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Leadership Insights: How to make it to the top

 April 30, 2013

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Not everyone wants to run a company or be a senior leader. But those who do need to think about their career, their achievements and their presentation in a particular way.

At Enterprise we place a lot of emphasis on developing people in order to be our future leaders because as a business we only promote from within. Our management trainees will one day be the leaders of our company.

As a business that is committed to diversity, this presents particular challenges.

One of the starting points of a diversity strategy is that talent is not always self-evident and worthy candidates can easily be overlooked for promotion.

A commitment to diversity must therefore recognise that good candidates often lack confidence in their abilities as well as the skills to pursue promotion.

So, businesses that value diversity need to train their people to get better at promoting themselves. There needs to be a special focus on those whose backgrounds, culture or characteristics may create a context that fosters caution or doesn’t encourage self-belief.

In short, don’t assume because you’re talented that you’re going to get spotted even once you’re in a business. You need to package your skills carefully and present them to others – don’t be shy about what you can do.

We’ve been piloting a range of initiatives to provide this education to ensure everyone in the business is equally skilled at identifying their career goals realistically and actively pursuing them.

Some of these have been pretty intensive, focused on individual mentoring or small group sessions.

These have been very nurturing and we’ve had good results. However, we also wanted to create a platform that would help to develop good networking skills and expose our talented people to each other as well as to the most senior management in the business.

We therefore devised the Leadership Forum, a two day residential conference for 50 high-flying female and BAME middle managers to focus exclusively on the leadership behaviours and personal skills they would need to take control of their career progression.

It was a “top to future top” format and our senior managers were briefed to use stories to bring out some of the lessons that they had learnt along the way.

Fortunately we live in the age of Twitter because great sound bites came flying so quick and fast we would not have been able to track and record them otherwise.  Search on #ERACforum if you want to read them all (and see a few photos) but here are my favourites. Some as you will see border on the philosophic. Others are much more pragmatic. But it’s all good advice for anyone wanting to move into the most senior levels of a business:

“Work ethic isn't about the number of hours you work but about the quality of your work.”  This was a recurring theme of the day: quality over quantity. Don’t spread yourself too thinly; give yourself time to focus on what’s truly important and what will deliver value to your business and to those working with you.

“The most important thing you can do as a leader is promote opportunity for your people.”  We have the opportunity today to build a future leadership team that nurtures talent and that ensures that the belief we have in diversity today is sustained into tomorrow. Anyone seeking promotion needs to demonstrate how they have helped to develop their employees. We don’t just want to hear about how great they are - we want to see evidence of how great their team has become as well. 

And that goes further into how you make decisions for the future: “The ability to make a decision that is not necessarily in your interests, to put yourself second - that is true leadership.” Doing the right things right sometimes means doing something you don’t want. It’s also associated with another leadership quality: knowing that you won’t always be popular or liked for the decisions you make.

“Being liked vs. being respected is a very difficult piece to accept when you step into management.” 

Businesses are talking more and more about the social impact and value that they bring beyond the bottom line and profits. So part of our training for our future managers - and part of what they have to demonstrate to be promoted - is how they have given back, and what they have learnt from this. “Be a coach, be a trainer, be something to other people, give back to the community that you live in.”

What is personal brand? “Personal brand is your appearance, how you sound and how you act.” How do you come across to people? How would others describe you? If there is one thing we all know about leaders it’s that everyone has an opinion about what they’re like. Are you ready for what others might say about you when you take on that senior role?

Many people speak about the personal brand in relation to social media. This is one important aspect: think about which networks you participate in, and perhaps more critically, how you participate in them. If you’re a specialist in a particular sector looking for greater seniority in that role then there will be value in developing an online presence that demonstrates your expertise.

“Being reflective of my skills set helped me form my career plan.” Knowing your strengths is important – but knowing your weaknesses is critical. You need both sides of the coin to succeed and be a credible leader that others respect.

“As a working mum, make the triangle between home, school and work as small as possible so you can be at and in all three easily.” The road to success requires reflection, devotion and a willingness to do what is difficult, as well as humility and acceptance. Doing this takes time and “mind space” - so I wanted to finish on a really practical piece of advice because being senior is about well-managed logistics and good planning too. Long commutes are draining. So is never getting to see your daughter’s play or hear your son’s choir because you work so far away. Create the right physical circumstances that will enable you to succeed and get everything done without feeling stretched.

In this summary of some of the career “touchstones” of our senior team I’ve tried to pick out examples that I believe are general to all businesses.

There are certain practices at Enterprise that make us different from many other companies. But I think most businesses today are looking for many of the same qualities from their leaders.

 In developing our senior leaders, we are committed to providing the support and structure to allow everyone the opportunity to achieve their goals - because we know that’s how we will get the best results for our people, our customers and our business.

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