Virgin StartUp's Linda Grant: "How I reinvented myself as a non-exec"

After stepping down as the MD of Metro, Linda Grant wasn't ready to retire - but she didn't want to take on another big corporate role either. Here's how she went plural.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 13 Jan 2020

Linda Grant rose through the ranks of publishing before joining the founding team at Metro, where she helped to build it into the country's largest daily newspaper  – and coined the term "urbanites". She stepped down as managing director in 2013 and, after a "period of reinvention", went plural. Now, as the chair of Virgin StartUp and a judge for Management Today's NextGen Awards, she's helping other start-ups to scale up.

Early influences

The youngest of four, I grew up in a council house just outside Glasgow. My father worked in the Rolls-Royce aero-engine repair factory in East Kilbride and my mother juggled different jobs ranging from cleaning schools to managing our local Greggs bakery. If we were lucky, we’d go on holiday once a year to Blackpool, Scarborough or the Isle of Man, where we’d stay in B&Bs, eat ice cream and ride donkeys on the beach. I wanted to be an astronaut, an actress or a doctor. As a working-class girl growing up in the 1970s, those felt more like pipe dreams than realistic ambitions. One of our neighbours was a sales rep for a ready-mix concrete firm; I remember thinking how exotic and glamorous she was because she had a company car.

Education

I went to the local comprehensive and threw myself into everything: I was a prefect, I ran the tuck shop and I did the Young Enterprise Scheme, which gives teens the opportunity to set up and run their own mini businesses. When we divvied up all the roles, I ended up being the managing director, which was prophetic. I opted to study science, funding my way through university by waitressing and joining the University Officers’ Training Corps (UOTC), a paid scheme for prospective military officers. That kind of leadership training, which involved a short stint in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was formative for me. My mum got ill and died while I was a student, so it was a horribly difficult and painful time. I still got my degree – but only by the skin of my teeth.

Early career

After graduation, I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and received my commission, worked briefly as a sales rep for Rowntree Mackintosh Confectionery [now part of Nestlé], then bagged my first ‘proper job’ in media with The Scotsman in Edinburgh. After two weeks, my boss said "We’re launching a new paper called Scotland on Sunday. Would you like to get involved?" I said yes. That set the tone for the rest of my career: launching start-ups within established businesses became my ‘thing’.

The Metro movement

Metro launched in March 1999. At the time, I was living in West Hampstead and working for the Mirror Group in Canary Wharf; I’d sit on the train every morning and watch commuters voraciously reading this new paper. While industry experts were saying "It’s free! It’ll never last!", I could see it was the start of something really powerful. So when I was asked to join the founding team a few months later, I jumped at the chance.

Starting in London with an initial circulation of 85,000 copies, we quickly expanded into other cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, targeting an audience of young, affluent, urban commuters with a frenetic lifestyle – or "urbanites", as I dubbed them. That term caught. No other national paper could produce a similar readership profile for its advertisers. Today Metro is the country’s most-read daily newspaper with a circulation of 1.46 million copies each day. We opened up daily news to people who hadn’t previously picked up a newspaper. And we were part of a movement. I’m really proud of that.

Leadership

I’m still evolving and like to think of myself as a permanent work-in-progress. I’m hugely passionate: I can spot potential and I’ll walk into an organisation and think "Bloody hell, look at what’s possible!" Over the years, I’ve adapted to temper that. I’ve learned that what’s fuel for me can be terrifying for others.

Going plural

When I stepped down as Metro’s managing director in 2013, I was still in my mid-forties; I wasn’t ready to retire but I wasn’t up for taking on another big corporate job either. I craved variety so I went plural, taking on non-exec roles and setting up my own consultancy, Goldpollen. It has been a period of reinvention. I found Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra a really helpful and comforting read. While common wisdom holds that we must first know what we want to do and have a grand plan, Ibarra’s research shows that people who make the most successful career transitions give themselves time to experiment with roles and play around with ‘possible selves’. She replaces the logic of efficiency with the logic of exploration.

Gender equality

When I joined Virgin StartUp as chairwoman, we made a public pledge to back an equal number of male and female founders by the end of 2020. The recent Rose Review showed us that only one in three of Britain’s entrepreneurs is female – a gender gap that’s equivalent to 1.1 million ‘missing businesses’. That gap is unacceptable. If we can close it, we’ll generate an extra £250bn in added gross value for the economy, equalling four years of economic growth. No matter where you stand on Brexit, I think we can all agree that this country could do with an extra £250bn on the table.

Management Today’s NextGen awards recognise the businesses with the potential to be tomorrow’s superstars. If you have a team, a leader, an individual performer or a work culture that deserves to be an award-winner, then enter now.

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