Once you’ve got to the top of the tree, it can feel like the only way is down, writes Ben Flanagan. So it goes for chief executives, who can find it a struggle to keep fresh in their professional lives, especially when promotion is not on the cards. But following these 10 lucky tips can help senior execs get to the top – and, more importantly, stay there.
1. Change gears
Becoming a chief executive requires a gear-shift from being the ambitious challenger to a leader, says Kai Peters, chief executive of Ashridge Business School in the UK. “To get to the top, you need to be very self-confident, and you need to look like you have the answers,” he said. “But a lot of those attributes could be really bad when you get to be in a senior position, because it tends to manifest itself in not really trusting other people, and pretending you know everything.”
2. Respect your rivals
Having a healthy respect for your rivals will help your own business succeed, according to the British billionaire and entrepreneur Richard Branson. “Strike the right balance between respecting your rivals and focusing on how you can beat them, and you’ll have a winning formula,” the Virgin Group founder tweeted in March. Wise words indeed. But it’s somewhat hard to imagine Branson following that advice to the letter during his long and bitter feud with Virgin Atlantic’s arch-rival British Airways…
3. Get different perspectives
Getting some distance and external perspectives on your business can help, said Mr Peters. He has been chief executive of Ashridge for more than 11 years, and says getting away helps him stay fresh. “I look at the organisation I’m in as if I were a McKinsey consultant from outside,” he said. “And I do that the best by getting away, going to a conference or visiting friends in another company, to then reflect back on my own organisation.”
4. Find an honest friend
You know that slightly rude friend or former colleague who always tells you like it is? Seek out their advice, says Mr Peters. “It’s actually hard to find people in your own organisation who are always willing to say ‘that’s great, however I think you should look at it from a different perspective’,” he said.
5. Do something you love
Do you have an unwavering passion for Sharjah-made ball bearings? Then open a ball-bearing factory in Sharjah! Put like that, the advice of General Motors boss Mary Barra doesn’t sound quite so romantic. But you get her drift: “Do something you are passionate about, do something you love,” she told Fortune magazine. “If you are doing something you are passionate about, you are just naturally going to succeed.”
6. It’s not all about the money
A short-term focus on money – such as motivating staff with big bonuses – can be bad for business, said Mr Peters. “I’m not big on mega-bonuses. I don’t think that they motivate…. They don’t lead to decisions that lead to a long-term success,” he said. Similarly, cutting expenses can be bad over a longer period of time. “I could do lots of things around here to make lots of profit next year, like not investing in the facilities or people,” said Mr Peters. “But it will only come back to bite someone in the bum in three or five years’ time.”
7. Avoid ‘leadership colonialism’
Expatriates arriving in the Gulf may have been big shots in their home countries – but that doesn’t automatically mean they will be abroad. Tommy Weir – adviser to top executives, author of ‘10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East’, and founder of the Dubai-based Emerging Markets Leadership Center – warns of the dangers of “leadership colonialism” for expat execs. “Do not show up in the Middle East with an air of superiority. Just because you were successful elsewhere does not mean you will be in the Middle East,” he said.
8. Do coffee
Personal relationships are especially important in the Middle East, so don’t neglect this: “Don’t make the mistake that you can conduct your business with boardroom relationships. The best way to get to know someone is over coffee,” said Mr Weir.
9. Be a leader
Say you rose in the ranks of a computer-software company to become chief executive. You are no longer the person sitting in front of a screen for 18 hours a day, drinking Coke and eating pizza, and never speaking to anyone. You’re a leader, not a programmer – so act like one. “A common error that I come across when working with CEOs is an overdependence on their technical abilities rather than leadership strengths,” said Mr Weir.
10. Be a mentor
Chief executives aren’t generally striving for a promotion. So what keeps them motivated, apart from that fat salary? Dawn Metcalfe, managing director of the Dubai-based Performance Development Services, which works with board directors and senior managers across the region, says being a mentor can help. She recently moderated a panel for REACH, a mentoring programme based at the Dubai International Financial Centre. “One of the panellists suggested that, as they progressed in their career, they found themselves becoming somewhat jaded,” she said. “They found that working with a less experienced person as a mentor helped them look at what they do in a fresh light.”