Leadership Journey

I was working with an executive client recently, and one of the things I asked him to do was actually map his leadership journey. He said he hadn’t ever done that and I encouraged him to try and look at the time when he first started his career. Then to consider his career over the last 20 years, and what his leadership journey looked like.

I said, ‘Do it visually, and imagine your journey is like a river. You’ll have high points and low points, and just like a river twists through the land, make a visual representation of your leadership journey. Look back over your career, and think about, what some of the highlights and low lights were for you? At each one of those junctures, what did you actually learn?’

I shared with him, one aspect of my leadership journey. My first multinational client was Shell Oil. I was part of a faculty who were working with their top 1,000 leaders around the world, in diversity and inclusion, in 2000. I then went on to do some additional work for Shell in Asia and part of it was putting together a leadership program, on working across cultures.

We did the pilot. The pilot went well. We had some good feedback. We tweaked a few things, to make it more relevant, and then we ran the first program in Dubai. At the end of the two days, the feedback was actually terrible. It was a very difficult group to work with. There were some internal issues that were affecting the group, which I was not aware of.

Anyway, the long and the short of it was, it was quite a disaster. The feedback from the group was that the program was terrible and they didn’t want to bring it into the organisation. My client, at that time, was Steve Hughes, who was the vice president of human resources for Asia, and he said, ‘No. We have an agreement with Tom. We agreed that Tom would do five sessions. He’s learning about us as an organisation. We are learning about him. We will fulfil our agreement with him.’

I learnt from him the value and power of integrity, because it would have been very easy for him to actually say, ‘Yes, my clients, or his clients, are his constituents, and if they didn’t like it, let’s throw it out.’ Yet he was resolute that he had made an agreement and stuck with it. That had a tremendous impact on me as an individual and as a consultant, because the next session we ran for them went tremendously well. We then rolled out the program to the top 100, top 250, top 500, top 1,000 employees. Simply because he had the courage, moral fortitude and integrity to stick to his word.

That was a phenomenal learning for me, and a very key part of my leadership journey. How does that relate to you as a global leader? You’ve become a global leader, because you’ve been on a journey. You’ve had ups and downs. It’s really important for you to be able to highlight, ‘Well, what was all the key learning points for me, which were really successful?’ At the same time, ‘where are the areas I didn’t do well? Where are the areas where I fell down, and then, had to pick myself up?’

Those are examples you can use with your teams. Those are examples you can use with people you’re working around, because that can create stories. As you know, one of the key aspects of being a good leader is the ability to create narratives, to create stories. People remember stories, and when you can talk about some of your learnings, or some of your failures, it actually puts you in a very human light.People can then relate to you, and then, you can actually say, ‘Well, in spite of that, I did this, to overcome that.

As a final reflection point, here’s an activity you can do with your teams. Get them to take out a piece of blank paper, and get them to draw their leadership journey. Or it can be their career journey, or it can be their journey in life, so far. Whatever it is, it gives you an opportunity to do an activity, and have people actually talk about it, because it actually opens people up, and helps build connections between people in your team.

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