By Bjorn Biel M. BeltranSpecial Features Writer

Success is never a straightforward path. Often, especially when just starting out, one can find many seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way, forcing one to come up with a way to overcome them, to find a way around them, or to consider taking a new path altogether.

Even today’s top executives, leaders in their respective fields and heads of the country’s biggest business organizations, have been in situations wherein things did not go as planned.

Some 30 years ago, a student by the name of Eduardo V. Francisco had been denied a student visa by the United States (US), which meant that he would not be able to pursue his MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. As his family had not been very well-off, they could not provide the necessary bank records to prove that he had adequate funds to finance his stay.

Had he given up right there, things might have turned out very differently for him. But luckily, his grand aunt who knew a US embassy official then had been willing to vouch for him, sending the official a letter assuring them of his pure intentions. One interview and a good deal of promising later, Mr. Francisco was on his way to finish his degree, which gave him the momentum to get him where he is today.

Currently, Mr. Francisco heads BDO Capital & Investment Corp. as its president, and serves as chairman of the International Association of Financial Executives Institutes (IAFEI).

Similarly, at the start of her career, Rizalina G. Mantaring — who now serves as president of the Management Association of the Philippines, and chairman of Sun Life Financial Philippine Holding Company, Inc. — was passed over for a promotion at her first job due to her supposed inexperience, despite consistently achieving top marks in her education. She was chief programmer — a fairly new position at the time — at Computer Information Systems Inc.’s Technical Advisory Office and had just returned to the Philippines after getting her MS from the State University of New York.

“I felt really down when the head of the division spoke with me,” she said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

“I had been a very good student — topped my batch in grade school and high school, graduated with honors in college, and had the highest grades in my class in graduate school, even topping the comprehensive exams. Then in my first job I failed to meet the standards required for promotion.”

Knowledge and skills are good, but adaptability is key

It was then that Ms. Mantaring learned that the workplace is a different environment from school and that she had to learn how to adapt accordingly or she will be left behind.

“In school, if you studied well you got good grades, and it was pretty structured and well-defined. In the office, relationships are more complex, you have to understand undertones and read between the lines. Then you realize that effort does not necessarily equal results,” she said.

“It was a bit scary and daunting [at first]. As a fresh grad, you would question what you learned and ask if it was enough. Of course, I was raring to make my mark but you had the usual jitters,” Mr. Francisco told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.

Atty. Eusebio V. Tan, president of Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX) and of counsel at ACCRALAW (Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices), agreed. Like his fellow law school graduates, he was at a loss at how law practice was actually conducted or how law firms operated, and he had to learn what he needed as he went.

“In those days, we young lawyers had to “sink or swim” — we were given all sorts of tasks in the different and various areas of law practice, and we were expected to perform well and do a good job in whatever project or case we were assigned to,” he said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

So learn to swim he did. To court success, it seems, one not only must have the adaptability and cleverness to learn the finer details of one’s work, but also the diligence and dedication to keep delivering good results consistently.

Mr. Tan later had a hand in many prominent cases and projects for ACCRALAW, which included devising a corporate structure for the first McDonald’s restaurant in the Philippines, the privatization of the operations of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, and drafting, and assisting in the passage of, Republic Act No. 10641 (“R.A. No. 10641”), entitled “An Act Allowing the Full Entry of Foreign Banks in the Philippines.”

“It would have been better if, even as a law student, I already had a clear understanding of what a lawyer actually does and how a law firm is actually managed and operated. Today, we accept a few law students as apprentices or interns into our firm. They normally spend about 2 or 3 months working with us, with the hope that, during that short stint with us, they will be exposed to, and learn, how legal services are actually rendered and how a professional law firm is operated and managed.”

There are benefits and dangers to hard work

In one litigation case, Mr. Tan was able to get a vital witness for the party on the opposing side to completely reverse her testimony on cross-examination, to the benefit of their client — a dramatic turnaround that was usually reserved for movies and TV shows.

“I thought that this could happen only in the movies, but this experience early on in my career proved that good preparation and hard work would lead to winning cases and success in other projects,” he said.

“I learned that, with enough preparation and hard work, a lawyer will be able to find an appropriate solution for even the most difficult problem that a client is faced with. Moreover, with enough imagination and analysis, a solution that is ‘out of the box’ or that would not normally be thought of, could eventually be arrived at to address a client’s requirements.”

Talking about his own hardships and experiences early in his career, Mr. Francisco recalled the drastic measures he had to take when he was working at SGV & Co. simply to meet deadlines.

“There were assignments we had to be on the night shift as we needed access to computers of the clients. There were times we lived out of suitcases in various cities. There were also no showers in SGV then but during overnight work, I learned to take a bath in the small section where the janitor’s mop was supposed to be washed. We did what it took to finish the job and do it well,” he said.

However, he cautioned against the dangers of having a narrow, single-minded view towards success, and instead advised those who would pursue success to surround themselves with good people whom they can trust and work together with.

“While the new staff were all from good schools with great academic backgrounds, we learned to work well together even if we were all vying for promotions,” Mr. Francisco said.

“I learned to work with different cultures and appreciate different personalities and backgrounds. I learned the value of teamwork and rising up the corporate ladder did not mean having to step over someone,” he added.

Ms. Mantaring expressed the same sentiment, adding that one should “drive the train” if the opportunity presents itself, but never at the expense of one’s team and co-workers.

“When we were doing a large and critical project which was running into delays, one of the vice-presidents sat down with me and said, ‘Do you want to drive the train or ride it?’ It was all about accountability. I decided I would drive the train, which meant no excuses, make things happen, and regardless of whose fault something was, I was accountable,” she said.

“Build a star team, not a team of stars. Hire the best people you can, but make sure they can work well together. You may be brilliant but if no one wants to work with you, how do you get things done? I’ve seen tremendous results when people help each other out and don’t care who gets the credit. In the end, everyone gets the credit.”

Do what is right, even if it hurts you in the short term

Integrity, Ms. Mantaring noted, was perhaps the most important thing to protect when traveling down any career path. While climbing the corporate ladder, future leaders will inevitably come into contact with temptations that would compromise the ideals and values they started with.

“A lesson which has been affirmed over and over by the decisions the company made over the years was on integrity and doing what is right, even if it was painful and cost us large amounts. As I rose through the ranks, I always kept that in mind, and when faced with difficult decisions, we always went back to that — what was the right thing to do?” she said.

“As CEO, I’ve had to make decisions that could have resulted in losing people, losing sales, paying to correct errors we made, etc. But always, we were guided by doing the right thing, even when no one was looking. And invariably, in the long run, it turned out better for the company,” Ms. Mantaring shared.

Because ultimately, the obstacles and hardships that true leaders face during their journey to success will end up teaching them valuable lessons and give them the skills and insights to become the best version of themselves down the road.

“God gave us certain paths to take and gave us challenges to make us stronger and better. I have my share of hardships and pain but those things molded me and helped make me who I am today,” Mr. Francisco said. — with Erika Fortuno-Mioten