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Ladders for Leaders: How can we ensure others overtake us in the working world?

Paula Clarke, Senior Vice President, Customer Support and Service Solutions | Leonardo UK

4 min read Partner content

The key to continually improving society is just that - continuous improvement. By its very definition, it is the ongoing betterment of our society. The only sustainable way we can ensure progress doesn’t stop, or even worse recede, is to pass on our successes to others to help them overtake us.

For many professionals, this concept flies in the face of fair competition.  Those who work harder and longer are supposed to win the promotion, and, therefore, the Leadership Game, right? The reality though, is that we are not competing with each other. We are competing against stagnation, regression and the concept that we’re ok as we are. We’re competing against the idea that we don’t need to address the things you talk about every day on the green benches.

So, how do we restructure our society and our working cultures in industry to set them up in such a way that they help others achieve, rather than just ourselves?

One element of the solution that is absolutely critical to progression is cognitive diversity, driven (in part at least) by gender, ethnicity and background, generating social mobility. Without social mobility, we keep fishing in the same pool, getting minute improvements through the occasional maverick who dares to be different.

We need to encourage people who think differently to us to lead in order to get different, even better results

We keep staring at our own future through the same lens, seeing the same detail from the same vantage point - or should I say ‘advantage point’. The kind of cognitive diversity we have the opportunity to exploit in this country is text book worthy. Harnessing it requires every leader to build a ladder for others to climb and then to hold the ladder for them to climb even higher.

Britain’s onshore industry has an opportunity to be recognised as a global leader in science and technology by creating unique intellectual property that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. But that kind of defining innovation is only possible by engaging diverse minds with fresh perspectives that challenge assumptions of the past to build new concepts.

Leonardo’s UK operations contribute £2.1 billion to the economy annually, with 2,100 suppliers, two thirds of which are SMEs. With a focus on high-value work, Leonardo’s 8,300 employees are 80% more productive than the UK average.

One of the reasons we are confident we can keep breaking through into new levels of innovation is that we’ve prioritised diversity and inclusion in our recruitment and retention of talent; we are continually striving for that cognitive diversity through diverse talent to power the engine room, creating Britain’s future economic power – its exports.

It’s incumbent on every leader across the nation to ensure the succession planning for our roles proactively develops strong candidates who can not only ‘take over’ from us, but ‘overtake’ us and surpass everything we ever thought possible about our economy.  

We need to develop inspirational leaders, right from school age and role model behaviours that encourage everyone to do the same. We need to encourage people who think differently to us to lead in order to get different, even better results.

Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean handing promotion to people who aren’t yet ready; rather equipping them with the knowledge already developed and then helping them to get ready to lead us further. Ready to lead industry. Ready to lead us.

So what does good look like?  How will I know when I’ve succeeded in this vital task?  For me, I’ll know when one day (soon), I approach my boss for a bit of coaching, support, or to chew the fat on a problem I’m pondering and see the familiar, friendly face of someone I built a ladder for, sitting ready to provide a novel, innovative perspective that I would never have considered. 

It’s fair to say that anything other than the status quo will generate a level of resistance. I recently delivered an impassioned plea to my son to embrace that concept that he, his sister and all their friends had the opportunity to one day lead the great institutions of our nation; to pass on their knowledge and to build ladders for those who will follow them in future.

He looked at me, pulling the kind of side eye any mother of a 12 year old boy will find familiar. “Riiiiiight”, he said suspiciously “Does that mean more homework?”

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