As leadership mentors go, you can’t do much better than the chief of staff of the British army. So TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding was quite fortunate in having Field Marshall Harding, who held just that role, as her grandfather.
‘In my teenage years, my grandmother died and I used to go to things with him,’ she said at MT’s Inspiring Women in Business conference this morning. ‘I was that sort of obnoxious girl, I remember being 10 at careers things where people were talking about becoming secretaries and I said I don’t want to be a secretary, I want to have a secretary, and people would sort of look at me slightly perplexed.
‘When I was 14 my mum told my chemistry teacher she thought it was a waste of time girls going to university because they’d only just get married. I remember being so angry with her. I had this extraordinary role-model of rags to riches success in my grandfather and yet I was a girl, and girls in a very military family were not meant to have professional careers. I think that created the spur and edge to drive me on.’
You might perceive military leadership as being all about hierarchy, barked orders and unquestioning discipline. But Harding saw another side of it when her grandfather met the Queen. ‘He would treat the queen in the way he treated his gardener, with complete respect and humility. He didn't care about hierarchy.’
He knew a thing or two about courage, too. ‘My grandfather used to say to me, you can't be brave unless you're afraid. When somebody who's got half his hand missing and shrapnel in his legs and is a multiply decorated war hero tells you, "I was afraid too, it's what you do with the fear that matters". Those words of wisdom never left me.’
She recalls a story he used to tell about the Gallipoli campaign. ‘He was completely terrified and looking down at the generals trotting around on their horses at a completely safe distance,’ she said. ‘He vowed that if he lived and he became a real leader, he would never lead like that. So my version of military leadership is to lead from the front.’
Harding also opened up about the high profile cyber attack that hit her company last year, leaving it all over the front pages and scrambling to keep customers onside. ‘We thought we were taking cyber security seriously and we plainly weren’t taking it seriously enough. I'd be the first person to admit that,’ she said.
‘None of us are. My business is taking cyber security much more seriously than it was, but I still don't think we’re taking it seriously enough. The cyber criminals' ladders are getting longer so our security has to keep on getting higher and higher. Anyone who tells you that they're doing ok about this hasn't thought about it enough - and that's probably where we were 13 months ago.’ But, she says, the business has improved as a result. ‘We've all got to be more fact-based and data driven. The gut instinct didn't work.’
She also touched on the difficulty of juggling her home life and career. ‘It seems, genetically, that women suffer from this more than men but I think all parents, really, suffer from endless guilt about not getting the balance right,’ the mother of two, whose husband John Penrose is a Conservative MP, said. ‘You're constantly worried that you're getting it the wrong way round.’
But, says Harding, the answer is not longer periods of maternity leave. ‘I appreciate this might be controversial but I think one of the biggest challenges for mothers coming back to work is that the longer you're away, the more you've lost confidence. Almost all of the very senior I know took very little maternity leave - not because they're just crazed superwomen but actually because they were sort of keeping that part of their life going. And I fear that if you've lots of maternity leave you are actually suffering from a lot of the same psychological challenges that people who've been long-term unemployed suffer from.’
And what of her own ambitions? ‘I want to take the skills and talent I've got to help this country be a better Britain. I think we're at a moment in time where, those of us that sit in the liberal centre ground, whether Labour, Convervative, Lib Dem, in business, arts, politics, are in danger of losing the argument. And I think we should be winning the argument.
‘Business has to change. I campaigned for Remain, but you can't ignore the societal anger that fuelled, not everyone but quite a lot of people, to vote to leave the EU. You can't ignore the societal anger that caused people to vote for Trump in America. I'd like to play a role as a business leader in making business work better for all of Britain.’
Those almost sound like the words of somebody about to run for office? 'Oh no - I think one politician in the family is quite enough.'
Photography by Julian Dodd