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John Dodd

John Dodd



Cheshire Office
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Stepping Up

A leadership consultancy with nearly 40 years experience in Executive Search, Assessment and Development, Wickland Westcott is frequently asked what makes a successful leader, especially at Chief Executive and Chair level. Are the best leaders those who are already proven at that level? And when is it best to go for candidates with the ambition, but not necessarily the experience, to step up?

To further this debate, we interviewed three leaders who have successfully made the transition and asked them to share their learning.

Lee Sugden

Lee was appointed as Chief Executive of Salix Homes in late 2014. He provides leadership to a multi-award winning Salford-based social housing provider, currently investing £75m into their homes and communities. This is Lee’s first Chief Executive role, having previously been a Director of Resources at another housing organisation.

Lee’s insights:

  • Expect the unexpected and don’t be overly optimistic regarding the transition. There are often more rivers to cross than anticipated, and the personal learning journey is continuous throughout your time as a Chief Executive.
  • Nothing can really prepare you for the step up - it is a massive change. It is crucial to draw all the learning you can, good and bad, from the leaders you have previously worked with.
  • Remain true to your personal values but be prepared to adapt your style to fit with the organisational culture.
  • Be clear regarding your vision for the organisation and communicate it, repeatedly and consistently, to stakeholders.
  • Spend time building a resilient working relationship with the Chair and other Board members.
  • Recognise that it will take at least a year for the organisation to accept you and your new ideas. Appreciate that people are naturally cautious when a new Chief Executive joins.
  • Don’t be overly self-critical.  Retain the services of a mentor or coach to help you maintain a balanced focus on the key priorities.  Mental toughness and resilience are essential.
  • Integrate quickly with your new Chief Executive peer network, and build an understanding of how business is done at this level. Forge new relationships with those who will advise and guide you as you find your feet.
  • View external stakeholders as valued partners and build partnerships with those who want to positively contribute to the organisation. Recognise, however, that it does take time and patience to build deep, trusting relationships.

Helen White

Helen WhiteHelen was Chair of North Wales Housing Association (NWHA) for six years. This was her first non-executive role and at the time she was in her mid-twenties with limited previous exposure to boards. Her appointment sent a positive message to young people that Chair roles are achievable if the ambition, drive and willingness to learn are in place. Helen now Chairs Knowsley Housing Trust, a role she has held for the last five years, and has recently been appointed as Chair of the Regulatory Board for Wales.

Helen’s learning:

  • A Chair’s role is extremely broad, often including legal and regulatory responsibilities. Understand this remit and ensure you are comfortable with it before accepting the role.
  • It is essential to find an organisation that offers clear alignment with your own personal values. Turn the opportunity down if the fit isn’t strong.
  • Build constructive relationships with the Executive team and tap into their collective strengths - draw upon their knowledge and experience, particularly in key areas such as budget setting.
  • Similarly, utilise your broader network, and call upon their expertise when required.
  • Constant and clear communication with everyone is essential, particularly regarding the strategic direction of travel.
  • Lead by example, especially in relation to energy. Ensure your own positivity is always evident.
  • Remain true to your personal values. Recognise your own skills and strengths and play to these. 
  • Having understood the challenges, and thought it through - take the plunge and go for it! The learning experience is deep and rewarding.

Paul Smith

Paul SmithPaul is the Chair of Pier Head Housing, having previously been a Deputy Chief Executive and a member of several boards. Having chaired numerous sub-committees, Paul commenced his first Chair role with a broad skill set, but looking back he recognises he still had much to learn:

  • Understand the areas where, as a Chair, you can add most value. What does the organisation really need from the Chair?
  • Spend time with board members on a one to one basis to understand their motivations and skills, along with the professional context they work within.
  • A good Chair is like the conductor of an orchestra. Every board member brings a different, yet valuable, perspective and their skills must be harnessed and maximised.
  • Chairs need to ensure they are both ‘on message’ and clear and concise regarding the organisation’s mission and vision.
  • With diverse and often disparate views to be marshalled, as Chair it is crucial to focus everyone on the key agenda items.
  • The best Chairs identify, elicit and amplify the views of even the quietest stakeholders.
  • Learn to actively listen. Some Chairs are too focused on driving their own agendas. Strike the right balance between listening and influencing.
  • Networking activities are important for a Chair, but they can take up a lot of your time. So think carefully about how you deploy your own time, measure the value of an event and manage your diary carefully.
  • Don’t take criticism personally – always focus on the best outcomes for the organisation.
  • Continue to learn and evolve your own approach as you grow into the role.


From a Wickland Westcott perspective, the reflections of these senior players chime strongly with our own experiences. The best leaders emphasise values, build relationships and alliances, harness others’ skills, and are continually learning themselves.

For a conversation regarding the above please email John Dodd, 

Wickland Westcott has been providing a fully integrated leadership service for nearly 40 years. In-house occupational psychologists work alongside market-focused Search professionals to deliver exceptional client service and satisfaction. With extensive experience at ‘C Suite’ level, and half of our top 20 client list featuring in the FTSE 250/NYSE, Wickland Westcott has a clear picture of what makes for leadership success.







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