What do you wish you'd known 10 years ago?

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The recent BBC article CEO Secrets: Recruit people 'better than you' asked key CEOs what advice they wish they had been given when they started out.  As Ashridge has been asking top leaders this questions for a decade, we thought we would share some on the insights providing our programme The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge.

Our research and programme are based on two questions: 

  • Picture yourself 10 years ago, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

  • What have been the most critical incidents that you feel have really shaped and developed you as a leader?

Over a decade of Ashridge research (Poole & Carr 2005, Reitz 2009, Reitz, Carr & Blass 2007), hundreds of senior leaders have answered these questions, highlighting several critical incidents that have changed their attitude to work. We've put together three of the most commonly experienced examples of tipping points faced by respondents, the question is, what would you do if you were in their shoes?  

Stepping up to management 

This covers the range of experiences individuals have to deal with when they come to the realisation that they are actually in charge. At some point many of us experience difficult situations like being promoted to manage the team you work (and possibly drink) with, managing your secretary/PA, and even suddenly finding yourself in charge as the whole level above you disappears.  

‘I found I was running the department and had to find the courage to do this’  

‘When I got my first management position, I realised that there were whole aspects of the job that no one had warned me about. Managing the team was not just about the day-to-day functional activities…it was also about selling yourself and the team…’  

Stepping up successfully often requires a new manager to navigate imposter syndrome; they doubt that they are capable of the new role and harbour a persistent suspicion that their colleagues are about to find out that they don’t know what they are doing. Further information on imposter syndrome can be found here.

Being managed by a great boss… and a rubbish one  

This includes incidents where someone superior to the individual had an impact on them, whether it was getting a pat on the back from the CEO, being mentored well and gaining respect for someone, or learning what not to do from a poor boss. There may have been times when you have fallen out with your boss and had to rebuild your credibility, or perhaps you have been held back by a boss who didn’t want to lose you? Either way, it can make or break your relationship with both your current and future managers. 

‘I had an unofficial mentor who really helped me when I got the new role. They were a great sounding-board for me, and also acted a bit like my internal PR person, telling others about what I had been doing’ 

‘…when I found out my boss had taken credit for my work…that was it, I lost complete respect for them and was a lot more careful…’  

The good news here is that if you currently have a ‘rubbish boss’ Ashridge research suggests you might nevertheless learn a lot from them; such as warning signs to look out for in future, or what kind of boss you do not want to be! 

Where work and life meet  

We all reach points in our career when we find critical insight into the balance of our values and desires, weighing up our work and personal lives. Some of these moments can be quite dramatic, such as a partner dying, or maybe a romance with someone working for a competitor... a surprisingly common occurrence.  

‘Having our children changed things…all your priorities change and I see work for what it is now...my team are great, they help me get out of the office in time to see [my children] before they go to bed…’  

‘(after a family crisis)…it made me certain of the decision I now take if one of my staff were in a similar position…compassion, time off on full pay for as long as it takes…’  

As the busyness of work increases, the ability to choose, in a thoughtful, informed way, how to spend one’s time is vital. Whether you are considering if you should take that promotion, an overseas job, or commit to a long commute, it can be easy to just head through each door that opens. As our respondents commented, before you know it you can find yourself retiring, wondering where all the time went.  

So what is the answer? Know thyself! 

We were struck by the number of respondents who wish they had known more about themselves 10 years ago, and how useful it would have been to:  

  • Know their strengths and blind spots

  • Connect with their values and aspirations in order to guide decisions

  • Know they were just as qualified to do the job if they had only taken the risk.

With this treasure-trove of data we developed The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge, a leadership programme designed so that participants can experience these common critical incidents, whilst deepening self-awareness. With the help of heart rate variance monitors tracking their response (see Waller et al 2014), our participants develop their resilience and build the muscle memory neuroscience has proven will enable them to deal with critical incidents more effectively back in the workplace, when it really matters.  

Do you have learning experiences you would like to share with us? Tell us what you wish you knew earlier in your career on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AshridgeUK.

Want to find out more about then neuroscience of leadership development?  Read our report: The neuroscience of leadership development: Preparing through experience. Ashridge Business School Report, April.  Waller. L., Reitz, M., Poole, E., and Muir, A. (2014).

Ashridge runs ‘The Leadership Experience, an intensive 3.5 day experiential programme designed to help participants accelerate their leadership potential.

kim hollamby