View from the Top

What goes on inside the heads of British business leaders in the 21st century? We read what they say in countless interviews, but what do they honestly feel about the roles that they play?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Let's start by dispelling a myth, says Lord Stevenson, chairman of HBOS and with a string of successful leadership roles under his belt, including Pearson, the Tate, GPA, Aldeburgh and the House of Lords Appointment Commission. 'Leaders aren't intrinsically good people and certainly not heroic. Most are driven by feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and what can only be described as over-ambition.'

How true is Stevenson's assessment? On the surface, at least, some of today's business leaders seem oddly modest. Ask Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, how he adds value and he gives a wry smile. 'It's difficult to be certain.' Put the same question to Sir Martin Sorrell, head of advertising agency WPP, and he jokes, 'I probably don't', before offering a more conven- tional response about selecting and retaining the best people to lead his 'tribes' of business.

Most believe themselves to be replaceable, particularly if they run an organisation with a long history. Gavin Neath, now chairman of Unilever UK after 28 years with the company, sees himself as just one more runner in a long relay race where the emphasis has always been on succession. 'When I was promoted,' he recalls, 'Niall FitzGerald told me he'd judge my performance on the quality of the people I left behind.' Though he has clearly had a positive impact on the culture of Unilever, he says it's difficult 'to leave a real footprint' on such an enormous group, reminding me that success has many fathers.

Some bosses are aware of their personal impact. 'I bring energy and passion, which is infectious,' says Charles Dunstone, founder and CEO of Carphone Warehouse. 'I'm perceived to have high standards – people e-mail me to report something that's going on that they don't think I'd approve of.'

Similarly, despite her 980 staff, Dianne Thompson, Camelot's boss during the tough licence renewal battle and still leading the charge for the next one in 2007, runs her business in a highly personal way, having as much contact as she can with people at all levels. It's good for business, she thinks, and promoted a Dunkirk spirit in difficult times, but it's also good for her. She even spends some of her free time talking to customers of the two small businesses (a beauty salon and a wine bar) in which she is a private investor.

For Sorrell, too – who has 84,000 employees across the WPP group of companies – the business is close to his heart. 'I only own 1.5% of WPP, but my emotional attitude is as an own-er. I'm not a hired hand, I'm not a manager brought in to turn something round. We started the business from scratch 20 years ago with two people in one room. It's very personal.'

This doesn't mean he wears his heart on his sleeve in dealings with his managers. He is keen to insist that any activity the group undertakes that could be seen to have a humanitarian focus – from employing more women executives and encouraging ethnic diversity to being environmentally responsible – is really just good eco- nomics. In this, he echoes Lord Sieff, who many years ago said: 'Marks & Spencer has never done an altruistic thing yet that didn't reflect well on the bottom line.'

Despite these statements, it must be hard for many leaders to be aware of the true impact of their personality on the businesses they run. They are surrounded by bright and ambitious high-flyers, who might not faithfully reflect the views of the footsoldiers at the base of the pyramid. The isolation of leadership can be difficult to avoid.

One thing managers are sure of, however, is their role. Although all the interviewees were keenly on corporate message when describing their roles and tended to use a standard lexicon of leadership words (vision, goals, serving stakeholders' needs), some were frank about the pleasures of power. Says Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Newspapers: 'I love the autonomy, the adrenalin and the sheer variety of people – now a politician, now a printer, now a journalist. I like the pressure and resolving business problems.'

Her counterpart at IPC Media, chief executive Sylvia Auton, agrees: 'I have a powerful need to succeed, not for myself but to see the company I represent succeed.'

In the opinion of Tony Isaac, chief executive of BOC Group, 'you can't get much better than CEO of a large global company, with significant authority and responsibility. Just about everything I do is stimulating and enjoyable.'

The delight in power holds true even in the public sector. Says Sir John Mogg, chairman of Ofgem and previously a director-general at the European Commission: 'It's good to be absolutely in charge. In Brussels, they took my advice most of the time. Now I have the authority and a CEO with whom I have a good relationship. It's a jolly life, making big decisions and, by definition, being independent.'

The price leaders pay for this power is a hotly debated topic. Several interviewees, particularly the men, were quick to deny that there was any price. 'Quite the reverse,' claims Alan Bishop, head of the COI. 'It's a great privilege.'

Leahy, at the time a few weeks away from Tesco's £2 billion profit announcement, felt the same. 'I'm not sure there is a specific price to be paid for success. There are many rewards.' He did, however, admit that having less time with the family was an occupational hazard of a demanding job. His wife is a GP and, he says, they'd both like more time for each other and the family. 'I see the children most days – I think it's important. When it goes wrong is when you're with the family but not really there mentally.'

Some would say that just seeing one's children 'most days' is not enough. For example, while asserting that they're willing participants in the transaction, most women interviewed had little doubt of the personal costs to be faced in holding down their senior positions. With three children under five, McCall relishes her work but is constantly aware of the trade-off she is making. IPC's Auton is clear on the stamina her role demands. 'You need a tremendous amount of physical and emotional energy. The decisions you take are invariably the most difficult decisions of all, affecting people's livelihoods and the company's profitability. Inevitably, you work very long hours.'

For some, the price of success has been the surrender of their private lives. Thompson feels this keenly: she has been doorstepped on several occasions, dubbed Miss Scrooge when gaming laws prevented Camelot paying out on lost lottery tickets, and had her privacy invaded while on holiday with her daughter. Because her face has become familiar from countless photos of cheque handovers, she feels she can no longer pop down to her local supermarket on a Saturday morning wearing her tracksuit. These days, she must keep up appearances at all times.

Divorced for several years, she finds that her high profile makes forming a new relationship tough, too. Would potential partners be prepared to put up with the glare of publicity? Each leader works out coping strategies for achieving some level of balance. It helps to be right at the top, says HBOS's Stevenson, who relates the story of cutting short a Pearson board meeting for the (hidden) purpose of attending his son's football match, only to spot CEO Marjorie Scardino on the other side of the pitch, supporting her own progeny.

He says, though, that 'if you look through the top 200 to 300 business leaders and politicians, I bet you'd find far too many dysfunc- tional marriages and relationships with children. A lot of human beings are not interested in anything else but their work. The corollary is that if you wish to have a marriage or relationship that works, you've really got to decide to do it. I work flat out, but have a great work/ life balance because I decide to. I take a lot of holiday – huge amounts – but get a lot done while I'm away. The new technology is brilliant for that.'

Whatever the price, these leaders are clear that for them it's worth paying. Robert Ayling, former boss of British Airways and now a multiple non-executive director, believes that 'the demands of modern commercial enterprises are pretty relentless and may actually make it impossible to have a life balance'.

He is simultaneously aware of the privileges those in power enjoy. 'We in management are incredibly lucky. It is trade, commerce and open markets that have given us our freedom and opportunity. Work is rewarding.'

Points out Sorrell: 'Ultimately, we are all adults. If you think the price is too high, you can stop doing what you're doing. We are all free to do what we want to do.'

This is true to a point, but it also reveals how life at the top is in some ways easier than for those lower down. Can everyone just stop doing what they're doing if they feel the price is too great? What happens when local jobs are scarce and financial responsibilities are high? Perhaps those at the peak of their careers are sheltered from some of life's harder choices. Having plenty of money in reserve will always be a help if you decide that the price is no longer worth paying – and indeed some of the leaders interviewed are very richly remunerated. But not one of them identified their salary as the reason to take on such a demanding role, and several pointed out that anyone doing the job just for the money was on a losing wicket. This awareness that money alone is insufficient inducement informs their views on the right way to gain top performance from senior staff.

As Keith Jones, CEO of Morley Fund Management, puts it: 'You've obviously got to get the money right, especially in the City, but you also need people to want to be part of the business. They need to be passionate, proud of what they're part of. They need a goal that energises them. They need to know what the organisation stands for, our shared values. They want to know we're delivering.'

Leahy concurs. 'If you're looking to motivate people, there are things that you can do with benefits packages, but they're at the margin compared with whether the organisation is successful or not.'

Although there was a general acceptance among this crop of leaders that doing their jobs properly entails devoting much of their waking hours to the task, there was an awareness that the next generation seems to have a different view of what constitutes the right balance between work and the rest of life. Will this mean that in future there will be a dearth of candidates willing to take on the big roles? Not a bit of it: those at the top are convinced that there will always be a stream of people with the drive and desire to get to the top and stay there.

That may be so, but not many of them will be women, according to Coline McConville, European CEO of Clear Channel. A Harvard MBA, she recently attended a 10-year alumni reunion and discovered that, of 120 female peers, only a handful are now running organisations. Was this the result of lack of oppor- tunity? No, she says, purely a matter of choice. Guardian Newspapers' McCall suggests that the lack of women at the top relates to the fact that few have the home infrastructure to allow them to hold down top jobs with the ease of their male counterparts. 'However equal the partnership, it is generally the woman who carries the main responsibility for the family.'

As mothers of young children, both women speak from personal experience, but it's possible that a change to longer working lives will mean that this source of pressure will be reduced, with women achieving leadership positions later in life, once their families have grown up.

WPP has a relatively high proportion of female senior executives, including the CEOs of its two major advertising agencies. Says Sorrell, who admits he favours the appointment of women leaders: 'They are simply better and manage work/life balance effectively. Shelley Lazarus has a family and Anne Fudge is a grandmother, and they seem to manage their families, as well as the business, extremely well.'

Is there anything that would make these bosses leave their job? Does there come a point when it's time to move on? Not according to Sorrell, who says he's probably got Founder's Disease – the tendency of those who've built a business from scratch to stay on beyond their usefulness.

Others who head quoted companies but preferred not to be named were sanguine about the fact that the decision to leave might not be their own. In the public sector, the retirement age is 60, which for those civil servants approaching that age seems too early. Morley's Jones would consider moving on only if the regulatory environment became so onerous that the chances of running the business successfully were greatly impaired.

Corporate greed could be another reason to go. Cilla Snowball, chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, one of Britain's largest advertising agencies, says she'd hang up her boots if group pressure for short-term profit threatened to stop her from running the business in the way that she thought right for the longer-term interests of all stakeholders.

Ayling believes that 'when you're in it, you don't know when you need to get out , and people almost always go on too long'. The picture that emerges is that most relish their jobs and that, for those who make it to the top, life there is genuinely enjoyable.

Charles Dunstone, CEO, Carphone Warehouse

I'm very emotionally involved in the business. I worry about it. A certain amount of paranoia is very important in running a business.

Bigger companies have these grand plans. I'm not interested in that. I want to see us get better day-by-day.

We're at our best when we've got a particular enemy. We get very focused. We're good haters.

I have a short attention span, which can be a good and bad thing. Constructively, it allows you to cover a lot of things.

I don't believe in working from home. It's a con. I couldn't do it – too many distractions.

Keith Jones, CEO, Morley Fund Management

You have to have a fairly big ego to run a business.

Being CEO is an intellectual and emotional challenge. Not everyone likes that, especially when you get setbacks.

Long, inconclusive meetings drive me nuts. I like quick-fire meetings and decisions.

People who say they don't get stressed are bullshitting you. It's a question of how you handle it – wind down. I don't take work home, as a matter of principle.

You motivate talented people by allowing them to develop as individuals and giving them scope to fail.

I quite like the power of being CEO as an investor, in a pivotal position with industry and market.

We're doing something fundamental for the country. People want to consume now and know their savings are working for them, building prosperity.

You have to get the money right, but there needs to be more than that. People need to feel part of a high-performing business they can be proud and passionate about.

Carolyn McCall, CEO, Guardian Newspapers

Who'd want my job? Any of the blokes. They've got the infrastructure at home to allow them to do it. No matter how equal the partnership, working women rarely have that.

I'm here to absorb other people's uncertainty and pressures. I'm a navigator between conflicting agendas.

I find my female directors more flexible, less dogmatic. If something's not working, they are prepared to change.

There's a lot of talk about work/life balance, but bosses aren't that bothered. They're not that good at their own – and while they're getting results they won't change. If you want it, you need to do it for yourself.

If you don't like the job and are only doing it for the money, you're on a losing wicket.

Gavin Neath, chairman, Unilever UK

When I was promoted, Niall FitzGerald said: 'I'll judge you on the quality of the people you leave behind you.'

Being a general manager is a nice role to have – the breadth of it. There's no routine, unlike functional direction. The variety makes it very attractive.

Recognition and acknowledgment is not often done – contribution is taken for granted. I respond well to a pat on the back, so imagine others will.

There's generally an over-emphasis on leadership: teamship is important, too.

I believe I am quite easily replaceable, unlike people holding down highly specialised roles.

There's generally an overemphasis on leadership: teamship is important, too.

The more geographically mobile you are prepared to be, and able to convince the family it's a good thing, the more likely you are to make progress.

The roles I've done are disappearing rapidly as we disaggregate the business and the supply chain is managed on a European basis, IT and HR become shared services and Financial Services are run out of Eastern Europe. It will be very different for the next generation.

It's a paradox that my generation focused on breaking down silos and making the organisation more fluid. Now there are new silos being created which will be difficult to penetrate.

It's difficult to claim to have made a footprint on the business. Success has many fathers.

Sir Martin Sorrell group CEO, WPP

How do I personally add value? I probably don't. The theoretical answer would be judgment.

I'm with Bill Shankley: WPP is not a matter of life or death, it's more important than that.

The era of loyalty to one company was certainly diminished by the downsizing of the '90s. The dot.com bubble introduced young people to far wider responsibilities at a far earlier age. They would far rather work in smaller, more entrepreneurial companies.

Why are so many women running my businesses? They're better than men. I don't think intelligence or ability is distributed by gender, so there should be more women on boards. I'm being selfish when I say we should have more women.

Corporate social responsibility – you don't do it because it's morally the right thing to do; you do it because from an economic, profit and practical point of view it's the right thing to do.

I haven't got an exit strategy. I don't see myself retiring. I would find it very difficult to wake up every morning and have nothing to do.

In creative businesses, there are diseconomies of scale, but you have to grow, so people are very important. So my role is finding the best people to run my businesses.

I'm with Bill Shankley: WPP is not a matter of life or death, it's more important than that.

I don't think there is such a thing as stress, it's just you're not having fun.

I probably suffer from founders' disease. Most founders like to carry on forever. What's personally good for me and what's good for the business might be two different things.

Age is a state of mind.

Sarbanes Oxley will cost us between £15m and £20m. But it will allow us to exert more influence over our companies and that's not a bad thing.

Lord Stevenson, chairman, HBOS

Leaders aren't intrinsically good people and certainly not heroic. Most are driven by feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and over-ambition.

The defining characteristic of a leader is the ability to take decisions when you can't be sure you're right. It's not necessarily a nice quality to have – the kind of person who can sack 1,000 people and sleep soundly at night. It's not being a bad human being, but it ain't really a romantic, swashbuckling thing to do.

Energy is hugely important. It's something really good leaders don't realise about themselves. None of us understands the effects of our own personalities on others. It can't be taught in business school.

It's a rather sanctimonious, hypocritical British thing, treating chairmen as if they were Homeric gods, sailing above the clouds, keeping their detachment and independence and occasionally zapping Achilles. Bullshit.

A lot of human beings are not interested in anything else but their work. The price they pay is being boring.

If you wish to have a marriage/relationship that works you've really got to decide to do it. I work flat out but have a great work life balance because I decide to.

I'm not in the legacy business. I'm not Mozart - what I'm doing is very transitory. Tate Modern wasn't bad, but Nicholas Serota must take 70% of the credit

Victoria Barnsley, CEO, HarperCollins UK

Spotting talent within the organisation and nurturing it is a hugely satisfying thing.

I know many people who are micromanagers but say they're not and think they delegate well. The important thing is that it's delegation, not abdication.

There are dispiriting moments in a large organisation when it's like trying to push a bus uphill.

I suggested sabbaticals to my American management and they thought I was joking.

My mother was a very intelligent woman with a degree who felt that she wasted her life. I've taken the view that it's more important for children to have happy, fulfilled parents, even if that means that they spend a bit too much time with the nanny.

When I took this on it was a pretty hellish job. A lot needed to be done and I found that satisfying.

The press drive me mad. Particularly if you are a female CEO there a gossipy scrutiny that makes trying to change very difficult.

In publishing, evenings are as much a part of our work as the day so it's a very intensive workload.

I quite like the stress in some ways

Sir John Mogg, chairman, Ofgem

The things I love about the job are watching things happen in the way you want them to; seeing the pleasure you can give by praising someone; facing up to difficult decisions; getting the respect of the stakeholders.

It's good to be absolutely in charge. In Brussels they took my advice most of the time. Now I have the authority and a CEO with whom I have a good relationship. It's a jolly life, making big decisions and being independent.

It is amazing, despite the powers and the people in some organisations, how much one or two people can impact on setting the tone, the culture, the way you conduct your life. The attitude in my old DG has changed as a result of my departure.

I've increased the number of women on the board from zero to four – which was not easy to do - and that's making a big difference.

It is quite difficult not to do the role of the chief executive. I probably tried to do that when we were both new.

Energy drainers are dinners, boring speeches, doing the same thing over and over again; working too hard. As you get older, you have to control this - I never used to get tired.

In the public sector, if you fail, your exposure probably isn't loss of job, it's public humiliation.

Sir Terry Leahy, CEO, Tesco

How do I add value? You can never be certain.

My role is to see the truth of where the business is; to set a clear vision of where it has the potential to be; to participate in laying down plans to get there and pay attention to how we are progressing against those plans.

I have to make sure the business remains confident, and has the resources and capabilities and support in order to continue in this way.

It's my career. I stumbled into it 27 years ago. It is all-enveloping at times.

Stephen Carter, CEO, Ofcom

Demonstration of commitment from the top goes a long way. n All organisations are no more than the sum total of the talent of their people and the energy they bring to bear on their task.

Acceptance of risk is much greater in the private sector. There are some instances here where the definition of success is avoiding failure.

Managing in the public sector simply means your dashboard has more dials.

Technology is good for democracy

Can you ever have enough time to reflect and consider decisions?

Dianne Thompson, CEO, Camelot Group

We turn over £4.75 billion, but we're quite small – some 930 people. I know them and they know me. I run it as a very personal business.

I have had no mentors or role models, except my parents, who were northern, working class and hard working.

I do believe I run things differently as a female. More open, honest, transparent, open-door, maternalistic.

I'm just a workaholic. It's difficult to get the balance right.

Jenny Abramsky, director, BBC Radio and Music

There are some leaders who thrive on being very tough and delivering the bad news. I don't, and I'm very conscious of the impact on people's personal lives.

The BBC is going through enormous change and sometimes it seems the cave has fallen in and there's no way out. I think then the role of a leader is to chart a way, so that people see there is light at the end of the tunnel

The BBC is going through enormous change, and sometimes it seems the cave has fallen in and there's no way out. I think then the role of a leader is to chart a way, so that people see there is light at the end of the tunnel.

It's important people know that one mistake doesn't cost them their jobs. I've made huge mistakes. Everyone has. I don't believe in infallibility.

While I totally applaud that an organisation which is publicly funded needs to give full account of how it's spending public money, the actual process of doing it is energy sapping

From my own experience, whenever I've had a leader who has not been honest with me I've found it very hard, very demotivating. You can't trust even the praise.

It's important people know that one mistake doesn't cost them their jobs. I've made huge mistakes. Everyone has. I don't believe in infallibility.

It's a great mistake not to groom your successor. When I leave, the director general will have a choice of people who can lead – different from me, but they'll be bloody good.

Bob Ayling, former chief executive, British Airways

I have a prejudice these days against scale, except where there are absolutely clear economic benefits which over-ride the problems of getting bigger. Rather than megalomania, there should be a presumption against mergers and acquisitions.

I like strategic development, trying to assess what hand of cards you've got, looking into the future and trying to figure it out.

Base salaries should not be too far ahead of the market. Bonuses –long, medium, short If people make a difference they should be rewarded. The challenge is how to correctly assess outstanding performance

I think the years when you should really put in the work is in your 40s

.

The demands of modern commercial enterprises are pretty relentless. This must be a problem, particularly for women who are mothers. Women do executive jobs in a different way. They are less contentious.

Whatever chemicals get created by working in a stressful situation to keep you going, they charge around your body and when you stop you go through a kind of detox period. If it's too late in life you can't survive...I took me the best part of a year.

Managing people depends upon healthy and continuous relationships, so one of the most difficult activities is managing large numbers of people away from the centre of operations.

We are the guardians of capital invested

Legislation has simply reminded directors of companies what their responsibilities really are and always have been.

Sylvia Auton, CEO IPC

We live in a very ambiguous world, so I try and keep things very simple, very focused and paint a picture of what success looks like, not only for the organisation, but for the individual.

There's no template for being a leader. Every one of the board, and indeed myself, has different qualities that we use to lead...There's no tick box formula.

It concerns me that the law now addresses the lowest common denominator and doesn't place any trust in the ethics of business and senior management

You need a tremendous amount of physical and emotional energy. The decisions that you take are invariably the most difficult decisions of all.

Mike Anderson, managing director, London Evening Standard

My role? Sometimes I'm a horse whisperer, at others a donkey shouter. It depends where the business is at.

When you're in trouble, autocratic styles work

What I love is not the job itself, but the belief I'm still making progress – I never want to feel 'I've made it'

I'm developing a new skill – listening. It comes with age

Think strategically and act implementationally. It's a great combination. Few can do both.

Life is about doing a continuous series of things you know nothing about, but you do anyway. From being born, to becoming a teenager, going to university, first job, having children and dying. It's a good thing, keeps you going.

The price of success for me is too much food and drink and getting home in the dark after a long day.

You need to find a balance that suits you. If I am at home too much I drive the wife potty.

I'm less obsessed with conspicuous wealth, more interested in wealth in the mind. People can find a place where they are the richest in the world.

What would make me move on? Having responsibility but not really being in control.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today