Five Practices That Took Me From Ballerina To The C-Suite

I wasn’t one of those girls who dreamt of being a ballerina since she was a little girl. I was more of a tomboy — an energetic child who loved racing my bike (two white spots on my front teeth are lasting proof of what can happen when speed trumps skill) and building tree huts with my older brother. Then one day, when I was nine, I saw a documentary on TV with a call for auditions for the Royal Ballet School. I pleaded with my mom to let me have a go — I had started taking ballet classes six months earlier. She saw no harm in letting me audition, so off I went…and to everyone’s surprise, I ended up being selected as one of 35 girls out of a group of 1,100 to join the School.

My mother was definitely not one of those dance moms. She had visions of me attending university, certainly not becoming a professional ballerina. Nevertheless, I spent the next six years training at the highest level. It was grueling, yet amazing. But while I loved dancing, and excelled at it, I aspired to a different life. After six years I dropped out to pursue an education, and ultimately, a professional career. I got a BA & MA in Economics and started my way up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming a Chief Marketing Officer.

I now run a company that is focused on helping women lead, and recently one of my clients asked me what has most defined me as a leader. I immediately thought of my mother. My father fell ill when I was seven, and she ended up single-handedly raising my two siblings and me. She always told us, “Where there is a will there is a way.” She set a brilliant example that you can be both a kind woman and a bad ass. Then my client said, “Ok, but where did you get your ridiculous discipline, focus and search for continuous improvement?” And those traits, I realized, weren’t instilled in me by my mother, but were actually the result of my ballet training. As a leader, I still draw on those and many other skills that I developed and honed during my time as a ballerina.

So here is my list of the five skills that took me from the ballet stage to the c-suite:

I. Never stop asking for feedback, because there’s always room for improvement.

At Royal Ballet School, we had to bring a notebook with us to every class. After we finished, we had to write down any corrections we were given during the class. The next time we took that class, we were expected to have reviewed our list and focused on making those improvements.

That daily rhythm of feedback, improve, feedback, improve established a mindset that has served me well throughout my career. Like everyone else, I was always encouraged when my bosses told me I did something well. However, I was always, and still am, more interested in hearing what I didn’t do so well and how I might improve.

Negative feedback is not something to fear. We can’t assume that we’d do everything perfectly straightaway, so have the courage to ask for feedback, write it down if you need to, and improve it next time.

II. No-one else is going to lift that leg for you!

I had a ballet teacher who used to shout this as we were doing our développés, a move whereby you extend your leg either high up to the front, to the side or to the back. It is a phrase that has stuck with me throughout my life as a mantra to remind me if I truly want something, I alone can achieve it.

Believe me, there have been plenty of times that I have thought “ugh, this is too hard!” But again and again, this phrase has popped back into my mind as a reminder to just get on with it, as “no one else is going to lift that leg for you, Brenda.”

III. You are capable of so much more than what you think — you just have to break it down and practice, practice, practice.

Ballet is an incredibly unnatural discipline, physically speaking. My ballet teachers taught me how to break down these elaborate routines into achievable, sequential building blocks, eventually allowing me to conquer those complicated, unnatural yet beautiful poses and moves.

That is an experience and skill that has been fundamental to my career. It gave me the confidence that I could learn and teach myself any new skill I needed to succeed.

It also taught me that to learn those new skills, I had to just identify the key building blocks that made up each of those skills and then have the patience to gradually master them.

That confidence and approach, instilled in me by those years at ballet school, has helped me achieve new career milestones again and again. And even now, as I forge my way as a first-time entrepreneur, it is a critical part of my approach.

IV. Always be aware of and in tune with your environment.

Many people mis-categorize ballet as an individual endeavor. Indeed, ballet dancers must give their individual best, but at performance time, they have to actively collaborate with their fellow dancers, with the orchestra conductor, the musicians, to bring the choreographer’s vision to light. That means they have to be extremely aware of their environment at all times.

This art of reading and being in tune with your environment is a critical skill for any corporate leader. As a leader you are the choreographer of the vision and you guide your team to execute it. However, to be able to engage everyone to give their best to achieve that vision, you need to be incredibly attuned to the personal desires, challenges and needs of your team members.

Though my ballet training taught me this early on, it actually is a skill I often have to remind myself of, because as a leader who is often tasked with change management, and has a serious bias for action, I at times want to drive change too fast and literally have to whistle myself back and force myself to “dance to the beat.”

V. The devil is in the detail

Ballet is all about precision and attention to detail, whether it’s how you present a move or how you execute a choreography that takes you from one point on the stage to the next, or how you respond to the music.

When it comes to leadership, this attention to detail is often overlooked. People often think that attention for detail is for managers, who oversee the successful performance of specific tasks.

However, attention to detail is also critical to leadership. Not to micro manage, but to be able as a leader to pay attention to the critical details that make or break the success of a team or company.

Leadership requires one to both be able to see the big picture, but also to be able to see what the critical details are that will lead to the successful execution of that vision.

For me, this attention to detail, that was so core to my training as a ballerina, has therefore also been critical to my success as a leader. Without it I am just another leader with a big vision. With it, I am a leader with a vision and the ability to effectively deliver on it with my team.

This post originally appeared on the SharpAlice blog.

SharpAlice is a leadership development platform focused on helping women in leadership discover and put to use their unique leadership strengths. SharpAlice provides 1:1 coaching, leadership retreats specifically tailored to women leaders and customized women in leadership initiatives for enterprise customers in the US, Canada and Europe.

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