Alison Brittain is one of only seven female CEOs at a FTSE 100 company in Britain.
In her rise to the top at Whitbread, which owns brands such as Premier Inn and Costa Coffee, she has gathered a range of advice for other women seeking the top job in their careers.
Speaking at the FT Women at the Top event in London this week, Brittain outlined how to make that step from managing director to CEO, through her own experience.
Apart from joking that having “a rottweiler PA is as useful as a handbag,” she said there are some key traits that every CEO should have.
1. “Ask the right questions” — Brittain says that asking the right questions both internally and externally from the company are really important. She told the audience about how “it is astonishing what kind of ripple effect your words can have [on employees] and even worse what how you don’t say or do, like non verbal cues, can cause this.”
“You have to be careful what you say and how you say it because when I make a light hearted comment, some people will take that as the number one thing that we have to focus on and then divert all their resources to achieve it. Another time, there was a discussion about how unhappy I looked in a board meeting, as I was staring out of the window looking ‘sad.’ But little did everyone know that just before the meeting, I looked up quadratic equations on a website and I thought ‘I’m not going to be able to help Matthew with his homework tonight.”
2. “Don’t be fake” — Brittain says “it takes too much energy to be unauthentic, and to fake it all the time is even more excruciating.”
It takes too much energy to be unauthentic, and to fake it all the time is even more excruciating.
“Authentic leadership is key. People are going to be critical and judgmental of you. I suspect that given there are 7 of us [female CEOs in the FTSE 100], we are rare creatures, we also particularly interesting to observe,” she added, laughing.
“I have managed my rise in my career with professional schizophrenia — being able to switch between managing a work life balance, looking after an ageing mother.”
3. Don’t surround yourself with “yes people” — Brittain says that it is important to have a mix of people in your inner circle so they can highlight your strengths and weaknesses and bring about self-awareness.
4. Confidence — You are going to need confidence to rise to the top, says Brittain. “If you are a senior manager, head of department, a director already, you are probably or should be competent already but you need to be confident to develop long term strategy and a direction for company,” she says.
5. Developing a thick skin — “You need to develop a thick skin. You are going to need it.
6. Curiosity — Brittain says being curious of new things is vital for making the leap to the top boss job: “You need to envisage the future, more internally and externally.”
She says that at Whitbread, which owns major brands like Costa Coffee and and Premier Inns, it would be easy to just rest on the laurels of the brands’ success. However she says ” Premier Inn is already so successful for a long period of time. It is easy to be complacent but from my perspective what got us here, will not get us to there. That is why I have put innovation in number one spot for [Whitbread’s] strategy.”
It is easy to be complacent but from my perspective ‘what got us here, will not get us to there.
7. Embracing current technology — “An increasing technological skillset is required for any senior leader. Gone are the days tech where tech was subordinated in bowls of basement. It has now reached the top table. You need to look at how technology can help service delivery, personalisation and I find it absolutely critical and count myself lucky that although I am not a technologist, I am into techy stuff,” says Brittain.
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