Harriet Green OBE was formerly CEO of Thomas Cook and CEO and chair of IBM Asia Pacific and has been on the boards of BAE Systems and Emerson Electric – as well as launching Academies for Youth with Potential in Thailand.
Today, Harriet is chair at Mission Beyond and an ambassador for Every Child Needs a Mentor. Here, Harriet shares her perspective on what it takes to lead successful transformations, how the source of innovation is diversity, and how nomination committee chairs can help in making leadership teams look more like the communities they represent.
What was the most defining moment of your career that led you to where you are today?
A few things spring to mind:
- Age 29, in the run up to the awards ceremony for Young Businesswoman of the Year. There were some big names attending. I was buying a new suit and it hit me that being awarded this was a big deal and something to be proud of.
- When I joined a large American corporation, Arrow Electronics. The CEO said to me that I had to choose between being a big fish in the relatively small pond that is the UK, or I could go out and really start to explore the world. So, I took on European and marketing roles whilst working on Arrow’s acquisitions – they acquired a new business every three months for about a decade – and in my time there I had the privilege to live and work in four continents, allowing me to learn so much that I may not have done otherwise.
- Cold calling to get the CEO role at Thomas Cook because I doubted anyone else really wanted it at the time. As a team, we did some extraordinary work in taking the business from having 17 weeks to live and 14p shares to bringing them back up well over £1. We ensured that nobody lost out – including the pension funds, pilots, and our existing investors.
Thinking back to your various roles as CEO, chair, and non-executive director are there any golden rules that you follow?
Absolutely, and these have all come from challenging learnings that I’ve picked up over the years. Firstly, coming out of the present vortex of technology, climate, EDI, and health changes.
- Speed rather than elegance. Entering into a difficult period of recession it’s more important than ever that we understand how to drive innovation in business. In doing so, I favour plans predicated on speed rather than elegance; at the end of the day, you miss every shot you don’t take, so embracing some risk and having the ability to move quickly is essential.
- Asking why anyone would want to work for me. I asked myself this every day as a CEO. Today, I love working with like-minded CEOs constantly asking this question as it acknowledges that more traditional, heavily hierarchical ways of working are long gone and you’ve got to take people along with you to realise the success you want to see.
- “Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you will get the result.” Not my words, those of Oscar Wilde. It’s about recognising that the skills you have today might not be the skills you need tomorrow – and then acting to gain those skills. That’s an incredibly exciting feeling, which can help to fuel us to achieve great things. I am in perpetual discomfort looking at all the things I don’t fully understand.
What should board directors be thinking about in the current economic climate to ensure their business survives and thrives?
Leaders who believe business is a global enabler will recognise that the only thing in our contemporary world that leads us out of recession is innovation-led growth. Companies have already done all the cutting back that they can, innovation is truly the name of the game.
If we look back at the decades that followed the devastation of the 1940s, it was innovation in the electrification of grids and totally new electrical products – think Sony with the transistor radio – that fuelled growth. Amidst the failing giants of the 1970s we see that Microsoft was born, focusing on innovation within software; or think of Apple producing the iPod following the dot com crash in 2000. All of these are examples of innovation leading growth, and directors should be thinking seriously how to enable this in their own businesses.
In my experience of working in five different industry sectors across four continents, the more richly diverse the team, the greater their power to innovate. Plus, today – unlike ten years ago – talented people only want to work in environments that have a clear purpose in what they do and an employee value proposition that will enrich them. Therefore, it’s imperative you take advantage of the innovative power of diversity in order to attract, retain, and get the best out of your employees and drive the business forward through difficult times.
What can nomination committee chairs be doing to help leadership be more like the communities they represent?
It starts with the right skills; those the organisation will need over the next five to ten years.
Within that, there should be a rich uniqueness of people – in their age, sex, colour, sexuality, and physical and cognitive abilities. Of course, this is much easier said than done. You should avoid using the same handful of headhunters that everyone else uses and take some risks by engaging agencies and the plethora of digital tools available today to access the people you need who offer insight into the customers, communities, suppliers, and employees you serve.
The boards that are most effective have a certain chemistry. Nomination committee chairs should be trying to infuse new talent into the board, reflecting the future skill needs of the business, avoiding group think but ensuring a safe place for diverse views to be expressed.
What’s the secret to an agile organisation?
Firstly, it’s fundamental that every person in the organisation understands their part in whatever change you’re embarking on. Change is often only really communicated to investors and more senior staff – you raise the money and the C-suite get ready and set to go, but you find that the cabin crew or the people working in the restaurant don’t really know what’s changed or, crucially, how it impacts the work they do. So, clarity of goals and constant work to communicate those goals are key to ensure everyone is aligned and pulling in the same direction.
In order to embrace agility, you first have to recognise the evident intersectionality in the way that different parts of an organisation work together. Often, the blockages can be traced to functions being siloed from other areas of the organisation, with staff being less than certain of the end goal in mind.
What are the key factors that feed into a successful transformation?
After ensuring that disparate parts of the business are clear on the purpose of transformation and their role within it, you need metrics that show the daily, weekly, and monthly progress you’re making against the transformation’s goals. These make sure you can recognise what is going well, and quickly identify what’s not going so well in order to make changes. By combining these metrics with a culture of transparency and genuine passion and energy for the mission, you ensure that your transformation project stands the best chance of success.
The requirement for passion and energy for the mission doesn’t mean you need to be greatly extroverted in your leadership style. You absolutely can be a more quiet introverted leader – but you must believe in what you’re doing and be able to convey the importance of the mission to galvanise the teams towards the goals.
Ultimately, if you don’t believe in it yourself then you will find it very difficult to get others to believe in it too.