Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
January 3, 2018

Can you adapt to a new leadership context?

The start of a new year is a good time to reflect on one’s career. Being in executive search, I am often asked for advice by executives who are contemplating career changes. In some cases, the changes could be drastic and would take them completely out of the context in which they are used to operating. Some common scenarios include: 

  • A professional adviser (typically a consultant or banker) wishing to drive a corporate P&L
  • A corporate citizen looking to join a private equity-led or family-controlled business
  • A mid-career executive dreaming to start his or her own business
  • A successful entrepreneur considering selling the business to a large corporation

Most executives, particularly those who have been successful, think they can take on pretty much any business challenge. This can be a misleading assumption, as a different leadership context will place very different demands on the leader.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, here are my views on the most critical skills and, perhaps more importantly, attitudes required from senior leaders in different contexts.

As a corporate citizen with a career in a large multinational, you will be expected to work largely through influence, often in complex multi-dimensional matrix organizations. You will need to be comfortable enacting change and driving performance by inspiring and motivating others, often while being far removed from “the action.” You will need strong communications skills to align stakeholders who do not directly report to you, and the patience to bring others along on your vision of where the business needs to go. At times, it may feel like you are steering a massive oil tanker.

Working for a private equity-led business, you will be expected to have a relentless focus on bottom line performance — regardless of whether the investors’ thesis is a turnaround or a growth story. You will be expected to live and breathe at the same rapid pace as the investors. You will be heavily incentivized to do so, with a high level of at-risk compensation and often a relatively low base. There will be a great emphasis on accountability and short-term orientation. There will be nowhere to hide in case of under-performance. It may feel like you’re sprinting on a treadmill.

As an entrepreneur starting or running your own business, you will be expected to be on 24/7. Life will be work, work will be life — the boundaries will disappear. You will need the humility to realize that no task is too mundane for you to take on, as long as it is what the business needs. (A friend of mine who previously worked at McKinsey and P&G started an incubator business in London. She routinely refills the coffee machine.) You may also feel very lonely at times, so a high level of resilience and self-confidence will be critical. It may feel like being a juggler with too many balls in the air.

As a professional adviser you will be expected to solve high-stakes problems, but rarely be able to take the credit for your work. You will need to satisfy yourself with the knowledge that you had an impact by providing the right recommendation or facilitating the right transaction, without your name being in the headlines. Most importantly, you will need to have an expertise — knowledge, capability or simply experience — that your clients will value. You will bring light but be expected to stay in the shadows. It will feel like remaining backstage during a curtain call.

While working for a family-led business, you will be in the driver’s seat without a map. You need a high tolerance for ambiguity and volatility, as business direction may change on short notice. Some decisions may be made for reasons that seem to defy business logic, or they will simply remain hidden. You will be hired to provide your views but you should not be flustered if they are politely ignored. You will also need to be comfortable with discretionary rewards that may appear uncorrelated with your perception of your performance. It may feel like riding a roller coaster in the dark.

If you are considering a career change that would take you in a widely different leadership context, I advise you take an inventory of your capabilities and attitudes — toward both work and life. Are you truly prepared to make the jump? Do you have what it takes to be successful in the new context?