Dan Yaung is the Vice President, Global Electronics for Autoliv; the world’s largest automotive safety supplier. Dan’s career has spanned industries, and crossed functions and geographies. Dan was a global leader with Honeywell including two international assignments in Germany and Switzerland. He started his career at General Electric on the finance leadership program and their esteemed corporate audit staff. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School, a BA in Finance from Michigan State and currently resides in Detroit, MI.
How did you get started in your career?
I started my career in the GE Financial Management Program, a two and a half year training program made up of six month job rotations combined with advanced business learning. During this time, I had the privilege of meeting Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE. When one of my fellow trainees heard his message that GE employees should feel empowered to do the right thing and that they should act in a boundaryless manner, she took his words to heart and directly contacted Jack and asked him to come speak to our trainee class. I think if she would have gone through proper channels to do this, it likely would never have happened.
Jack displayed the candor that he was famous for. One of the things he said made a huge impact on how I look at career opportunities and management responsibility. Somebody made a comment about how they saw a loyal, dedicated employee passed over for a promotion. Jack told us that while loyalty is good, you always have to pick the best person for the job. That was common sense, and I expected to hear something like that, but I didn’t expect to hear what he said next.
Jack said that the same thing went for us and our career choices. We had to pick the career path that gave us the best options (balancing short, medium, and long term opportunities), and if GE no longer gave us the best path, we needed to leave, and GE would deserve to lose us. He told us that as future GE managers, we had to keep in mind that it was our responsibility to ensure that we were laying out the best career options for our people, or we would lose them and deserve to do so.
Six years later in my career at GE, I was 27 years old, newly married, had just bought my first house, and GE was paying for my MBA at the University of Chicago’s part-time program. I was responsible for an asset-based financing portfolio at the time, and one of my clients asked me to leave GE to be his CFO. I was very happy with where I was at the time and had turned him down several times, but each time, he came back with another offer. I had a great boss at GE, who I sat down to discuss my life and career aspirations. He helped me realize that while my career at GE was on a very strong trajectory, the CFO offer was a unique opportunity that offered many things that GE couldn’t at that time.
When I look back at that critical decision, I am always so grateful that my boss was a wonderful person who helped me look after my best interests.
To what do you credit your success from your background or work or life experiences?
Early in my career, I admired business leaders who were extremely well rounded and understood the many facets of their organizations. I decided to create my own personal development program and focused on broadening my experience while making sure I could also leverage my key strength in technical & analytical skills. I took a cross functional role in Marketing and later one in HR. Both were essential in broadening my overall business perspective and allowed me to be a stronger leader.
In my personal life, I’m a voracious reader, and I think that has also been a huge help. In much of literature, you’re trying to attain a deeper understanding of the characters – what they’re going through, what motivates them, etc. The ability to analyze with empathy has been extremely useful in my career where I’ve worked mostly within larger companies. Multinational corporations are very complex, and most projects tend to involve multiple stakeholders who have widely varying needs.
I’ve seen some very bright people make the mistake of looking at a project or situation and only approaching it from their own perspective. I frequently coach my younger employees and managers to look at all of the key stakeholders in any situation and determine what each one wants and prioritizes. In large matrixed organizations, it’s rare to have direct authority over every aspect of a project, so it’s critical to understand all of the different viewpoints and goals in order to most effectively align the team.
What is something you did or took advantage of that has served you well?
I spent nearly three years on the GE Audit Staff. The Audit Staff had a very intimidating reputation within GE. If you passed the interview process, you then had to work a one month “pilot”, after which they would decide whether to keep you or send you back to your GE business. Once on the Audit Staff, you would work insane hours and travel nearly 100% of the time. It was an extremely challenging experience, but I learned so much. Among my projects, I worked on M&A pricing models for a financial subsidiary just off Wall Street, performed a large acquisition integration in Brussels & Paris, reviewed joint venture strategy across southeast Asia, and helped start up a financial services firm in Mexico City. That’s an unbelievably rich, global, cross functional and cross industry experience all within one company.
When I left GE to take the CFO position, I had to drop out of my MBA program at the University of Chicago. A few years later, I decided to complete my MBA – this time at Harvard Business School. The MBA program at Chicago was perfectly suited to my strengths (highly quantitative and analytical), but the HBS program challenged me in areas where I was uncomfortable. The case study method frequently presented complex situations where you first needed to see the big picture and then prioritize the issues to tackle. In addition, class participation made up 50% of the grade so you had to clearly articulate your point of view and back it up with compelling evidence. As someone with introverted tendencies, the HBS program pushed me further out of my comfort zone, and I really benefited from it and it has served me well.
I am also extremely grateful that I was able to take an expat assignment. At Honeywell, I was asked to be part of a leadership team that was headquartered just outside of Hamburg, Germany. I didn’t speak a word of German and had never even visited Germany, but my wife and I decided that it was not only a good career opportunity but also a great life experience for our young children. After two years in Germany, I was asked to take on another global role and my family and I ended up spending four years in the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland. These international experiences were amazing for me and my family. We had so many great experiences and made a plethora of wonderful friends. As for my daughters, growing up in multiple cultures was a very formative experience which has given them such a great perspective about the world we live in.