When I graduated and started training to become a chartered accountant, I never thought that one day I would write a book. But through the course of a career that led me from audit to corporate HR via management consultancy, one question always fascinated me.
What does it take to get to the top?
The answer became less academic and more urgent when I was about to step into my first senior executive position. Here was a new world to which I had no access previously, but within which I would now suddenly have to be effective. The expectation was that, somehow, I was supposed to know how things work at that level and what to do. It was both baffling and terrifying!
Knowing that I was by no means alone in having gone through this transition I wanted to find out how to both ensure and speed up effectiveness for aspiring leaders.
This was something I could do in my consultancy work and something that great clients wanted. As it happens, this has also been the career path my husband, Emmanuel Gobillot, has followed, so between us, we have access to a wide range of senior people across all sorts of organisations.
We used the rather long and frequent journeys between London and one of our clients in Melbourne in 2017 to hatch a plan that would culminate in our book, Unleash Your Leader.
We went through all our senior contacts – those who had already made it to C Suite roles and asked them to explore with us three questions:
1)What are the unique requirements of a top leadership role?
2)How should I go about meeting these?
3)How can I display my newfound leadership skills in my current role to be spotted as a leader in waiting?
As with any thorough research exercise, we were inundated with information! But as our conversations continued, we started to unearth some powerful themes and commonalities. These three themes became the framework of our book. We explored, we tested, we interviewed and rewrote with one aim in mind: how do we make our findings practical to help anyone become the leader they aspire to be.
Unlike the leaders we interviewed, as company owners, we have the considerable luxury of deciding how we allocate our time. We also had an amazing advantage – our work is largely focused around executive capability and development, and this has meant that, with every unfolding client assignment, we were able to test and re-test the developing contents of our book.
So what did we find?
In a nutshell, the first thing we discovered was that you can never ignore the basics – you have to know your stuff, speak finance fluently, and be someone who colleagues seek out and want to work with.
Along with these must-haves there are three elements of executive roles which aspiring executives need to start incorporating into their existing jobs in order to prepare themselves:
To succeed you must scan your environment from the broadest perspective and bring the outside in. You need to have networks that span far beyond the obvious to unearth value others seldom see.
In practice, this means having curiosity to search, willingness to hear, skill to combine and courage to rise above narrow-minded considerations so as to challenge received wisdom.
The ramp up in complexity, breadth, time pressure and noise that comes with making leadership decisions is always underestimated. The ability to roll up sleeves on the ground at the same time as making decisions strategically can catch out even the most seasoned professional.
You need filters to simplify whilst being mindful not to be derailed by being overly simplistic. You need some plans that stay firm, but others you quickly and willingly let go when the environment demands.
The lens leaders operate under is microscopic. Everything you say and do is watched and analyzed. Even your thoughts are extrapolated from your words and deeds.
You must appeal to multiple constituencies by being flexible enough to adapt your message (differentiation) without ever compromising on what you hold to be true (consistency).
There is one practical insight amongst the many we heard, recorded and shared in the book that has stayed with us as the best way to demonstrate readiness for the top. That trick is to always ask yourself “what lessons can I draw from this which will be useful for my team, my peers and my superiors?” If you can make your colleagues, superiors and stakeholder stronger and more capable in their practice they will never wonder why you should be a senior leader but rather why you are not one already.
Unleash Your Leader by Katherine Thomas and Emmanuel Gobillot is available now. Published by Urbane Business.