Leadership is transferrable

Are leadership skills transferrable across industries?

I recently had someone ask me if leadership skills were transferrable across industries. The person is in healthcare, and she believes her industry is unique. I often ran into his sentiment when I was in consulting. Clients would ask what type of industry experience I had, and how many years had I been working in that field. It was frequently a litmus test for hiring our firm for the engagement. While industry experience is certainly important and valuable, my experience is that leadership and other key skills like problem solving and critical thinking are much more important and transcend the particular industry the client or leader come from.

When IBM hired Lou Gerstner as CEO in 1993, he had no experience in IT. He had been a consultant with McKinsey and the CEO or RJR Nabisco, a consumer packaged goods company. Gerstner was the first IBM CEO hired from outside the company, and when he retired in 2002, he was largely credited with turning IBM around from certain bankruptcy in the 1990s. Gerstner was able to leverage his deep leadership experience and understanding of company culture to develop a new vision and strategy that saved the company.

In my consulting work, and now as an executive coach, I work with clients in many different industries – high-tech, automotive, aerospace, consumer products, travel and transport and more. As I studied leaders in these different fields, not all of them were industry subject matter experts. I did find there were common leadership elements in most of them such as thinking big, vulnerability, a duty mindset, courage, being present and a willingness to pivot and course correct when necessary.

In my own experience, stepping into a situation where you are not the industry expert can actually free you up to be a better leader. Leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room or having all the answers. Leadership is about finding and nurturing people on your team to be the best that they can be. It is about trusting and building trust with those around you. A leader connect the team with the purpose, mission and values of the organization and then steps back and helps the team to clear obstacle in their path.

Good leadership skills are transferrable in any industry or institution, and these leadership skills can be learned.  A good leader will take the time necessary to get to know and understand the industry (as Gerstner did) to ensure the organization’s success.

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