Sally Henderson
Powerful change from the inside out

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How to overcome isolation within leadership and business

Gemma Greaves, Chief Executive of The Marketing Society, on her experiences of stepping into the CEO role and how to avoid isolation as a senior leader

Gemma Greaves, CEO of The Marketing Society, talks to Sally Henderson, Executive Change Mentor, for The Leadership Series Podcast, on the joys, and let’s be honest, the pains, that can form part of being a senior leader.

How do you define success as a CEO?

Knowing what you want to achieve, being really clear about that future, and working with brilliant people to make that happen together, is part of success.

What was your steepest learning curve in moving to the CEO role?

Having previously held the position as Global MD, the move to CEO was a much steeper learning curve than expected. This included the fear of feeling like I needed to step into the same sized shoes as my brilliant predecessor, Hugh Burkitt, who is very different to me.  ‘I’d see him on stage and think, I’m going to have to learn his way, because now I’m doing his thing…I can’t do it that way…well I can’t do this then’. It was by being around amazing people and knowing herself that Gemma learnt that she could face the role in her own way. ‘it’s okay to be yourself. It’s not just okay to be yourself, it’s great to be yourself.’

The realisation that the assumption that everything would stay the same wasn’t true. One of Gemma’s mentors, the Leadership Coach Steve Radcliffe said, “you become the most senior person in the organisation, it doesn’t matter how, whether you change one piece of behaviour, or whether you do anything differently. The people around you will instantly view you differently, and you have a different impact for them, as well”. Understanding that was a big step in settling into the role.  

Lastly, learning that being bold is separate to being brave. Brave has more emotional connotations to it, brave allows you to push boundaries. Being brave, is having different versions of us, pushing boundaries and doing things differently. It’s about ‘zigging when other people zag’, being the lone voice in the room and going outside your comfort zone.

Four key pieces of advice to avoid loneliness at the top?

1.       Don’t be afraid to make decisions against the grain. You have to go with what you know is right. However, the more honest you can be, the more open you can be, the more you can show that we’re all human and you can get things wrong will increase the respect from your team.

2.       Have the ability to show that you can be vulnerable and learn from others. ‘Embrace your weaknesses, accept them, and surround yourself with people whose skills complement you, where, actually, they’re so much better than you at that. And I think, as a leader, you need to create that culture, and not enough people do that.’

3.       It’s ok to be yourself, be honest and don’t drive yourself into the ground trying to be good at everything. Encourage others to be at their best and together you can achieve great things.

4.       Surround yourself by a circle of people that you can talk to and admit when you’re feeling isolated or lonely. Don’t sugar coat your feelings. ‘Sarah, my Commercial Director, we have the most uncomfortable conversations, sometimes they get quite emotional, if they need to, but we don’t hide things from each other. We’re honest, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable, and sometimes that’s challenging, but, for me, that’s the only way to do it.’


You can listen to the full recording with Gemma by going to iTunes or acast

The Leadership Series Podcast is a weekly podcast, based around inspiring, honest conversations with interesting people in senior leadership roles, to help fellow leaders join in making the modern world of work, work.  Find out more here.

Are you a senior leader feeling isolated within your role, or feeling the pressure of expectation to ‘know it all’ on your shoulders? Drop Sally a line to see how she can help.

Do you know a high-performer that strives to grow their leadership & make a difference? Forward them this blog post by copying this link.

sally henderson