What does it take to get to the top in business?

September 28, 2013

Yesterday I was asked what it takes to reach the boardroom. It’s not an unusual question to ask a business psychologist and when I coach on leadership programmes it’s the background noise to most discussion. But it’s not often I get asked by the Financial Times* and it led to an interesting conversation.

What are senior leaders like?

We started looking at the characteristics you need to work at a really senior level. As I’ve discussed here before, you have to be smart enough to handle the complexity inherent in running a large organisation and to make decisions whose ramifications may not be fully understood for five or ten years. You need a fair amount of resilience to deal with pressure and setbacks and to cope with having your judgement subject to constant scrutiny. And, of course, you need the drive, energy, ambition and determination to get to the top. No one gets there by accident – unless you work for a family dynasty and then my first question is “Do you really, really want this?”. Because unless you’re truly up for it, it’s not going to be worth the hassle and the inevitable sacrifices in other parts of your life.

What do you do to get to the top?

But all these are about who someone is. What the FT journalist asked me next, which really got me thinking, was “What should people do to get to the top?”. Of course, there are lots of things you can do to progress your career. You start by getting really good at your job and promoting yourself (though not too much) so that others notice. You broaden your horizons beyond your functional area and plug any knowledge gaps. You cultivate a broad network, develop political acumen and hone your influencing skills.

How well do you know yourself?

All of these are important. But as a psychologist, I’d say that one of the most critical, and often overlooked, things you can do to advance your career is to develop a realistic picture of yourself. Man in mirror bigRecognise and celebrate what you’re good at but acknowledge that no one is good at everything and find out what your particular limitations are. Incidentally, if you’re thinking “no really I am good everything” then I’d suggest that your particular weak spot is over-confidence which has a number of associate risks, not least the way you are perceived by others.

Good leaders are often not well-rounded people. They may be spectacularly good at some aspects of leadership and barely average at others. Good leadership teams, on the other hand, cover all the bases. The trick is to find people who complement you, who excel at doing the bits you can’t – or can’t be bothered – to do well. But if you don’t acknowledge your limitations, how will you know who those people are? And if you get to the top with blind spots about your capability, who’s going to be brave enough to tell you?

I’ve seen plenty of senior people whose management style suits their own personal idiosyncrasies but who believe that their way is the ‘right way’. They then surround themselves with people who are just like them, creating collective blind spots and unbalanced teams. The nearer you get to the top, the more important it is that you know yourself well.

How do you get a balanced view?

So how do you get a balanced view of yourself? Well you can start by taking a long hard look at your performance and appraising it as you would someone else’s. Are there areas where you’re letting yourself off the hook when you’d expect more from someone else?

It’s always useful to get feedback from others. The people most qualified to comment on your leadership style are the people you lead. Paradoxically, the leaders who most need feedback are the ones least likely to get it. No one wants to confront a tyrant. Get used to seeking feedback and dealing with it maturely early in your management career and you’re less likely to become that tyrant.

Another way, of course, is to get an objective outside view. Using a range of state-of-the-art assessment methods, a business psychologist can not only help you identify your relative strengths and weaknesses but can show you how you compare to leaders across a range of industries and, indeed, across the world. If you’d like an independent perspective on your – or your team’s – leadership capabilities, I’d be more than happy to talk to you: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

*OK so it turned out that the journalist worked for a “Financial Times publication” and I didn’t quite make it to the hallowed pink pages.  Here’s the actual article (though you have to register to read it).

Photo credits

Eric Dan


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  1. Jane October 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Very insightful Caroline. Self-awareness is so important, as is having the confidence to hire people that can achieve things you can’t. The most successful senior teams I’ve worked in are those where people understand and respect each others’ roles and how they can each add unique value. I guess the challenge is raising self-awareness whilst building confidence – I think helping people leverage their strengths rather than beating them up because of their weaknesses is the way to go.

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