Ines Wichert provides MBAs with advice on the knowledge and experience that will develop their leadership potential and fast track their careers – from risk taking to networking.
By definition, MBA students and alumni are ambitious and keen to fast track their careers. But once back in the workplace, how do they best deploy their new knowledge of self, new skills and new networks to best accelerate their careers?
Research for my new book Accelerated Leadership Development. How to Turn Your Top Talent into Leaders has revealed key experiences that organisations are looking for in future leaders who are deemed competent and confident to lead in an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, as well as how emerging leaders can put themselves in the best position to acquire these.
‘My research has shown there are certain roles or experiences that future leaders need on their CVs’
Here, I’ll explore the importance of breadth of experience required and highlight which experiences are most valuable to accelerate your career; the importance of an attitude of calculated risk taking; how to exploit your network, and understanding the difference that a career sponsor, rather than mentor, can have on your career.
Breadth of experience
Breadth of experience is the foundation for progression to senior roles. Only if we have worked through a variety of different organisational challenges will we be able to deal effectively with the scale and complexity of a leadership role. Breadth of experience allows an emerging leader to gain myriad of benefits, including an organisation-wide view, flexible leadership and problem-solving styles, plus knowing how to get up to speed fast in a new environment. Breadth of experience has always been important for senior leaders, but it has become even more so now that leaders must navigate organisations through the choppy waters of technological disruption, increased global complexity and volatility.
‘We can further help ourselves by taking on stretch roles as early as possible’
My research has shown there are certain roles or experiences that future leaders need on their CVs that put them in the best position to become leaders. These are:
- international assignments
- large-scale change management roles
- developing or setting up something from scratch (such as a new project, team or manufacturing facility)
- managing people, operational roles, profit and loss and turnaround roles.
Obviously, individual jobs can incorporate more than one of these roles or experiences so I was also keen to discover if there was an optimum time that organisations felt individuals should stay in each job. At junior level, the ideal tenure in a role is 12-18 months, at mid-management level two to three years and at senior management level, three to five years
The new generation of successful leaders will need to be comfortable with and capable of taking calculated risks. In a volatile world where existing rules no longer apply, finding new ways of doing things will require experimentation and risks. Volatility will bring not only disruption but also opportunities which a successful leader must capitalise on. This will again come with risks. Learning how to take risks is not always easy as organisations are often reluctant to embrace experimentation and risk taking.
In fact, organisations face the difficult task of minimising business and reputational risk while simultaneously providing an environment for their top talent that is conducive to learning, experimentation, and in some cases, failing.
Unsurprisingly, if we want to benefit from accelerated leadership development, not only must we be ready to take risks on unfamiliar roles ourselves, we must also help others take a risk on us by showing willingness to try new things. We can further help ourselves by taking on stretch roles as early as possible. Should things go wrong, the fall-out from these early stretch roles is far less severe at more junior levels. And if we prove ourselves early, we are much more likely to be in the frame for big stretch roles as we progress in our careers.
As we focus on getting to grips with a new stretch assignment and running as fast as we can to deliver outstanding results, it is tempting to neglect our network. Building and maintaining a network is time consuming. However, we must resist the temptation to focus only on the job and to not invest our already scarce time in networking.
‘Understand the difference between a sponsor and mentor’
Networks bring many benefits, such as:
- vital information about organisational changes
- access to the experts, upon whom we may need to draw when we’re starting a role in a new technical area
- access to our next stretch assignment
- help and support when we are struggling in role
- access to organisational resources
- knowledge of the right experts and people in the organisation
- increased social standing and status in the organisation, due to connections with people of influence
- personal sponsorship and faster career progression.
Mentors versus sponsors
One type of support that is frequently mentioned as vital for accelerated leaders is mentorship – access to a person who will share their personal career lessons with us. In my interviews with more than 40 HR and business leaders, mentors were frequently mentioned as I explored the various types of support for accelerated high-potential employees.
However, for mentors to help us accelerate our careers (rather than simply creating a feel-good factor) it is important to understand the difference between a sponsor and a mentor. Career sponsors will actively go out of their way to get us the opportunities for new assignments that will grow your career and personally vouch for your ability. It is this active sponsorship that acts as an accelerator to our career. A good sponsor will also encourage us to find breadth of experience and to take risks with roles, creating a virtuous circle.