Episode #5

08 Oct 2019 | Tales of the C-Suite

A breath of experience – operational experience, travel, working at global or national levels, gets you out of your comfort zone and gives you a bigger picture. Let me tell you why.

You know the saying: “Well, I’m no rocket scientist …”

I actually spent 18 months reporting to a woman who was a “rocket scientist” by virtue of the undergraduate degree she had completed in the US in her 20s.

Those 18 months were arguably the most pivotal in my career.

I was working for a large US multinational based in London. After about 2 years, I took a chance and applied for an internal transfer.

The woman I refer to had been dispatched to London from the US H.Q. to take the helm for the European region – a newly created role with a remit spanning Europe, Middle East and Africa, a dispersed team of country managers, high profile global accounts, and revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars in a newly deregulated market.

As she began setting up her team, she sent the word out internally that she was looking for a Business Operations Manager. My then manager encouraged me to apply. Though a sideways move and away from my discipline of marketing, I could see this type of role would give me a much broader perspective on the business and how it operated.

Unbeknownst to me, the equivalent role in the US is called an “Executive Assistant” or EA and is part of the company’s leadership acceleration program. Open to men and women, EAs spend 12 – 18 months working closely with a senior manager in a broad-based role.

The scope of responsibilities is internally focused and mirrors that of the senior manager: forecasting and reporting, HR, strategy, planning, risk management, competitor analysis, internal stakeholder communications, project and program management, preparing briefings and presentations, note taking and preparing action plans, and implementing key initiatives.

It offers a unique experiential learning experience in organisational dynamics and political savvy, dealing with those people who try to use the EA to influence, manipulate and garner favour with the senior manager or access restricted information or intra-company “gossip”.

Almost without exception those who undertook such a role in the US were promoted to a first level executive position upon completion.

For the UK/Europe, the position title was changed to Business Operations Manager as it was felt that Executive Assistant had a specific definition that may not translate well across the Atlantic.

Shadowing her every move, I became the Business Operations Manager to the Senior Vice President, making sure that she never missed a deadline, dropped an agreed action, or turned up to a meeting without adequate briefing.

I attended virtually every meeting with her, taking the notes, summarising the outcomes into an action plan and tracking them to completion..

I met key people across the organisation whom I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to. I had a privileged insight and access to the internal machinations of a large organisation. I saw how this super-smart, influential, values-driven woman did things.

In this organisation, gender was irrelevant. It was all about your skills and how you operated, who you showed up as in the workplace. They invested heavily in developing the soft skills of their people. In this role I was able to demonstrate and hone my human skills – resilience, integrity, candour, empathy, insight, grace under pressure, hard work, humour.

A breadth of experience adds substance. Operational and cross-functional accountabilities, travel, working at global or national levels. These things get you out of your comfort zone and give you a bigger picture perspective.

Norfolk House, St James Square, London

My stint as an EA paved the way for future roles managing global and national programs, then to Chief Operating Officer, and on to advisory boards and committees.

I had the privilege of working for an amazing woman – and role model – who was a rocket scientist. Really. Like that wonderful teacher who impacts you for the rest of your life, a wonderful role model at a pivotal time in your career can have a life-long impact.

Say yes to opportunities. Be the obvious choice to the C-Suite.

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