Sally Henderson
Powerful change from the inside out



Sarah Harvey on how to overcome a lack of clarity in your senior role, as well as how to hire effectively to avoid the same ambiguity being replicated within your team

With an eclectic career already under her belt, most recently Head of UK at Fintech group Square and Chief Operating Officer for Tough Mudder, Sarah Harvey is perfectly placed to give valuable insight into her experience of the realities of having a lack of clarity in leadership roles and the importance of clear job descriptions being determined at the very start of the recruitment process.  

With a skill set built-up in strategy and having worked in 22 countries (and counting!) for various corporate and not-for-profit organisations, Sarah now focuses on working with start-ups and has had the pleasure of working with some well-known senior leaders, such as Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and founder of Twitter.

Have you found there to be a norm in how your roles have been structured, or has this differed in each role?

My experience of consulting roles within the corporate world was very structured, with each project assigned clearly defined in terms of resources and timelines, however, since moving into the start-up world, it has become much less defined, with me being the first person to market at both Square and Tough Mudder. Which I enjoyed. It was great to be able to learn about the core product of the business, but then be able to have the autonomy to figure out how I needed to deliver that product.

Do you think having a lack of clarity in job roles can negatively impact the business?

It depends on the lack of clarity that there is, but it can be really disruptive for a team if they’re hearing different messages from leadership.

The move from a start-up to a scale-up can become harder when clarity into each person’s role is not defined. For example, in a start-up, the fairly small team often gets involved with everything with a fairly flat organisational structure. When this up-scales and hierarchy is put in place, it can be disconcerting for people used to ambiguity.

You can have clashing views on what is required from a role, creating tension around the creation of a new job specification, making it difficult and unproductive for the leader stepping in to take that role.

Have you experienced this within your own position when creating new roles, and what have you learnt from this?

The worst thing I’ve done when I’ve been too busy to properly focus on new hires, is slap the standard blurb about the company on an A4 page, and Googled ‘what do you include for a job description for role X’! With the idea that the role would become clearer once I started interviewing people. This led me to situations of finding two brilliant people for a role, both with a very different offering, without having thought out in advance exactly what you’re looking for, it can lead to bad recruitment decisions, fixing short term but creating long term problems.

I’ve learnt that hiring decisions need to be clear in advance, with defined job roles specified on paper. I’d rather temporarily promote someone, or bring in a short-term consultant to cover a role, whilst spending six months making sure I get the right hire.

I’ve found it helpful to give an interviewee a specific problem, something that you’re grappling with, and hear their thoughts on how they’d move forwards, to ascertain their fit.

On the flipside, do you think a lack of clarity in the remit of senior roles can be a positive thing, and what steps would you recommend peers in similar situations took to define their own success?

A lack of clarity can be a great opportunity to push a career forward, for those who are very motivated, perhaps wanting to dive into areas that aren’t directly associated with their previous experience. Ambiguity can allow a person to do that. How to define your own success if in this position?

1.       I found talking to other businesses and peers (not necessarily businesses in directly comparable situations), to understand how they’d grown, helpful. For example, when we were launching Square in the UK, I spent some time talking to some other tech businesses (not in the specific payments space), about how they had seen their journey in the UK, compared to some of their other markets so I could get a sense on whether the UK market was a quick start or a slow burner in terms of forecasting growth.

2.       Seek guidance, whether from a mentor or from a person you trust. This can be invaluable.

What would’ve helped you the most about keeping clarity within your role, and how best to thrive in it?

1.       Knowing the difference, when running a large team, between being liked, being respected and being a friend. It’s possible to be fair, and for your decisions to be respected, even if you’re team aren’t happy with decision you’ve made.

2.       I wish I’d been braver and bolder, to reach for things and ask for what I knew I was capable of. It’s something I’ve definitely taken on board recently, but I could have got to this stage faster should I have been told this at the start of my career.

3.       Accept that your decisions, as a senior leader, are going to be harder now. If your organisation is running effectively, with the right hire and the right objectives, no-one should ever be asking you anything easy. If you’re getting easy decisions, somethings not working.

4.       Every week, identify two or three big things you need to focus on, and then identify a list of the smaller tasks that need doing, making sure that every day, you’re spending time tackling the bigger jobs which can get lost amongst the day-to-day.

5.       Always be focussed on having a growth mindset, as learnt from working with Jack Dorsey, so you’re never just an expert in just one particular field. Always be open to learning new things and pushing yourself forwards.

Finally, what have you done in your career that has enabled you to keep up the energy and the confidence to succeed?

I’ve found it really helpful to have people, outside of your organisation, to bounce ideas off, usually people who are twenty years ahead in their careers so you can understand how they’ve dealt with similar situations.

Having confidence in my abilities. Don’t be put off by not matching every single criteria on a job specification. If you can do three of those eight things, and feel you’d be a good fit for the role, apply!

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 on the website.

Does Sarah’s insight resonate with you? Whilst a lack of clarity can be motivating, it’s more likely to lead to confusion around your role, a lack of motivation and feelings of failure. Drop Sally a line to see how she can help!

sally henderson