UK: PROFILE - RHIANNON CHAPMAN. - She is tough, being descended from a witch, and hellbent on change. When the Industrial Society's feisty director speaks, men listen.

by Malcolm Brown.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

She is tough, being descended from a witch, and hellbent on change. When the Industrial Society's feisty director speaks, men listen.

If Rhiannon Chapman ever gets bored being director of the Industrial Society, the largest independent UK training and advisory body, she could become an opera critic.

Three years ago a visiting Australian uncle asked her to escort him to Rossini's William Tell. The piece lasted for five hours and, apart from the eponymous overture, was not the sort of thing you hum in your bath. But Chapman loved it. She only nodded off once, she says. Her brother, Colwyn Philipps, is a leading authority on Rossini. He assured her that in falling asleep at that particular point she had displayed an innate musicality of the highest order. This, he said, was the passage which opera directors around the world always cut when they want to bring the piece down to a more manageable length.

Actually the chances of Rhiannon (the emphasis is on the 'o' rather than the 'a' and it means 'great queen') ever being bored are pretty remote. Since she became director of the Society just over two years ago she has been so busy that if she as much as wants to walk in St James's Park, which is just across The Mall from her Nash office in Carlton House Terrace, she and her PA Diana Johnson, have to consult the desk diary.

When Chapman took over the Society it was technically insolvent. 'We had no cash, no reserves and a very weak balance sheet which could not be borrowed against.' The Society lost £1.4 million in 1990 and £544,000 in 1991, but, by 1992, Chapman had managed to turn the loss round into a £1 million surplus. Not bad for someone whose only previous experience of high finance had been running a small wine importing business with her then husband - and she was personnel chief at the Stock Exchange at the time. 'There is nothing that teaches you as much about cash management as running your own business, because it's your money you keep having to put in if you have cash problems.' Anyone who has seen Rhiannon Chapman on BBC TV's Question Time knows that she is a person of robust opinions. She puts her independence of mind down to what she describes as her 'very peculiar upbringing'.

Forty-six-year old Rhiannon Chapman is actually the Hon. Mrs Rhiannon Chapman. Her brother Colwyn is the third Viscount St Davids, head of the oldest documented family in Great Britain. She is named, she says, 'after my great, great, great, great (64 times) grandmother, who goes way back into Welsh pre-history. Some people called her a witch but I prefer to call her an enchantress.' The family background may look like privilege, says Chapman, but in fact it is just window dressing. 'We were the bit of the family that had the title. We didn't have any estates or any money.' Even if they had, she would not have been able to benefit from them. Her parents' marriage broke up in the mid-'50s and her mother took the family to Australia.

She died the following year. 'I was effectively an orphan for most of my young life. I was passed from pillar to post.' Childhood was spent on sheep farms in Australia and boarding schools in England, the first of which was chosen for no better reason than that it had been founded by her great-grandfather. 'It was like something out of Jane Eyre ... simply awful.' Such experiences made her very self-reliant but they also instilled in her a horror of what she calls 'special environments'.

She read law at university but abandoned the idea of it as a career after a year studying for the Bar. 'That was all it took to convince me that it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. It was a cloistered environment and I was desperate to get out into the real world. I'd had enough of special environments.' The job market for women arts graduates was difficult enough in the late 1960s, says Chapman. 'I discovered that a woman law graduate who didn't want to be a lawyer had even more of a problem because no one could be convinced that I was serious about just doing a normal, straightforward kind of job.' Eventually she got a job - at the Industrial Society. She was found a post in the information services department by the then director, John Garnett, whose daughter, Virginia Bottomley, now Secretary of State for Health, was a friend. After that she began to carve out a career in personnel management. In May 1980 she became director of personnel for the London Stock Exchange.

Chapman rejects the idea that personnel is a soft-option but accepts that it is a widely held view. 'There was a feeling on the part of certain individuals that I shouldn't be appointed to the Society because I was a woman and because I had a personnel background; apparently this combination meant that I would not be sufficiently businesslike to do what needed to be done.' She regards that as nonsense. 'It's one of the toughest jobs there is. You very often end up being the only person who is prepared to make a hard decision and implement it.' She could easily, she says, have nightmares about the number of people she has had to fire or make redundant. When one of the Sunday colour supplements did an article on the stress levels related to different jobs, personnel came second only to cold-call selling, she says.

Her career in personnel gave her insight into the way that organisations deal, or fail to deal, with women. As a divisional personnel officer in the electronics group, Philips, in the 1970s, she helped set up 'Women in Philips' which was aimed at gently lobbying the firm to take seriously issues about women's development. 'We were considered very cabalistic,' she says. 'All our managers were terrified. They tried to stop us meeting. They made it difficult and embarrassing, so we just decided we'd bull it out.' Despite the difficulties the group survived and, as members left Philips, they swelled the ranks of the organisation 'Women in Industry'.

She thinks that networking is essential for women: 'I actually think it's essential for everyone but it's particularly important for any group which is in danger of being marginalised because it is empowering. It gives you access to mutual help and support. It develops your confidence in your right to demand certain things.' Chapman is fascinated by the way companies and organisations have tended to evolve in the image of men. 'They've been designed to accommodate how men work and how men's careers develop, and so a woman is an alien. The woman is made to feel that she is the one who has got to fit in, which is very stressful and difficult. And why the hell should you if, basically, it's an artificial construct in the first place?' She believes that changes are happening now, not so much because men have seen the light but because economic and management realities are pushing companies to restructure in ways which, almost incidentally, are going to be beneficial to women. The trend away from hierarchies and towards flatter management structures, for instance, is much better for women.

Of course, there is always the danger that in becoming more successful in a male-dominated environment, women will pick up bad habits. Chapman recalls, for instance, how, when she was made a director of the New Cavendish Club (a sort of female Athenaeum) she made a fatal mistake. She had forgotten that she wasn't talking to men. She was so used to raising her voice a measure or two to cut across the interference that men put up in boardrooms and committee rooms. 'I was too pushy. That meeting really brought it home to me how I'd developed certain patterns of behaviour which were not appropriate in these other circumstances.' It is ironic that, when it came to the point, becoming director of the Industrial Society was about the last thing Chapman wanted or needed in 1991. Having left the Stock Exchange, she had just set up as a consultant. She was enjoying it and, financially speaking, doing very nicely thank you. 'My bank manager and my accountant were just knocked out by how much I was able to earn.' Then a friend happened to mention that the Industrial Society was having difficulty finding a new director and suggested that, if she was willing, he would put her name forward. 'I said, rather inelegantly, "Oh shit!" because it put me in a real dilemma.' She was extremely ambivalent about the whole thing and spent a lot of time rehearsing how she would feel: first, if she didn't get the job; and second, if she did. 'I knew if I wasn't offered the job I would feel miffed because one always does - you've been rejected and all that - but then I'd be mightily relieved because the whole thing would have gone away and I could have gotten on with my life as I'd wanted it to be. And if I was offered the job I would be over the moon, because it's always enormously flattering, and then I would be very depressed about having to unscramble my business and give up everything I had just set up for myself.' Perhaps realising what a tug it would be, when the chairman of the selection committee phoned her to tell her she had got the job, he prefaced it with 'I'm afraid I've got bad news for you ...' She still mourns the lost business opportunity. Having said that, she looks as though she is there for the long haul. She is, after all, only the fifth director in the Society's 75-year history.

The Society, which was founded in 1918, is all about influencing people at work, whether it be in lobbying for improved working conditions or helping managers to motivate and develop their staff. It organises courses on everything from employment law and youth work to secretarial training. Last year it offered training courses on 150 different topics for management and employees.

It has more than 12,000 members, ranging from companies and trades unions to government departments, and prides itself on its independence. Being non-aligned is a vital aspect of its influence, Chapman believes. 'We have absolutely no paymasters. We earn every penny we get so we're beholden to no one.' If asked to explain the Society to a schoolchild, she says, she would describe it as a bit like a godparent: 'They're not part of your immediate family but you know they're there and you know you'll get good advice from them if you need it and you know that they care about you.' Because it is not directly involved in its member organisation's work it can be objective.

There is one message above all others that the Society must get across to industry, she says. 'That is, "Open your minds and learn." We carry too much baggage. We go into situations which are different and try to apply the things that worked in the past.' Taking her own advice, she has banned employees using the word institution when describing the Society. 'I thought it was completely unhelpful that people should see the Society as an institution. Institutions tend to kill things off. They ossify the thing and then life changes and the institution doesn't.' She is also passionately interested in helping people to achieve personal growth. She loves a particular quote from the Talmud: 'Every blade of grass has its angel which whispers to it "grow, grow".'

'I feel desperately sorry for people who allow themselves to be shut off from new experiences and new relationships and learning about themselves and life ... But there's an amazing number of people who do.'.

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