June 06, 2023

Ask the CEO

Utilising our extensive network, our #asktheCEO series invites key figures from across a diverse range of industries to share their views and opinions on some of today’s most topical issues as well as reflect on lessons learnt based upon their own experiences and careers.

By opening up a dialogue, we hope to provide pertinent, valuable, and inspirational insight and advice from both an individual perspective as well as from a business lens with the hope of illuminating a variety of motivations, visions, ambitions, and leadership styles.

This month’s piece asks the question, with the benefit of hindsight, “What three pieces of business advice would you give to your younger self?”

David Montgomery, M&G

If I could give my younger self three pieces of business advice given what I have learned so far over my career, I would say:

Worry less, everything ultimately works out – I think over time you get enough experience to know that even big problems can and will be resolved and that it’s important to be calm and just work through it. Earlier in my career I would worry how things might turn out, a difficult project or a big presentation, whatever it might be. I would tell myself to still care, but worry less, that is wasted energy.

Communication is key, be good at telling a story – throughout your career, you will have many stakeholders and people to influence and being a good storyteller is important whatever your role or position is. It has so many benefits, helping to be clearer in communicating a strategy or objectives, giving people confidence or winning support. It’s also important to understand it from others’ perspectives and be able to tell your story such they will understand it and like it. Maybe earlier in my career I would tell the story the way I wanted, now I understand the audience is more important.

Be a good listener – this would be something I would tell my younger self but it’s a piece of advice I think everyone benefits from. If you are not prepared to stop and listen to what your customers, your stakeholders, your team, and your colleagues are telling you, then how can you improve or make effective decisions? I think we could all benefit from talking a bit less and listening more. My younger self was in a hurry and should have listened more, even my present self could probably listen a bit more…

Sandy Begbie, Scottish Financial Enterprise

Avoid making assumptions, things are rarely as you see them. There is always another angle or lens that you need to understand to make the right decision and be an effective leader.

Be prepared to invest risk – albeit calculated and understood risk – into your career. People are too quick to talk themselves out of doing something, they doubt themselves and therefore don’t seriously consider opportunities. They go for the safe option. You need to invest risk so you can understand your own limits but also to fully understand your talent and potential.

Leadership is really about four things, ambition/vision, authenticity, courage, and communication. If you have those four things, you will not go far wrong, and you will take people with you.

Jo Dow, Business Stream

Three pieces of business advice that I’d give to my younger self would be, first and foremost, don’t be too hard on yourself. Accept that there will be times when it isn’t possible to juggle everything at home and at work – be honest and open about these challenges and show people that you don’t have to be superwoman (or indeed superman) to progress.

My second piece of advice would be to work for a company that has a purpose you’re passionate about and that’s committed to doing the right thing. It has been really rewarding to launch our vision at Business Stream to make a positive difference and to see the impact it’s having, not only on our colleagues but on our customers and local communities too.

Thirdly, be bold, ambitious, and tenacious – especially if it’s something you really believe in. We have taken some bold decisions at Business Stream over the years, including entering a new market, undertaking two major acquisitions, and delivering a large-scale digital transformation programme – and while it’s not always been easy, I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved so far.

Blair Nimmo, Interpath

• Never set a limit on what you can achieve. • Never underestimate the power of hard work. • Success is a consequence of a multitude of skills, not just academic ability.

Patrick Graham, Business Growth Fund

Work-life balance is paramount – I didn’t get this right in my early career when I was burning the candle at both ends often working very late as well as doing a lot of networking in the desire to build my career. With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t believe I was any more productive from a work perspective as I was undoubtedly tired and a bit overloaded. My personal life also definitely took a back seat. In recent years I have also seen this dynamic first-hand as personal contacts have struggled to find the right balance which has taken a negative impact on their wellbeing. Therefore work-life balance and mental wellbeing are top priorities for me and today I work hard to try and strike the right balance for myself as well as set the right example for the team I work with. I (and I hope my team!) find BGF an inspiring, interesting, fun, and challenging (in a good way) place to work and as a result, it is naturally a big part of my life. However, everyone still needs time away from work to spend with families or friends, travel, pursue hobbies and other pursuits etc – and I try to do this. I find this has actually improved my outputs as I am more focused, measured in my approach, and have the ‘head space’ to be able to think about broader business strategy.

Constantly seek out feedback internally and externally – It has only been in recent years that I have started to really gather, and act upon, feedback and it is something I wish I had done throughout my entire career. The feedback I seek today is internal (from peers, my team etc), but also external – I now regularly speak to a couple of CEOs/NXDs about their experiences in order to help with my own personal development. Although feedback can sometimes be hard to hear (as well as give), I have found it invaluable in terms of personal development as well as helping with the broader development of my own team and culture within BGF.

Be humble but confident in your own abilities – in my earlier career, I often suffered from imposter syndrome which to an extent prevented me from sharing ideas, pushing boundaries, and challenging the norm. I still see this today in some management teams/businesses that don’t quite realise how good they actually are. There is a risk this can become a limiting factor on how successful an individual or business can become. Over time, I shook off my insecurities by forcing myself to speak up and gradually building confidence in my own ability and beliefs. That is not to say I am always right (!) and why humility and listening to other views is just as important. Therefore, I have found that by ensuring I and everyone in the team around me have a voice then people feel empowered, they develop quicker, and the team/business ultimately performs better.

David Turner, Webhelp

It was a long time ago back when I first came into business, but I assume I was like many other young people. You think you can take on the world, certainly, in my experience, because you are excited and enthusiastic.

As a grown-up, I think the advice that I would have given myself then was, firstly, always retain humility in interactions with others, especially those who report into you.

Secondly, the old adage of "every day is a school day" is hugely relevant to me now as it would have been in the past, therefore, my second piece of advice is always to be curious. Don't jump to conclusions – be curious and ask the right questions, especially if it involves change.

The third piece of advice to my young self would be to remember that we were given two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth and to use those senses in the same proportion. Over the years my sense of listening has improved massively and that has allowed me to build narrative from a position of gaining all the information.

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