Decisions that defined their careers

Executives make countless decisions over the course of their working lives. Some are small, some strategic, but a select few can define their careers.
Essam Al Tamimi says going to Harvard and training at Clifford Chance was probably the most important factor in his career.
Essam Al Tamimi says going to Harvard and training at Clifford Chance was probably the most important factor in his career.

Some professionals can point to a single decision that altered the course of their career.

Harlan Steinbaum, a former chief executive of a large pharmaceutical chain in the US, calls these "defining moments". His own came when he and his two brothers-in-law decided to buy back the family business, Medicare-Glaser Corporation. "That decision, and the actions that flowed from it, came to define me and my life in business," he writes in the book, Tough Calls from the Corner Office, which catalogues other executives' career-defining decisions.

"My life would never be the same because of that decision. It was the gateway to my future. It was my defining moment," writes Mr Steinbaum. But defining moments do not always happen at the height of a professional's career. Sometimes they occur at the start.

Abdullatif Al Mulla, the chief executive of the investment firm TECOM Investments, chose to enter the private sector at a time when many Emiratis tended to favour applying for government jobs, he says. At that time, back in 1996, he chose to join the computer company Microsoft. "Everybody thought that I was crazy by joining the private sector, where the jobs are not as secure and the workload is different," says Mr Al Mulla.

"Microsoft was not that big here but what I wanted to do was set the trend and show people that we are not limited to the government jobs - that we can excel in areas that are predominantly (made up of) expats," he adds. "It opened up my eyes to so many things, from a travel point of view, from negotiation, from being with different levels of society, different kinds of customers, to different kinds of tradition and culture."

Another career-defining moment often occurs when an executive faces a make-it or break-it decision, which puts the organisation's future at stake. "In these moments, the leader becomes the most lonely individual in the organisation, facing the ultimate responsibility that justifies his status and authority," says Stephan Schubert, a professor of entrepreneurship at Insead Abu Dhabi campus. Many individuals will be ready to offer advice, but knowing that their career depends on the decision alters their perspective, he says.

For others, such as Essam Al Tamimi, the founder of one of the largest law firms in the Middle East, defining moments can be a decision that helps set them on their career path. "Going to Harvard and training in Clifford Chance [law firm] in London is probably the most important factor in building my career," says Mr Al Tamimi.

He says his education and experience abroad has helped Al Tamimi & Company compete with international firms and cater for an array of clients. But the decision to study law abroad was not easy. "It was a difficult decision," he says. "The first three months, truly speaking, were depressing because I was going into a different environment and to compete head-to-head in a foreign language and in a foreign country with people from the US."

Yet, once Mr Al Tamimi caught up, school became easier, and he now acknowledges it was the single most important decision of his working life. "It is the advice that I usually give to most young lawyers: to see the other side of the coin and get western training and a western education," he says.

Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM


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