Does working your way up the ranks make you a better leader?

Former Greggs CEO Roger Whiteside once described his experience of the old M&S graduate scheme as ‘almost military’. New recruits couldn’t go anywhere near head office without serving time in the trenches as shop floor trainees. “There’s no substitute for that in retail,” Whiteside said, making a point to spend time in stores before starting subsequent CEO roles.

It’s an approach to leadership development that became less popular over the following decades, coinciding with the rise of the present model of management consultancy. Legions of the ‘smartest people in the room’ now leave the likes of McKinsey, BCG and Bain after a few intense years and parachute directly to senior strategy roles at former client firms, in many instances soon becoming CEO.

This approach has produced some great leaders. There’s no doubting the intelligence, strategic nous or effectiveness of Sheryl Sandberg, Vittorio Colao, Sebastian James or Indra Nooyi, who all spent early parts of their careers in consultancy.

Yet there is something to be said for spending some time rising through the ranks and, like so many entrepreneurs, getting your hands dirty.

Front line experience gives you a unique insight into your employees, your customers and the way that your organisation really works. People on the front line see and know stuff that you may not see from your corner office – not least the sometimes painful implications of senior management decisions. They very probably also have ideas for improving services that you wouldn’t have considered.

Just as importantly, leading people is hard if you don’t know them. How can you move people’s hearts and minds if you don’t understand how they think or feel? How can you align them to a vision if you don’t know how they see things now?

Middle management experience also provides many useful lessons for the senior leader. This group can appear a barrier to necessary change, but this is often due not to intransigence but to a feeling of being trapped between operational realities and bright ideas from above.

Being able to relate to that situation – and being willing to engage with middle managers about the practical challenges they face – means your ideas are far more likely to break through the permafrost.

None of this necessarily requires you to work for any length of time in a junior or mid-level role. A fast-tracked leader who has empathy and who makes an effort to learn the realities of their organisation at different levels will do a better job than someone who somehow rises through the ranks without those qualities.

Yet it does create a heightened risk of a blind spot that everyone in a senior role should be conscious of, whatever their background. No leader – in business, politics, public sector or indeed the military – survives long once they become out of touch with the people they lead.