Leadership Lessons From the Top: In Conversation with Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala

Leadership Lessons From the Top: In Conversation with Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala

Published 6th November 2017
Published 6th November 2017

Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, Chairman and CEO of Ayala Corporation, the holding company of one of the largest and oldest business groups in the Philippines, spoke to HQ Asia, sharing his views on leadership, Filipino talent, and Ayala’s talent recruitment.

As Chairman and CEO of Ayala Corporation, Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, offers years of experience and knowledge around leading in the Philippines. Here he shares some of the most salient lessons. 

What are some of the most influential career or life experiences that have shaped you as a leader?

First, I believe that leadership is not a position — it is action. When leadership is viewed as a non-learnable set of character traits or as equivalent to an exalted position, we fall victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy that consigns society to having only a few good leaders. It is far healthier and more productive for us to start with the assumption that leadership is learnable and it is possible for everyone to lead. Leadership can be exercised on behalf of the school, the church, the community or even the Boy Scouts, in the same way that it can be displayed in the exalted halls of government and corporations. I believe that dynamic societies are those where individuals bring out the best in others, whether they are in the public or private sector, on the front lines or in the senior echelon, or are an employee or volunteer. 

Second, leadership is character. In several research surveys, when people are asked what they look for and admire in a leader, the qualities that were consistently cited were ‘honest’, ‘forward-looking’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘competent’. These characteristics show that, more than anything, we want leaders who are credible. We must be able to believe in them. We must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead. This is sometimes referred to as the first law of leadership: if you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.

Third, leadership requires vision and commitment. Along with credibility of character, we place equal importance on a leaders’ ability to have a vision for the future and the will to make things happen. The ability to paint an uplifting and ennobling picture of the future is what distinguishes leaders from managers. Vision is about possibilities, about desired futures, about changing the world into what it should be.

But leaders do more than dream. They must also have the capability to make it happen. Successful leaders develop goals and strategies to achieve their vision. Their commitment to their goals and vision is exemplified by their actions and their repeated communication of what must be done and why. We see this most vividly in business where leaders can nurture visions from the drawing board to reality. The annals of business are full of stories of how ideas became products and their makers became titans of business and industry. Microsoft, Time Warner, Sony, Samsung and Nike — these icons of business today — were no more than visions a generation or decade ago. 

The final lesson in leadership, and one that I have never forgotten, is this simple fact: no leader can do it alone. Leadership is not a solo act. In the story of every successful organisation, institution or community, you will not find a single example of exceptional achievement without the active involvement and support of many people. However, this collective effort does not just happen. It must be cultivated, nurtured and sustained. Whatever sector we work in, we accomplish goals by empowering others to contribute to the achievement of these goals.

At the end of the day, we must all remember that leadership is not rank, privileges, title or money. It is responsibility. In the crucible of challenge, effective leaders are the ones who remember the lists and rules for leadership and do what has to be done. And these leaders are the difference between success and failure.

What are your thoughts on Filipino talent and how to develop them?

I believe that more than intellectual competence, Filipino workers possess certain character traits that make them highly adaptable to different cultures and environments. They have a fast learning curve, enabling them to acclimatise to the environment and add value to the organisation in a relatively short span of time. Generally, Filipinos are also natural leaders, being able to assume progressively bigger responsibilities over time. They are also flexible and can easily culturally integrate into local environments. In addition, when treated fairly, Filipino workers can be loyal to their employers.

How does Ayala attract young talent?

At Ayala, we hire the best professional talent to run the company. Professional managers fill the chief executive roles and management positions. These leaders are highly educated, well trained and have a wealth of business experience. Ayala empowers them to make decisions. We take a meritocratic approach to management and let leadership flourish from within. This kind of environment has helped us attract the best professional managers and leaders. 

Our deep commitment to creating shared value, as well as economic opportunities to drive the Philippines forwards, also proves to be a compelling reason for talent to join. We constantly search for new sources of growth, either by redefining the businesses we are in or by moving into new industries. As we do so, we are guided by a pioneering spirit that supports nation building and seek to contribute to the overall development of our country. We integrate this philosophy across our corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities and in our various involvements in social and community development, including opportunities for employees to volunteer. 

We also have a portfolio of companies that aims to provide robust long-term career development for employees across the group. As a conglomerate that constantly reinvents its portfolio by incubating and growing new businesses, Ayala presents a variety of opportunities for our talent to cross-pollinate across different roles and industries. 

This article first appeared in HQ Asia Issue 9 (2015). 

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