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Emerging leaders: Preparing for a greater challenge

Three people hiking in the snow on a mountain.

Emerging leaders are often talented individuals who are easily identified as having what it takes to rise in organisations, but they often fall short of being the 'full package' right away.

About a year ago, one emerging leader we worked with was promoted to a major new role in her company. From looking after a small business unit, she was now in charge of a global function, with a team that would spread across 7 francophone countries. It would also involve relocating her family to Paris.

The business put in place a great deal of support – finding accommodation, schools for the children and arranging language classes. But there was one area they neglected to prepare for her.

For a leader transitioning to a senior position it's important to be well equipped for top level decision making. While the new post built on her technical expertise, the kinds of decisions she would have to make were measurably different to those she was used to.

Three key differences stood out: the level of the stakeholder management involved, the impact a single decision could make, and the time taken to deal with the decision's consequences.

Dealing with stakeholder perception

The stakeholder management presented her with a whole new challenge. She was faced with a group who lacked her technical understanding and who saw the issues from a completely different perspective.

Despite being a subject matter expert, with fantastic technical and strategic skills, a well thought through plan simply wasn't enough. She had to spend a great deal of time listening, and trying to understand other perspectives.

When it came to using this accommodation even further up the hierarchy, she encountered another set of interests and agenda. She told me:

'Negotiation was key: understanding the differences between interests and positions, and learning how to frame the issue for different parties. To learn how to plan, phrase and package an agreement.

'These were skills I had never been taught. I understood enough French to know what the facts were, but I didn't understand our organisational culture.'

What's the 'half-life' of a decision?

Some decisions last longer than others. We often borrow the term 'half-life' to describe this aspect of decision making. Put simply, choosing what to have for lunch is a decision that really only lasts until supper time. But choosing a career can be a decision that shapes the rest of your working life.

This is reflected in many of the decisions in the workplace – some have long lasting consequences, others not. For the emerging leader taking up a more senior role, the "half-life" of the decisions they make increases dramatically. Choosing a course of action can shape how the business operates over months, or even years.

'I found that I had to spend far longer working out the implications of decisions – and especially trying to uncover the unintended consequences.

'Learning tools and techniques such as "scenario planning" and "red teaming" helped me enormously.

'I soon learnt that I had to play through my decisions far more rigorously than I had done before'.

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Dr Ian Stewart, Head of Leadership and Organisational Performance, has over 25 years' experience of leadership development in the public and private sector. Prior to joining Kaplan, Ian ran the Behavioural Science department at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

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