Leaders on becoming a leader

An early scene in the 1998 film Sliding Doors shows its star Gwyneth Paltrow running down the steps in the London underground. 

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In the first version of the scene, the doors of the train slide shut just as she reaches the platform. In the second Paltrow’s character squeezes open the doors and walks through. 

" Most said their careers were more opportunistic than strategic but perhaps this is more an indication of their willingness to try new opportunities.”

The film shows us the consequences of those two events through the parallel universes of her life – what it would be had she walked through those sliding doors and what it would be had she not. It’s a romance but captures how split-second decisions can have lifelong consequences. 

When building our careers we have many ‘sliding doors’ moments.

Some are obvious opportunities requiring little thought before we walk towards them. Others are less obvious; so subtle it isn’t until later we realise great potential may have been on the other side of the door.

One of my ‘sliding doors’ moments was when I left the government sector and moved into my first major role in the private sector.  

Pathways

Korn Ferry recently asked business leaders in Australia and New Zealand who hold or have held CEO and c-suite roles about their pathway to the top of their organisations.

We wanted to learn whether their pathway was strategic or opportunistic and whether, like Gwyneth Paltrow, they had sliding doors moments in their life that shaped their experience and career.

Interestingly, most said their careers were more opportunistic than strategic - but perhaps this is more an indication of their willingness to try new opportunities even, if at first, they appear to stray from a linear path.

Ten things CEOs look for in their executives

Technical excellence and specialist experience ensures candidates for executive positions a ticket to the dance. But to fill a dance card, a candidate will be evaluated on other less-obvious characteristics.

1. Fitting culturally with the organisation and the leadership team

2. Possessing both sector and function experience

3. Learning from a challenging or failed experience

4. Adapting to change and agility

5. Having the ability to build relationships and a track record of establishing trust

6. Getting a result is important—doing so with integrity is essential

7. Being accountable for their decisions

8. Having the ability to work for the betterment of the team, rather than just their area

9. Respecting different views and ways of working

10. Resilience, resilience, resilience

Their journey differed but were all influenced and, in some cases defined, by unexpected forks in the road – the sliding doors moments where a decision to walk towards or away from an opportunity has profound consequences on a career.  

Those moments were as diverse as leaving a secure job to work on a start-up IPO, working as a bookies’ runner, coaching competitive sports, attending a leadership program or negotiating industrial agreements with colleagues.

Contributors

What these experiences have in common is each contributed to career success, either through the experience and skills gained, the profile and networks presented, or clarity of purpose that came with experiencing something new and challenging.  

Ten things you need to know when you reach the top

The business leaders interviewed for this report acknowledged moving up to the C-suite is markedly different to moving in.

Their first CEO role in particular brought unexpected challenges they had not prepared for in their previous executive roles. For example, more than half the business leaders said when they took the top role, they were immediately treated differently.

Everyone is watching, they said. There were other common experiences and themes revealed in our conversations with business leaders.

1. Everyone is watching you and they view you differently than before

2. What you say is amplified. Good communication is fundamental

3. People management is much more time-consuming than you expect it to be

4. It is essential to look for diversity of ideas and experiences when building your team

5. Listening for the first few weeks is the most valuable way to start the role

6. Technical skills are a small part of leadership—emotional intelligence (EQ)—is equally as important as IQ

7. The pathway to the top is smoothed by luck

8. You don’t know everything nor are you expected to—seek advice

9. Learn how to work constructively with the board. The relationship is different to the executive team

10. Make a difference in broader society. You have the resources – use them.

How can we know when a moment has the potential to change a career? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question however there are ways to be open to the moment.

The business leaders interviewed in Korn Ferry’s report were prepared to take risks and back themselves, all the while learning new skills and gaining diverse experiences.

Perhaps the first step to finding the right career sliding doors moment is being aware of your potential to make something of it.  The next step is to be prepared to take a risk – particularly early in a career – and to walk towards an opportunity.

Katie Lahey is the Executive Chairman of Korn Ferry Australasia. For further information please download Korn Ferry’s report.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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