4. Liv Garfield, chief executive, Severn Trent
Being the youngest woman ever to lead a FTSE 100 company ensured Liv Garfield garnered plenty of column inches following her appointment in 2014. But what’s ensured her stock has risen is her leadership style. As she puts it: “I trust people and I care.” Or as a Most Admired panelist said: “She is very, very different and very engaged.” The former BT executive, who oversaw the business’s nationwide rollout of fibre broadband, has had to negotiate a tricky regulatory landscape at Severn Trent, as well as facing down external protests over pay and profits. But she has won over a notoriously difficult investor community with her strategic flair, and continue to deliver on the business’s reputation for having the cheapest water bills in the UK.
3. Dave Lewis, former CEO, Tesco
The role of helming the UK’s largest retailer, rather like being England football manager, is often seen as a hiding to nothing. Tesco is so big, and the expectations so exacting, that a fatal mistake lies round every corner. Dave Lewis’s greatest achievement in a five-year spell at the helm that ended in September, aside from returning the business to sales growth and profitability, was making no major missteps. That was despite a £250m accounting scandal coming to light soon after his arrival, which required careful handling (it ended in a deferred prosecution agreement). From there, Lewis did the complex job of simplifying the business with determination and panache: he shed non-core activities, set a clear marketing strategy, focused on achievable targets in the main supermarkets business and acquired and integrated wholesaler Booker, no mean feat in itself. Time will judge his legacy, but among colleagues, peers and shareholders, he has been near universally acclaimed.
2. Dame Emma Walmsley, CEO, GlaxoSmithKline
The blow of losing top spot in the Most Admired listings will certainly have been cushioned for Emma Walmsey this year by being awarded a damehood in the Queen’s birthday honours. That was a reflection both of her profile as one of the UK’s most prominent female leaders and GSK’s pivotal role in developing a coronavirus vaccine. But it also, perhaps, acknowledges what peers and colleagues have long known about the 51-year-old: she is able to strategise across multiple markets and geographies and can turn complex business puzzles into actionable plans. Crucially, she is also a brilliant listener who surrounds herself with outstanding teams. At GSK, she will need all her smarts – the business hopes to have spun out its consumer healthcare division by 2022 and has seen pharma rival AstraZeneca steal a march on it in the vaccine race this year.