Like a Rolling Stone: Experience You'll Need to Get to the Top

By Heather Foley

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The path to the top is rarely easy or predictable. However, to give yourself the best chance, you’d do well to actively choose a very diverse career. By working, and succeeding, at all aspects of business, you’ll stand a better chance at becoming a consummate, rounded leader.

What’s more, you’ll have first hand appreciation of the real challenges and opportunities across a business.  You’ll be able to understand the impact across the whole business of the many decisions you’ll have to make when you’re at the top. So, what are the types of skills and experience you could hope to acquire as you work in different departments?


1. HR

Spending some time in an HR department could prove one of the most helpful experiences. That’s because, for most companies, their biggest expense, and asset, is their people. So, ensuring you have the right people, with the right skills, in the right roles at all times is one of the most important jobs in the business.

HR people also help to devise learning and training and use sophisticated software to assist with performance management and succession planning. A true understanding of the value HR can bring to the business is an invaluable asset to any would-be leader.


2. Sales

No training would be complete without a stint at the cutting edge of any business – sales.  Skills learned and honed here will probably be used more than any others. On a daily basis, you’ll need to understand what people want, persuade them that they should trust and follow you and constantly think of what’s in the company’s best interest.

These are the activities practised daily by sales people in order to get customers to choose them, over competitors. And because the skills are not easy to master, they will prove especially helpful to any future leader.


3. Marketing

A different type of commercial acumen is gained when working in marketing. Here, you’ll learn to understand what groups of customers want, by analysing data and making strategic decisions about how to price and promote your products and services. It will also help you to look ahead and understand what risks and opportunities there are from competitors and new products.


4. Finance

A spell in a finance team will inevitably expose you to the value of keeping tight controls on the company’s money and show you how to decide whether it’s the right time to invest for growth or to conserve cash for security.


5. Operations

To become fully rounded, you also need to spend some time mastering the issues around actually delivering the products and services that your company provides. Without this experience, you could easily miss the need to be sensitive to quality issues and the constant drive for productivity.

Gaining experience across a number of departments in a business will stand you in good stead for any leadership role.  As recognised by American football coach, Don Shula, “I don't know any other way to lead but by example”.  And if you’ve been there yourself, you’ll be best placed to give that example effectively, every day.


Heather Foley is a consultant at

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