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Keith McCambridge

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art of getting things done The art of getting things done by Keith McCambridge
Getting to the top Getting to the top - it's not (just) who you are, but where you've been by Keith McCambridge

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Collecting the badges to be CEO

In a previous article (Getting to the top – it’s not who you are, but where you’ve been – click here) we outlined the chunks of experience that are highly valued when a candidate is being considered for a CEO role with significant scale. In this piece, we identify how these experiences are typically acquired.

CEOs and Executive Directors usually (not always) gain the necessary experience over many years, with individuals often collecting several of the requisite badges in their 30s. This model may change, of course, with evolving demographic and societal developments, but nevertheless gaining P&L responsibility early on is likely to continue to be valuable. This early exposure to true responsibility, risk and reward allows the executive to learn vital lessons, and then to scale this expertise through subsequent experiences.  And to be clear, leading across scale is a completely different proposition to leading, for example, a single team, site or business unit.

Breadth is valuable

Interestingly, Executive Directors with functional responsibility – eg CFOs, Group HR Directors, CTOs, CMOs – are increasingly expected to have this breadth too, albeit perhaps not to the same degree.  Many of the best performers in these functional roles have worked outside their core discipline and in a range of settings, so adding dimensionality to their track record, enhancing their ability to contribute to the wider business agenda.

There can be some harsh messages in this demand for breadth. For functional or technical leaders with 20+ years experience under their belts, but none outside their own area of expertise, the change of gear required can be enormous. The personal development work needed can be intense if they are to have a shot at an Executive role.  This realisation can come as a galvanising challenge, or a crushing disappointment, for those with the C suite as their career goal.

The competitive nature of business is critical to our understanding of career planning. Boards rightly look for the best available talent to take on leadership roles, so reducing the risk of appointment, and increasing the likelihood of success for the organisation and its customers. In some ways of course, chunks of experience are more visible on the CV than skills or abilities, offering the recruiter a convenient early filter.

Lessons for Aspiring Executive Leaders

Our experience suggests the best talent intuitively understands all of this. They actively seek roles and indeed organisations that will give them the requisite exposure and variety to enhance their potential. Consequently, some organisations are not attractively structured to them – if a business has only one or two true P&Ls for example, where is the training ground for the future General Managers?

The lesson for aspiring executives is this – great organisations are rarely led by functional specialists, they are led by leaders with a breadth of composite experience gained throughout their career.  It can take a great deal of time to build this breadth and then scale it to the level required.  Start now, deliver well, and then push for roles that will round you out as an executive.

Lessons for Organisations

As an organisation, if you want healthy succession bench strength for the Executive team, your structure needs to allow professionals to start to learn the ropes of general management early on, albeit on a small scale.  Organisations also need to give functional leaders the ability to view the business more broadly by pushing them out of their comfort zone, into different markets and different areas of expertise. Technology is all pervasive now, and tomorrow’s leaders need to have direct exposure to the opportunities and risks it presents, especially at the customer interface.

Ambitious individuals are more likely to job hop in order to develop this composite experience. In “Who’s got the top jobs?” Professor Peter Cappelli at Wharton has noted a steep decline in “lifelong” employees. In 2011, less than 33% of Executives had started their careers with current employers, down from 45% in 2001 and over 50% in 1980. Cappelli emphasises that a key lever employees have is the option to change company in order to secure relevant experiences. The message is - good people have choices.

Wise organisations therefore task their Talent teams to stay close to high potentials, helping them develop their skills and competencies, but also providing high potentials with challenging roles that progressively stretch and broaden their contribution. Give them a coat one size too big, repeatedly. This will often require courage from Talent professionals, especially with regard to encouraging current leaders to ‘release’ high performers to other parts of the business. This kind of approach is very much in keeping with the ‘vertical development’ movement currently being explored by the more progressive learning and development functions.

Pointers, not a recipe

There are many routes to the top jobs. Some of the greatest organisational leaders have unorthodox backgrounds, and non-traditional career paths should be encouraged and celebrated. And yet, many potential leaders (and organisations) today seek clarity about what they might do to prepare themselves for the leadership challenges that lie ahead. In these two articles we have sought to share what has worked in the past, and what may work in the future. We offer pointers, but not a recipe.

For a discussion about any aspect of leadership development, please contact Keith McCambridge on 0207 224 2071 keithm@wickland-westcott.co.uk or Laura Phelps-Naqvi on 01625 508100 laura@wickland-westcott.co.uk  

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