Julia Woodhouse is a non-executive director at Outokumpu, a global stainless steel manufacturer, and sits on their ESG Advisory Council. She’s also on the board of Surface Transforms, and is a member of the Standards & Regulation Board of RICS. Here, she shares what makes exceptional CEOs stand out, what to look out for when joining a new board, plus what Finnish boards do that we can learn from in the UK.
Are there any defining moments that stand out from your career? And what have you learned from them?
- Taking on a global leadership role at Ford; I learnt the importance of ensuring that everyone, from every culture, feels comfortable and has a chance to make their contribution. It is very easy to make assumptions about how each culture wants to work which may not be correct. Even working with Americans there are cultural differences that our common language may disguise. Allowing everyone to make their contribution is key to optimising global teams.
- My first female boss at Ford, in an era that was male-dominated. I had never worked for a female leader before and I enjoyed seeing how effective she was — she really inspired me.
Are there any golden rules that you try to follow in the boardroom?
- All board opportunities offer interesting challenges. It’s important to only accept roles where you feel you can add value and contribute effectively to that company or organisation.
- Learn what you can about the company before you join and be careful to ensure there is a good chair — they play such an important role in setting the culture and tone of the boardroom. When you’re going through the recruitment process and you meet the chair and speak to other board members, try to get a feel for the culture, and think about how you can contribute and how you would work under that chair’s leadership.
- Remind yourself that, as a non-executive, you’re not there to do the work of the executive team. Sometimes that can be a challenge for new NEDs, but it is essential that the non-executive board members fulfil their own role of supporting and challenging the leadership team.
“It’s important to only accept roles where you feel you can add value and contribute effectively to that company or organisation.”
What makes a truly exceptional leader?
- An ability to relate to people when they’re with them. They always make you feel like you have their whole attention when you’ve got that limited time to spend with them and are effective time managers. In short, they have the ability to inspire others.
- The compassion they bring to the role. I happened to say to a CEO I was working for that the Women’s Network in our India team were great fans and hoped he would visit them someday. The next thing I knew he was contacting me so that he could meet them on a visit to India – which he did and it meant a lot to them. Little things like that really stand out in the memory, and bringing the human touch to the role is an excellent way for leaders to be great at what they do and inspire the people working for them.
- Mentoring is an area where leaders at all levels can make effective contributions. We can talk about women who have inspired me, but in my early career with Ford, it was three men I worked with who really supported me as a woman and helped me realise there was no limit to where I could go. This informal mentoring — inviting me to experience opportunities I wouldn’t normally have as a junior employee, taking me to meet suppliers, etc — made a big impact and I have tried to be a mentor to others during my career.
What have you learned from Finnish boards that we could apply here in the UK?
I would recommend anyone who gets the opportunity to work for a Finnish company to take it — I found it to be a very welcoming culture. In regard to their business culture, I’d say that they don’t waste words; they tend to have an open manner of communicating in a very concise way. They make their input and wait to listen to the input of their colleagues. This makes for focused, frank, and respectful discussions which results in timely decision-making. I found that approach and style of discussion quite refreshing.
“This makes for focused, frank, and respectful discussions which results in timely decision-making. I found that approach and style of discussion quite refreshing.”
Perhaps related to this business culture, I would also say that Finland and Finnish businesses tend to be very capable in planning and responding to emergencies. Of course, their geographical location has certainly encouraged this too.
What do you think of the role played by nominations committee chairs in the context of choosing leaders whose values match those needed to ensure business is a force for good for the planet and society?
The opportunity to serve on a board is a privilege. It brings with it significant responsibility. Having a board with a diverse range of backgrounds and the right values is key to supporting the executive team, being a successful company and making a positive contribution. Nominations committees and their chairs have a huge responsibility to find the right people.
“Having a board with a diverse range of backgrounds and the right values is key to supporting the executive team.”
Businesses exist within the communities they operate in and as part of wider society. I grew up in Birmingham and saw first-hand that people could work in manufacturing and have good, stable employment. Since that time there’s been a decline in manufacturing in the UK; so now we need the companies that are growing today to invest in apprenticeships and create jobs for those in the community around them — including building connections with local schools and colleges. Leaders of companies play a key role here.