Sometimes the best leadership experiences aren't the ones you were looking for

Citrix CTO Christian Reilly says professional curiosity led him down some unexpected paths.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 01 Aug 2019
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Your Career

To the ambitious young professional, the path to leadership seems fairly straightforward. You start managing a small team in your field, progress to middle management, then senior, until finally you make it to the C-suite.

The entrepreneurially minded take an even more direct route: they want to run (or sell) a large company doing a certain thing, so they start a small one and grow it, hell for leather.

But life has a way of making a mockery of such rigid plans. Circumstances change, you change, gambits fail and unexpected opportunities emerge.

Taking these opportunities, and adapting your plans in the process, can sometimes provide the most valuable leadership experiences, says Citrix chief technology officer and vice president Christian Reilly. He always wanted to be a CTO, but as he explained to us here, sometimes the best route to your goal is not the most direct.

"I took my first supervisory role in 1997, at the age of 24. The industrial organisation I worked for at the time was always keen to identify and stretch high potential employees and as a result, opportunities to lead bigger, smaller and more diverse teams presented themselves along my career path.

"I never once toned down my aspirations as I believe we are destined to follow those, no matter what challenges we are presented with along the way. But I pivoted multiple times, because I always put my hand up to take on a new challenge, something I refer to as professional curiosity.

"It means seeking out opportunities outside your current role or comfort zone, and refusing to be pigeon-holed. The pivots that result are key, I believe, to becoming a more rounded leader, because they mean you gather a rich set of experiences, not all of which are immediately recognisable as valuable at the time of acquiring them.

"Some of my best learnings as a professional and as an individual came from being asked to lead teams that I knew little about – in terms of the people, the scope and the key functions of the teams themselves.

"The reality was that it took me longer than I had envisioned to reach where I wanted to reach, but that’s okay because in hindsight, I am not sure I could have succeeded had I not had the opportunity for gaining the experiences necessary for the modern CTO role, which now requires not only technical skills but also commercial, business and interpersonal skills.

"Those experiences now form a large part of my ‘decision fabric’ – whether those are proactive or reactive decisions. Without them, I would possess a much smaller field of vision, which allows you to deal with both strategic and tactical initiatives.

"Very few leaders move absolutely vertically through an organisation or through the same roles in different organisations on their way to reaching their own personal career goals or aspirations.

"Moving across departments, working with different teams and characters and striving to understand as many parts of a business (and its customers) as possible has afforded me the experience I needed to take on more and more responsibility. In today’s world, one that moves at lightning pace, that agility and lateral movement is going to be more important than ever."

Image credit: Luan Oosthuizen/Pexels


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