Advice for emerging leaders from...Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST)

Advice for emerging leaders from...Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST)
Published: 18 February 2020

Cheryl Giovannoni became CEO of Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) in 2016, bringing with her a passion for helping women achieve their true potential in addition to her extensive commercial business experience. Cheryl honed her leadership craft throughout her career with global advertising agency WPP, during which time Cheryl led three of the organisation's companies and built an outstanding track record of leading high-performing teams in a competitive environment. We are delighted that Cheryl has shared her views and advice with us, on both the development of emerging leaders and maximising your own potential. 

You developed your career across several global advertising firms and, through your clients, were exposed to other leaders from a diverse range of backgrounds. Throughout that time, what is the best piece of career advice you received?

Something I have been told on several occasions is that you should never be afraid to fail. Failure is not an issue provided you are sure to learn from that failure and never make the same mistake twice.

It may seem like a simple concept, but it requires significant bravery and confidence in oneself in order to avoid taking the failure personally. It also requires naturally high levels of curiosity; the most successful leaders are always on a curious journey of personal improvement, as well as team improvement.

You must use every single backward step as an opportunity to learn. Take the time to fully appraise the situation and analyse what happened. Where did you go wrong? How you would rectify this next time?

What do you believe to be the key leadership skills or qualities required in today’s world?

This is an interesting question and one that requires a lot of thought. In such a busy and information-rich world, it is never easy to cut through the noise and decipher what is genuinely important.

I think that there are four areas to be discussed in answering this:

Cooperation, collaboration and courage

The leaders of the future must display all three of these attributes in order to drive success and change in an effective and relationship-driven way. So often, leaders are taught to be bold and strong in their ideas, but on reflection I believe that a little cooperation goes a long way. You do not have to be loud to be heard.

Great listening skills are underrated

This, again, is a simple concept and one that can often go over people’s heads. People always tend to believe that they are good listeners, but very few are and therefore as a true leadership skill it is very often underrated and undersold.

Integrity and diversity

When I think back to the election leadership debates, one of the most important things for me was the integrity of each of the candidates. Do we really put enough importance on this as leaders? Yes, commercial success is a requirement, but at what cost? I believe that doing the right thing at any cost is what sets great leaders apart. This applies to diversity: great leaders are not here to apply short-sighted diversity quotas or pay lip-service to a policy, they are here to make brave decisions about who should be brought into the room to ensure diversity of thought and decision-making. They must foster a spirit of real diversity and inclusion – not just race or gender, but experience levels and social backgrounds too.

Sustainable leadership

Emerging leaders must put sustainability at the heart of their decisions and the way in which they operate – not just from an environmental point of view, but also from the perspective of the overall approach to business and people. What will you do to ensure that your chapter of leadership is sustainable for your business and your people to move forward? What is your legacy? In my opinion, share options and bonuses need to mirror this – remuneration in lots of industries needs an overhaul to avoid leaders being driven by short-term incentives, rather than what is right for the organisation in the long term.

Having built an extremely successful career in the advertising sector, you then chose to transition into a very different sector – how was this? And how important do you think breadth of sector experience can be in becoming a successful leader?

Firstly, moving into a different sector is risky and somewhat scary. There is no escaping that fact. We seem to have this belief that we have a finite amount of knowledge and that we ‘only know what we know’. We also doubt whether new colleagues will see value in our unique skills.

I wanted to make the move in order to prove to myself that there absolutely is value in my skills and value that I can bring to a different industry. That diversity of experience can add to the knowledge pool in useful ways. You must be brave. Have faith in yourself. But also humble enough to know that you have a lot to learn!

Think of your skills as a literal toolkit that you have assembled over your career to date, which you can get out and use to address lots of different challenges in a new context. Ultimately, it is about working out where your skills can best be applied, and what contribution you can make based on your experience in a different context or industry.

My marketing and advertising experience has provided me with a wealth of strategic and commercial skills and, whilst GDST had a vast amount of education expertise within the organisation, my particular skills and experience have proved useful in helping us transform and move forward in a powerful way.

Perhaps the confidence and desire to change sectors only comes with real experience, but I truly believe that emerging leaders should feel confident to look at this earlier in their career. We are very comfortable with the notion of a portfolio career but tend to see it as something that leaders take up much later in their careers. However, the world is changing so quickly and if we look to the future, varied skillsets are going to be more important than ever. Therefore, can we build comfort in the notion of portfolio careers being the norm much earlier in an individual’s career, and something to be embraced?

Reflecting on your own journey and learnings, what would be the single most important piece of advice that you’d pass on to emerging leaders?

Find something that you truly care about. If you don’t, you do not do your best work or unlock your most powerful skills. If you find something that aligns with your values - who you are and what you want – and contribute to the mark you want to make on the world, then you have a far greater chance of being successful. It will transform the work that you do and help you in being brave and courageous.

Also, don’t worry so much about a five-year plan. Throughout my career I worried about having one, but then I realised that there is no such thing! Take opportunities that excite you and where you feel you can make a difference, do the work that inspires you, and your lifelong plan will develop in interesting and challenging ways you could not have even dreamt about. 

You are an advocate of gender equality and specifically how best to develop female leaders – what do you believe is the biggest barrier to this? How would you advise overcoming it?

The biggest barrier is the fact that, whether we want to admit it or not, we are all still playing by patriarchal rules. We are still trying to fit into a world whose legacy was created by men, for men, without true female leaders in mind.

Women have a real responsibility to change this. We need women to be active designers and developers of the new world order – we can’t blame the men of the past or expect things to change without being active in designing the world we want to live in and work in; a world that works for everyone.

The whole concept of gender equality has to be shaped by all genders in order to make the required and fundamental shift. We need a new and more flexible kind of reality.

Get involved in our Emerging Leaders Programme

The programme is designed to give direct interaction and active mentoring from exceptional business leaders, who bring proven experience in delivering market and business-defining change, as well as displaying the ability to consistently evolve and remain at the forefront of their chosen field.

There are several ways for you to get involved with the Emerging Leaders Programme, from speaker and mentor opportunities to becoming a participant yourself.

To find out more, please click here.

For more information on anything we have disucssed in this blog, please contact Kathryn Gill

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