Sloan Career Stories: In Conversation with Byron Clayton (Sloan2018)

Sloan Career Coach Annette Minihan spoke to Byron Clayton, Sloan2018, about how he made the most of his LBS experience to change careers.

You can watch the interview or read the transcript below.

I’m Byron Clayton. I am a Sloan fellow, and I did the program in 2017, graduating in 2018. I’m originally from Texas, and I’ve worked in six different companies, in six different industries, in six different countries. And my current role is as global head of H.R. for Mercer Services, which is part of the Mercer Human Capital Group.

You did your Sloan in 2017 – what caused you to take the massive decision to join the program?

At the time that I was considering a program, I was the V.P. of H.R. for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals in London looking after their Europe division. I had been with the company for about a year and a half, and they were going through a reorganization. They had offered me a new role, a larger role, but I didn’t have the passion or the direction for the role. I really felt like I needed to do something different, and I had been wanting to do a Master’s degree for quite some time. I know that in today’s marketplace, it’s more and more competitive when you want to get into C-suite roles. My ambition had been to be a chief people officer for a medium sized international organization, and I felt like I needed an edge. So that was a compelling feature for me that said, well, maybe now is the time that I need to consider something different.

How did you find the year?

The Sloan program was incredible. And I think it was incredible for me for three different reasons. First of all, the Sloan program itself, the prestige of London Business School, was very important to me. I wanted to make sure that I was going to have the highest capable professors, that I was going to get an amazing learning experience. The second reason for me was that 70 percent of the people in my programs self-funded, and their average age was around 40. They had around 20 years of experience. And what was compelling for me for that is that people didn’t join the program because they felt they had something to prove, they did it for themselves. So I felt the reason why people were coming to the program was was very important. And I think the third reason, which is probably most important, was that the program was going to allow me to consolidate my learnings. It was going to give me experience in new areas that I didn’t have, to be able to go deep in strategy, marketing and finance, and that I felt was going to prepare me to be in the boardroom, which is what I wanted.

We’ve talked previously and you shared a story a little while ago with some of the other students about how chance has played a massive role in developing your career in the past. Would you share that with us today?

Yeah, it’s interesting when people ask me, ‘what’s helped you get to where you are today?’. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, which you could say is luck. And I think the other part is having the courage to take risks. So the first big opportunity I had was very young in my career. I was working for Nokia at the time. I had a boss who was also quite young, and we played a lot of practical jokes on each other. We worked very hard, but we played hard. And he thought it’d be fun if I made a fool of myself in front of our new global head of H.R.. and he had said to me, ‘this new global head of H.R. is here, he’s in the office and he’s looking to hire some young guns for his team in Finland. I mentioned your name. Why don’t you go talk to him?’.  I was gullible and didn’t know any better and thought OK, go and put my best face on. When I knocked on the door and I introduced myself, the gentleman’s name was Holstein and I said, ‘Holstein, my name’s Byron and I want to give you some face-name recognition. So when you’re thinking about staffing your team in Finland, I’d like you to consider me.’ And I remember this, he just pushed himself back from his big wooden desk. He looked at me and he said, ‘are you willing to move to Finland?’ Yes. ‘Have you discussed this with your boss?’ I said yes. ‘OK, well, send me your CV and we’ll have you work on a project.’ Long story short, that kicked off my global career. Three months later, I was the chief of staff for the global head of H.R. working at the Nokia Head Office in Finland. And that was over 20 years ago; I haven’t worked in the US since.

Amazing! So post Sloan, what did you do?

When I think about the cohort of people that I was with, we could be divided into three equal parts. A third of us wanted to be entrepreneurs. A third of us were explorers, not quite sure what we wanted to do and looking at a variety of options. And then a third of us wanted to accelerate our existing careers. I clearly found myself in that last bucket. I knew I wanted to be in the C-suite, I really wanted to accelerate my career. So when I started Sloan, I knew that I was going to be staying within my profession of human resources, but looking for a more challenging role. So I already started my search two months into the Sloan program; in February, I had already started thinking about, well, how do I need to prepare myself? How do I need to start thinking about the market, how do I need to start thinking about my network? And so I was, I would say, very proactive in terms of how I started thinking about my career.

We’ve talked before about building relationships and the power of that. Do you want to just share some of your thoughts on how you’ve built relationships and what’s been successful?

You know, I’d say there’s four strategies that I employed when I was thinking about my career or that I cultivated as part of the Sloan program, because a lot of this is what I learned on Sloan. I would say the first strategy came to me as a workshop that was organized by the Career Centre with Daniel Porot. So Daniel does this amazing workshop where he talks to you about how the world actually works when you’re trying to find a job. He had amazing salient points throughout, but the one major takeaway that I took that formed the first part of my strategy was that you need to have a laser focus when you’re going after your next job. A lot of people are like fishermen standing on the shore casting a nets, but you’re only going to catch minnows, small fish if you do that. He said what we really need to do is to go for the big fish, go for your dream job, and then focus on that and let all the other clutter get out of the way. That was sort of a first profound strategy for me. OK, I really want to be a chief people officer, so let me go and look for those roles. Be specific about the industry I want to be in and not just say yes to anything that might come up.

The second thing that came through for me, which was actually the hardest part for me, was creating my own pitch. And again, this was something that was organized by the Career Centre; it was a workshop with Graham from Google, who helped us to develop our pitch, and it was something that’s for me personally was very difficult. But once I figured that out, I realized that I needed to develop my brand from an ‘outside-in’ perspective. Most people start with their CV, build their LinkedIn profile and and come up with their pitch. I actually wiped all of that away and started with the pitch. Then I built my LinkedIn profile, then I built my CV to support it. I actually found that that was a huge change that was very, very profound for me. But the third piece; these first two were very foundational in order for me to figure out how I was going to sell myself. The third piece which is really the enabler, was how I used relationships to land a role. Herminia Ibarra had a case study we did around a guy named Claude Netsky; the crux of this case was that this guy had been able to build this amazing career by leveraging his network. He used his network is as a currency. And I thought, OK, that’s that’s really interesting. I hadn’t really done that before. The other thing that I pulled together was in my strategic marketing class with David Arnold. He talked about how much easier it is to sell to an existing customer than to a new one who doesn’t know you. And I thought to myself, why can’t I put these two things together? I have my own network, I have people that know me, so I had this existing sort of, if you will, customer base. And I think about this Claude case of how you leverage your network. And so I went into LinkedIn and I thought about who are the people that I haven’t talked to in three years or more, who know me and who I have a good reputation with. And I had a little script, if you will, how I talk to people where I didn’t sort of just lunge at them and say ‘I’m looking for a job’. Instead it was more ‘hey, I haven’t talked to you in a while. What are you up to? What’s going on? And invariably they ask you the same questions. Oh, yes, I’m doing my Master’s degree and then I’m going to find something after that. And sure enough, they will offer to help. And part of the way that I landed my first job after was exactly because of those relationships where somebody had said, ‘hey, I know somebody I’d like to introduce you to’. And because they had known me and because I had a rapport with them, I was able to leverage that relationship.

We all talk about the past and who you have in years of LinkedIn profiles. But what about talking to people who you’d like to talk to, but you have no connection with currently?

So I did some bold things as part of the program. I identified 10 companies that I wanted to work for that were ideal companies, and I had done the research to find out who the CEOs were. They were small companies, not large ones. I had looked to see if those CEOs have profiles on LinkedIn – most of them did but of course, they were private. But LinkedIn has this feature where you can basically have one month of premium for free. And as a college student, I was very much managing my money during this time. Once I identified those those 10 CEOs, I had developed a little pitch around ‘well, why should you hire me?’ I activated the LinkedIn accounts, I found their email addresses – seven of them did actually have email addresses to test their profiles. I wrote to these seven just out of the blue, and I actually got one response, which was really profound. Now, the flip side of that story is that I had sent to the CEO ‘here’s the seven reasons why I’d like you to consider me as your next chief people officer.’ He then forwarded that email to his existing Chief People Officer saying, please respond. And of course, nobody wants to be replaced in their role. So it didn’t actually get me what I wanted! It did show me that you have to be careful how you approach people, that sometimes a bold approach can reveal some fruit, but it can be very hard to capitalize on that. So I’m glad I took that approach. But I think you have to be mindful that it’s probably not going to be the way it’s going to work out for you.

And also linking back to what you said earlier about the reality of how the world actually works. So, yes, you would hire the chief people officer, but if he has one in situ, that’s not going to quite work at that time.

We’re big fans of learning from mistakes and from learning from what I called your ‘best worst day’ over the past couple years since you left Sloan. Have you had any experiences that you’d like to share? Do you think others could learn from you?

I have many! One is particularly relevant for people that are students or are thinking about changing careers and and venturing out into the unknown. I think one of the defaults that we like to go for is to try to go after headhunters and to try to use a headhunter network to land your next job. And we know that statistically that at mid-career and higher levels, you’re maybe only about 30 percent going to find your role through a headhunter. Mostly it is through relationships and networking, which you have to focus on. In my case, in the very beginning, like most people I started trying to reach out to all the headhunters, especially the big firms. And I landed a meeting with one of the big five with their global head of H.R. placement. I thought, this is great. The hard part is done. So, again, probably being a little bit gullible. I came in, I was ready to to talk to this person. I thought, oh, they’re just gonna look at me and think, oh, you’re so brilliant, you’re so smart. Look at your background. You’re at London Business School. And within about the first fifteen, twenty seconds that I was sitting with this gentleman. He basically said to me, why should I put you to a client? Why should I sell you? What’s your value proposition? And to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it and I hesitated and it showed.

And then he spent the next twenty five minutes lecturing me and dressing me down and making me feel as tiny as I possibly could be because I wasn’t prepared and I wasn’t ready for it. And, you know, I felt quite humiliated at the time. It was a very, very good learning experience for me that you really have to come in prepared. You have to think about what you’re doing, particularly with headhunters. Your job isn’t so much selling yourself to them. It’s helping them understand how they’re going to sell you to a client, and that was a profound learning for me that I took away. And now I’m much more prepared in the vein of, OK, how do I come in? How do I present this? But one of the other big learnings I had with headhunters was this concept that you always need to pay it forward. So too often I think the headhunter relationship is a transactional one. They’re looking for something from you. You’re looking for something from them. But what I found bought me huge currency with headhunters was to always offer to help them. Do they have a role that they’re working on where I could provide some people from my network? I have an extensive network, I know really great people. I want to vouch for good people and they’re looking to make their money. And I found the more that I did that, the more I was able to endear them. And that helped me with relationships down the road.

So two years post-Sloan, I think lots of things have happened, particularly over the summer. What does the future hold?

So I’m going to be starting a new job with IKEA as the global head of retail HR. Basically what that means is I’m going to help IKEA’s leadership drive transformation. There are 300 stores in 30 countries across 126,000 employees. It’s an amazing job, and the reason why this job came to me was because of my network, it wasn’t because I was looking. I landed my job with Mercer and I was quite happy with their very nice, big global role. But because I had been building this network and people know that I’m out there and I’m cultivating the network, it’s kind of an analogy I use. Every different person I know I need to keep in contact with them over time, either every three months or every six months to make sure that they know the relationship is there, that it’s not just sort of a ‘hit-and-run’ approach. And a friend of mine knows that my wife is Danish, that we would like to go back to Denmark for our children, so they called me and said ‘How about IKEA?’.

So if you had one fun piece of advice to give to the current Sloan or leadership students at LBS about the next step after they finished their studies, what would it be?

I think you need to be really patient and focused at our level, and at a senior level, at a mid-career level. It’s going to take you probably at least six months to land a really good job. It’s not going to happen overnight. And so you need to keep that in mind that when you decide to start and engage on thinking about your career, you need to pace yourself. You need to think about that. It does take time to build it.

I think the other thing is, you know, people don’t come to London Business School to be mediocre. So be bold and follow your dreams.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *