A Seat at the Top Table – preparing yourself for those top jobs

Back to our paper, "A Seat at the Top Table” written by Ed Cross, Executive Director of Xchanging Procurement Services, and me. In our last piece here, we explained that the paper proposes the three main roles of a Board member as:

1. They are there to represent their business unit, functional specialism, geography or similar element of the overall organisation.

2. They are expected to contribute to the overall business strategy, issues and direction of the organisation.

3. They fulfil some sort of governance role, which may even have regulatory or statutory drivers.

Now this multi-faceted role brings some interesting challenges. For instance, we may be representing procurement (or our business unit, or whatever), but we are also expected to put wider corporate considerations first when it comes to discussion about organisational direction and priorities. As we say:

“... a functional specialist on the board will at times be contributing their direct knowledge and expertise to those broader debates. But everyone will be expected to offer ideas, opinions and judgement on those business issues. Decisions around strategic direction and major issues – perhaps acquisitions or divestments, investment priorities, or expansion strategies – should and usually do involve everyone on the board, and contributions are expected from all”.

If the board member needs to fulfill these roles, including this key broader perspective, that has implications for the skills, experience and behaviours which will enable individuals to work well at that level. Indeed, those attributes need to be demonstrated earlier in their careers to show they have the potential to work at the most senior levels. So in terms of suggesting readiness for a board position, before we’ve reached those heights, what can the individual do?

The list must obviously include showing strong functional or business performance - evidence of real delivery is key. And, as my co-author said when we first discussed this, "it needs to be consistent, not just a flash in the pan".

But then, given the need for that wider business focus at Board level, the aspiring professional also needs to show broader skills, and just as importantly, the right attitude and behavioural characteristics. So showing that you understand wider business issues, and that you can look at problems in the round, not just from a narrow functional perspective, are key if you want to be seen as a future leader at Board level.

For instance, it is vital to consider when to argue your corner for procurement and when to focus on the big picture and demonstrate that wider vision. Ed Cross contributed some great insights around this based on his experience of making that transition from functional leader to board member – here is his take on what you need to show as an aspiring top manager.

Recognition means creating visibility and networking so you can be seen as a leader beyond just your functional specialism. Respect is built on credibility, through competency, recent and repeated delivery success. Trust is built over time by personal actions and the degree to which you show people you have their interests and that of the overall business at heart, not just your own or those of your function”.

In our final post on the paper shortly we’ll sum up the advice – but in the meantime do download the paper here.

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