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The First-Time CEO

Executive search firm Warren Partners combines head hunting with leadership coaching and board review services. Based in London, Cheshire and Edinburgh, it has clients in the UK and internationally.

When Vicky Lawton was appointed as MD of Warren Partners in 2012, it was her first time at the helm of a business. Despite having previously been the company’s Director of Operations, the step up was still a challenge.

“When you move into a MD or CEO role for the first time within the same company, the dynamics of the relationships that you have built up over time change overnight,” she says. “At first, this can come as a bit of a shock. Suddenly the support systems you’ve been used to don’t operate in the same way.”

Vicky Lawton

Vicky Lawton

Compounding this is the pressure that new CEOs face to make their mark and bring their own leadership style to the role.

“It can be stressful and lonely in a role like this for the first time. Your head is full of ideas about how you want it to be and then there is what everyone else expects – you have to be authentic and do it your way.”

For Vicky, this meant defining a new strategic direction for the business. Here again it was all new territory.

“Anyone managing a small business through the last seven years has had a very stressful time. It’s difficult to maintain and grow a business in a challenging economic environment. It requires you to keep tight control of the levers that affect your profitability, whilst continuing to invest in the areas which will underpin your growth. Having a clear brand and market position is vital and that means being brave about what you are and importantly, what you are not.”

Like many head-hunting firms without distinct brand positioning, Warren Partners had struggled during the recession. Vicky’s task was to re-position the business to deliver additional value through boardroom services and a more consultative approach. At the same time, the firm re-structured its own board and ownership structure. So both internal and externally, change was taking place at multiple levels and Vicky‘s leadership was at the centre of this complex web of decision making.

After 12 months in the new role, in October 2012, the company’s accountant suggested Vicky meet with Peter Hills, Chairman of Academy Group 18 and she became a member.

“One thing that the Academy has done is to give me the confidence to lead the business in my own way”, says Vicky. “The trust and support provided by other members of my group has been really valuable, particularly when things have been challenging. I can talk to them about the things that I find difficult and they provide great advice and act as a totally independent sounding board.

“I knew that I understood my role and what I needed to do, but the external validation of people in similar roles and going through similar experiences was especially helpful in what was still a relatively new position.”

Another area of learning for Vicky as a first time MD was the challenge of juggling a vast array of diverse responsibilities and the importance of taking time out in order to gain a balanced perspective.

“At first I felt guilty about taking a full day out of the office for my monthly Academy meeting, but I soon recognised that when you step out of a situation or environment there are insights and new perspectives that emerge which you couldn’t have seen before.

“All too often our unconscious filters screen out what we don’t want to see or hear. The independent sounding board I get from being challenged by my Academy group members is a valuable resource that I did not have access to before.

“I always try to bring something back from these meetings into the business. It may be a creative idea from one of the morning’s speakers or simply an ‘energy shot’ based on the fact that I’m feeling invigorated myself.”

In her Academy group there is a MD of another professional services business with similar challenges and they now meet up on a regular basis.

“It’s especially important for the business leaders of small businesses to network externally. If you don’t your perspective becomes too narrow and overly focused in your market. You run the risk of spending too much time on the operational and task orientated side of things to the detriment of strategy and creativity.”

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