma, former HKSAR Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development
Staying power

Setbacks are part of the process to build confidence and competence, said Mr Ma, recalling the tremendous challenges he experienced at the age of 24 when he moved to New York to take up a position with Chase Manhattan Bank in 1976. Not only did he have to grapple with major cultural and business-environment differences, but his immediate supervisor was also extremely crucial of his performance.

But although he was later offered a chance to return to Asia, he chose to stay in the US. "I would've lost all confidence in my ability to succeed in future, if I'd given up at the time," he said. "I went to the office on weekends to study and do extra research. After a year, my manager recommended that I be promoted."

Mr Ma's career with the Hong Kong government presented more challenges. While under intense public and media scrutiny, he made a dedicated effort to identify any issues that needed attention, whether related to Hong Kong's economic policies or to relationships with colleagues or other Legislative Council members.

Careful analysis is essential to solving problems and rallying support from others, he noted. "For starters, young people must accept that life can be unfair and they must be willing to make sacrifices before they can turn things to their advantage. The key is to stay passionate and positive, and to work consistently toward the larger goal."

Mr Ma advised young professionals to build solid networks and to stay humble in dealings with others. While courtesy is essential in business communications, the ability to think out of the box is crucial to career advancement. Employees should understand their companies' business needs and propose ideas that could boost revenue.

He cautioned professionals to take responsibility for failure, even if it is beyond their control. "A winner takes charge and resolves problems on the path to success. By blaming things on external factors or bad luck, you're heading down a route of constant failure."

kj9 - Chip Tsao
"Compromise is the retreat before one takes the leap," — Chip Tsao, columnist

Making shrewd decisions

Some people see compromise as betraying their principles, but Chip Tsao believes it is an important skill for dealing with opposition. Rather than direct confrontation, compromise allows one to make the best of one's position and to plan for the next move. "It's the retreat before one takes the leap," he told the seminar-goers.

Taking German playwright Bertolt Brecht as an example, Mr Tsao illustrated what he called "the art of compromise". A follower of Marxism in the 1930s, Brecht fled to the US when Hitler rose to power. But, in 1947, he was among a group of Hollywood writers interrogated by the US government in the wave of anti-Communism.

(The House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] was set up to investigate fascists and communists within the federal government, but later turned its attention to the arts.) Brecht testified before the HUAC, defending his former Marxist beliefs as resistance against Hitler's rule. He soon left for Europe and faced no more persecution from the US government, while many fellow playwrights were black-listed.

"Brecht examined the circumstances and saw that the wave of anti-Communism would pass and that it would be sensible to stay on good terms with Hollywood," Mr Tsao explained. "His decision was based on a shrewd and calculated risk."

He advised the seminar-goers to assess the risks associated with any given situation, personally as well as professionally. A common workplace dilemma is whether one should point out mistakes by one's manager. "The first question you should address is whether you would bear the consequences of any errors or failures. If the answer is yes, make a polite suggestion to your superior and know that you've done your duty."

People should also understand the personalities of other parties involved before making a compromise or sacrifice, Mr Tsao pointed out. You need to know whether the other person is a reliable individual that simply needs help to deal with the current dilemma, or whether he might completely disregard your efforts later on. While you can't expect others to return favours, you must be aware of potential gains and losses," he concluded.

Taking responsibility

  • Setbacks are part of the process to build confidence and competence
  • Careful analysis is essential to solving problems and rallying support from others
  • Compromise is an important skill for dealing with opposition
  • People should assess the risks associated with any given situation

Taken from Career Times 13 April 2012, A12

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