Orlando Ashford Gives Advice on Balancing Success and Managing Your Brand
By Beverly Richards
Uptown Professional scored a coup recently, in arranging an interview with one of corporate America’s fastest rising and busiest global executives, Mercer’s Orlando Ashford. An in-demand speaker and presenter with global responsibilities in more than 100 countries, it is routine for Ashford to wake up on any continent in any time zone in pursuit of his company’s business and interests.
Meet Orlando Ashford. A powerhouse at the age of 44, he has made a mark in the community as well as on the global corporate landscape. He is currently the president of Mercer’s Talent Business Segment. Mercer is a global leader in talent, health, retirement and investments. As a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Marsh & McLennan Companies (NYSE: MMC), Mercer helps clients around the world advance the health, wealth, and performance of their most vital asset—their people. Mercer has more than 20,500 employees based in 40 countries and operates in over 140 countries throughout the world.
Ashford, a gregarious, ﬁt executive at 6’4” is the picture of urbane manner and distinction. He routinely stands out in a crowd, not because he is an African American or exhibits the good looks and charisma of Michael Jordan or Denzel Washington. Orlando stands out and commands attention because he has an aura of conﬁdence and consciousness that lets everyone in his presence recognize that here is a man who is going places. Here is an executive who is focused and will get exactly what he has come for.
Ashford is an all-American success story, born of working class parents. His mother was his first mentor. She was his driving force. She had high expectations of him. Ashford’s mother strategically filled his home with books and articles for him to read, preparing him for a successful career in business and leadership. To stay abreast of what he was reading, his mother also read the books that he was assigned in school.
Orlando feels that mentorship is important for the ambitious. But his insight and outlook on the traditional mentor/mentee relationship has an interesting twist. “A mentor is someone who allows you to take advantage of their experience in thirty minute intervals,” says Ashford. “Never ask someone to be your mentor. That’s like asking to marry them. Just ask for the date.” And he sees sponsorship as being distinctively different from mentorship.
“A sponsor is the person willing to co-sign for you. That needs to be cultivated. You need that to aspire to the C-Suite. A sponsor is more important than a mentor. The job I have today, my board position at ITT, is all as a result of someone who sponsored me.”Ashford has leveraged mentors and sponsors to engineer a meteoric rise up the corporate ladder. He has a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and Industrial Technology from Purdue University. Ashford has held successive positions of authority and responsibility at blue chip Fortune 50 Companies like Motorola, where he ran Global Organizational Development, and the Coca-Cola Company where he was in charge of Human Resources for all of Eurasia and Africa.
He went on from Coca-Cola to eventually run all of Human Resources simultaneously with corporate communications from the C-Suite at the Marsh & McLennan Companies. Only a small handful of executives in corporate America have held the honor of running those two distinct areas at the same time. Ashford credits current manager, Mercer president & CEO, Julio A. Portalatin, former CEO Brian Duperreault, and Will Lucas, his executive coach, as mentors responsible for helping him achieve the success he is presently experiencing at Mercer.
Ability to connect
There are essentials, or fundamental core competencies that Ashford sees as critical to the success of today’s global executive. “Being smart, having technical skills and being passionate about opportunity are important. People skills and the ability to connect with all different types of people from top to bottom in an organization are critical. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but can you move on from your mistakes and have cultural dexterity?” he asks rhetorically. “You must be agile and have flexibility.
The business abroad is dynamic. Excellent communication and listening skills are a must. You must have a talented team and not be totally dependent on personal perspective and point of view. The leader that calls all the shots makes me nervous,” warns Ashford. Clearly Ashford has grasped his opportunity, as Mercer counts 80 percent of all US public companies as its clients. But also a large percentage of its clients have fewer than 5,000 employees—so Mercer has great depth and breadth to serve a wide range of client profiles.Although highly ambitious with a tenacious and clear vision of his future, Ashford has “an affinity for persons who are underserved” and is passionate about his family, particularly about his sons and their development.
His focus on preparing his sons for their future mirrors what he feels is critical to the executive seeking a rise to the C-Suite of a global corporation today. “Both of my children are studying Spanish and Chinese. Cultural dexterity needs to be cultivated. One needs to make impact. That’s what companies are looking for. Aspiring for accelerated growth means you take risks and are comfortable with it. When I joined Motorola, the stock was low but the opportunities were great. With Coca-Cola, I was offered the chance to grow abroad and that expanded my horizons.”
“Balance is inappropriate and sets people up. It’s really trying to manage being out of balance. It is an awareness of getting with the people you’re a part of. I am constantly focused on getting back home for the things that are important to the family.
I had to learn that vacation is important. It makes a better executive.” Orlando also relaxes at times playing golf, and his friends know him to be an avid golfer. However, that does not mean that his avocation is not applied to, or reflected against his work. When asked whether golf had been an asset to his career, he immediately says, “Yes! There are few things where you can spend a significant amount of time with people. After a round of golf I can tell if I want to do business with someone. Golf gives exposure and access to people allowing one to connect.
”Ashford does not see challenges in his business as much as he sees opportunities—for the firm and its brand, for individuals, and for managing growth. He is confident his business will meet or exceed expectations.”Branding opportunities are important. Assisting companies and individuals to manage their growth for me is key.”
When asked about diversity and inclusion at Mercer, and whether it is a key differentiator for the firm, Ashford responds, “At Mercer, we help our clients around the world maximize the potential of their human capital and stay competitive in an increasingly complex and diverse marketplace. Diversity is one of our core values and our diversity efforts center not only around our commitment to our clients, but also around our commitment to our employees and to the communities in which we work.”
Since 2009, Ashford has sat on the Board of Directors of the Executive Leadership Council. In this organization, he can ask senior level executives of color the difficult questions and get answers. His 2012 appointment to the Board of Directors at ITT Corporation is a dream of many executives. In discussion of how one gets that type of an opportunity he explains, “You have to develop a reputation for impact and being a good executive. You want your area of expertise to be brought to the table. Are you a good business guy? Do you have the stuff to be successful in the Board Room? Do you know what people will say about you when they get that phone call? It’s all about creating that network.”
When asked to offer advice to the executive reaching for the top, or someone seeking to maximize corporate experience, he expounds, “Impact and deliver every day. Work on your speaking skills, particularly as a presenter with energy that galvanizes, motivates and inspires. Think about your personal brand as early as you can. Building your brand is critical.” Orlando Ashford, President of Mercer’s Talent Business Segment, is clearly a winning brand.