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I want to be … a business leader

3 March 2015

The article at a glance

“You have leadership potential”: it’s what we all want to hear. But what does it really mean? And how do you take …

Category: News Programme news

“You have leadership potential”: it’s what we all want to hear. But what does it really mean? And how do you take that step up? Our experts tell you what it means to be a leadership prospect – and how an MBA could help you open doors to new opportunities.

Businessman Climbing Hill

The industry expert – Emma Chilvers

Through her company, leaderwithin limited, Emma offers leadership training to blue chip companies, as well as giving specialist leadership coaching to Cambridge MBA students as part of their programme.

What’s so great about being a leader?

For many people it’s about shaping their working environment and having a level of control over it. Being able to make the decisions rather than implementing someone else’s goals is very attractive to a lot of people. With decision making and leadership comes responsibility to the organisation you’re working for and to the people that you manage – and people can be challenging. You could be looking at having to lead a team of very different individuals with a wide variety of characters, opinions and working behaviours – the challenge is to lead them in such a way that when you embark on a plan or course of action, you take them with you. Not everyone aspires to be a leader but others relish that challenge.

Do I have what it takes?

You need the necessary interpersonal, influencing and communication skills to take people with you, and I help people to develop these. Some aspiring leaders have all the skills and intellect but lack the confidence, and although they might be better than other candidates, struggle to prove it. If I come across someone like that, we’ll work on their confidence. Other people have the opposite problem – they believe a little too much in their own ability and can come across as arrogant.

What should I do next?

Part of learning to be a leader is recognising that it’s important to develop – and generally people do want to do that. Companies obviously want smart people who can solve problems, but soft skills are vital and the more leadership you take on, the more important these become. But there’s no one type of successful leader – there are thousands out there with a range of personalities and leadership styles.

Been there, done that – Paola Olivari (Cambridge MBA 2007)

Paola worked at a series of phone and electronics companies in her native Italy before coming to CJBS in 2007. Immediately after finishing her MBA she began work at Google, where she is now Head of Channel Sales in South West Europe, Benelux and the Nordic regions.

Paola Olivari
Paola Olivari

What’s the story?

I wanted to develop myself, but I also wanted to change sector and for personal reasons I wanted to move to London. But because I wanted a well-known brand for an MBA, I came to Cambridge. Cambridge Judge fitted in exactly with what I wanted to do. I actually saw myself as going into marketing, but the MBA steered me in a different direction.

Can leadership be taught?

I learned valuable skills. Cambridge is extremely strong on things like organisational behavior and management practice – all the things that are so important in leading a team. It also developed my soft skills that helped me deal with clients and partners. The practical projects are great, enabling you to test your skills on a valued project within an organisation, but in a “safe” way. But the MBA was really made for me by the other students – they really opened my eyes because they were so diverse and brought so much to the table. I have fond memories of doing assignments with such interesting and intelligent people – and these are people who you keep in contact with. Just last week I asked one of my fellow alumni for advice – they don’t work in the same field as me but because of the MBA we think in the same way. Going to Cambridge gives you mentors for the rest of your life.

Did an MBA help you make the switch?

Google was recruiting for its Strategic Partner Management team and I had exactly the right skills at exactly the right time. I used my skills to help simplify digital marketing to small businesses and I am now Head of Channel Sales across much of Europe.

The CJBS view – Dr Simon Learmount

Dr Simon Learmount is a lecturer in Corporate Governance and Director of the Cambridge MBA programme.

Dr Simon Learmount
Dr Simon Learmount

Can you “make” a leader?

At the early stage of their careers people focus on a functional expertise or a skill – they’re a researcher, say, or an accountant, and that is their contribution to their organisation. But as they move up the ladder, successful people start organising and running things – their “expert” skills decrease and their soft skills increase. And as they go higher still, they develop conceptual skills – the ability to see the organisation as a whole, its role, where it sits in the market, what’s happening in the industry around the world. The next step is how to formalise, support and develop these conceptual skills. You could leave it to chance, or you can see it as an opportunity to evaluate your career and enhance your skills with a view to becoming more effective – which is what the MBA does.

How can you improve soft skills?

Essentially we help students to develop the specific types of skills needed to become a leader – which means them letting go of the functional skills that have got them this far and focusing on the soft skills and in particular the conceptual skills leaders need to enable them to see the bigger picture. The MBA gets you to reflect – it gives you the confidence to downplay those skills that have helped you to get to this stage. It can be difficult to let go of them, but that is the difference in making an effective leader. You’re making choices about the different types of skills you use.

Does it work?

Absolutely. At CJBS you get the Cambridge approach to education. We’re a globally renowned institution across the world in a variety of disciplines – science, art, performing, writing, politics, space, earth sciences and so many more. The whole learning environment gives so much opportunity for people to think outside their disciplines, to think of the role of business in society and the purpose of economic development, for example.