Suzanne Heywood is the author of the bestselling book Wavewalker: Breaking Free. She previously wrote another bestseller: 'What Does Jeremy Think?', a biography of her late husband, Jeremy Heywood, who was the Cabinet Secretary for the UK. In addition to writing, Suzanne chairs CNH Industrial and Iveco Group and is the COO of Exor NV. Here, she explains why resilience is one of the secrets to powerful leadership.
What was the most defining moment of your career that led you to where you are today? What did you learn from it?
Stepping in as acting CEO at CNH Industrial in the early days of the pandemic. I had to take on this role with less than a day’s notice, so had little time to plan. This experience highlighted how essential resilience is because it enabled me to stay calm and manage issues through the crisis, while we closed and then opened plants around the world, without being overwhelmed. I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m resilient because I escaped from the boat on which I grew up – Wavewalker - after spending almost a decade at sea as a child, or whether I escaped because I’m resilient. I’ll never know, but I’ve written my account of that experience, which included being shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean in my new book, Wavewalker: Breaking Free.
My experience of escaping from a challenging childhood made me realise that, if I can survive that, I can survive anything. Things will go wrong, and I won’t always make the right decisions, but I am able to pick myself back up and carry on. Having that resilience is essential when a project doesn’t go as planned, or a M&A situation falls through, because it enables me to learn from the experience and keep going. It also means that I can be calm for the people around me, and can hopefully coach them to be resilient themselves.
“Having that resilience is essential when a project doesn’t go as planned, or a M&A situation falls through, because it enables me to learn from the experience and keep going.”
Are there any golden rules that you follow in the boardroom?
For me, humility is essential, and it’s one of our values at Exor. It is very easy to gain a degree of hubris as you take on more senior roles, and to assume that your ability to decide things and to understand what’s going on is better than that of others. However, more junior colleagues will often have a much better understanding of the details of an issue than you do – and they may often have better ideas for how to proceed. When you retain a sense of humility and listen to the people around you, the decisions you make are much more likely to be robust.
The best leaders can be both resilient and humble. I don’t think there’s any conflict between those two qualities. In fact, I would argue that having both is essential – you need to be humble enough to connect with people and recognise when things haven’t gone as planned, while also being resilient enough to carry on.
“You need to be humble enough to connect with people and recognise when things haven’t gone as planned, while also being resilient enough to carry on.”
When I hire people, I look for evidence of both characteristics. For example, candidates who have experienced situations where things have gone wrong, often have strong resilience. However, when I consider such candidates, I look for people who tell me survivor stories, not victim stories. I have interviewed very interesting people who have come out of failed start-ups, have learnt openly from those experiences, and have emerged as more resilient and humble people – and, therefore, much stronger leaders.
Are there any female leaders you’ve worked with who have inspired you? What was it about them that you found inspiring?
My generation had few senior female leaders that we could use as role models. At McKinsey there were some very impressive women like Johanna Waterous and Orna NiChionna who showed me what was possible, and who were supportive of more junior women – I remember, for example, Johanna stepping in to change some of McKinsey’s maternity policies, which made it very difficult for people to maintain client relationships while away from the office.
I was also lucky to have several senior male mentors who were known for supporting women. At McKinsey, for example, Ian Davis, Dominic Barton, and Richard Dobbs were great mentors to me and were fantastic advocates of women coming up through the ranks.
What would you change to make boards more effective?
Making sure that you have diverse points of view. We can tend to focus on physical aspects of diversity, like gender or race, which is very important from an equity point of view, but we shouldn’t assume that because we have physical diversity, we will always have different points of view. And we need that diversity of thought to create challenge within the board.
Starting from first principles, the role of the board is to provide wise counsel to the CEO and their leadership team – to be their ‘critical friend’. Non-executive directors aren’t there just to criticise the company or to have the loudest voice in the room, and they’re also not there to flatter the company; they need to find a way to do both things, keeping them in balance.
It’s also important to think about the kind of information that boards receive. I always try to encourage the companies I work with to prioritise the material that they deliver to the board and put other information into appendices for members to dive into as needed. The trap that companies can sometimes fall into is to dump large amounts of information onto the board, which can result in directors getting lost in the weeds and losing sight of the bigger picture. In some companies, it is effective to use memos as a way of synthesising the most important information for the board. However, although I love to write, I’m very conscious that not everyone feels the same way. An alternative approach, therefore, is to have a clear summary page at the start of each document and to encourage people to use appendices for all the non-essential information.
“The trap that companies can sometimes fall into is to dump large amounts of information onto the board.”