Adapt to succeed

Mar 12, 2018
Chartered Accountants are well-represented at the very highest levels of business and management, both in Ireland and abroad, but making the transition from one phase of your career to the next isn’t always easy. To be successful at all levels of business, one needs a high degree of adaptability. Lynda Carroll FCA explains why.

Adaptability is often cited as a core competency exhibited by aspiring and successful professionals. It speaks to an academic and emotional intelligence, which enables us to navigate the complex and often conflicting demands we face. Adaptability is about developing the skillset and, most importantly, the mindset for each situation we find ourselves in.

A very practical way to explore adaptability is to look at it from the perspective of the development of one’s career through phases or roles most of us will recognise, such as executive management, executive board directorship, or (independent) non-executive board directorship.

The biggest transition we make is from executive management to board member, and this is where adaptability is most tested. The biggest step-up is not in moving from detail to principle, from execution to strategising, or from doing to oversight. The biggest step-up is in changing the perspective from which you view the organisation and adapting to the new reality of your duties as a board member.

Your duties are now to the entity itself – not to any individual, interest group, workers, shareholders or stakeholders, but to the entity itself. Your duty is to further the realisation of the purpose of the organisation and this is where your mindset needs to be. Whether you’re acting as an executive director or non-executive director, those duties are fundamentally the same.

If all organisations were the same, once we had adapted a board member mindset we could rest on our laurels. However, all organisations are not the same and where they differ is in their purpose. Purpose defines an organisation and informs how it’s governed and the mindset to be adopted as a board member.

Purpose difference is one of the principle reasons for different governance codes. State bodies, which have very distinct character and purpose, have a code focused on stakeholder management. The body serves multiple stakeholders and is likely to have a social impact – the board focus and mindset reflects that reality. Corporate entities focused on profitability, efficiency and shareholder value management have a code focused on the principal and agent relationship between owners and managers, and a board governance mindset which reflects that reality.

In any given week, you may find yourself sitting at an executive management meeting in a financial services organisation, sitting on an audit, risk and finance board sub-committee of a registered charity and at a board meeting of a State body. How you act at each one will call for a distinct organisation-specific skillset and mindset.

We are all slaves to cognitive bias and with the passage of time, the security we derive from what we think we know often leads us to think that ‘more of the same’ or ‘more of what has worked to date’ is the answer to the new challenge. This is where, by challenging yourself, you help yourself to adapt and succeed. This is where knowledge truly is power.

Inform yourself. Start your transition well in advance of the change you will have to make. There is a wealth of academic learning – available and very accessible – that provides informed perspectives on the duties and responsibilities of these roles. There is also a wealth of practical advice available from those who have travelled this road before you.

Lynda Carroll FCA is the Head of Capital Allocation & Risk-Based Pricing at AIB.