UK: First class coach.

UK: First class coach. - TAKING THE LEAD

by MARGARET EXLEY, leads consultant Towers Perrin's Europeanpractice on change and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is also adirector of HM Treasury's Management Board.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


I have been promoted to the main board of my company after 12 years in different capacities. I know I now have to consider various legal responsibilities, but what concerns me is whether I can become a leader, both of the 1,000 people in the company and among the 15 directors

Congratulations. This is an achievement you should celebrate and enjoy - but it can be daunting. Promotion to the board is a step-change in role and responsibility. It is also visible one, so you are in the spotlight as you come to terms with the new role and skills.

Why do people follow a leader? Mainly they have an honest belief in the individual at a personal level. (This is not, by the way, the same as being liked.) Another reason is they believe the leader has a vision which is compelling and will benefit them and the business. So you have to develop this credibility, build trust and demonstrate an agenda that is convincing as a winning proposition. This sits comfortably with your legal responsibilities, since board members are collectively accountable for the long-term performance and soundness of the business.

The first thing to do is get clear about where the business is going.

What are its threats and opportunities? How does it make its money? I have seen retail businesses that make their money from financial services and chemical firms that make it from licensing. This will help you focus on the things that drive performance and how the company should develop.

Having been around for 12 years, you have the advantage of experience.

Use it to pinpoint the company's strengths and weaknesses, but also look at the available information on markets, competitors and future technology.

Read analysts' reports, talk to competitors and take the views of fellow directors - but don't necessarily ape them. Develop a clear and passionate vision of how the company could be truly outstanding.

Secondly, do a lot of listening. Spend time with staff at all levels and set up informal breakfast or lunchtime sessions where staff are invited to talk about things that are going well and those that could be improved.

Visit the front line to see how success at that level is achieved. Do the company's processes get in the way of quality? Does the business actively pursue outstanding customer service? Use these meetings to build a network of supportive relationships with managers through the business.

Your ability to secure a leadership position will depend a great deal on personal style. Here are three things to watch: First, always walk the talk. Never ever say one thing and do another or send a different signal through your actions. Second, be reliable.

If you say you are going to do something, do it. If there's a crisis, roll up your sleeves and work with the managers concerned - but don't do their jobs for them. Third, and above all, have integrity. Honour your commitments and be consistent with them.

It is important that you reposition yourself. Let go of the past. This may include letting go of friends from earlier in your career. Mark the change. Throw a party to thank colleagues, and use it to acknowledge an ending - and the beginning of a new phase.

William Bridges, a management guru who has studied personal transitions, calls this the neutral zone - a time when you feel in the 'wilderness' as you move from one state of being to another. This is the time for trying out ideas, gaining skills and finding a new persona. So don't be too concerned if you have feelings of being at sea over the next few months.

Spend time getting to know fellow board members. Don't worry about impressing them. Talk to the company secretary about how meetings are run, how formal they are and how items of business are managed and decisions taken. Boards vary enormously, and you need to understand how this one works.

Don't overlook personal positioning. Being a leader means looking and acting the part. Think about what you wear and how you communicate generally.

Think about how you spend your time and don't just step into the shoes of your predecessor. Do not be driven by the e-mail, voicemail or in-tray.

If you are reactive to the agenda of others, you are not fulfilling your role as a leader.

And finally, focus on the first 100 days, when many will form a lasting view about you. Small things such as how you set out your office, which reports you read, how you like to be addressed and where you spend your time are important signals of who you are.

Good luck in your new role. Enjoy being a leader - and those who follow you are likely to enjoy it, too.

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