What I learned from my boss

Survival lessons from leaders who have proved themselves, from Helen Kirwan-Taylor and Emma de Vita.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Even the very successful were young and inexperienced once. They, like the rest of us, floundered and made mistakes, learning life's difficult lessons as they climbed to the top. We've all been through it, but some of us are lucky enough to have our own Sherpa Tenzing to guide us along the rocky path, and even show us a shortcut. It could be a boss, a non-executive director or a mentor from outside the company. What they have in common is the wisdom that comes with experience, and the willingness to share what they've learned on the way.

Here, MT speaks to five of the UK's most successful CEOs and entrepreneurs to discover the most valuable lessons their bosses taught them. What revelatory piece of advice, decisive action or smart behaviour had such an indelible effect that it stayed with them for the rest of their career? What can recession virgins, too young to remember the last downturn, learn from those who made it through the previous one and survived to prosper? In times like these, a wise word in your ear from someone you respect might be all it takes to turn panic into calm resolution. Read on to discover what lessons our business elite hold close to their heart. You never know, it might just help you get out of this pickle ...


The most important thing I was ever taught was the idea of focus. The way it was put to me was: take the one hundred things that you think you're supposed to be doing, put them in order of importance, and then only do the top five. The rest don't really matter. I learnt that from our first formal board director, John McMonigall.

He may not have been my boss but he was a very good mentor because, up to that point, we hadn't run the business as a business; it had been a fun start-up. He had a great way of introducing all the things you need to have in the company, like budgets, but without undermining the raw enthusiasm that drives a business.

One lesson that is very good for the current climate has become known within Autonomy as 'the hungry wolf'. It's the idea that you have this magnificent wolf and it would like to go around and catch rabbits but, because times are harsh, it has to eat pretty unpleasant things, like snails, just to survive.

Often, you find in small companies during a downturn that they don't realise that they may have to do something a little bit different just to keep enough income coming in. By doing something that you wouldn't like to be doing, it keeps you alive long enough to live another day.

I learnt that again from John McMonigall.


In 1988, I was running Wexham Park Hospital when Brian Smith became chairman. He was former ICI and a serious industrialist. We had just got a board, as the hospital had become a trust, and we needed to produce a business plan. We showed Brian our plan and he came back the following day and said: 'I'm really disappointed. The numbers are there and it makes sense, but where's the passion?'

It struck me as extraordinarily odd, because here was this businessman, to whom I had given a business plan that was full of numbers, and he was complaining that there wasn't enough about the people in it. What Brian was saying was that as a leader of 2,000 people, I had to think more about people, even in these business plans, because it's people that make the difference. You can have two CEOs, both equally competent with the numbers, but one can get things done because they can work with the people, and the other can't.

I had 600 chief executives report to me when I was running the NHS and I saw a lot of people fail and a lot succeed. Many of those who failed were those who, when the going got tough, locked themselves in their office. The people who succeeded were those who went out and said: 'I'm going to talk to you about this.' You fail if you go into a siege mentality. You're much more likely to succeed if you share your problems, as well as your successes.


I've had a lot of mentors, but I think the person who has been most instrumental to my career in recent years is my chairman Roger Parry, who I have worked with for 10 years. My mantra (influenced by Parry) is 'just because you haven't, doesn't mean you can't. People either live up to, or down to, your expectations.' Parry was the embodiment of that philosophy. You have to give people the chance to stretch themselves. Good bosses allow for mistakes.

My first boss, another Roger, Miron (we were at James Gulliver Associates' Alpine Holdings), called me in after I had made a monumental mistake. I was earning £3,500 and my cock-up on a printing job cost the firm £25,000. I asked him: 'Aren't you going to fire me?' He said he'd just spent £25,000 training me. Lesson: if you learn from your mistakes, put it onto the training budget and move on.

Roger Parry has hired me twice in the past decade. Both were leaps of faith into industries where I had no direct experience. I think five years' experience is infinitely better than one year repeated five times.

The essence of good leadership should be the same in the good times as the bad times. You can be a bad leader in good times and still get results because of the marketplace, but in bad times, a bad leader gets found out. You have to lead by example - what you do is as important as what you say. It's less of an act and more an absolute belief.


I've had the privilege of working with many great bosses, including Sir Dominic Cadbury, John Brock (now chairman of Coca-Cola), and my former Cadbury Schweppes chairman and CEO, Sir John Sunderland. John Brock was great at creating a strategy. He believed in the power of great people. He had the emotional intelligence to let them be great, as opposed to fearing that his star would diminish as a result.

We are very careful in how we select people at Cadbury. When John Sunderland became CEO, he literally had the other top 130 people evaluated by YSC, the business psychology consultancy. We have kept up that discipline ever since. Every leader here is now evaluated every two to three years by the same group of people. I've never had a bad boss.

I've always sought a positive result in every relationship. I think people earn the right to lead. I don't think organisations where autocracy and fear are watchwords can thrive.

Our senior management agreed to take a salary freeze in February after announcing full-year results. When you have like-minded people, they put the welfare of colleagues first. We seek to have a culture that is performance-driven and value-led. I've been at Cadbury's for 26 years and have had the privilege of working under many great leaders.


My best boss was David Kingsley (of KMP). I was from a working-class background and was profoundly in awe of senior figures. One day, he asked me to deliver a document to his house. He answered the door in jeans. He then asked me if I had eaten and invited me to join him and his wife for a plate of pasta. That's when I discovered that bosses can treat you like human beings. They can be humane.

Kinglsey was very industrious; he showed no fear and he knew what he believed. He was tough but fair. This was someone who led by example, gave praise when needed but told you when you weren't performing.

I recently went to a seminar where a City boss said: 'Turn to your left and turn to your right. Chances are that person will not be there in three months' time.' I don't think fear motivates; it paralyses.

My mission statement is: When in doubt, be nice. People are far more motivated when they are respected than when they are scared. Another motto is: Never keep people waiting and never be too grand. Your staff are not there to serve you: they're there to advance the company's objectives. I also think it's much easier to run a company when you have real convictions. The expression shouldn't be 'the courage of convictions' but 'the comfort of convictions'. If you're always exercising judgment (rather than relying on your core beliefs) you're going to get it wrong.

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