The long road to self-awareness

Who are you, really?

This simple, but intimidating question is one that I believe is key to personal development and especially to those with leadership aspirations. It’s really difficult to improve without first having a realistic appraisal of where one starts from. The advice to “know thyself” has been around since at least the time of Plato and the ancient Greeks and it has stood the test of time.

Setting a foundation for improvement involves a significant effort to gain feedback from others, followed by self-reflection and/or working with a coach to draw out the most important conclusions. This type of self-evaluation requires an honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses in interpersonal skills and an understanding of one’s preferences, biases and beliefs. We build mental models to simplify the world which involve assumptions that we must have the courage to challenge. Above all we must understand what really matters to us – our values. Getting an honest 360 degree view about oneself is time-consuming, sometimes uncomfortable but worth the effort. It is a necessary pre-cursor to authenticity, which I talked about in an earlier blog as a starting point for great leadership.

On my journey from working as a council officer in Croydon to the board of PwC UK, which took just over a decade, I did a variety of self-assessments on my MBA programme (such as Myers-Briggs), then a number of leadership programmes as a partner in the firm. I probably took such developmental work more seriously than most but I would say at best I had a partial picture of myself. Even though I put a lot of time into personal development and I had a good coach, I was probably too busy to fully reflect on what I’d learned. The problem with being successful (and I rose in PwC pretty quickly) is that you don’t have much time at your disposal nor enough of the greatest potential source of learning – failure.

The experience of being on the PwC board was a powerful one. Always in the spotlight internally, massive amounts of competing demands on your time and a very political environment. I was relatively young (just turned 40) compared to my fellow board members, struggled to communicate well widely enough what I was trying to do and, in retrospect, had few allies. Losing that position after two years meant I couldn’t finish what I started and I hit the earth with a thud. It was 2008 and the global financial crisis arrived to make things worse. I felt that I had failed and was uncertain what to do next.

At that point I started working with an excellent mentor who helped me make sense of the past and what had just happened to me. Gradually, by taking the emotion out of the situation I was able to see both my previous successes and failures in a different light and to learn from both. It was certainly uncomfortable spending two days alone at the start with someone who asked very good questions and with nowhere to hide. We did a lot of work to analyse what other people said about me and to understand what was really important to me – my values. My wife, Suzanne, took part in some of the process so we could understand what we both really wanted. Fortunately we have very similar values – “love, happiness, joy and wanting to make a positive difference” all featured highly for both of us, which meant we could start jettisoning things that didn’t fit with those. I took a year off work and returned much stronger and had a very successful next few years as leader of PwC’s government practice and its Africa Business Group, which I founded.

This mentoring gave me an anchor and enabled me to be a lot clearer about everything. Andrew would end our sessions by asking “what are you now clearer about?” It’s a good, open question. It also helps identify what you are still unclear about too! The clearer you become about what you are objectively really like the easier it becomes to be objective and even be selective about feedback you receive as it is not all accurate.

The difficult period of my career in 2008/09 following leaving the board was however one of the three spells in which I’ve learned most about myself. The other two were losing my mother (who brought me up on her own) back in 1988 and my more recent secondment to Africa in 2015/16 when it became apparent that my vision for PwC in Africa wasn’t going to happen any time soon and I returned to London early. Losing Mum, the greatest leadership influence on my life, was the most traumatic of the three but also helped put the other two into perspective. Going through all those experiences (as well as many more happier times in between) with Suzanne has been a huge advantage and means it isn’t just me that has to interpret everything. To an extent I’ve changed along the way. I’m much more intuitive and less introverted than I was. Some of that comes with age and experience but fundamentally I don’t think we really change in personality terms.  Understanding that personality and learning to work with it is what self-awareness is means to me.

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