Advancing

Invest in a Diversified Portfolio: Yourself

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It’s not a decision many people would make.  After graduating from college, even with a top tier investment bank in hot pursuit, Edwin Lau opted for a generalist position with a less well-known consulting firm.

Why? The position gave him a chance to develop a broader array of skills.

Lau is now Director, Market Intelligence for Microsoft’s Consumer Data and Analytics team, and leads a team focused on understanding what people want in entertainment and how to use those insights to make strategic and product decisions (think XBox’s evolution.)  Prior to his current role, he ran a $500 million consumer phone business, completed Cisco’s $3.3 B acquisition of a non-US public company, invested in RingCentral (IPO) and Xobni (acquired by Yahoo!.) He’s been a strategy consultant to technology, telecommunications, and airlines clients globally.

Lau has taken a portfolio approach to building a career, looking for ways to develop the breadth of skills and perspective he needs to lead.  Along the way he’s had to make some tough choices between broadening his experience base and doing “vertical lifts” to advance.  As he’s transitioned across global companies, diverse functional roles, and international assignments, he’s asked himself: What functional skill or expertise do I need to add to my portfolio?  How will the next step add to my current experiences? What areas in the future will be important?

Gayle Rigione, director of Ivy Exec’s mentorship program, recently spoke to Lau about his career philosophy.

Edwin Lau is our Featured Mentor for May.  Hear more during our live interview Thursday, May 22nd. Attend the webinar and you could be selected for a one-on-one mentorship session with Edwin.

GR:  What are some of the more formative professional experiences you’ve had?

EL: I had to do mandatory military service in Singapore. I was 19 and hadn’t even gone to college. The way I looked at it, I could just do it halfway and get through it, or I could maximize it.  During this period, I started thinking about how to motivate people, and I’d ask my cadets, “Is this your best? If not, I want your best.”  This single question got inside of my cadets, to the core of their motivation.  They were driven to give their best and it showed in my team’s ratings. I found that if you can motivate people…truly motivate them…it translates to tangible results.  This experience honed my thinking about what kind of leader I wanted to be, what my leadership traits and capabilities were, and helped me become better leader overall. It is a harder job to be an effective leader than a manager, because leading is more internally driven.

GR: You’ve built a global career. Was that by design or happenstance?

EL:  I value breadth and diversity in a career — functionally, culturally and geographically.  Though I grew up in Singapore, I’ve lived and worked throughout Asia, Australia, Canada, the U.S., Mexico and the U.K.  Much of the geographic diversity stemmed from job-driven opportunities, though at one point I did target working in North America so I could learn in a cutting-edge marketplace.  My employer at the time – Mercer — was supportive and sponsored me into Canada. If you look at how companies operate these days, companies are increasingly global–even small start-ups are global.

 GR: How did you launch your career post-MBA?

EL: When I was coming out of business school, I had offers from a few strategy consulting firms.  Most of my classmates would have jumped at the chance to work for a top-tier consulting firm.  I guess I march to the beat of a slightly different drummer. I opted to take a more operational role at a Telco in Canada because it was more in synch with my career philosophy of broadening my experience base.

GR:  Your career has spanned diverse functional roles — market intelligence, product management, business development, and management consulting.  Have you had a unifying theme?

EL: The common thread has been my focus on data and analytics for decision-making.  Data slices through organizations and it is the foundation for many things – optimizing, contingency planning, business case development, and scenario analysis.  For example, I went into the phone business so I could understand pricing, risk and customers better.  There I developed a good feel for running a business end-to-end that was grounded in collecting, analyzing and using market and customer data to meet customer needs.

GR: What advice do you give people as they make career decisions?

You need to decide what works best for you as you plan your career.  You play the “breadth” card if you thrive on diversity and the “depth” card if specialization and deep expertise are your passion.  You can leverage one of these cards as your strength, but it is difficult to do both.  Personally?  My operating philosophy has been that the bigger my base of knowledge, the more options I’ll have in the future.  I think of it as a building with multiple elevators; the more elevators in the building, the more options I have to go up, and the more options I have to hedge my bets.

About the Author

Gayle Rigione is Ivy Exec’s Chief Community Development Officer. Gayle spent 15 years in diverse relationship management and senior management roles at MasterCard International, Arthur Andersen Strategic Services, and Bankers Trust Company. She earned her MBA from Columbia.