Leadership – Taking Care of Business

27 January 2017

We interviewed sales directors, commercial leaders and CEOs working for organisations with combined revenue in excess of £20bn in media and information services. The responses reflect the most pressing concerns of people who have spent tens of thousands of hours in positions of commercial leadership.

Making time

We asked them about the area(s) they most needed to develop as leaders. Unsurprisingly, time-management and being increasingly strategic were two dominant themes. One-third of the group interviewed mentioned at least one of these. In particular, managing time to be more strategic.

Specific approaches included:

  • Pushing back internally
  • “Ruthless” prioritizing
  • Focusing on strategy that would mitigate risk
  • Challenging traditional thinking

The respondents didn’t talk about working on strategy. They talked about being strategic; delivering strategically. The language was dynamic and assertive:

“Making more time.”

“Dedicating more time to being more strategic and less reactionary.”

Mind the Gap

Just under half of our group mentioned specific knowledge, skills or experience gaps they wanted to work on to improve their leadership offering. The majority of these were in some way related to people management (particularly a tendency towards micro-management) and general financial skills.

One young COO wanted to strengthen personal technical knowledge; a Sales Director mentioned his recruitment skills. One manager who oversees a $50m portfolio wanted to be more forbearing:

“I need to work on my empathy. I expect everyone to be as committed to the cause as I am and they’re not.”

Soft skills, like decision-making and communication, were mentioned by 20% of respondents. Confidence and courage were mentioned by fewer than 10% – and only by respondents who were new to a sector or product. 10% felt the need to be more political.

Some wanted to work on areas that were crucial to fulfilling their current roles. Others mentioned areas of development that would increase their professional equity in the longer term.

Here’s looking at you, kid

We received candid responses to a slightly awkward question to ask (personally and grammatically):

“As you think about where you want to be in your career, if you’re not there, what do you need to get there?”

23% of our group were unequivocally happy, satisfied, content or where they would expect to be in their career.

14% were, broadly speaking, where they wanted to be.

50% were not where they wanted to be. Most of this group talked about why they hadn’t “arrived” rather than what they expected to do to reach their desired professional level. They predominantly cited reasons that implicated their own decisions and behaviour, not their circumstances:

“Coming to the field late.”

“Maturing late.”

“Not making it happen.”

“Not being proactive enough.”

“Not being ambitious enough early enough.”

“Unwilling to play a political game.”

“Staying in a role too long.”

“Cultural barriers.”

“Not being in the right place at the right time.”

Magical thinking

The first question we asked these commercial leaders was:

“If you could change one thing about the business you work in what would that be?”

We were, perhaps, hoping for predominantly hiring issues we could help address. The responses were so varied they weren’t usefully pie-chartable. It was, however, the only question everyone answered.

We have turned the grievances into a list of questions you can use when grilling the board of your prospective employer – or when raising challenges internally in your current businesses.

  • What is the actual culture here?
  • How well do the sales and marketing team work together? What are the greatest points of tension?
  • Could the CEO be more (or less) involved?
  • How many direct reports are too many to manage well?
  • Is the commercial culture strategic or reactionary?
  • How are excellent people hired?
  • What is the employer brand in the eyes of the market?
  • What is the current and long-term hiring strategy for the commercial function of the business?
  • Are there sufficient resources to train and build capacity at mid-level to promote from within?
  • How often are under-performers retained in the revenue-driven team to fill gaps due to lack of resources?
  • Is forward hiring standard practice?
  • On the whole are targets achieved (and considered achievable) by members of the team in leadership positions?
  • What is the potential future career path for me here?
  • How does this product rank in comparison to other products on the market? Is this product seen as essential to the target market or optional?
  • How is outstanding mid-level leadership hired and retained?
  • How good is the communication and collaboration across the organisation? How frustrating is the reality?
  • What is the quality of the systems and policies in place to manage clients and governance?
  • Across the company how is the business development function viewed?
  • How quickly can a new product or an improved product get to market? What is the impact of this on client retention?
  • How consultative is engagement with clients in reality?

Things of note to shoehorn in

  • Leaders want to spend time with more senior leaders.
  • There were two incidents of swearing noted by these stretched and committed leaders. They were both to do with caring. “Giving a s***” about a team or about work generally.
  • One sales leader mentioned he needed to be more ‘x’ and less ‘y’ in terms of behavior to be able to play the political game. This would arguably (we think) make him less effective at commercial and revenue-driven leadership.
  • 9% of the commercial leaders we surveyed were women. We imagine this is down to three reasons. Firstly, fewer women choose to work in the revenue-driven and commercial arms of companies (not speculation). Secondly, the Managing Director of Herringbone Search invited his gender-proportionate network to be surveyed, and he may have more appeal with men (speculation). Thirdly, the men he invited on the whole accepted, so they either believed it would add value to their lives in some way or they felt free to leave the office for a chunk of time over lunch to answer a survey. Perhaps the women did not (speculation). Gender food for thought.
  • Inefficient mid-level and junior recruitment practices have a large impact on those several rungs up the hierarchy.

In brief…

Commercial leaders:

  • Can identify their weaknesses.
  • Can be quick to doubt or criticise their own career path and achievements, and will take responsibility for perceived underachievement in their career.

Our simple takeaway? Managing time aggressively helps us all be more strategic in our roles, our careers and our lives.

Career check

Q: Are you working on areas of personal development that will benefit your career in the short, medium or long-term?

Q: Where would you like to be in your career in 3, 5 and 10 years?

Q: What will it take? What are the obstacles?

To all those who took part – many thanks indeed.

The Herringbone Search Team