"The year when everything goes wrong is the year you learn the most"

Fiona Dawson, the global president of Mars Food on staying grounded, keeping moving and taking leadership risks.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2019

Childhood

I grew up in south Dublin and went to an all-girls Catholic school. My father [Adrian Cronin] was head of RTE's light entertainment arm – he directed the Late Late Show and the first Eurovision song contest to be broadcast from Ireland. My mother had enjoyed a successful career in HR in her 20s but had her employment terminated on marrying my father, under a rule which stayed on the statute books until 1973 called "The Marriage Ban".

I was a geeky, socially-awkward child and taught myself to play the recorder. My friend’s mum spotted me playing in the school assembly when I was nine and put me in touch with Doris Keogh, professor of flute and recorder at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. I trained under her and ended up performing renaissance music across Europe.

I toyed with the idea of becoming a professional musician, but my father advised me to keep music as a hobby and do something else for a living. I’m grateful – I was never going to be the next James Galway. I studied economics and social science at Trinity College then joined the Mars graduate recruitment scheme in 1988. Other than a brief stint with PepsiCo, I’ve been there ever since. 

Leadership

I took on my first general management role for Mars in 1999, running the Irish business. That was a brutal lesson for me. I was managing people who had been my peers and bosses. Up until that point, my priority had always been getting on with my team and keeping everyone happy – but I quickly realised that I was in danger of trading off being liked for being respected.  In business, it’s more important to be respected.

Toughest moment

I was hugely ambitious and driven in my 20s and 30s. That got me to a certain point in my career – but it also made me risk averse. If I couldn’t be the best, I didn’t want to do it. When I was promoted to president of Mars Chocolate UK in 2013, we had a really tough year where everything from our factories to our financials went wrong.

Some of my global colleagues told me some hard truths: my language was defensive, I was closed off. I needed to accept that generalists need help from the experts. I stopped trying to be perfect and I started asking for advice. The year when everything goes wrong is the year you learn the most.

Having it all

The representation of businesswomen in the media can be really damaging. We must have role models who are honest about their own experiences and how they manage their trade-offs, as opposed to being portrayed as superwomen who "have it all". I have two sons, Conor (20) and Jack (17), and, for me, that’s meant working evenings and weekends so I’m home in time for dinner with the kids, and walking away from opportunities that would have taken me abroad.

I’ve been clear about what’s important to me, I’ve prioritised, and I could not have done my job without my husband Nigel playing a really important role with the children and housework. Women do seem to feel the burden quite acutely – I encourage them not to be so hard on themselves

Staying grounded

I don’t take myself too seriously. I like a laugh. I’ve got a group of friends and family who are proud of me – but my role doesn’t define who I am. That goes back to my dad, who was far more interested in the world of arts than business. When I was running Mars Chocolate, he honestly thought I was selling selection boxes in stores. That was refreshing. He didn’t care about my job title, he was just pleased I was happy.

Brexit

Both personally and professionally, my stance is Remain. At Mars, I steer our global Brexit steering group – we’ve had it in place for four years now, if you can believe it. The biggest challenge for business is the uncertainty; it brings a huge amount of work (much of which is wasted) and a great deal of cost. There’s endless "what-if?" scenario planning. Everyone thinks 31st October is the end of Brexit. It isn’t – it’s just the beginning. 

Remaining world-class

Every single business is being disrupted and it’s incredibly difficult to remain world-class. Mars has been around for more than 100 years: we’re a family-owned business with more than $35bn in sales, 125,000 employees across 80 countries, and some of the world’s best-loved brands ranging from Snickers and Skittles to Dolmio and Dove. That’s a huge burden.

You have to find the balance between honouring the past and building new businesses for the future. We know we can learn an awful lot from small businesses and entrepreneurs so, earlier this year we launched the Seeds of Change Accelerator in the US and Australia, offering start-ups a grant of up to $50,000 and a tailored four-month programme to scale their operations.

Big businesses can’t stand still. You constantly have to reinvent yourself and you must be ruthless with your resources. There’s always someone watching you, thinking: "I can do it better."

 

Image credit: ADRIAN DENNIS / Staff via Getty Images

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