As can often be common in the voluntary sector, I found that I was always so busy and committed to doing the job that I never really took time to focus on my own development. I would work with the senior leadership teams of charities, supporting them to “spend time not just working in their organizations, but also to make to time to work on their personal development”. So taking some of my own advice, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the American Express Leadership Academy and to work on me!

I’d heard of Common Purpose before and supported and hosted some study visits over the years as a host organization, so the whole concept wasn’t foreign to me – but I was really quite excited about the opportunity to attend this Leadership Academy.

My current role was going through some exciting changes and developments: with my CEO planning for maternity leave, significant opportunities and developments began to open up; a lot of recruitment activity was ongoing which I was leading on as we were expanding, and developing my teams and the wider charity. So this was all very exciting and I was really starting to move into a position of quite senior leadership in my charity. I was excited and confident about these opportunities, however a little unsure of how to start positioning myself and how to take this forward and to influence and raise my profile with the key decision makers.

So the whole concept of “Leading Beyond Authority”, which we would be exploring in the Academy was something I was very interested in. From the pre-reading I’d done, I concluded that I was already doing much of this – but I needed to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of how to then plan that into my own situation.

The actual four days of the Academy were excellent. Not only was it good to spend time with like-minded emerging leaders, it was also good to simply spend time upon the most precious resource and commodity we all have – ourselves and our skills. I didn’t find the four days overly intensive at all. They were busy full days, but there was an excellent mix of “input” by experienced leaders, which was then accompanied by the opportunity to drill into the themes in more detail with both other participants and other experienced senior leaders.

The input from experienced leaders, both from within and outside of the charity sector, was a major benefit of participation. Since the Academy, I’ve been increasingly taking the opportunity to apply that learning into my role and I’m finding that as I act on it, much of what they had to say is beginning to show itself to be transformational.

During the Leadership Academy itself, there was one moment which I’d describe as transformational – the session on personal branding.

When I’d seen this 90-minute session on the programme I thought it sounded very pretentious and, to be honest, I approached the session with more than a little prejudice – but I was aware of that so worked hard to ensure I had an open mind. Well, it didn’t take long for my prejudice to shown to be completely unfounded! The input we had from the three leaders on this was excellent and I did have what I’d describe as an epiphany! It was this:

“Personal brand is that bit of you which you leave in someone’s mind once you’ve left the room. You can’t do anything about what they then do with what you’ve left them with – but you can affect what you leave them with.”

I’m a confident person and whilst what people think about does matter to me, I don’t get hung up on it. However, I really liked this whole point about really giving some thought to what it is that you want to leave in people’s minds when you leave the room and how you might go about doing that.  It’s something I’ve spent some time reflecting on and planning on how to enact this. I’ve also spent some time reviewing what I might have already left in people’s minds and developing some plans and strategies to impact the “personal brand” they may have of me.

It was also something I spent time reflecting upon in both my coaching sessions and learning groups during the week of the Academy. The additional coaching session I’ve had and also the additional learning group I organized after the Academy week have really helped me to progress and reflect upon how I’ve taken the whole personal brand issue forward in my workplace.

Before the Academy, I’d have suggested that anyone who began focusing upon this whole concept of personal brand might have been beginning to become overly pretentious, self-absorbed and paranoid. I really couldn’t have been more wrong!

Since the Academy, this learning has really helped me “lead beyond my authority”. As I outlined earlier, my participation in the Academy came at a time of major change and opportunity within my organization. I knew the senior leaders and directors around me valued my work and skills, however, I knew that to really step up to the next level then I needed to “lead beyond my authority” and establish my “personal brand”.

I literally sat down and listed the senior management team and directors who I needed to influence and then set about intentionally planning contact and liaising with them. This wasn’t a great master plan for world domination and “Brand Haynesy” – but simply looking for opportunities to interact with them and to contribute to work streams they were involved with. For some of my “targets” it was about direct contact, for others it was about working with other leaders in their team which then brought my profile (or brand!) to their attention. And nothing gets someone’s attention better than a key member of their team, whom they know and trust well, talking positively about someone else i.e. me.

So where has all this now got me? Well, I’m still in the same job – but the future looks very bright indeed. My charity has been restructured and my CEO’s maternity cover has been recruited – however, there have been some other significant developments. There are bigger plans coming up and I’ve had the confidence and have also been seen by others as having the skills to work alongside them in shaping those plans. I’ve turned down several promotion opportunities, as senior directors have said there are other opportunities coming. They’ve been impressed with my ability to contribute both to strategic discussions and also the approach I’ve taken to discussing promotion opportunities and then ruling myself out.

I’d say my “personal brand” is increasingly well established within the minds of those I need to influence. And as a result, I can say with confidence: “I am leading beyond my authority”.

If you’re considering attending the American Express Leadership Academy, then it really is worth the time and effort involved in applying, participating and developing afterwards.  It is certainly the most valuable course I have ever been on. And I’m not just saying that because they asked me to write a blog!

If you get the chance – do it! if you can’t see yourself getting the chance or can’t see a route to doing so, then do some reading on “Leading Beyond Authority” and then look around you and plan a route to influencing those you need to in order to get there!

Go, lead beyond your authority!