Want to land a leadership role where you’ll shine? This is a good place to start. By Randall S Peterson
When the world comes knocking on your door saying, “We need you to do this,” stop and think carefully before saying yes. You see, leadership is situational. It’s never, “I’m going in and I can handle anything.” There are a huge range of leadership challenges and if something is just not you, it’s really okay to say no. It’s very difficult to be world-class when you’re doing something you hate.
You can’t change who you are and you can’t be good at everything. Just accept that. You’ve probably done a Strengthsfinder assessment already. So take a look at your range of strengths and weaknesses.
At one end of the spectrum are things that come naturally to you. Over at the other end is probably something you’ll never be able to do. For everything in between, practise enough and you’ll get to a good standard.
Work from strength
Don’t even try to be “completely new” or to follow a leadership formula. What you need to do is focus on the skills that are within your range. Honestly, don’t waste your energy on trying to build the skills at the bottom of your list. Just avoid that stuff.
Focus on the middle, those things you’re quite good at, and make yourself pretty damn good at them. Aim to increase your range and flexibility, but also be aware that there’s a piece of the range that’s never going to happen for you.
To illustrate this: supposing you’re right-handed, try signing your name using the other hand. It’s hard, right? But after a while you can do it quite well. It’s the same with a set of behaviours. Will it ever be the thing that comes completely naturally to you? Probably not. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it does make better, and often that’s good enough.
If you’ve improved at the things you were quite good at, most of the time you can step up and do the job, look good and succeed, and that will help propel your career.
The 5 dimensions
In every language, across every country and culture, it turns out that there are just five dimensions that define personality. Where are you on the scale, and how does this translate to leadership? Let’s take each in turn.
People high on the neuroticism scale experience a lot of negative emotion, while people low on the scale experience very little. Do I feel stressed and worried all the time, or do I never lose sleep? There are benefits at either end. Anxious people tend to be good individual performers, to persist and persevere. But businesses generally want leaders who are lower than average on neuroticism; stable people who rarely feel anxious, who are good in a crisis and don’t lose their ability to focus. Good leaders are stress-resistant.
If you’re high on this scale, you’re socially dominant and the kind of person who likes to tell others what to do. You’re excitement- seeking, you live outside yourself and take energy from other people, not from being alone. Again, there are advantages to people who aren’t like this. Leaders are almost always high on the extroversion scale; they engage with the world, talk to people and they want to be a boss.
This is about liking things to be new and unusual versus liking things to be tried, tested, data-centric and technical. How this dimension translates depends on what you’re doing – businesses have a mix. People who do big-picture strategy score high, while accountants score low. Businesses need both, but people in leadership positions need to be open to what’s new.
Do you go along to get along, trust most people and believe the majority of us are good? Or are you hard, rational, the type who thinks there’s a right answer here and if you don’t like it, tough luck? In flatter hierarchies, agreeableness might matter more but within a traditional company structure, perhaps surprisingly, firms tend to hire leaders somewhat low for this dimension because hard financial decisions have to be made.
Business leaders tend to score high on this: they like structure and order, to have a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. But what about people who are more spontaneous, flexible, and go with the flow without caring about deadlines? The world needs them; they make fine artists, nurses and special needs teachers. But businesses? Not so much.
Find the right fit
So now you have some idea what kind of person you are. How do you find your dream job? First rule: never take a job unless you’ve found out what its demands really are: what is the company actually asking you to do? Does it match you?
Don’t go for the high-prestige job: go for the job that fits you – where you can be yourself and where your flaws don’t get you in trouble. Don’t automatically go for the consulting jobs just because they’re highly paid and everyone goes for them. Maybe you’d hate to be away all the time. If it’s not you, you’re going to be unhappy and for that reason you will probably not be very good at it.
You need to be able to adapt, to some extent, to the organisation, the job and the people you’re working with. When someone leaves a role, it’s unlikely the company will find a clone of that person. But the person-job fit has to be right.
Some bosses aren’t always aware of what really creates value in the job. They focus too much on the skills and think, “We need an engineer for this job, let’s ignore their personal style”. But personality is totally relevant. There’s no wrong personality, but someone’s personality might be wrong for this context.
Are you aligned?
Now test how well you know yourself. The key measure is feedback from the people around you. If you’re a good leader, there will be a clear correlation between your self-assessment and the assessment others have of you. It’s not about whether you get straight 5s. It’s about if you get a 3, you understand why.
The reason self-awareness is such a strong predictor is that the skills you need to assess your own ability are the very same skills you need to lead. If you have no idea that you’re a terrible driver, it’s probably because you have no idea what good driving is. So the very best leaders are the most self-aware. They know that honest feedback – even if it’s brutal – is priceless.
Senior executives often need to hear a pretty harsh assessment. Making gentle suggestions doesn’t work because their attitude is, “Look, I’m already a senior executive!” Middle managers tend to be more receptive – their attitude is, “I still want to get there. What’s holding me back?” And people at early stages in their careers are the most open. When you critique them they say, “Oh wow! Thanks!”
Wherever you’re at, if you’re not aligned you’re probably not half as good as you think you are. That might be hard to hear, but it’s better that you hear it. The good news is that the more self-aware you become, the more your performance will start to improve.
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