Room at the top

Wealth, power and influence – the allure of a senior business role is undeniable. If you have innovative ideas, the capacity to inspire others, boundless self-belief and plenty of raw ambition, you could become the next Richard Branson


You have a burning desire to become the next Anita Roddick, Bill Gates or Tony Blair – but how can you tell whether you’ll make the grade? What’s more, how do you know that becoming a leader is what will bring you the greatest career and personal satisfaction?

“Quite often people know early on that they are interested in leadership roles,” says Siobhan Hamilton-Phillips, senior consultant psychologist at Career Psychology, which specialises in personal and career development.

“Academic attainment is not necessarily a factor – many successful leaders never went to university,” she adds.

“Instead, what sets them apart is their physical energy – the ability to work long hours and remain positive when things around them are falling apart.”

Richard Branson has said that every day in business has its challenges and you have to relish the inherent uncertainty. Indeed, leadership can be demanding and stressful and you have to be sure you can cope.

“Good leaders are able to counter stress in a practical way rather than succumbing to it,” says Hamilton-Phillips.

“Making rational decisions at times of stress is very difficult. You need masses of energy – can you get up early in the morning, work out at the gym, do a day’s work and then entertain in the evening, day in and day out?”

What sort of person makes a leader?

If you want to know whether you’ve got what it takes, compare you own personality and aspirations against Hamilton-Phillips’ checklist of leadership skills:

· Leaders generally take good decisions
· They remain positive in adversity
· They have above-normal levels of energy
· They are great communicators
· They have targets, aims and ambitions
· They look ahead rather than worry about the past
· They enjoy solving problems
· They do not rely on good luck
· They have imagination but remain practical

Hamilton-Phillips says a great leader selects the right people, enables others to achieve common aims and inspires loyalty. This means setting a personal example that inspires others. You must have the charisma to lift morale with a smile.

Questions to consider:

1. What do you want out of your job?

It is essential to understand your aspirations before you decide whether to embark on a career as a manager or leader, or when you are considering whether to seek promotion with wider management responsibility.

“It’s really important to give serious thought to your overall game plan and where work fits in with that,” says Maria Yapp, the managing director of Xancam Consulting, a firm of business psychologists.

“Think carefully about what you want to do with your life in general, and whether your chosen career direction will either add to that or make it more difficult to achieve.

“Sometimes people come to the decision that a big leadership role would not be satisfying for them and they would be better off being more flexible by working freelance or in a consulting role.

“People tend to be blinded by the glamour of leadership roles but it does have a lot of onerous aspects.”

If you are at a career crossroads and are considering moving into a management or boardroom job, you can find out if you are fit for the role by getting feedback from as many different people as you can. Are you good at learning and willing to step outside your comfort zone?

“The higher the level to which you aspire in the organisation, the stronger the likelihood that you will need to be able to take a broad focus,” says Yapp.

“This means leadership is likely to be for you if you enjoy thinking across a range of different business areas or functions and, importantly, if you are effective at thinking about longer-term developments across industries and markets.

“As you progress to higher-level leadership positions, you are likely to become more distanced from your technical specialism. Therefore, if you passionately enjoy your current technical area – whether this be science, finance, marketing or human resources – it is worth considering whether you would be happier following a ‘senior specialist’ route instead.”

2. Know your strengths and weaknesses

A careful process of self-examination will not be wasted, says James Brook, the director of the leadership practice at RightCoutts, the UK’s largest career transition firm.

“Arguably the most crucial leadership quality is self-awareness. Successful leaders appear to have a clear understanding of their strengths and capacities, together with a well-tuned ability to find opportunities to deploy these to the full,” he says.

“They are able to manage the downsides associated with their strengths and minimise their weaknesses by finding creative ways to manage these.

“The most effective leaders demonstrate a high level of authenticity. This is made up of five elements: a strong vision for the future, a good awareness of themselves and their environment, a clear sense of accountability to ensure promises to shareholders and other stakeholders are met, a strong bias for action and the ability to inspire trust and confidence in followers, and the ability to demonstrate empathy and compassion when the situation demands.”

3. Do you want to make a difference?

Hamilton-Phillips says leaders are often people who want to achieve something inspirational or make a difference. “They usually have a vision of the outcome they need to achieve, are totally goal orientated and believe in what they are doing,” she explains.

Raw ambition is not necessarily enough, says Yapp. “Surprisingly, the research shows ambition is not necessarily a strong predictor of whether someone will m ake a good leader.

“Some are as of research have found that people who exhibit the highest levels of drive and ‘naked ambition’ are actually less effective as high-level leaders.

“This is thought to be because, in some cases, people exert drive and energy to compensate fo r areas where they might be less effective than those with true talent.”

4. Can you influence and communicate effectively?

As our working lives have changed dramatically over the past decade, so have our expectations of leadership. Where once loyalty and long career service was seen as prerequisite for managerial roles, this is no longer the case.

“Corporate structures and hierarchies have become much flatter and leaders now need to be excellent communicators,” says Mike Willets, a learning and development consultant at Mast International, a consultancy and training company.

“Being socially adept and good at influencing people, particularly from a distance or with regard to staff who don’t report directly to you, have become core skills.

“Teams within organisations may have different reporting lines and a leader needs to be politically astute in understanding all the different reporting lines and agendas.”

Yapp says the most effective leaders are those who have high levels of “emotion al intelligence”. This means they are very effective at understanding what is required to be effective in their organisation and can adapt their approach and behaviour accordingly.

“This does not mean they are false or manipulative,” she says. “A strong element of skill lies in being able to read the situation, adapt your approach and remain authentic to your own principles and values while doing so.”

Another element of the 21st century working environment is being ready to learn and adapt and leaders need to be particularly alert to this.

“Consistent research shows the people who most effectively rise to the top of organisations are very good learners,” says Yapp.

“They will actually seek out situations, roles and tasks that are slightly beyond their present comfort zone so they can stretch themselves.

“Those who tend to stay predominantly within the realm of familiar situations or tasks they can handle easily are less likely to progress their development or their career prospects.”

Brook says that although leaders have different personal styles, authentic leaders are also able to adapt their style to meet the needs of different situations.

“A leader who is very task oriented and impatient might be able to show tremendous compassion and empathy in situations involving downsizing,” he says.

The rewards of pursuing a leadership role are recognition, success, money and a job that constantly challenges you. You will lead the business to achieve sustainable financial and non-financial performanc e, help people learn and groom your successors.

The drawbacks are that many leaders end up living for their work – putting in long hours and neglecting their home and social life. They can find it difficult to build and maint ain close relations hips and it can be lonely at the top, particularly at executive level. There is constant pressure and, if you joined an industry because you loved your subject, you will have to let go of being a technical expert.

5. What are the first steps to take?

“Know thyself,” says Brook. “Find out as much as possible about your strengths and weaknesses by gathering feedback.”

Think about your “personal best” leadership experiences. Identify two or three of your key individual strengths and find opportunities to exploit these as much as possible.

Just as important, identify two or three weaknesses and find strategies for managing them so they do not undermine your performance and derail your career.

Another route is to undergo rigorous psychometric tests to find out if you have what it takes to be a leader. These can be expensive but it is important to have good quality tests because you want feedback on the results and guidance on how to capitalise on them.

Want to know more?


· The Leadership Challenge by Posner and Kouzes (Jossey Bass Wiley).

· The First 90 Days – Critical Success Strategies for new Leaders at all Levels by Michael Wat kins (Harvard Business School Press).

· Leadership and the One-Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard (HarperCollins Business).

· Funky Business by Jonas Riddestrale and Kjell Nordstrom (FT Prentice Hall).


Success stories

Sean Brickell, 36, spent the first part of his professional life as a network and regional TV reporter and newsrea der and a national newspaper and magazine reporter and writer.

After deciding he wanted a career change, he visited Career Psychology for advice a year ago and has become an after-dinner, business and motivational speaker and a host and presenter at conferences and events. His new role involves inspiring people to take control of their lives and leading them towards a career or pathway they will find fulfilling.

Brickell says: “My father used to say: ‘Always be your own man and don’t be afraid to stand on your own feet’. If I have any fear, it is of not having lived life to the full.

“I think leading yourself is the hardest thing – when I am speaking I am in charge of the audience and I have to think about how I handle and adapt t o them so they get the greatest benefit. Leaders tend to have a taste for adventure and I love to challenge myself personally and professionally

“When I went to Career Psychology for tests and advice they concluded I was a ’10 out of 10 maverick… who was put on this earth to perform and entertain people’ and should become a professional speaker. The idea of doing something I love and getting paid – sometimes very nicely indeed – appealed to me greatly.

“A leader needs courage, energy, self-belief and self-discipline. I have to be my own motivator and resource when I a m feeling down. I also think there is an element of luck – I have achieved everything that I set out to do, I love entertaining people and making them laugh.

“Even before I changed jobs I used to tell people: if you don’t like want you are doing, take control and find another job. I was more single minded than any other person I knew in my age group.

“As a leader you need to be able to keep going, even in those momen ts when you doubt yourself. You definitely need a clear vision and to be able to over come the seemingly impossible with energy and enthusiasm.

“You must have real drive and not be brought down by setbacks or disappointments. You’ve also got to work really hard and be passionate about what you do.”

Rob Barham, 43, has been in sales and marketing for 20 years and has just been appointed the chief executive of Tack International, a training company based in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.

His original ambition was to become a professional footballer – played for Norwich City as a teenager and took trials for England. But after a serious injury he went to college and, inspired by his father-in-law, joined DHL as a salesman in 1984.

Barham says: “Leadership is about inspiring pe ople to break the mould and think in new ways so you stand out in front of your customers. As a 26-year-old salesman, I was lucky to have a man called Ken Reoch as my mentor. He taught me that it is when you are running your own meeting that you are really on show. You shouldn’t try to wing it. Sometimes I would spend two days in preparation to make sure everything was right.

“Ken was charismatic. He could inspire people and leave them feeling good about their performance – and also that they could have done just a bit better. I think leadership is also about giving people the scope to take decisions and make their own mistakes.

“I’ve also worked as the sales and marketing director of a small packaging company without much of a marketing budget and this taught me a lot about creativity. I discovered how you can make the most of what you have and make a lot of things happen for free.

“A leader needs vision and strategy and needs to be able to articulate that strategy. It helps to have a good incentive scheme for staff and to win a few tactical battles to boost morale.

“The best bit about being a leader is when the vision starts to come together and people believe in it, and when you see staff grow and develop. The downside is that it can get a bit lonely and you can sometimes feel a bit exposed.

“You have to be careful about your working hours because you can get sucked into neglecting your home life, although people are more accepting of the need for a work-life balance these days.”

Hilary Dobson‘s career has spanned accountancy, marketing, strategic planning, management and international development. She has worked at senior executive levels in international businesses such as Cable & Wireless and British Telecom.

After reading sociology and psychology at university, she studied for an MBA over three years at night school and worked in overseas acquisitions and senior management for telecom companies. She has just changed career to become a freelance business coach and runs her own company, AlchemyHD.

“One of the important qualities of leadership is having the strength to know where you are going and not to be deflected by events. I have a lot of optimism and I tend to bounce back aft er setbacks. My decision-making has become faster as I realise that when you come across a problem you have to deal with it.

“You need be very focused on getting where you want to be because so many people will try to put you off. When I set out with my own business there were plenty of people telling me the industry was too competitive and it would be difficult to break into. The strength to keep going comes from within – you need a lot of self-knowledge and a vision for the future, otherwise you could be blown off course by people or events.

“A leader needs to be courageous and have conviction. The more I pursue my new career goals, the easier it gets and the more enjoyment I get from it. I set up a freelance business in executive coaching and leadership development and the past 12 months have been the hardest.

“When you run your own business, you have to go out, find work and create a business from scratch. It has required a lot of grit, determination, courage and energy but the energy comes from following your inner motivation and having a clear plan.

“It is essential to be able to see the bigger picture and to take a long term view of yourself and your career. It’s easy to be dragged down by present worries but if you focus on how your career will progress over the 20 years, you are better able to map the route ahead.”

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