Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

30th May, 2023

Olivia Maguire
Olivia Maguire
Job Title
Content Marketing Lead

What makes a great director? How do you know if you’re ready to take that next step up in your career? How important are qualifications at that level? These are just some of the questions we asked Graham Wilson, Leadership Wizard and Founder and CEO of Successfactory.  

Watch the short video interview or read the full interview below: 

Q: What makes a great director?

A: When it comes to leadership, the only thing we can control is our behaviour. The rest of it is about other people deciding whether they want to follow. Going from a manager to a director, you’ve still got to be an authentic person. You should strive to be who you are, and the more you are really yourself, the more people will trust you. The more people trust you, the more likely they are to follow you.

You've got to have the capability to create a high-performance environment where success is inevitable. I think quite often we're very good at setting goals and giving direction, but we then don't spend enough time to actually remove the barriers that can stop you from being successful. You've also got to get comfortable, particularly in today's world, with the volatility of the marketplace. You’ve got to be comfortable with ambiguity and leading without knowing all the answers.

Additionally, you can’t be a successful director without a great team around you, so your ability to build teams is fundamental. When someone says to me: ‘Is that person a great director?’, I say: ‘Well, let me have a look at the team around them’. Being a good director means almost making yourself redundant, because you want the team to be delivering on the business, which will give you time to do the strategic thinking.

Finding the balance between strategy and culture is also key. You can have a great culture, but with a poor strategy, you'll fail. And if you have a great strategy with a poor culture, you'll also fail, so seek out both.

Ultimately, if you can build a high-performance environment, remove the barriers, you're authentic, can inspire action, can communicate with meaning, are good at storytelling, can unleash innovation in the organisation, then you’re in a great position. A great director drives the business forward with empathy, courage, care, and realises that at the end of day, it's all about people.

Q: Are there different skill sets needed for being a manager and a director?

A: Skill sets are important and mindset is also really important. From a management point of view, you're more focused on the here and now, and the status quo, and making sure the business is efficient and effective, making sure that people are aligned behind the strategy, and actually driving the business forward.

As a director, you’ve still got to do the same sort of role, but it requires a slightly different skill set, and a lot more strategic thinking. What I find with a lot of managers in the first stage of moving into that role, is they find that it’s a big step as they’ve got to get comfortable with the fact that they’re paid to think, they’re paid to look at a strategic level, not just an operational point of view.

Also, it's a different type of power. When you're a manager leading your team, you have a certain amount of positional power, whereas when you're a director working in a large organisation, you're often working across different functions and you're having to look at a holistic view of the business, so you also have to start to influence in a different way. Therefore, building your influencing and networking skills is really important. I think you should always have a relationship with every person in the business, plus all your key customers.

In summary, there are some subtle differences, but from a management point of view, I would say it's more about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Whereas at leadership and director levels, it’s more about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ from a cultural point of view.

Q: Does being a good manager mean someone will naturally be a good director?

A: I think you are going to get a lot of people who are more naturally gifted to think in a strategic way and are big-picture thinkers. But I'm not a big fan of the idea that you're born to be a great leader or born to be a great director. I think it requires hard work.

If you don't change the way you operate, focus on developing your skills, and start to think about things differently, then you will probably fail.

Sometimes what can happen is people go to a leadership meeting and represent their part of the business, whereas they should be thinking and talking at a more strategic level across the whole organisation. I think you've got to be able to be comfortable with that and be able to make that shift. If you don't, then you might have been an amazing manager, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a great director.

Q: How will someone know if they are ready for the next step up to director?

A: One of the key things which is important in a corporate organisation is you cannot be promoted unless you've got a great team around you. Because if you take yourself away, then there might be an impact on performance. I think one way to look at it is if you can say: ‘I've developed my team, my team are high performance, I have a successor in place who can take over my role, I'm prepared to develop and grow, and shift my thinking into a more strategic role’, then you’re likely ready.

And having that flexibility of mind to know and recognise that it's not just a promotion and doing the same as what you would do now on a bigger scale; it's a different context. I think you’re ready when you're willing to adopt a new style, a new approach while still being authentic, you're really good at strategic thinking, you understand what strategy really is in today's world, and understand that it's a learning process, and how to be able to communicate with meaning.

A good manager will do everything technically correct and hit every KPI and get good results, whereas a great director will do all of that through their team but will also be able to give meaning to the strategy.

So, ultimately, I think a great indicator is when you're comfortable storytelling, you're comfortable presenting, you're feeling comfortable with ambiguity, you're comfortable without knowing all the answers, you're great at facilitating groups, and you feel comfortable moving out of your subject matter expertise area and thinking more holistically around the business, both internally and externally, in the short term and long term.

Q: What steps should someone take if they want to progress to director?

A: You've got to understand your rationale, your reason why you want to become a director. I think we can sometimes fall into the trap of it being money orientated and not recognising that it is a different role that requires a different level of resilience. You’re accountable for a bigger part of the business, so you've got to be comfortable with that. So certainly, building your resilience would be really important, and you want to start doing that now.

Being able to cope with pressure and perform in mission-critical situations is key, and develop what I call ‘the six pillars of resilience’, which is really understanding your purpose and what you really want out of life, what commitment you're prepared to give, how you want to live your life, and would a director position give you that.

Second thing is, how much energy and vitality do you have? Do you sleep well? Eat well? Do you practise mindfulness? Are you exercising and fit enough to be able to take on a more strategic role?

Also, you want to start building your support network now. You want to have good relationships across the business, make sure that you are persistent and can manage from an emotional intelligence point of view, and also start to develop conversational and storytelling skills.

I would suggest that you start that journey now. Get yourself a good coach, a good mentor, and start to think about what makes a great director. Who are some of the directors that you admire both inside your own organisation, but in other organisations as well?

The starting point has to be, ‘What's my reason why?’ then work backwards from what great looks like and think ‘What am I going to work on that's going to help me to move into that director role’, and make sure you get the right support to make that happen.

Q: How relevant are qualifications, or are soft skills more important at that level?

A: Bit of both, really. In terms of leadership, you are measured on your results, so it's not just what you know, it's more about what you do with what you know. I think what academic qualifications do, is give you some rigour in thinking, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to be successful. One of the things you ought to be thinking about as a director is, ‘What is it I need to do and be to be successful now and in the future?’

A challenge with a lot of qualifications is that they are often backwards-looking. They’re research-based and based on what people did in the past. You've got to be really careful about which qualifications you go for. I think some people tend to just grab the MBA badge or whatever qualification it is, but for me, it's more about how you apply that knowledge.

You want to be thinking, ‘How do I learn and grow and develop a great way of operating so that I build that credibility and deliver results?’ I wouldn't discourage anyone in completing a qualification if that's something that you feel would benefit you, but I think the key really is about developing your softer skills such as your influencing skills, your persuasion skills, and negotiating skills.

One of the things we teach on our programmes is helping leaders to develop an authentic leadership brand. Look at your self-awareness and who you are, build on your strengths and create a leadership brand. If you can do that, that will certainly outweigh the qualifications.

Q: What's the one piece of advice you would give to someone who is looking to progress into a director position?

A: Be you. Be really comfortable with who you are.

Don't fall into the trap of trying to copy someone who you admire and someone who has been successful in the business, because they've been successful in the past and what you've got to do is carve out your own way of doing it. I think that's probably my top tip - be authentic, be real, be courageous and confident enough to be able to bring your real self to work, because the more real you are, the more influencing power you have. Which means that people are more likely to trust you and are more likely to follow you and do great things.

About Successfactory

Since 1994, Successfactory has grown to be a leading authority on leadership and trusted by many of the leading brands around the world such as Bentley, Bupa, Samsung and Specsavers.  

Founder, Graham Wilson, is a leadership expert, author of ‘Leadership Laid Bare’, ‘The New Leadership Manifesto’ and ‘wabisugi’. Described by clients as the UK's #1 leadership trainer and coach, Graham is trusted by many leading global brands to develop their leaders and teams. 

If you are looking to take that next step in your career or looking for a talented professional to join your business, get in touch with one of our specialist consultants today.