Tony Black spent twenty years with United Technologies, Otis Elevator Division, in global leadership roles across China, Japan and the US. He started with UTC as a test engineer and following his Master of Business Administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business continued to navigate a global, cross functional and agile career path. Tony is recognized in MIT, Harvard, and Darden business case studies for leadership in service operations, lean manufacturing and sales expansion. He is currently President, Services at Husky injection Molding Systems based in Canada.
What from your background, work, or life experience do you credit for your success?
The way that I think and problem solve can be attributed to my first career as an engineer. I’ve found that my ability to problem solve in a logical way has been a good foundation for my later career moves. My decision to leave engineering and pursue something else wasn’t an easy one; I decided to go get an MBA, which ended up being a tipping point in changing my entire career trajectory. Today, working and pursuing higher education may be more manageable in different companies, but it was a huge sacrifice for me. I decided to completely leave my job and go all in on the MBA program. Even though I left that early engineering job, I didn’t throw away all of the experience that I gained there. It is still really valuable to my foundation and how I approach new things.
How did you know it was time to do something different?
Sometimes you reach a point where, inside, you’re feeling that it’s time to do something new, but you’re still not sure. I say that you should trust your instinct and go for it. It may seem risky, it may seem like you’re giving up safety and stability, but as I look back on the risks I’ve taken, they’ve all been really critical to my career success. Another important question to ask yourself is if you’re being stretched to your full potential.
When I was an engineer, I was getting comfortable and really wanted to learn more. Having a learning mindset is another thing that I talk about a lot in relation to my career. The feeling of learning new things in an environment where you’re constantly challenged and continuously given the opportunity to try new things is empowering. I felt like I needed more of that, so I took a risk to move towards it and it’s really been an important instinct that I tap into when I’m feeling like it’s time to try something new. Searching for a new challenge doesn’t necessarily mean you have mastered your current job, but when things are going really smoothly, you may want a change. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave a company either. I was with the same company for a long time, but I was able to do different jobs all over the world that I wasn’t necessarily “trained” for, but my desire to learn and try new things inspired me to take on those challenges.
One piece of advice is to recognize the value in letting opportunities come to you, rather than always searching for the “next best thing.” Once you get into a new role, get as much as you can out of it before searching for something new. Growth opportunities will come to you. Sometimes you’ll have to search a bit harder for them, but when you’re really focused on doing a great job and coming up with and implementing creative ideas, you’ll get the most out of where you are and doors will open for you. There’s a real need for generators of ideas and innovation in any company, and when you’re known as someone who can come up with ideas and solutions and who actually gets involved with implementing and doing it, you’ll get noticed.
You had worked in the same company (United Technologies) for over 20 years, which is more rare today. What has influenced your decision to stay for so long?
I’ve almost always worked in very large companies, but they’ve all had a culture of enabling people to try new things. If I was interested in something new, I had a shot at doing it, but you have to have the courage to ask and share your interests with others.
Early in my career, I remember going to my boss at the time about an opening, knowing I wasn’t the natural or traditional person to fill that open role. However, through the conversation with my boss and the company’s culture, I got a shot at that role and really enjoyed it. If you’re in that type of company, taking initiative and sharing your interests and ideas with others will bring you towards new opportunities. Of course, there is some risk and hard work involved in taking those stretch roles. I don’t think I was ever in complete failure mode, but there were definitely times when I could tell some roles weren’t a great fit for me. Not every role is perfect for everyone. Sometimes you have to evolve to the role to make it more of a fit or evolve the role to better fit your own strengths. I think those opportunities, though, are why I’ve stayed at the same company for so long. I’ve been able to do different jobs all over the world and continue to grow and try new things.
What are some highs and lows or advice you would give about pursuing a global career?
For the first half of my career, I only worked in North America. I worked all over the US, but never abroad. One day, I saw an opportunity for a role in Australia and talked to my boss about it. It had two brand new aspects for my career: P&L and global. I was nervous, but excited. During our conversation, he told me he didn’t want to send me to Australia for that role, but that there was another opening in Japan. I never intended to go to Japan, but it ended up being a really amazing, life-changing experience.
Our company there is one of the older joint ventures – at the time, it was 70 years old – and had never had a Western leader. Since I was the first, there was some adjustment, and the company had been experiencing some change and underperformance before I started. It was certainly difficult at the beginning (especially since it meant a move for my whole family) but in the end, it was such a great experience. I ended up moving back to the US and then back to Japan a second time for another opportunity. When I went back, the things we had put in place many years before were still in place, which, to me, is a great measure of success.
I think the one thing that’s really important when working abroad is to be humble and to listen a lot. In so many situations, I try to really understand the situation, listen, and try to meet the right people to help with success. Those people aren’t always senior people in the company, but connecting with influential people who are authentic and sincere with you is critical. Whenever you’re in a new situation – and this is true for all experiences – it is important to recognize the good things others are doing. Even when performance may seem bad, there’s always good things to recognize and that creates a foundation on which you can build with others.
Until you live and work in another country, you don’t really know what global experience is. A few years before moving to Japan, I worked in a “global” job and travelled a lot and thought I had a wealth of global experience from that. I learned a lot about cultural sensitivity, but it wasn’t until I actually lived in Japan that I truly understood the cultural, professional, and communication differences. You can’t just go into a company for a couple of weeks and expect to understand everything. If you’re interested in working in a global company, then you need to live and work in another country, period. A lot of people in my current and prior companies have done that and it adds a lot of strength to yourself and the company you’re working for.
Is there anything you might have done differently in the past or would still like to do in the future?
Looking back, something I’ve learned is to trust my gut instinct. Your gut instinct is almost always right, and I wish I had listened to mine more. I would also not take as long to make some of the decisions I’ve made throughout my career. I think I spend a lot of time trying to be perfect versus just getting going and trying and adjusting as I go. I’ve learned that it’s better to just make the decision and adjust as you go than to worry about the “right” way to do something. Quick and dirty is better than slow and fancy.
I recently made another big career change that’s been on my bucket list. I recently joined a small private company, which is something I wanted to do before I retired. I felt like I had worked for a long time on my experience and knowledge of the service industry, and I wanted to challenge myself and try out a new industry. I’m now in a smaller company in a new industry and back in the US, and I’m taking my professional “playbook” to see if it works! It was a big move, but the timing was right, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit.
What’s a bit of career advice that has really served you well?
Taking time to prepare is critical. I’ve had a lot of different bosses, and I’ve learned a lot from them. One in particular taught me a lot about preparing for meetings and presentations. Sometimes you can wing it, but I think it’s always better to invest and prepare. You never know who you’re going to be interfacing with. Good preparation for whatever you’re doing in your job or throughout your career is worthwhile, and you can’t underestimate the importance of it. That boss would always tell me: “When you go home, look in the mirror and do your presentation. Listen to yourself and practice.” He was the CEO of a company, and that advice is something I’ve kept with me throughout my career.