Been there: At the coal-face, face to face with the customer, without no separation provided by time, space or technology, a merciless but most effective training ground for leadership. At least that was my experience of it.
Early on in my career, I took on many customer-facing roles (including travelling across Southern Africa as a French Tour Guide!) in which I learnt more about leadership, service, customer experience design, consumer psychology and marketing than I could ever have imagined. There is nothing quite like a hands-on, frontline role to create an acute awareness of the link between remote leadership decisions and things working or breaking in the real world, at that crucial human interface of employee and customer.
Time in the trenches cures you of the illusion that decisions made by the highest paid are necessarily the smartest. When you do find your seat around at that boardroom table, it is that experience which reminds you to ask "what do the people at the coal-face think will work?", and prompts you to go see, listen and understand before making decisions.
Done that: It seems to me that success in directing, getting things done; relies on how much leadership muscle you build over time. Personally, an active pursuit of diverse experiences and a commitment to seeing each experience through has been critical in building that muscle. I've been determined and deliberate in testing myself in a variety of organisational structures and models, in different industries from FinTech, Retail Financial Services, Private Banking, to Tourism. Being able to adapt and thrive in different contexts has given me the confidence that my past successes were not one hit wonders. I think that is crucial, otherwise one risks getting stuck, hanging back instead of creatively pushing forward to new challenges.
What’s next: I'm incredibly fortunate to be working in the Fintech and mobile space at this time. It's a great time to be a thinking person, problem solver, and ‘connector of dots’ so to speak. My current work blends the quantitative (data), social (customer) and commercial paradigms to solve important problems and broaden access to financial services on our continent. That excites me because ultimately leadership not about scrambling to be at the top of a pile, it's about moving people; your customers, your colleagues and so on, from where they are now to a much better situation.
Quote: “Start now. Start where you are. Start with fear. Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop. Start where you are, with what you have. Just... start.” ― Ijeoma Umebinyuo
The decisions I have thought were the scariest, riskiest, least likely to succeed have often turned out to be the most rewarding for me. I believe fear may be a reason to pause and check that the safety harness is on, it is not necessarily a reason to stop.