Michael Fox | Crain's Sacramento

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Michael Fox

Background:  

Global Knowledge is an IT and business skills training company that employs more than 1,300 people worldwide. Global Knowledge's corporate headquarters is located in Cary, North Carolina, and the company also operates out of Toronto and the United Kingdom. Last month, the company announced its acquisition of TrainCanada, which expanded Global Knowledge’s presence across Canada.

The Mistake:

Defining success in the wrong terms.

After reviewing a 32-year career, I’ve realized we all make a lot of mistakes. One mistake early in my career – specifically as it relates to being a manager or a leader – was the idea that success was defined by how big a department you were leading or how big a budget you had at your disposal.

When I was 27 or 28, I took over responsibility for an IT department at a major university, where I had worked for several years. I was promoted to the lead role as the manager of the university’s IT department and I was really excited about it. I achieved that promotion after having done a really good job, I developed key relationships with senior-level people, and I really embraced it.

The mistake I made is a trap that’s probably quite common for new leaders to fall into. You’re looking to grow your career and take on more responsibility, but you think the measurement of your success lies within how big your organization is or how large your budget is. If you fall into that trap, which I definitely did, you might find yourself with contentious relationships with peer groups and friction with other departments.

I recognized the company had failed and it forced me to think beyond my own success.

The Lesson:

The big aha moment for me came probably four or five years into management. It took that long for me to understand that the success of the organization was more important than the success of the group I was managing. I had to embrace the bigger picture of the organization. That took a lot of humility and introspection.

It came into focus for me when I was working at a startup in Research Triangle Park. After four years, we had failed. I had to stand up in front of a room and lay off 85 people. It was the first time in my career that I had felt failure in a professional capacity. I had to look these people in the eyes and terminate their employment. It was probably the time in my life where I grew the most.

I recognized the company had failed and it forced me to think beyond my own success.

That was a really big moment for me and I immediately fell into the maturity and the knowledge that it didn’t matter how many people I managed or even what that business was. I had to focus on what I could do to contribute to the success of the organization.

In enterprise businesses, the sales team has to be effective, as does the marketing group. The finance team has to do a good job. All those groups have to work well together for an organization to succeed. You have to focus on the larger picture. There’s a little bit of risk when doing that. I think it takes maturity to be able to let go of your personal aspirations to focus on the success of the larger organization.

Now, when I coach young leaders, I explain to them that you have to focus on the success of the organization. To do that, you have to listen to people and empower people. If you do that, they will follow you, they will believe in you and they will work hard for you.

Photo of Michael Fox courtesy of Global Knowledge.

Global Knowledge is on Twitter at @GlobalKnowledge.

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