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Leadership Edge: former Chief Human Resources Officer of the World Economic Forum Paolo Gallo

I had the pleasure of interviewing Paolo Gallo, former Chief Human Resources Officer of the World Economic Forum. Prior to joining the Forum, Paolo was the Chief Learning Officer at the World Bank in Washington DC and Director of Human Resources at EBRD in London. Paolo has designed and implemented a consulting service at the International Finance Corporation and provided advice on corporate restructuring and leadership to the World Bank’s external clients. Paolo is the author of several Forbes magazine, HBR (Italian Edition), the World Economic Forum, and his new book The Compass and The Radar.

Who are you? Ah! A philosophical question! I would say that I am a person that has a keen interest in positive impact and in helping people in their professional life. Over the course of my career, I learned that I have a mission that is much more profound and meaningful than making money at the end of the fiscal year. That motivation led to working in human resources and organizations with a strong social impact — such as the World Bank and EBRD. The way I see it, I’ve had a great fortune and luck to be able to work in organizations with the perfect combination of social interest to do something good in the world, and the personal interest to do something good for the people in the organization.

You mentioned that you are motivated by both a social interest to make something impact in the world, and personal interest to do something impactful for the people in your organization. What would you say are your motivators? What drives your decisions? This is an interesting question, and in fact, it is in my book. I believe that in every organization, there are two types of personalities- there are mercenaries and there are missionaries. The two personalities are different, but one is not better than the other.

1. Mercenaries are people who are often driven by personal agenda. These individuals tend to be driven, have strong personalities, are politically astute, and are people who fundamentally play a game for themselves. 2. Missionaries, on the other hand, are people that are motivated by something different. Instead of asking ‘when is my next promotion or raise’ missionaries tend to ask ‘what do I stand for? What do I believe? What are the things that I am prepared to dedicate and devote to my professional life? What are the sacrifices I am willing to make’ Missionaries try to find the reason that drives them.

For me, I relate to the second category of people.

To your second question- what else motivates me. Frankly, it is essential for me to see that the impact that I do or that my organization does makes sense. I often ask myself –does that make sense for the organization? The country? The individual?’.

What steps did you take that you believe emerging leaders could emulate? I would say that I would not put myself as a reference point. But perhaps, I would suggest emerging leaders focus on asking the right questions. Asking the right questions is crucial. Let me give you an example, and this is a core part of my book. How do you define a successful career? If you define success in terms of making as much money as you can, as soon as you can, or obtaining that promotion, you may end up framing your career in a certain way. It may become a rat race, and the people around you become competitors or enemies. But if you ask a different question — if you ask what makes me happy. What gives me satisfaction or joy? You end up with different answers, a different framework. You think of relationships with others as meaningful. You establish trust with the people around you. My advice is not to follow anybody. Surely not me. However, make sure that you are asking yourself the right questions. Understand what you love, what you are good at, and spend time on that until you become better and better.

But also, keep listening. Listen to the feedback from others and the world. For example, I am very passionate about tennis. I love tennis, and if I could, I would devote my time to be a tennis star. However, I have no talent. Everyone and their dog and pets could beat me at tennis. So I would suggest to first, listen to your passion, but second, also ensure that your passion corresponds with your talent.

What are your thoughts on taking risks? What have you learned from taking risks in your professional or personal life? Just the fact that I left my job at the World Economic Forum in June was a bit of a risk because I am reinventing my career at a later phase in life. I was leaving a very good job with a great salary and many perks. Over the years, I knew I wanted to do something different. And now, I’m teaching at universities. I’m a coach. I’m giving speeches. I wrote this book. I won’t lie to you, in the end, there is a part of you that sometimes wonder if it was a mistake. But this little nagging voice happens every time you get out of your comfort zone. Any time when we do something new, when we move to another country, start a new job when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances.

I believe that the idea of taking risks, of pursuing something different, is worth it. And the more you do it in your life — if you do this three or four times — it becomes a normality for you. You know that you can do it, you’ve already proved to yourself that you have done it before.

If you stay in your comfort zone all of your life, you may become terrified to change, and you will never do it. And I genuinely believe you’ll be missing a lot of fun.

And sooner or later, someone is going to beat you at your game — someone younger and faster and maybe more qualified. So really, choosing the less risky option is actually the higher risk choice.

When you face adversity, how do you decide to continue or to move on? All of my book chapters are titled after songs. I love music. And there is a chapter in my book called ‘Should I stay or Should I go.’ It’s a wonderful song from a band called Clash. The premise of the chapter is when is it the right moment to go. And to go, I mean leaving the organization or the job.

A lot of people may think of the answer to that exclusively based on time. For example, the common advise is you shouldn’t stay more than six years or stay at least three years. And this is true. Generally, you cannot join an organization and leave three months later. In this chapter, there is a timing element attached to this question. But the real question is not about whether I should stay three or five years, but based on three main criteria:

1. Are you learning something? Are you improving as an individual, a professional? Or are you doing more of the same things every day? 2. Do you have an impact? Does what you do have meaning? 3. Are you respected as an individual in your organization? I don’t mean by title or pay or promotion, but by your colleagues, your boss, and your mentors.

Do you have anything you want to share? I’d love to share the story behind why I titled my new book ‘The Compass and The Radar.’ There are two symbolic objects you need in your career. The first is the compass because this is fundamentally about a sense of direction. Your compass is your value system, what you believe in, what you live for. For example, are you a firm believer in human rights? Or gender parity? These are all sets of moral values that drives you in your professional life. The second object is a radar. The radar symbolizes the capacity, the antenna’s to capture what is happening around you. You need to understand the organization that you work in, which is usually a complex social system. And then you need to understand the bigger picture of what is happening in the world right now. For example, do you know the demographic dynamics? Do you understand artificial intelligence? The creation or destruction of jobs? I wrote this book to help people. No matter who you are — how young or old or senior or early experience, no matter what industry or whatever journey you take, you need these two instruments. You need the compass to show you the direction and the way you want to go, and you need the radar to spot opportunities and dangers in your environment.

You are very intimately connected with the concept of future of work from the World Economic Forum, and I see a lot of elements of that theme in your book. Outside of the compass and the radar, how would you recommend for something to future-proof their career? What can we do now to make sure our jobs will not be obsolete in 20 or 30 years? Right now, in the United States, there are 7 million jobs and 6.4 million unemployed workers. It looks like a nirvana-there are more jobs than people. It sounds really great, very cool! But the problem is that 80% of the people that currently do not have a job in the US, do not have the skills to fill the positions that are available. We do not have any more unemployed people. We have unemployable people. That’s a different story. So what does this mean for the individual? The individual has to continually learn to keep your skills updated, and frankly, learn how to learn. Learn how to collaborate, learn how to work with complex organizations and complex situations. Develop the contextual intelligence and the capacity to connect the dots.

I wrote an article to say that to learn machine learning, you have to become a learning machine yourself. Constantly learn. It doesn’t mean you need to accumulate degrees. You can learn from movies, from books, from an interview, from conversations. For example, I met two young entrepreneurs a few days ago, literally 26 years old, who started their own company in the music industry. And they are explaining what is happening in the industry. Much has changed. In the past, you do a record, and the record company sets the price. Now, everything is on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook,, and it’s a bit of a different game.

So there is so much you can learn, and so many places you can learn it from.

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