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Leadership of the future: How to climb to the top in a complex environment

Learning to lead the marketing teams of the future will require a new skillset. The co-authors of Stepping Up, Sarah Wood, CEO of Unruly, and leadership adviser Niamh O’Keeffe, share advice for those looking to climb to the top.

Think of the first time you took a selfie, used a hashtag or read about fake news. It’s probably in the last few years but it will feel like it was much longer. A decade ago, smartphones and social media were in their infancy; now they are all but ubiquitous.

We are living at a time of profound change, where new tools and technologies are transforming how people live, work and communicate. In such times, people look to leaders for a vision of the future.

Those aspiring leaders can come from anywhere – including marketing teams – so to step up, you need to start thinking about the future of your function/business/sector, understand how it’s developing right now and start to imagine how you’d like it to develop in the future.

What are its current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and existential threats? What in an ideal world could it become?

Having a clear vision of where you want to get to is the best way to harness the potential of so much change. It will give you the best shot at building a future business that you want to be a part of.

And you can do that just as well as a graduate recruit as you can from the boardroom. In fact, grads are often better placed: working on the coalface in a hands-on role, with superior digital knowledge and fewer assumptions about how things should be done.

The opportunity to lead, to put forward new solutions and get listened to, is much greater than it used to be

The opportunity to lead, to put forward new solutions and get listened to, is much greater than it used to be. You no longer need to serve your time and patiently climb the corporate ladder. Instead, you can win a leadership role through the strength of your ideas, your vision for the future, and your ability to navigate and bring about change.

Crucially, though, you’ll need to take a persistently proactive approach, working to identify new opportunities, putting forward new suggestions and experimenting with different approaches.

But where to start? Here are our top tips on making change work for you.

  • Get curious

The obvious product of change is uncertainty. And when companies are crying out for navigators of uncharted waters, it’s the perfect moment to step up and become one.

Start by being curious about your team, your business and your industry. What are the big hairy problems your company is trying to solve right now? Find out which white papers are being produced by trade bodies in your sector, carefully read the latest press releases from competitive businesses and see if you can spot any patterns.

Follow a relevant trend from inception to the current day. Now think about how this trend might develop in the next three months, 12 months, and the next three years. Repeat the exercise for other trends, always looking for patterns.

Do this often enough and your brain will be primed to look for patterns in your business and you’ll soon find you’ve got plenty of opinions on what the future could look like.

  • Teach yourself

Identify an area where you can develop specialist knowledge that will allow you to stand out. Choose an area that genuinely excites you. It could be about how you work together as a team or communicate with customers. It could be related to product innovation or changing legislation.

Whatever you choose, invest time and energy in becoming your company’s in-house expert: set up search alerts for your chosen keywords, subscribe to daily or weekly newsletters from authorities in your chosen field, read everything you can get hold of, attend seminars and events, and try to meet established leaders in the field.

Then be generous about your expertise. Share breaking news on your social profiles, offer to host Q&A sessions; share key material and ideas with your bosses, whether that’s via a simple email or a strategy white paper. Turn your learnings and ideas into a shared initiative that people can buy into and take forward.

  • Back your ideas

One by-product of rapid change is that good companies know they need good ideas, and they care more about the strength of new suggestions than the source. In a good company, what matters is having an idea, a solution or a suggestion and having the courage to step forward and share it.

You should take advantage of this new licence to contribute. Familiarise yourself with the key decision-making moments in your company and find out the best way to input your ideas. Try putting forward your suggestion at the company meeting, emailing the CEO or asking to be invited to a strategy session.

  • Try things out

Today, you can start a business for £12 in less than 24 hours. You can create broadcast content on your smartphone. The barriers to making something happen have never been lower. You have the capacity to experiment, and you need to use it.

Whether you’re working for someone else or considering starting out on your own, experiment with a new idea — it could be a new way to advertise, a new platform for communicating with customers or a new productivity #workhack. With communication and distribution channels evolving so quickly, the most efficient way to learn is by doing.

Try something that’s quick and cheap and see what you learn from it. If you can share your learnings and questions on Twitter or LinkedIn, better still, as you might get some helpful answers.

When companies are crying out for navigators of uncharted waters, it’s the perfect moment to step up and become one

Lightbulb moment

Lightbulb moment: What kind of leader do you want to be?

Deirdre McGlashan: You may be driven to ‘get to the top’ but sense-check that desire. Ask yourself, “Why do I want it? What does ‘the top’ look like to me?” Do you only want to be the boss because you think that’s the only place the ladder goes?

I like to think about a career as a grid instead of a ladder. You want to balance your functional specialism with leadership hierarchy. Where are you happiest and can offer (and receive) the most value out of the relationship you have with your employment?

Have an honest conversation with yourself about what motivates you, what you want in your life. Leadership, like a specialist capability, is a skill and not everyone has it naturally or enjoys doing it.

Leadership, like a specialist capability, is a skill and not everyone has it

If you do choose to lead, read books on leadership but also observe others and see what works for them. Don’t be afraid to try on different leadership styles until you find the bits that suit you. When you’re comfortable, you are confident. And there’s nothing more powerful or magnetic than confidence.

I personally have the most respect for leaders who know their business deeply and can have an opinion or a good question at every level. They don’t have to be experts at every level in every discipline but know their business well enough to have a conversation with any of their team members.

This article contains content from Stepping Up: How to accelerate your leadership potential (Pearson Education Limited, 2017).

This article is taken from BLINK, MediaCom’s media industry magazine. Click to read more content from ‘BLINK #12 – Building the brands of the future‘.

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