Leadership – learned or born that way?

We all know the concept of a “natural born leader”. Hearing the term might immediately make us picture one or two individuals. But we should still keep in mind that leadership skills can be learned and developed. That has been proven by the world’s psychologists, even if it is more difficult to learn “soft skills” than the “hard skills” of professional knowledge. In any case, how does one make a career leap and shift into a leadership role? What challenges is a “specialist” likely to face when transitioning to a manager? These questions were the heart of a discussion between BMI alumni Jurgita, Marcelo, and Amina, and their listeners, who eagerly posed questions at the end.

Jurgita: During the first three years of being a leader, you’re learning actively, so you have to listen more and speak less. Failing to delegate is a widespread mistake that people make out of their goodwill and intention to help everybody. Amina, Marcelo, what was it like for you? What was the hardest part turning that page in your career and what mistakes did you make?

Marcelo: When I stepped into my first managerial role, I realized that a leader’s objective should not be to know everything but rather to get the right people who know what you do not and give them the best conditions to deliver. That idea wasn’t easy to execute. It took me some time to do.

Jurgita: Marcelo, what competencies or traits of yours helped you make this step?

Marcelo: One is definitely empathy. I started to understand people’s frustration and to put myself in their shoes. If I had not made an effort to understand the other side, I would have never made it to where I am now. I would have kept creating barriers between myself and the people who deliver results.

Jurgita: Amina, how many years did it take you to make this transition? Was it an internal or external move?

Amina: I joined GSK in 1998 as a lab technician and remained in the research and development department for 14 years. Though I was not leading any team, I felt that people wanted to work with me and followed me. Later I took on a new role in a different department within the same company. At a point where I was functioning an internal consultant, instructing managers on how to define and deploy strategies, my coach asked me: “Ok, Amina, do you want to know all of this just in theory or do you want to try and test for yourself what it’s like to be a leader?” The answer seemed obvious to me – I wanted to see what kind of a leader I could become.

Jurgita: Thank you. Marcelo, what is your story?

Marcelo: I started as a research and development engineer, but I wanted to lead the business in the long-term. Like with Amina, many leaders have had a mentor who helped them with their weaknesses and showed how to get to their ultimate goal. I also had a mentor who helped me at one point. Then I moved from Brazil to Italy, where I slowly started immersing myself in a multicultural environment. As time passed, I moved to Bridgestone, which familiarized me with the commercial area. That is also where I decided to do my EMBA.

Jurgita: I guess both of you have a general background. Why did you decide to do an EMBA? And how did it impact your career?

Amina: As I mentioned earlier, the only company where I’ve worked for many years is GSK. Hence I saw myself as a GSK baby. At the same time, I realized the world is a big place and I wanted to meet my full potential. So there were two options: to quit or to find a way to learn and grow without leaving the company. As mine and the company’s vision and values were completely aligned, I decided to stick to the second option and enrol myself in the EMBA.

Jurgita: Did the studies meet your expectations?

Amina: It was one of the most important experiences in my life. The EMBA gave me confidence, which I also transmit to other people. The studies were very informative, but at the same time it was a tough journey where I met people from different countries and industries. By the end, I’d started feeling a bit more confident, a bit prouder of myself, and a bit more “me” in fact.

Jurgita: Thank you. What about you, Marcelo, did the EMBA bolster your career?

Marcelo: Yes, definitely. I fully agree with Amina – the EMBA gives you confidence which is reflected in how you communicate and talk about different subjects, things you might not have touched on before, be it finance, logistics, or other things. The path to get these skill sets and build confidence is not so long.

Jurgita: Were some of the courses more useful than all the others?

Amina: As I am really passionate about working with people, for me the HR course stood out. I was looking for an example of a real leader for writing a paper and finally chose Vineet Nayar– the CEO of an Indian IT company. He argues that if we wanted to offer a quality product and run an efficient business, we have to focus on employees first and customers second. Your people will bring added value to the customer when they are treated this way. From that point onwards, I knew what kind of a leader I wanted to be in the future.

Jurgita: Thank you for the interesting insight. Marcelo, did you find any courses especially helpful?

Marcelo: For me all the courses were useful, I would not distinguish any in particular. I want to emphasize that anything you learn today may become useful at some point, as the world is changing and one feature of leadership is adaptability. Today we are different from how people were 10 years ago, and in 10 years we will be different from who we are today.

Jurgita: I totally agree. When people ask me what I got from the EMBA, I always say: “Well, one thing for sure – I work less and earn more.”

Coming back to the main topic, could you offer some tips for people who want to make the transition from being a specialist to being leader?

Marcelo: A willingness to become a leader, having the right attitude, and demonstrating empathy are three things you need to be looking for. If you do not want to become a leader, there is nothing bad about that – be an expert and enjoy your own path. The right attitude has two sides: confidence and adaptability. In terms of empathy, be ready to listen to and understand others. They will all have different points of view and you have to be open to that. A fourth thing I would name is honesty towards yourself. Don’t be afraid to admit your weaknesses and where you need to improve. If you can’t deal with that alone, get a mentor to assist you.

Amina: I completely agree with Marcelo. I want to add that a leader also has to realize the level of responsibility they take. I like this thought of Simon Sinek: “you need to understand that you are managing heart counts, not head counts, so just think about that.”

Jurgita: Marcelo mentioned earlier that everything is changing, and you have to be agile and adaptable. Is there anything you that have to “unlearn” when becoming a manager or a leader?

Marcelo: My understanding of what a leader is might differ completely from what people in their twenties imagine. So you need to unlearn what leadership is and relearn it from scratch, meaning that what worked in the past might not work in the future.

Amina: In trying to become leaders, we should not copy others but count on ourselves instead to make it happen. Also, we don’t have to know everything, do everything and be everywhere. We are not alone – we have a team that will help us deliver and reach our primary vision.

Jurgita: Great. From my side, I would advise you to stop looking for people who are similar to you. We have to accept that everybody is different and adjust how we work with people.

I have a question regarding work-life balance. Marcelo, how do you achieve that balance?

Marcelo: When I was doing my EMBA, I was younger and single. So I think it was easier compared to my current studies. I was following my own rules and hitting targets pretty well. Thus I managed to have time to go out with my friends, too. Now that I have a two-and-a-half-year-old kid and another coming in March, I have to be really transparent with my family about the Master’s degree I am pursuing. If you openly share with them why you need it and do your best to find time for your loved ones, everything is possible, and they’ll become big supporters.

Amina: I agree with what Marcelo said. When I decided to do my EMBA, I told my husband why it was important for me and he understood. At first he said he would not be able to help me with the kids and their logistics due to the nature of his work, but in the end he found a way to be home on time. It is important to have support from your family and speak to them. Explain that you will have less time but that it is crucial for your self-development and career. One more piece of advice: when you jump into the EMBA, make sure you do not have to manage other big projects simultaneously, e.g., moving houses, changing positions at work (like I did), handling a divorce, etc. – it is just too much to manage for one person.

Jurgita: As a business owner, I would add that having a trustworthy business partner can be invaluable. I am so thankful to my business partner, who covered me when I was writing my diploma paper. Now she is doing her EMBA, so I am returning the debt. Believe me, everything is manageable, but you have to prepare yourself mentally.

Faisa (listener): Do you have any advice for a leader who lacks technical skills to be seen as the right person by others?

Marcelo: Do an EMBA. Remember that you can lead experts without being an expert yourself. Take my example. I moved to digital solutions without having any background in that. Will I become an expert? No. But will I be able to talk about the subject? Yes. I have to deepen my knowledge in it, but even a basic understanding will help me communicate and understand what the experts are talking about and be on the same page.

Zara (listener): When is the right time to do an EMBA? Is it just after finishing studies, or is it after some years in the market?

Jurgita: In my opinion, definitely after working for a couple of years – maybe four or five. You will then take more advantage of the studies and build a better network, as it all comes with experience and age, I think.

Mantas (listener): How has your motivation evolved along your journey?

Jurgita: I believe self-inspiration is one of the top qualities that a good leader should have, I jokingly call it “self-brainwash”. Sometimes I feel I’d rather go back to the times when I only had to take care of myself, but then I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing and why it is important. I guess motivation is like the sea. It goes up and down, but how you deal with these periods is the only thing that matters.

Marcelo: You have to learn to enjoy challenges. When you remind yourself what will happen if you succeed, you automatically get passionate about it and in the mood to say “yes” to another challenge. It’s hard, but we all can do it.