Interviews with Inspiring UK Chief Execs: Best Bits of 2019

By January 15, 2020News

During 2019, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates, Lancashire based executive recruitment business, embarked on a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.

Linda Walmsley had the pleasure of conducting these interviews and her co-director, Taryn Wilkinson states: “Linda was highly complimentary about all the individuals that she had the opportunity to meet with and was grateful for the time that they were prepared to invest to talk about their career experiences and business views. As we both had the pleasure of reviewing all the audio and compiling the written transcripts, we were able to spend extensive time digesting and reflecting on the interesting insights that these Chief Executives were happy to share.”

The 2019 participating CEO’s were:-

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, CEO of STEMettes, Dame Carolyn McCall, DBE – Chief Executive of ITV, Steve Waggott – CEO – Blackburn Rovers, James Hadley – CEO – Immersive Labs and Mark Wild – Chief Executive – Crossrail

In celebration of these Inspiring Leaders, we have compiled a list of our favourite excerpts from these interviews in 2019.

What were your career aspirations when you were younger? 

Mark Wild – Chief Executive – Crossrail: – To be an Engineer. I became an Engineer because my Dad was a coal miner in County Durham. I came from quite a humble, working class background and when you are a coal miner, the Engineer is a big figure in your life. They keep you safe, they give you over-time, they give you work – the Engineer was the big boss and my Dad always had aspirations for me to become a “Big Boss” and encouraged me into engineering. I’ve always thought of myself as an Engineer, even from an early age and that’s what I became. Even now, after I have completed lots of different jobs, if I am ever at Passport Control and they ask me what I do, I still say Engineer. It makes me proud and it certainly goes way back into where and how I grew up. My heroes back then were Charles Parsons, Edwards Vickers – the Victorian Engineers were my heroes and in fact they still are.

Was there a Who or a What that inspired you to develop a career in business?

Dame Carolyn McCall, DBE – Chief Executive of ITV: – I think the What. I remember being at my newcomer’s lunch at The Guardian and Peter Preston who was the then editor had a long conversation with me about why we didn’t have a Sunday newspaper at the time, that was 1986 and it was a really good conversation. I remember coming out that room thinking this is amazing.

I had regularly read the Guardian, so I couldn’t believe that he was the editor and I was a 24-year-old planner. I was thinking this is an amazing place because anyone will talk to anyone, it’s very open, it was very non-hierarchical, and it just felt like the culture was really right for me. So that was the What, it was the culture of the Guardian and the purpose of the Guardian; the fact that it was very flat and if you were good at what you did, you had views and you proved yourself, then it was a meritocracy and I loved that. I think I flourished in a meritocracy.

Steve Waggott – CEO – Blackburn Rovers: – I think it’s a range of things. It started with a really inspirational history teacher at Rutherford Grammar School in Newcastle and there was also the Latin motto on the school crest which was “Nec Sorte Nec Fato” which means neither by chance nor fate in other words by hard work and diligence. Interestingly enough the words on the Blackburn crest are similar in meaning – “Arte et Labore” which is by skill and labour.

As I mentioned we did have an inspirational history teacher, Mr. Cole who came from a pit village in Northumberland. He was one of the first ever people from that ilk to get into Oxford. University. He came back to the North East and had a great common touch with the pupils, he was very grounded, a great individual and quite a character. There have also been lots of different people along the way, including an interesting principal of a college where I was working who was great networker and a good strategist, also the leader of a council who was an unbelievably hard working guy and very focused, through to a chief executive, who I took over from at Charlton Athletic, called Peter Varney. He had great skills in covering a myriad of issues. Previously I hadn’t fully understood the breadth of what a chief executive of a football club needed to undertake.

One minute you’re off to see the manager about the players and then you’re off to the Academy about the pipeline of talent, you’re looking at the pitches, looking at commercial contracts, where we’re getting the money, dealing with the club ownership, dealing with supporters who say you are good one minute and bad the next etc,etc. However, that’s life in football and it keeps me busy. So, all these interesting characters along the way have no doubt shaped me into the type of person I am. I enjoyed getting to a position where you can influence the direction of travel of the organisation and how you use your resources. It’s important that you have financial resources and the physical resources to work from, but the most important glue is people. It’s the people management side that really interests me; getting the best out of people.

I enjoy turning around organisations that may have got into a bit of turbulence and may be experiencing negativity and then changing that perception. It needs to come from within and it’s important to get out there amongst the community to make sure the brand and the perception of the club becomes positive again. This was the challenge coming in here to Blackburn Rovers; but it’s a good challenge and I enjoy it.

Who or what, inspired you to launch STEMettes?

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, CEO of STEMettes:- I was working in a big bank in their technology department and I’d been enjoying myself, doing really well, working on a system that was across hundreds of people in a global organisation. I was lucky enough to be invited to a conference in the States about what we were doing in IT and the technology that we were building and developing. I turned up at this conference and it was all women.

There were three and a half thousand technical women in one place and I’d never been in that kind of environment before. It was incredible, and I remember we went to a Twitter reception which was invite only and I went to a Pinterest party and you had a secret code word that you had to give at the hotel reception. We went up and they had this fabulous balcony area. They were screen printing Tote bags and making Dreamcatchers and it was amazing.

I thought at that moment, gosh I’ve been in technology this entire time, I’ve loved it, it’s been great, I’ve had an absolute ball and earned really well. If only people knew it was this cool, it was this amazing, that you could have these almost “London Fashion Week” type of opportunities, then more people would want to be part of technology. It is so exciting, but we never talk about it, we’re not exposed to it, we don’t see it, even I, who worked in this sector didn’t even know until then. That was the moment for me.

Initially I was proud to be in Tech but I didn’t realise the significance of being a “Woman in Tech” until that point. There was a keynote speaker who talked about the fact that actually the number of women in technology had been in decline for the last 30 years preceding that point. She was imploring all of us to stay in the sector, the reasons why you should stay and to get a friend to join, so that we could reverse the trend. When I got home and thought about it more, I thought why just one friend, why not more people.

There should be a whole generation that grows up having this kind of message, understanding it and seeing this opportunity, so that was how STEMettes was formed.

Do you have a favourite saying or quote?

Dame Carolyn McCall, DBE – Chief Executive of ITV: – “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it”. I feel that is a really appropriate quote. I’ve got three kids and they roll their eyes when I say it to them as I say it so often. It’s by Michelangelo and it’s still very relevant to us, my generation but also to the generation that my children belong to.

What five words best describe you?

Steve Waggott – CEO – Blackburn Rovers: – Focused, empathetic, hard-working, loyal, transparent. I think empathy is key, you need to understand people and their challenges. Hard work goes without saying, you don’t achieve anything without it. In order to drive a business and lead from the front, you’ve got to have that focus and hard work. I am transparent and honest. I tell people how it is. I don’t think, that in football you are ever really liked but you can earn respect. It’s such a dynamic industry based on results every time you play. If you’re winning, then positivity, if you are losing, its negativity and so you’ve got to handle both those aspects of life in football. As long as you can be honest and look at people and tell them the truth and say how it is, whether they like it or not, then you’ll get their respect.

What is your approach to interviewing and hiring?

James Hadley – CEO – Immersive Labs: – We’re a ‘values first’ organisation. We attempt to screen people not on their experience or qualifications but on their values. We have three core values at Immersive Labs: Agility, Drive and Inclusivity. We seek evidence of candidates having demonstrated these, which in turn gives us the confidence that they will be a cultural fit. After that we assess their capability and experience for the role. What we won’t do is hire people who are talented but upset our culture – that won’t facilitate sustainable growth.

Do you have a favourite interview question?

Mark Wild – Chief Executive – Crossrail: I do and it’s an easy one. After greeting the candidate and settling them down, I explain that I have already read their CV and then the first question I ask is “In the next 3 minutes, could you please give me a thumbnail sketch of your career and explain why you want to be here?”

Unfortunately, a large percentage of people just can’t do that – 10 minutes later, I am looking at my watch, so for me it proves whether someone can listen and summarise a thought effectively within a given timeframe. This question hasn’t let me down so far.

Do you think workplace diversity will now become embedded or is there still much more to do?

Mark Wild – Chief Executive – Crossrail:- There is a fantastic leader who works in HS2 called Mark Lomas, he is the Diversity & Inclusion Director. He talks very eloquently about how evolution hasn’t worked, we need a revolution.

There is a diversity and inclusion crisis and I also think the inclusivity bit is completely under-sold. You may achieve diversity but still not be inclusive. I believe the inclusive environment is so important. If you look at the Crossrail / TfL age range under thirty-five, then there are some really positive stories.  There has been a lot of investment. The talent pipeline has improved, although it is still a bit threadbare in places, including in areas of engineering. When you get to our mid forties / early fifties range then it starts to get quite thin, particularly in areas that weren’t traditionally gender or BAME balanced.

As an example, we have recently been looking at a certain role here and I was presented with a shortlist which consisted of all white males in their fifties. There was a reason for that, as this role was in a very specific technical niche where it is difficult to find diversity. However, I sent the list back and a month later they were able to produce a more diverse, balanced shortlist, so the talent was out there but more work was required to find it. In the lower age group of emerging talent, it’s absolutely about continuing to foster that and there are plenty of programmes already in place, but the trick for me is to break through the glass ceilings and for leaders to insist on balanced, diverse shortlists.

There is no doubt for me that safety is now completely embedded in organisations and that people recognise safety as a pre cursor to business excellence and that it is morally right. Diversity and inclusion needs to follow the same story. I can give you countless examples from my career and other people’s, where diverse and inclusive teams will beat non-diverse and inclusive teams every time.

Pound for pound with the same capabilities, they will beat them every time due to the three-dimensional, different thinking and different perspective within the team. There is a real crisis and it’s not helped with the laziness of blaming it on the pipeline. We need to rage against it. Vicky Pryce has written about why we should have quotas. Her work provides an interesting read. I’m not quite there with all the thinking, as we have still got to have a meritocracy, but there is certainly a conversation to be had.

In your opinion, what elements are key to being a successful CEO?

James Hadley – CEO – Immersive Labs:- It’s about being driven, perseverant and resolute in your mission. It’s also important to be positive with your team but not gloss over pain points in the business. Something I had to identify early on was that the business comes before friends. You can develop a tendency to shield individuals from some things that go on – perhaps you don’t want to worry them – but you get the best from people when there’s transparency.

There’s a great book about businesses, start-ups and pain points by Ben Horowitz called ‘The Hard Thing about Hard Things’. It discusses how, as a CEO, you are in one of two modes: peacetime or wartime. I think some of my best qualities surface during wartime, which is ‘what do we need to do right now to overcome this problem’.

For me, that’s when you’re truly tested as a CEO. It’s also important to build an effective network and talk with your experienced peers to gain feedback, as they can help you choose the right path when you’re uncertain.

Steve Waggott – CEO – Blackburn Rovers:- Staying calm at all times. I call it the swan syndrome, where you glide across the water, but you paddle like hell underneath to keep on top of a multitude of issues that you’ve got to contend with every day. You’ve got to be very flexible and agile mentally.

In football when I’m advising up and coming staff, I often tell them to make sure that they’re “Teflon coated”. What I mean by that, is that on a daily basis, you will have a huge amount of problems, but you’ve got to let it roll off you, at the end of the day. Do what you do for your hobbies, whether you swim, you run, you play music, listen to music, just prepare yourself for the next day and do it all over again.

You need the stamina and resilience to keep doing it again and not be too sensitive. You need to use listening skills. I suppose in younger days you may be a little bit more abrasive and maybe a bit hastier in decision making, but you’ve got to learn to temper that, to slow down. Take a deep breath if there’s a big decision to be made, consider all the different points and let’s be absolutely sure that when we do it, then it’s from a really considered position that we take it on.

I think flexibility, mentally agility, calmness, leadership by leading in the right way, having the right values as a person which infiltrates throughout the business and sets the standards – I think that’s key.

Mark Wild – Chief Executive – Crossrail:- Authenticity. I was in Australia for a few years and I was mentored for a brief time by the Head of the Australian Army and he taught me that in extreme circumstances, people actually follow vulnerability, authenticity and leaders who have the courage to say,” I don’t know, what do you think?”.

There is a merit in the humble, kind, authentic leader. There are theories around this. If you go the University of Oxford in their Major Projects Leadership Academy, they talk about the incomplete leader and in the modern world, it’s impossible now for one human being to master every tool; maybe that wasn’t the case thirty years ago.

Now, in the communication age, the ball is moving so fast that the incomplete leader might be the best one to have. So, authenticity, being humble, being able to work from the shop-floor to the top of the organisation, able to show your vulnerability, able to sometimes say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” and resilience, in my opinion they are some of the key elements. I think it must be tough these days if you are aged between 25 and 35. How do you get that spirit of resilience; how do you push through? I think it can be taught and to be successful you certainly need resilience.   

What is your biggest career highlight or achievement to date?

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, CEO of STEMettes:- I never cry but I did end up crying in this moment. A couple of years ago we did a tech incubator for teenage girls. We got funding, we had these girls living in this massive house in South London, we had 45 of them at any given point and 115 of them across the summer.

They were there 24/7 for six weeks straight. These girls had all applied, they all had an interest in STEM and business. Some of them were quite isolated where they were, others were more confident in themselves, others less so and we brought them all together. We said we’re going to give you some cash to build a product, build a start-up, whatever you build we’ll see what happens. We’re here to support your idea, we won’t do any of it for you, but we’ve got all the resources and you’re smart enough to make it happen.

We had a demo day, when they pitched to VC’s and Funders and certain projects received money. At the end of it we had a graduation and looking back across the six weeks, we were tired, in fact shattered but I remember breaking down crying because it was the scale of what we had achieved, the network of girls that we had brought together, the life changing moment it had been for all of them.

The fact that I do a lot of these things, not knowing who’s going to turn up, not knowing what’s going to happen next, but literally believing in the strength of this girlhood spirit. It was lovely as they completely outdid all of our expectations, those of the Funders and anyone else involved. For me that was such a stand out moment, we are still in touch with so many of those girls. In fact, we’re launching a new initiative this year, putting those girls on the stage and having those girls then be the ones that inspire and pass it forward, allowing them to develop leadership skills as part of that experience. It’s so lovely hearing from them. These girls are still so enterprising and are everywhere.

People run competitions for young innovators and it’ll be our girls that are winning those events or from three of the winners, two of them are ex-STEMettes. These are girls that are part of that network, part of that community and who we are all going to be working for in the future. I am sure one of these girls will be Prime Minister one day and will be running this country.  Being able to give those girls that leg up, that inspiration, that confidence, that support network and everything that we are able to provide to them, for being a STEMette is just so rewarding. No wonder I cried, it was the gravity of it all, seeing their faces, their excitement, really touching lives and really changing things – that’s what I’m doing it for.

Dame Carolyn McCall, DBE – Chief Executive of ITV:- I don’t think you can look at it as one thing. There’s so many good things that I feel very proud to have been associated with. If I go back to the Guardian days, I think about launching the Guardian web sites in 1996, which came on the back of launching Wired magazine in the U.K; that was massive.

I’ll never forget merging The Observer and The Guardian and also when I sold Auto Trader to Apax and got a load of money for the Guardian. It was a big moment selling 50 percent of it and having a £800 million in the bank. Then easyJet, the day I felt we really turned a corner. I realised that we’d cracked the operational issues when I got an email at Easter. I started in July 2010 and it was in meltdown everywhere – operationally, customers, all the people.

The pilots were up in arms. They absolutely hated what had been happening. We weren’t on time, customers were very unhappy, we were cancelling flights in the middle of summer, cancelling people’s holidays, it was really miserable. After some months, I received an e-mail from an Irish pilot based at Charles de Gaulle airport. It started with “Dear Carolyn” {I thought he was going to complain} but he went on to say “this is the first Easter in many years that my roster has been stable, that I have been able to see my family and not been late every single night, so something is going well. Thank you. Yours sincerely Captain XX. P.S. crew food is still shit.”

It was a breakthrough moment. This was just nine months in and I thought okay there’s still quite a lot to do but we’re on our way, because when the pilots tell you things are getting better than you really know they are. easyJet was a complete turnaround and it became a customer facing airline which won awards for being customer centric. It was a complex business to get right, so I feel very proud of my easyJet years and my team there. My team were just extraordinary, they were a brilliant top team.

I’m at ITV now and I feel very proud of the creative output and the impact we have on society and culture. There’s not one moment at ITV yet because I’ve just been here a year and a quarter, but I know that it is so important to Britain that ITV does well. That’s what drives me and keeps me motivated.

Thank You

Linda Walmsley says: “It was an absolute pleasure to have had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon, Dame Carolyn McCall, Steve Waggott, James Hadley and Mark Wild. They are captivating individuals and confirmed to me that you can be a highly successful CEO of a leading UK business with all the pressures that this entails and still be a warm, engaging, generous and authentic individual. I was deeply interested in many of their fascinating insights. One of my key highlights was meeting up with Carolyn McCall again. We were colleagues together many years ago at The Guardian and she still remains one of the most inspiring Managers that I have ever worked for. Thank you to those chief executives that participated this year and I look forward to continuing this series of interviews in 2020.”

Full Articles

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