Whitbread CEO's 6 Tips For Breaking Into The Boardroom

By James Mills, Associate Partner, Lighthouse International

Alison Brittain is the CEO of Whitbread PLC; the UK's largest hospitality company, owning Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, Beefeater Grill, Brewers Fayre, Table Table and Taybarns. Having left her role as head of retail banking at Lloyds Banking Group, she is now responsible for 50,000 employees and generating close to £3 billion in revenue. She is one of 7 female FTSE 100 CEOs and offered the following pieces of advice for anyone aspiring to break into the boardroom.

1. Age & Gender Are Irrelevant For Leadership Roles

"If you’re worried you’ve left it to too late in your career, please take it from me, you don’t have to worry about that."

"I’ve gone from banker to barista. Women should—and do—make great CEOs. We need more of them to be running our businesses."

"I did a decade in commercial banking… There were no women. If you were a woman you stood out. You do have to find a way of being noticed and being heard."

2. Be Authentic

"Authentic leadership is key. People are going to be critical and judgmental of you. I suspect that given there are 7 of us [female CEOs in the FTSE 100], we are rare creatures, we also particularly interesting to observe,"

"I have managed my rise in my career with professional schizophrenia — being able to switch between managing a work-life balance, looking after an ageing mother."

She also shared another story revealing how being a CEO is not her only role in life....

"Another time, there was a discussion about how unhappy I looked in a board meeting, as I was staring out of the window looking 'sad.' But little did everyone know that just before the meeting, I looked up quadratic equations on a website and I thought 'I'm not going to be able to help Matthew with his homework tonight." 

3. Build Your Confidence & Ability To Deal With Criticism

"You have to grow a third, fourth or fifth skin if you want to be a female CEO."

"If you are a senior manager, head of department, a director already, you are probably or should be competent already but you need to be confident to develop long-term strategy and a direction for the company."

4. Be Curious & Creative

"You need to envisage the future, more internally and externally."

"You’re probably the only person to have a 360-degree view of your company. Everyone else has a functional focus."

"Premier Inn is already so successful for a long period of time. It is easy to be complacent but from my perspective what got us here, will not get us to there. That is why I have put innovation in number one spot for [Whitbread's] strategy."

"An increasing technological skillset is required for any senior leader. Gone are the days where tech was subordinated in bowls of a basement. It has now reached the top table. You need to look at how technology can help service delivery, personalisation and I find it absolutely critical and count myself lucky that although I am not a technologist, I am into techy stuff."

5. Communicate Responsibly & Ask The Right Questions

"Even if you want to be incommunicative, that’s not going to be an option."

"It is astonishing what kind of ripple effect your words can have [on employees] and even worse what how you don't say or do, like non-verbal cues, can cause this."

"You have to be careful what you say and how you say it because when I make a light hearted comment, some people will take that as the number one thing that we have to focus on and then divert all their resources to achieve it."

6. Have a Competent, Committed & Complementary Team

A Business Insider article reported the following....

Brittain argues that CEOs need to surround themselves with a leadership team they can trust—and not people “who just say yes.” She said the team must have a balance of players who can manage the business so the top exec can step back from the detail and talk to customers and workers who support those customers. “There is no substitute for the insight that gives you,” she said.

How Can We Apply This To Our Lives & Careers?

Alison Brittain highlights two key things that are a pre-requisite for being a CEO or a senior leader of any kind. Firstly they need to have the self-awareness and passion to take on such levels of responsibility. Secondly they need to have developed their ability to bring together, communicate with and lead a diverse range of people.

To help with this, here are a couple of questions....

What is the ideal job role that you feel would make the most of your skills and talents? Why that role?

What would be your ideal job that you may not have the skills for yet but would like to develop? 

On a scale of 1-10, how strongly do you feel you are in your ability to bring together a team that is mutually supportive?

For more on Alison Brittain's advice, check out these articles in Business Insider and Fortune Magazine.

If you are an aspiring CEO, then you may be interested in checking out our CEO page on the Legends Report which is frequently updated with insights from career professionals at the top of their game.


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