*At the time of this interview Dan was the President and General Manager of Lenovo Latin America.
Briefly going back to your pre-college days, you spent 4 years in the Israel Defense Forces before entering undergrad. How did that experience contribute to your later career, and what if anything do you leverage from that experience in your role today?
Having the chance to go into the military earlier in my career was quite the opportunity, and a very meaningful experience. You learn to be humble in understanding that you’re part of a larger engine that needs to work together to complete a mission. You’re also able to gain management and leadership experience at a young age, and you learn how to correct yourself quickly. I made a ton of mistakes and a ton of learnings in how to deal with people.
There’s also the “get it done” mentality. No matter what the reason or challenges, you need to be able to implement and execute. Results talk – not plans or ideas. That lesson was very meaningful to me and has stayed with me up through today.
After 2 years at Monitor prior to business school, and 3 years post MBA at McKinsey, you left McKinsey as a senior Engagement Manager to go into industry as an Executive Director of Strategy at Lenovo. Why did you decide to leave McKinsey (and consulting) when you did, and what was your thought process in choosing that particular role?
My experiences at Monitor and McKinsey were incredibly rewarding. You get to see an unbelievably wide range of businesses and business issues, and you get a ton of knowledge and experience that is impossible to get in other industries or roles. Ultimately, I left McKinsey because I wanted to work for a company that actually made a product. I like products. I like gadgets. I wanted an opportunity in the tech space and thought a strategy group would be the best entry point to leverage my skills. The role at Lenovo also came with a team and afforded me the opportunity to focus on emerging markets and Asia to round out my U.S. and Europe experience from consulting.
As far as we’re concerned at Raines, you’re a poster consultant for how to leverage internal strategy for all it’s worth for a later operating role, going from an Executive Director of Strategy to Vice President to Chief Strategy Officer, to running Lenovo Brazil and then Lenovo Latin America (a ~$3bn business). Was that all part of your plan?
At a very high level, my path was part of a general plan, but in reality things don’t always follow accordingly. I came into a very different strategy department than I exited at Lenovo. I started out under a former McKinsey Director who I had not previously known (a really fantastic individual) and worked with him and the CEO doing what was mostly project based work. I rebuilt the strategy group and built up an M&A function (I had some M&A work at McKinsey). About a year and a half in, there was some change management and both the CEO and my boss transitioned out. By then, I had spent enough time building relationships with the senior team, to the point where they asked me to stay on and work with the new CEO (another one of the original founding team members of the company). From there, I spent the next 5 years working closely with the CEO and the top 10 executives leading the strategy function.
During those next 5 years, I gained a new lens through which to view strategy. As an Asia-based company, Lenovo has a take on strategy that has much more of an implementation focus to it. Strategic aspiration and intent are nice, but a strategic plan is not complete in the Lenovo world unless it has a very specific organization behind it from an operational viewpoint: a business model with metrics, incentives, and people. It’s not just about finding the answer, but about how you make that answer actionable or impactful – and not impactful in the consulting way, but impactful in the real world way where you implement the strategy and you live with the results. In consulting the big thing is the deadline, whereas in corporate, the timeline is your timeline. It’s a different litmus test in whether you can really bring value to the company and whether you really change the business because you’re (hopefully) going to be there for the long-term.
Lenovo knew I was interested in running a business, but that I was in no rush out of strategy – I was committed to doing whatever the company needed me to do. I should point out that Brazil was also not the first time I had thought about going into an operational role. Other opportunities that came up just didn’t pan out to be the perfect transition for me. It was a long process, but I knew my first move out of strategy had to be a good fit for what the company needed while also aligning with my skill set. The Brazil role required M&A experience, so I was familiar with some elements of the role before I stepped into it.
So Lenovo knew you wanted to go into an operational role?
Yes – for me, part of my development was taking on a role in the business. You can’t be in too much of a rush to do that, though, which I know is frustrating for overachievers who want to progress every year or every two years to get the next thing. If you trust the people you work with and they see the value in what you do, eventually things work out. With other operational opportunities that had come up earlier on, my value add was still higher in strategy. It’s really important that what you want and what the company needs are aligned. In order to transition, you need a great team in place so that you feel comfortable things won’t fall apart when you leave, and the new role also needs to fit. The Brazil role wasn’t just an operational role – as I mentioned, it required M&A experience, so I could lean on what I already knew while learning the new components. It was a good alignment, and when things align, good things happen. It’s kind of like dating – it usually doesn’t work out very well otherwise.
For consultants wary of internal strategy, how did the experience help you succeed in landing and executing in your role today?
You can’t get anything done in an organization unless you have relationships and support from the different functions. The strategy role is exactly the opportunity to build trust with the senior management team, and to gain an understanding of the organization so that when you come into that operating role, the deck is stacked for you, not against you. My time in strategy was frankly just problem solving. If there was a problem for the CEO or for the President I’d go and figure out what was going on and I’d fix it. If there was a problem that didn’t have an owner or an owner who needed help, or a problem with too many owners, that’s when I would typically get involved. Having a track record of success in that capacity and the trust of senior management really helped in my first operating role.
There are always exceptions of course, but if you go directly into an operating role from consulting and it’s the first time you’re doing it, you’re also dealing with a new organization, the leadership doesn’t know you, and the other functions don’t know you. It’s going to be pretty rough. If you’ve been an operator in the past, then you know that part of it, but you then spend your time building the relationships. Coming from internal strategy, you’ve spent a few years building the relationships, understanding the business, and helping people and building trust so they end up wanting to help you and work with you. You have a much better chance of being successful.
Something that is also of note with internal strategy roles is whether companies have a lot of former consultants already. Some of my clients at McKinsey had hordes of former consultants, which perhaps is a bit of an easier situation to walk into because there is a clearer path for you. In comparison, Lenovo didn’t have a lot of ex-consultants, but that in turn allowed me to bring a skill set that had a ton of unique value-add to my organization: solving problems, project management, and thinking through things at a very high intensity and speed. Yang Yuanqing (CEO of Lenovo) is also a big strategy guy, and he’s very visionary – he really drives the company around the strategic plan, so you’re not on the sideline as a strategy person there.
Some consultants use internal strategy as a stepping stone, but few experience the top job as CSO. How do you think the Chief Strategy Officer role specifically affected your skill set and experience versus more junior internal strategy roles?
Being in the top strategy job is a big change because you’re not just taking direction and executing for someone else anymore. You are setting the direction for the company, and you need to have the maturity to do what’s right for the company. In the Chief Strategy Officer role, I needed to understand the businesses, the stakeholders, and the objectives of my boss, the board, and the overall business in order to set the agenda. That’s really a different skill set, and it’s not easy to do well. At McKinsey we used to say “put the CEO hat on,” and as CSO you are literally putting the CEO hat on. If you don’t think like the CEO and you’re just waiting for the CEO to tell you what to, you won’t be Chief Strategy Officer for very long.
You stepped into a turnaround situation in your first non-strategy role as General Manager for Lenovo Brazil. How did you hit the ground running?
In reality, business is pretty simple. You need to buy low and sell high. That’s how business works. The hard thing is getting everything and everyone to work together in order to achieve that result. I was able to be successful because I could quickly assess a problem and identify which levers to pull (the classic consulting skill set), but more importantly, I was able to communicate very effectively to the entire organization and pull people on board in order to execute what was needed. With Brazil specifically, my previously existing relationships from my strategy role allowed me to accomplish some structural changes that would never have been possible otherwise. I could call up all of the senior people and they would take me seriously and understand that I knew where they were coming from, and it helped that I knew how to ask for what I wanted.
As President and General Manager of a ~$3bn business, what do you find most exciting about your role today? What’s next?
I’m actually in transition to a new role now. With my current role, the goal was to get the organization set up, and then to hire a local leadership team to manage it. Running Latin America has been incredibly interesting – I went from focusing on one country with Brazil to 15 countries, 5 sub-regions, and 2 continents. There is such diversity in the countries, cultures, and business challenges there. I made sure to spend time in each country to understand each location’s unique problems, and was also able to bring in a new, higher level lens and operational view to leverage solutions between regions where applicable. The multi-region aspect was great for me, because, in classic consultant fashion, I get bored easily. Having an amazing team made it all the more interesting as well.
Climbing the ranks in an international company, you’ve worked and lived all over the globe: in multiple U.S. cities, Germany, China, Japan, and now Brazil to name a few. Is that something you expected or wanted in your career? How do you think the experiences have helped you overall?
I always assumed I would travel a lot. I’ve worked internationally for over 10 years and traveled internationally every 2 weeks or every month at Lenovo. I guess I didn’t think I would live in Brazil – that was one surprise. But I did, and my son speaks Portuguese now. Luckily I have a very flexible family that is willing to move with me!
You’re heading up a business in a growing company within a historically challenged market. What would you tell consultants who are looking for similar results?
My first boss at Lenovo used to tell me, “Do the right thing for the company and everything else will work out”. At the end of the day, that’s pretty much the rule I’ve lived by. Don’t worry too much about the politics, don’t worry about the other stuff – just focus on doing the right thing and the P&L will speak for itself.