Sir Richard believes “A Seat at the Table” can really make a difference to women aspiring to the top table and those already there. He hosted Fidelio’s inaugural Seat at the Table at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy last Autumn and is looking forward to the Spring 2016 programme at Leeds Castle. He will be leading a module on geopolitical risk and talks about its importance for business, the role of strategic thinking and parallels that can be drawn between leadership in business and the Army.
Fidelio: You were part of the inaugural “A Seat at the Table” at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in September. Why do you think it met with such a positive response?
Sir Richard: I think the programme is able to address a very real need. Women often face a yawning gap; not in their ability to lead but rather in their confidence in their ability to lead. Extraordinarily accomplished and well-qualified women can become overwhelmed at the sight – even when it is still in the middle distance – of this seemingly unbridgeable road in their career and take a lower path. “A Seat at the Table” provides a toolbox to help provide the necessary confidence so that women can realise their full potential. That is very exciting and empowering.
Fidelio: In your mind what are the key challenges women face in getting to the top table and performing whilst there?
Sir Richard: I think that personal challenges should not be underestimated. These may be deeply rooted in society and therefore cannot be changed overnight. It is not just about education and opportunity but societal expectations of women. The answer to the question: “Can you have it all?” is no longer resoundingly negative. Answering in the positive, however, still requires a high degree of juggling. Juggling either with or of husbands and children and friends and family. Childcare often creates the fork in the road. Having said that, there are plenty of examples of those that successfully juggle on a daily basis and have reached the top table with personal goals still very much intact. Thus managing life outside business may be a key challenge but it is not an insurmountable one.
Fidelio: What parallels would you highlight between women in business and women in the Army?
Sir Richard: There are strong parallels to be drawn as success, in both cases, is dependent on drive, energy and determination. In terms of career development many of the same issues will arise, for example working abroad. But there is a difference in terms of approach to leadership which is a fundamental skill and focus of any career in the Army and its importance is ingrained from Day 1. Business does not have the same focus; there are outstanding business leaders but it is not a fundamental requirement of success.
Fidelio: What should business leaders glean from a geopolitical outlook?
Sir Richard: There is a very important lesson to be learnt in tracking geopolitical developments and that is having a finger on the pulse. For some businesses, such as commodities, the geopolitical outlook is highly relevant. But all leaders should be able to consider business in a broader context. Prosperity, security and stability are all intertwined and the status quo at any moment, as Paris so shockingly reminded us twice last year, is fragile. Leaders should make sure they are able to understand and maintain an interest in current affairs as otherwise they could be overtaken by destabilising events. As a leader one needs to constantly assess and analyse both internal and external events.
Fidelio: You have spent much of your career involved in strategy. What makes a good strategist and why is the role important in business?
Sir Richard: A strategist must ask the question, “do I understand the situation and what tools do I need to help me?” A clear strategy lays out the path to an end state and allows you to integrate and transact business over the duration. The war is won through strategy while the battle is won through tactics. For most leaders there is a temptation to concentrate on the battle. Perhaps the importance of strategy and tactics is most succinctly articulated by Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Having a strategy enables one to operate in uncertainty and ambiguity, with a necessary readiness to live with limited answers and take calculated risks. Strategic leadership can flourish through influence rather than authority.
Fidelio: On the September programme you ran (literally) the voluntary module, “Jogging with the General”. Will you be running this again and if so at what pace and distance?
Sir Richard: I am not sure whether this is an oblique reference to my fitness following the festive period. But the simple answer is that I will be running, at a time and pace to suit all-comers. The Army places particular emphasis on fitness but those in leadership roles should also. Leadership calls for robustness and resilience and physical fitness is part of this.
Fidelio: Why do you feel gender diversity is important?
Sir Richard: I have always felt that diversity helps bring about better outcomes through the mix of wider talents abilities and experiences. The more diverse mix is likely to reach decisions following more probing and challenging questions. Gender is part of this diversity.
About Fidelio Partners
Fidelio, the Board development and Executive Search Consultancy, will be hosting the “Seat at the Table” for a selected group of senior executive females on 15th & 16th March 2016 at Leeds Castle. This programme focusses on the personal and professional development of Senior Female Executives and prepares them for the critical transition to the most senior executive and non-executive roles within an organisation.
General Sir Richard Shirreff
Richard Shirreff has over 37 years of experience as an international leader and commander with exceptional diplomatic, managerial and political skills, rising to the top rank in the British Army and NATO. A high achiever of international significance able to operate in the most complex environments under sustained political pressure, he has a record of unfailing achievement from the strategic to the tactical. An inspirational leader, able to build multinational teams to achieve extraordinary results. A savvy influencer with considerable experience in successful pan-governmental negotiation who would add value, diversity and an alternative approach to any Board, he is a regular speaker to corporates on leadership and strategy and is establishing himself as an independent consultant focusing particularly on multinational strategic projects and above ground risk (physical, political, reputational, social) in the extractive industry.