How I got my two biggest promotions: True Stories

I was speaking to a business school student recently. She asked me about how I managed to get promoted during my career. That got me thinking…

Luck and hard work

I retired two years ago. My most significant promotions were at Digital Equipment Corporation in 1989, and at HP in 2005. I attribute the first to luck, and the second to hard work, but not the hard work you might expect. You may be able to reproduce one for yourself, but not the other. Here are my promotion stories:

Software operations at Digital Equipment Corporation

I joined Digital in Nijmegen (Netherlands) in 1985, after seven years in the clothing industry with the parent company of Wrangler jeans. I developed a good reputation as a project manager and was asked to lead a project to implement license keys for our software. At the time, we were starting to distribute software on CD-ROMs, and the concept was that customers would already have all the software on the CD-ROM, needing only a license key to unlock it. The key format was similar to what you would enter for a Microsoft product today. The project went well. I did it for a lady (EB-S) who was the software operations manager for Europe at the time and was based at the European HQ in Geneva. During one our review meetings, she told me she had been promoted and suggested I apply for her old job. I jumped at the opportunity, despite my general ignorance about software at the time.

As luck would have it…

Of course there were other candidates. However, luck played a big part. After her promotion EB-S reported to the head of operations. I met him (a Swiss leader named JS) during the first round of interviews. When he learned about my background he asked whether I had ever visited Burlington Mills in North Carolina. I told him about my time living briefly in North Carolina and Georgia while working for Wrangler and confirmed that I had indeed been to Burlington Mills to learn about the indigo dyeing process. He told me that his former Swiss employer had supplied the weaving equipment the factory used and that he had been there many times. We had a long conversation about textiles and the clothing industry.

Life is not necessarily fair

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was on a shortlist of two candidates for the job. I asked the HR manager who the other person was. He would not answer directly, but said she was a UK-based lady who was better qualified than I was. He hinted that I might get the job anyway but did not say why. I found out later the same day during my final interview. My potential new boss was a great English leader named TG, who later went on to be the operations manager of the World Gold Council. While he was interviewing me, JS knocked on the door, came in and said “Oh I see you are interviewing Maurice. I will come back later.” He left for about 30 seconds, then came back in. “Trevor”, he said, “It’s your decision and you can hire whoever you want. But you know who I want.” The message was clear, even to me. I flew home to Holland that evening knowing that I had the job. Fair? Perhaps not. Lucky? Definitely. Swiss salaries were double the Dutch salaries after taxes, and I had regular small promotions after that.

EMEA Chief of Staff at HP

The second major promotion involved an odd sort of hard work. Digital had merged with Compaq in 1998 and Compaq with HP in 2002. I was a program manager and my boss (DG) was the EMEA Chief of Staff. DG did not get along very well with his boss, the head of HP in EMEA, Francesco Serafini. Francesco arranged for DG to be transferred to the USA to work in a great position with one of our top three account teams. So DG’s old job was open. I met the EMEA HR manager (WM) and asked his advice on how I could get the job. He told me that because Francesco and DG did not get along, Francesco had a negative opinion about the whole of DG’s team, including me, so it would be quite a struggle. Nonetheless, WM liked me and wanted me to get the job, I think. He said I needed to lobby the key influencers on Francesco’s team and get them to support me in writing to Francesco, being explicit that they did not support any other candidate. That seemed hard. It was, and I went a lot further. I really wanted the job.

Persuading the influencers

First I arranged to have dinner with SC, who is now head of HP in Italy, and asked his advice. SC was head of support services, the largest team in EMEA, and his views mattered. Over our long dinner at an airport hotel in Geneva, he gave me valuable advice and also agreed to write to Francesco supporting only me. I am still not sure exactly why. I then contacted OS, who led sales and had sat close to me at Digital in Geneva at one point. We had also attended the Compaq Global Leadership development course together and he remembered me. He also wrote to Francesco to support only me. OS went on to become CEO of Orange Mobile, then Everything Everywhere, and then came back to lead Swiss telco Sunrise.

You can win by being better or by being different

Candidates were once again whittled back to just two, me and (I believe) a Dutch lady who was said to be better qualified. The HR manager told me that the competition would be hard. I remembered one important thing I had learned about business strategy over the years. You can win by being better. You can also win by being different. I decided to go for different. My discussion with the HR manager was in late November 2004. Francesco had booked a long diving vacation in a warm place with his family in December, so the final interview round was to take place with Francesco in early January. I asked the HR manager whether the Dutch lady spoke Italian. Based on the negative answer, and my knowledge that Francesco’s English was just OK. So, I spent the following six weeks on improving my Italian. I knew some basics but had not tried to hold a conversation in Italian for 20 years.

The big day

Early January arrived. I flew to Milan for my final interview. I was nervous. Francesco had scheduled 45 minutes. After just four or five minutes he was looking at his watch and out the window behind me. I was doomed. Then… I switched to Italian. He was very surprised! And instantly engaged, leaning across the table towards me. We had to switch back to English quite quickly, but my strategy had worked. He cancelled his following meetings and we spent three hours together. His closing words were unusual, to say the least: “Maurice, I have not finished the interview process, but I want you to start your new job today!” Over the following months, the job title and work were refined and I became VP of Strategy and Customer Experience, as well as Chief of Staff.

Wow! I felt lucky, and still feel lucky to this day.