Leadership Life Management

From Checkpoints to C-Suites: 4 Things That Can Help You Connect the Dots

John Walter S. Baybay

Originally Published in the Star of Malaysia Leaderonomics Section – 06.12.14
In Steve Jobs’ commencement speech in Stanford, he made mention of connecting the dots; and that connecting the dots only makes sense looking backwards and not forward. While I do have a full appreciation for this, many of my experiences may not be as glamorous as most people would think. More accurately, it was “somewhat” glamorous towards the end, but never ever glamorous in the beginning.

Seven years ago I took a field assignment to a place that not too many people would dare to go to. The Philippines is a country largely unexplored as an archipelago of more than 7000 islands with issues so socially complex that flying for less than an hour can take you to another place that is terribly unfamiliar and not to mention scary due to its reputation. Being flown to place that has been known in the news due to armed conflicts and where towns have been razed to the ground, does not seem to strike the traveler as a dream vacation. But duty does beckon and one could only hope that expectations can be reversed once you land. The problem is that it usually doesn’t!

2107_60529108328_960_nDue to the bigger hotel being fully booked, we had to stay in a small hotel that resembled a place that was left in the 70’s. I had imaginations of a CIA agent sitting in the corner of the same coffee shop wearing a red hawaiian shirt, dark wayfarers with a Pina Colada in one hand and a newspaper in the other. To make things worse, we were advised to leave post-haste in a white van that drove for more than an hour to a safe house to change into another vehicle which turns out to be a convoy of large pick-up trucks with the backs loaded with heavily armed men in fatigues. Off we went with a huge cloud of dust behind us as we were careening at the sides of a twisted mountain trail at full speed. There was an eerie silence in the car which is not typical of Filipinos (usually full of chatter and laughter) while I was accompanied by a young British colleague who came with me on my field assessment. We passed several military checkpoints which seemed customary to most in my company, but unsettling for me and the rest of the team. I was texting my wife for updates on how I was, still alive but not knowing exactly where I was. I was scared and as I looked at the phone, the bars which signified the signal and my connection to the rest of my life was getting lower and lower as we went deeper and deeper into the woods. The signal went down to zero and I felt like my lifeline to the rest of civilization was severed. What if something happened? Anything could happen! We could have been ambushed or kidnapped but then who would know? As I was clutching on to my phone, I sighed with fervent prayer saying: let me be OK. After that, a thought: “What am I doing? How did I get here?”

A few months back I was the Executive Director of a Trust that helped young people get into business through funding and mentoring. I worked in Enterprise Development at the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a Programme Manager from six years ago and this has been my career since 2001. With that I found myself in a pickup full of armed men six years later doing a feasibility assessment in a place where enterprise development was needed the most as part of a mining and perhaps post-conflict rehabilitation. I dialogued with some of the tribal leaders as well as the local mayor who shared a story of how his whole town was razed to the ground by rebels. People were walking with their families on the streets in an exodus out of town with only the belongings that survived with them. It was a razing of medieval proportions! With that story, he was even insinuating that I stayed longer for a better appreciation. My thought was: WHAT?

I did the assessment with a Micro Financing partner who later pulled out with the news that a micro financing worker was murdered during our stay. I left my footprints there, I sent in the report and called it a week of work.

Four years later I receive a call from the same lady that gave me the scary assignment in Mindanao. At that time I had just finished some of my best corporate consulting work after leaving the Economic Development sector. Corporate work is as glamorous as people would expect it to be. Being able to work in posh environments and brands that sparkle in your resume is always a delight. I was offered to work for another mining company for a year doing the same nature of work I did in Mindanao, but this time in a more hospitable environment. With some hesitation I took the job by instinct and I found myself flying in a private plane every week on site. Again I asked myself: “How did I get here?” The answer was actually simple, I just had to look back. There are a number of scenarios in the past that build into where I am right now.

The truth is that decades of experience has brought me to where I am. If I hadn’t worked for the ILO and the Prince’s Trust program thirteen years ago where I was screening up to 50 business plans per week, then I would not be the business planing consultant that I am now. With that experience of working with young entrepreneurs, I am now able to provide coaching and advisory services to some of the most recognizable entrepreneurs in the country. Many of those young people whom I have mentored and coached a decade ago have moved on to greater things as successful entrepreneurs. Some took the enriching experience to pursue very promising careers beyond school.

Another point is that If I had not taken that scary trip to Mindanao in the back of an armed pick-up and checkpoints, I would never have imagined taking a private plane to work and back on a weekly basis. My economic planning experience and analysis have brought me face to face with other firms such as Michael Porter’s Shared Value where I was able to showcase some of the best examples of how their own frameworks like Value Chain Analysis could be used on field. The experience has also allowed me to have a deeper look into some of the most compelling economic issues that plague our country. The first hand insight has led me to write some of my best work that is currently being referenced by many development economists online. Most importantly, it has developed a greater sense of social consciousness that has fueled many things I have written about. Without having taken the risk in the past I would not have the experience to write about this now.

(Loosely quoting Steve Jobs) Connecting the dots, looking forward is always hard. It is easier looking at the dots looking backwards. This said there are Four things that I want you to remember:

  1. Have courage: You will be faced with many unsettling circumstances in your life. Have the courage to move forward despite difficulties and remember that at the end of the day you will have 3 things: Your Faith, Your Family and Your Friends; With those things you will always have everything you need to move forward.
  2. Know Your USP: Know your Unique Selling Proposition. Know the skills and talents you have in the offering. Know your purpose and design.
  3. Create a strategy for yourself. Perhaps doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis on your own personal brand could be your first step?
    Opportunities for growth will always stretch you. Perhaps you might find yourself slightly inadequate or lacking experience. Take the opportunity anyway when presented. Walk through the open door and you will find that your ability to learn will always help you grow into a new role.
  4. Attraction: Who you are determines what and who you will attract. Look for patterns in opportunities that are recurrently being made available to you. If you’re always being shortlisted for certain assignments, then that gives you a clue as to what you are great at.

We learn more from mistakes than our triumphs. Make your mistakes early and you might find that many of those mishaps could even lead you towards a greater understanding of your potential. If there is anything you must do, it is that you must keep moving forward. Keep connecting dots. The further you move along, a greater image of your life will be revealed to you carrying you on to your destiny.