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Keith McCambridge

Keith McCambridge



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Thought Leadership


Getting to the top - it's not (just) who you are, but where you've been

Wickland Westcott is privileged to work with many hugely talented people. When we partner with Executive teams, questions we are often asked relate to succession: “Can I progress further?” or “Can she/he progress further?”

Sometimes, the answer is an emphatic “Yes” – we believe that person has the potential to succeed in an Executive Team, and perhaps even in the top job of Chief Executive.  Other times, however, we feel they are missing something – something critical.  Providing such individuals with honest, clear and well-evidenced feedback to help them understand the gaps is one of the greatest challenges our Consultants face. 

The vital ingredients

So what is this missing factor?  Perhaps contrary to expectations, it often has nothing to do with interpersonal skills or character attributes. High performers frequently have a burning drive to succeed, are resilient and robust, have the intellectual horsepower to distinguish the important from the unimportant, and can set clear vision and bring their people with them through the power of their leadership. These qualities are essential, but totally insufficient to take on Executive level roles in competitive enterprises.

More often, the missing ingredient is composite experience at ever increasing scale. This composite experience is the product of a well mapped (or fortunate!) career journey that collects the vital components needed in the top jobs.  Sadly, too many talented people discover too late in their careers that they have not gained the right medals for them to be competitive. Perhaps they remained wedded to their first profession or area of expertise for too long, and whilst their knowledge grew ever deeper, they became increasingly narrow in terms of the contribution they could make at senior level.

Taking a step back however, two factors make now the perfect time to articulate the ideal experiences required for senior leadership:

  1. Many commentators are noting a current dearth of leadership talent in the world - political, economic, social and organisational. Leadership consultancies (like Wickland Westcott) can help by being clearer on the precise chunks of experience likely to equip people for the top jobs.
  2. People are living longer. Careers will be extended, with greater opportunities for personal development, possibly even re-invention. At Executive level, this is likely to mean more people, from increasingly diverse backgrounds, will be able to compile the portfolio of requisite expertise.

The problem of course, is that the moment you try to articulate ‘1’ above, you run the risk of defining the experiences required to be an effective CEO today, rather than those required to be an effective CEO tomorrow. Nevertheless, it remains a crucial exercise, as long as we understand the resulting blueprint is likely to be imperfect, and must always be seen through the lens of the volatile, complex, ambiguous and uncertain (VUCA) world of tomorrow.

Badges for a CEO

In our view, these are the core experiences an individual will typically require before being considered seriously for a CEO role in a large standalone entity:

  1. They can point to a track record of success in previous roles, usually in the form of revenue and profit growth.
  2. They will previously have run a Profit and Loss account (in its true form).
  3. They will have run multi-functional teams i.e. containing Finance, Sales, Marketing, HR, Technology, Operations.  If not, they at least have experience of working in several disciplines themselves.
  4. In particular, they have developed a close affinity with the digital world, and will have experience (and vision) of how technology can be harnessed to deepen customer relationships and secure competitive advantage.
  5. They will have managed significant numbers of people, typically starting with small teams, then progressing to departments, sites, functions or business units.
  6. They will have demonstrated the ability to recruit, encourage, develop and promote talent.
  7. They will have managed in diverse environments – i.e. different businesses, cultures, markets, countries etc.
  8. They will have been responsible for successfully setting a strategic direction and they will have been around for the consequences. This is likely to have involved significant transformation projects across real scale, often (as mentioned) involving technology.
  9. They have been very close to the customer in one or more of their previous roles, and retain this customer-centricity.
  10. They will have developed a broad network of professional contacts and personal advisors, staying connected with changes in their commercial and social environments.

Clearly, depending on the size, complexity and sector of the role, there may be some other ‘must haves’ – for example, in a global businesses, an Executive leader might ideally have worked and possibly lived in different parts of the world, understanding first hand diverse customer dynamics and cultures. If the business is PE backed, this again will bring different requirements, often around speed, operational focus, and a willingness to have personal skin in the game. But as a rough rule of thumb, the above list will suffice.

In our next article (Collecting the badges to be CEO - click here), we explore how potential executives might go about gaining these crucial experiences, and what organisations can do to help them build their capabilities.

For a discussion about any aspect of leadership development, please contact Keith McCambridge on 0207 224 2071 or Laura Phelps-Naqvi on 01625 508100

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