View from the Top: John-Paul E. Besong, Senior Vice President of e-Business and Lean ElectronicsSM, Rockwell Collins
John-Paul (J.P.) E. Besong is senior vice president of e-Business and Lean ElectronicsSM for Rockwell Collins. Rockwell Collins, with 2006 revenues of approximately $4 billion, is a global company operating with 17,000 employees from more than 60 locations in 27 countries. Mr. Besong is responsible for Rockwell Collins’ e-Business and IT strategies and initiatives, the implementation of SAP and the company’s overall information technology architecture. He is also responsible for the centralized Lean ElectronicsSM organization that facilitates Lean training, Lean benchmarking and for the introduction of new Lean concepts and developments.
Previously, Mr. Besong served as head of the Enterprise Resource Planning system implementation team, a position he was appointed to in 1997. Mr. Besong joined the company in 1979 and has held various management positions of increasing responsibility, including director of Collins Printed Circuits and Fabrication, lead chemical engineer and process control manager for Collins Printed Circuits.
Mr. Besong holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He earned his MBA from the University of Iowa in 1992.
Focus and hard work; focus on the job you have, make commitments, and meet them; it’s that simple. Principally, you have to be qualified for the job. Make sure that your education is sound; your college work is very important, but it’s important to stay hungry. One should focus on being driven and willing to learn the full context of what you’re working on. Understand the environment and stay driven. That’s what’s helped me.
When did you decide to switch from engineering to business?
I didn’t decide, “No more engineering, now I’m in business,” but I realized that within the business environment, I had the ability not only to engineer solutions, but to manage and lead. It wasn’t a calculated strategy, because I rose through the engineering ranks and also was an engineering manager. I had to prove my leadership ability to manage and lead within the engineering ranks, too.
The power of networking. In business, no one is an island. There are some things you can do directly, some things you can influence other people to do. So the ability to network, to convince, to cajole—enables you to get things done in the workplace. I don’t know if there was ever a class that explicitly taught me how to work in a team environment.
How were you able to learn those things? How did you learn to network effectively?
The first thing you do is find a mentor. A mentor offers you awareness and direction. He or she could be anyone within your supervisory chain of command or someone who knows the system, the environment and can direct you. When you’re given an assignment at work to execute, you need to influence others. You need to surround yourself with other perspectives to learn what others know and solve problems. The point is to use that resource effectively to bridge that gap.
For me, it was a natural transition from the college environment, where you had an advisor to direct you to a major and help you decide on what courses to take and what you need to do. When I came into the work environment, it was an extension of those types of relationships. When I was interviewing for jobs, my mentors at the university gave me advice. I’d say, “These are some opportunities I am considering. I’m trying to between these companies, and this is where I think I want to be. What do you think?”
My first mentor, also my first boss, took a personal interest in me and directed me. I realized that he understood the Rockwell Collins work environment, so naturally he became my mentor. I also played soccer, and within the soccer environment I met other Rockwell Collins engineers who had different disciplines. We developed relationships, and I realized they could also guide me. I also discovered that I could offer them my insights.
I believe in the power of mentoring, and I come alive by giving back, by helping other people. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without guidance, and the worst thing I could do is sit quietly and watch others flounder. So I make it my mission to guide, especially people who I find don’t have the self-confidence or the self-assurance to take that first step.
How can someone find a mentor within their company/industry?
If you find someone who has the qualities you seek in a leader, first give them a sense of who you are and what you’re trying to do. Second, let them know you are looking for a mentor, you can say, “I’m in search of someone who can guide me with this; will it be OK if I come to you from time to time? Or, do you know someone else who has the time?” It’s as simple as that. Most of the time, they will say, “I’ll be glad to, and I’m flattered,” or if they can’t, they’ll be willing to help you look for someone else who can. These relationships need to happen naturally. When people are themselves you get to know them better.
Sometimes, I think the formality takes away the ease and the openness. In my own experience, I’ve found that during informal mentoring, when someone agrees to be a mentor, it means they are committed and serious about helping someone. They’re not being told to do it, but they’re doing it because they want to help guide you to the next level.
That’s an interesting phrase—“glass ceiling.” I happen to be a minority, and I have no respect for ceilings because the only one who could stop me is me. I think the essence of the question is if there’s a calculated plan to stop people from advancing further.
American business needs the best talent and the best qualified people for the business to survive in the long run, but I think the path of leadership is not without difficulties. I think you’re going to hit some road blocks. Those road blocks will be there, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a minority or not. The question is how you deal with them, how you navigate, how you differentiate yourself. Most people—minorities and non-minorities, women and men—have hit that wall and floundered. Some have been able to hit that wall and go through.
I don’t look at the world through ceiling or no ceiling; you have to go through some of those gates to be able to get to the top, and the point is if you have the will, if you have the ambition, and if you have the drive to get there. If you do, then time is on your side and you’ll create your own luck; if you don’t, then you can talk about a ceiling. So I don’t spend most of my energy reflecting on the issue of whether it’s a ceiling or not, because the only ceiling that will be in my life is a ceiling I place on myself, not one that someone else has placed.
You mentioned that some people hit the wall and flounder. What did you do differently?
There are three things in my life that are very important: my spiritual strength, my mental strength, and my physical strength. When I hit a road block, those three forces—combined with a patience and focus—allow me to work through challenges. If I look to those, and focus my drive, I’ll succeed. So it’s an internal process that gives you the opportunity to slow down, and look at the world through different lenses. Then you can regroup and move forward.
My most rewarding experience was introducing the SAP business software solutions applications and services system to our company. I led the integration of all of our business units onto one platform. Although it was difficult, the project transformed how we work inside Rockwell Collins.
It was tough because not only did the system issues have to change, but the way people work had to change. I had to pull every arrow within my quiver to get the project to take off, and it was implemented successfully. When I look back now, it looks like a no-brainer, but I didn’t know whether or not we would be successful. But I didn’t do it by myself. It was a matter of motivating and influencing people to work together and complete the project. So it was a real test of my leadership and project management capabilities.
The project was not only a risk for the business, but it was also a personal risk for me.
Is there a way to calculate those risks?
The most important thing to do is to assess the risk profile of the project. For example, if the probability of success is only 20 percent, even though those are not good odds, there’s still a chance for success with the right resources. In my case, given the right resources and managing them effectively I knew I was going to reach my goal.
What would you most like to change about your career?
Sometimes, I work too hard because failure is not an option for me. I believe there are two types of failure: miserable and noble. Noble failure is when you take a calculated risk, put forth your best effort and yet still have an unfavorable outcome. You learn and grow from these types of failures. Miserable failure is when you misallocate resources, blame others and do not take responsibilities for your actions.
As a driven executive, sometimes I forget that failure is a natural part of success. Sometimes I wish I could change that about myself, but if I did, I don’t know if I would be where I am today.
What impact has your career had on your personal and family life? Do you have any special techniques, methods and philosophies that help you maintain a work/life balance and be a successful professional?
I don’t know that I can define work/life balance. I know I am a dad and if I am not meeting my commitment to my sons and being home when they need me, something is wrong. If I have to choose between my responsibility as a dad and working here, it’s a forced choice. I don’t look at my role as a dad and a leader through that frame; I look at it as a commitment to my children as I try to raise them to be solid citizens. I also value my commitment and responsibilities as a part of the leadership team.
Was balancing your work and family something you learned over time?
It didn’t just come to me; I prepare myself to be adaptable, which means my plans will always change because even in the battlefields, no plan ever survives the first encounter or first contact with the enemy. So the balance really doesn’t exist.
My father, an only child, didn’t know his real father, yet he lived what I call a very successful life. He taught me that the keys to success are hanging on and keeping perspective. He always had high expectations for me as the oldest son. He is my inspiration and my drive.
I think the true thing is to be yourself, stay driven and bring integrity to everything you do.
If you were not in your current position, what would your dream career be?
Earlier we spoke about how rewarding it is for me to help others. I hope that someday I can take my success and share it with others. I would like to create my own nonprofit organization to continue to be of service to those less fortunate.