Overcoming obstacles – for aspiring directors

November 2019

Will Ryan

Head of Permanent Recruitment

(Local Government & Housing)

For aspiring Directors, what are some obstacles to your progression and how are they overcome?  

Over the last couple of years, Allen Lane has been working alongside a number of sectors to help identify the issues/ blockers to people making the step up in to their breakthrough Director level appointment. In particular, I have been working with local councils and the organisations that support them, like the LGA, to look at ways these are negated.

Firstly, this is not an exhaustive list, it is just based on some of the challenges I have seen people face and feedback I have received from clients during my recruitment career. Secondly most of this feedback has been within the public sector, and I realise other sectors will bring their own challenges.

Knowing what the role entails

This seems a very obvious point and isn’t meant to sound condescending, but even if you are reporting into a Director, it can be difficult to understand the nuances of the role they perform and their differences to your own; and until you do, it can be challenging to develop the skills needed to step up. It is not as simple as looking at other job descriptions/person specifications and speaking to your Director. Although all these can help, you really need to develop a relationship with someone currently at that level or has worked at that level previously. Through them you can understand the challenges in the role and the skills you need to develop. Ideally this should be someone you can not only have very honest conversations but someone with whom you don’t work. This helps you to think like a Director, so that in many ways you are doing the job before you have the title.

Over the last year, we have run a number of events putting up-and-coming Deputies in contact with experienced Directors to help them prepare for the next step, and the feedback has been very positive from both sides.

Managing a multi-skilled team

This is often given as a reason for people not being ready to step up into the top roles, especially if it is a wider Director of Resources / Corporate Resources type role. People can be seen as being an expert in their field, whether that is Finance, Procurement or IT; but they need to be able to show an understanding of how all the different areas work to enable credible management. For this, you need to be able to show that you have an understanding of both the key issues and tangible key deliverables within these areas, in conjunction with your communication skills to manage an area in which you may have limited experience. Building a network of individuals outside of your specialism can really help with this, as they can advise you on key challenges and how they can be overcome. The best leaders are not the best at performing all tasks under their control – their skills are in delegation, understanding and engagement.

Understanding the wider organisation

Again, this sounds very obvious but the more senior you become the more you need to know how different departments or teams affect other areas. Being an expert in your area is not enough, you need to develop relationships across the whole business to show you can work effectively as part of an executive team that can deliver on the vision and priorities of the organisation. Spend time with your peers, learn how your organisation is perceived externally, and try and be involved in recruitment outside of your team to help your wider organisational appreciation.

Political landscape

Here we aren’t just talking about dealing with elected officials; we are talking about understanding the politics of an organisation and understanding what other people’s political or personal agendas are – politics with a small ‘p’. The more senior you become the more aware of this you need to be as you will need to rely on people’s support. Be sensitive, positive and supportive – saying the wrong thing, influencing stakeholders adversely and creating a negative reputation are easily done.

One thing that is very useful in recruiting at this level is pre interview meetings, or ‘Fireside Chats’. These allow potential applicants to get a ‘warts and all’ understanding of where the organisation is currently and the challenges they are facing. For recruiters, it gives us the chance to influence clients with candidates who may not meet the full criteria, be what was expected ‘on paper’, or who are a bit left field to meet the organisation and show their potential.

I hope you have found this useful. As I mentioned earlier this is just based on my experience, and I really am interested to hear other people’s thoughts, opinions and personal experiences. Please also get in contact if you or a colleague would be interested in attending mentoring events we will be running in the future or if you have struggled to make the step up – we can see how we can help.

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