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How Good Do You Need To Be To Get To Where You Need To Go?

– By  Jeremy Thorn

Good businesses need great people. Yet no-one ever came close to being ‘the finished article’ without investing in professional development throughout their career.  And since most businesses are only as good as their leaders, doesn’t it make sense to start where it counts most, at the top?  After all, if you don’t think you could do better, why should any of your colleagues?

So how committed are you to your own continuing professional development?  And how might your views on this compare with other senior executives?

Starting at the top…

flyingIn a private survey of some 100 UK business leaders’ attitudes towards leadership development, eight out of 10 (83%) acknowledged that their performance could be improved.  But that implies that 17% of senior executives – one in six – seriously think they couldn’t perform any better. Moreover, fewer than four out of 10 (38%) had considered any personal development in the past five years.

So why do so few senior bosses consider further training for themselves?  It’s not because of the cost, because, only 15% of those surveyed claimed that they couldn’t afford it.  However, seven out of 10 (69%) did suggest they couldn’t afford the time (really?) and a similar proportion (72%) said they couldn’t find anything suitable (where were they looking?). But most startling of all, almost nine out of 10 (87%) said that they doubted the value of formal training (but how would they know if they haven’t done any?)

Tellingly, the survey also found that half of executives just aren’t comfortable with the idea of leadership training in case their colleagues might think they weren’t capable of doing their job.  This is all very sad of course, because when a boss isn’t up to the job, most colleagues already know!

How well are you doing?
You will probably know how your colleagues could perform better. But how might you know how you could?  Running a business can be a very lonely job!

Very few leaders fail because they didn’t know how to do their job. They fail because of how they behave, however unwittingly.  And most of our behaviours are unwitting.  If we only knew how damaging some can be, we would surely do something about them!

That is why other’s feedback is so important.  Here are some proven options:

If you are a member of the Academy for Chief Executives, you will already know the immense value of peer review groups.  Your peers from completely different organisations may well tell you things that you never knew about yourself, and can usually help you to address any unhelpful behaviours.

Both formal and informal appraisals by your Chairman or Non-Executive Director can provide much more detailed feedback. As a member of the board, you should be encouraging collective appraisals of each other anyway, if only as a matter of sound corporate governance.  But such appraisals may not necessarily tell you all you want to know. 

360 degree appraisals can add a much more rounded over-view; even if they can be damaging if executed badly.  For best practice, do consider inviting some suppliers and customers to give their unattributable feedback, as well as your colleagues.

Many find a business coach or mentor an invaluable help for continuing feedback. This could  be your Academy Chair if you are a member. The key thing is that he or she does need to be both truly knowledgeable about you and your ways of working as well as completely independent.

Another option could be an ethical, reliable and valid personality profiling instrument – not only for your greater self-insight and self-awareness, but also as a framework for further discussion with your trusted colleagues or coach.  There are many excellent tools available depending on where you want to focus – but do get professional help if you don’t know which might be most helpful.

So how might we develop ourselves further?
This is a key question that faces all senior executives.  We don’t want to embarrass ourselves, we don’t have a lot of time and we don’t want to waste precious resources. So apart from attending Academy meetings, you might:

Consider a formal training programme, whether on a specific topic (eg finance, IT, employment law, board governance), or as a broader programme such as a MBA or Senior Executive programme (eg strategy, or innovation).

Many professional Institutions, Business Schools and Chambers offer both short and long courses, often best judged by the quality of people they attract rather than just the teaching staff. 

Short workshops can be helpful, but beware becoming a ‘training junky’ and choose carefully.  Do you know clearly what you want from each event?  How will you judge its value afterwards?  (And note: heavily-promoted public workshops are often very skilfully sold, but the content can be quite superficial.)

Expand your horizons and seek a Non-Executive Directorship in another organisation. This can be a priceless way to learn from others and broaden your board experience. 

Take on a new task or project. This could be a strategic report to your Board, masterminding a major new project or investment, or even helping an external community initiative.  Working outside your comfort zone is a great way to build new talents!

There is never a good time to start broadening your skills.  When business is slow, you can always persuade yourself that you can’t afford the cost.  When times are good, you may always think you are too busy. (Does this seem like: “Oh Lord, please make me perfect, but not just yet”?)

So why not start now?

And then, what about offering the same to your own staff?


Jeremy ThornJeremy Thorn is the author of several prize-winning business books, including ‘How to Negotiate Better Deals’, ‘The First-Time Sales Manager’ and ‘Developing Your Career in Management’.

He is a regular Speaker to the Academy for Chief Executives and others on a wide range of practical business topics, a qualified Business Coach and an experienced Non-Executive Director/Chairman of some 25 different companies over the last 20 years.

Jeremy has previously been MD of a large multi-national engineering company and the founding Chairman of a nationwide management consultancy specialising in strategic business, organisational and management development which he sold to its management.

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