First-class coach

I entered business life two years ago from the army, and so far I find it all very easy - I've already been promoted twice. Some of my fellow managers seem very inefficient.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I'm ambitious, and I'm sure I am capable of doing more senior roles. Is there any reason I couldn't be CEO in another two years' time?

A: If there's sometimes a negative preconception about ex-army managers, it is usually based on a lack of understanding of the very real management development opportunities provided by more senior military roles. Those who have experienced army life tend to be good at taking on and completing tasks: they understand they have to reconnoitre the situation first, be clear on objectives, check that they've lined up the appropriate resources, carry out the mission and report back. They are also used to sizing up the competition, on a 'know your enemy' principle, which doesn't always happen in commercial enterprises. They're clear on responsibilities, know the difference between a strategy and a tactic, synchronise their watches and turn up on time.

And being a leader in the army requires a wider range of management styles than the command-and-control convention might suggest. Persuading men to go into battle and risk their lives involves considerable psychological understanding and the establishment of trust, both of which are now recognised as cornerstones of good leadership. Any private-sector boss would be delighted to find all of these characteristics in his or her managers, so it doesn't surprise me that your skills have been recognised and welcomed. The question now is how far will these skills carry you - to the very top?

What you have is a sound foundation on which to build; but henceforward, there will be specific areas for development that will be culturally quite different from what you've learned before and may even be counter-intuitive. For example, your comments about your peers make me wonder how good you are at understanding and working effectively with those wired differently. Perhaps your fellow managers are all inefficient, as you assert; or perhaps they have a different approach from yours and add value to the business in different ways. For example, one may be better at conceptual thought than practical implementation and may come up with money-making ideas. Another may be working on building up relationships that will provide lasting benefit for the company. Being able to get the best out of people with a variety of styles is a characteristic of successful leaders.

In the past, you've had the final recourse of ordering someone to do something - of enforced compliance. This option is rarely afforded in civvy street. In fact, the 'push' skills of leadership - telling, directing, ordering - are proving less and less effective in most organisations. Senior managers tend to get better results with a 'pull' style - asking, persuading, coaching. This is largely because most adults tend to enjoy autonomy and dislike being told what to do.

You may find asking people how they feel about things and how they propose to tackle a task or an issue rather strange, or even pointless, when you yourself know so well how it should be handled and feelings don't seem relevant. But persevere: listen to their replies and try to understand what barriers stand in their way and what levers there might be to make progress. Allow people to use their initiative to solve problems so they feel engaged in the task. Review the completed work with them, give praise where due and, if there are areas for improvement, suggest what might be done differently. In time, you'll find you have created a group of people who are resourceful at working out what needs to be done and then doing it. This will give you less to do in people management and more time for the commercial aspects of your role and for building your credibility as a potential CEO.

Developing these softer skills will help you build good external relationships with a variety of stakeholders - a crucial characteristic of successful CEOs. Having a network of contacts in your industry sector will help you develop your understanding of your business and stand you in good stead in gaining senior appointments.

Being effective in completing tasks isn't enough to propel you upwards: you must spend time building your reputation, internally and externally, if you want to make it to the top.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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