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Leadership in action

Real-life lessons from the top.


When the CEOs of one of the UK’s most successful retailers and a FTSE 100 financial services company get together to talk about their experiences in management, people listen. After all, anyone can watch online TED talks and read books from business gurus, but it’s quite another thing to be in the same room with them.

And that’s the reality for Cambridge MBA students attending the Leadership in Action seminars, delivered during the final two terms of the MBA. Hosted by distinguished business leader Lord Dennis Stevenson, they are a unique opportunity to hear about the realities of leadership from those who meet its challenges every day.

In the final seminar of the year, Marc Bolland, CEO of Marks & Spencer, spoke alongside Nigel Wilson, CEO of Legal & General. “They had very different personalities and approaches to management, but they’re both CEOs,” says Gabriel Laurel (MBA 2013), who will be returning to the Philippines to continue his career in property development. “When a question came up about balancing their personal and professional lives, Nigel talked a lot about setting time aside for family, whereas Mark was very honest about how he spends a lot of time travelling for work, and his personal life does have to take a back seat.”

But, says Laurel, the two had plenty in common, including sticking to your personal values as a critical leadership skill. “Nigel talked about intellectual honesty, which he defined as: don’t tell the boss what he wants to hear, tell him what you want to say. That really stuck with me, and it’s something I will certainly take forward.”

Frederik Jacobs (MBA 2013), a former entrepreneur now working towards a career in finance, also noticed the similarities:

They both run very complex organisations with significant challenges. But their approach seems to be very straightforward. They have a wealth of experience and can rely on their intuition, but they have a lot of trust in their team and rely on them a great deal. So leadership is also about surrounding yourself with people who can drive the company forward and support the overall leadership and vision.

And while hearing from those at the top is vital, the Leadership in Action series also includes younger leaders. A recent session saw Rupert Pick, founder and CEO of Hot Pickle, and Will Swannell and Edward Poland, founders of Hire Space, a company which helps venues with limited budgets market their spaces for hire. Both Pick and Swannell are CJBS graduates – Pick holds an MBA and Swannell has the MPhil in Finance. “It’s inspiring to hear from people who, a few years ago, were where we are now,” says Stephen Robertson-Dunn (MBA 2013), a former actuary now launching his own start-up. “I got a lot out of both of them.”

In particular, says Robertson-Dunn, the different approaches taken by both companies have informed his own thinking. “Hot Pickle is a marketing agency and Rupert has experience in marketing, so he made a really good, valuable business out of his own experience,” he points out. “I couldn’t set up Hot Pickle. But Hire Space is one of those ideas that anyone could have thought of. It’s all about the implementation – getting people to sign up to allow their space to be used and then, on the other side of the platform, getting people to use the space. I thought it was a really good contrast.”

The leadership lessons, say the students, don’t stop at the lecture room door. “I’ve been thinking, over the course of the MBA, about how it’s useful to do something when you have an advantage in that area,” says Robertson-Dunn. “For example, I have skills in data analytics and I realise more and more that I should pick a business or businesses where I can bring these skills to the table.”

And Jacobs says that Marc Bolland’s life-lessons resonated with him. “He said his mantra is to always find something you can’t do. His background is Heineken and Morrisons, so it’s very varied. He believes that when you think you can do everything, that’s when you look for a new challenge. Coming out of the MBA, I’m looking to change industry, location and job. I feel reaffirmed that it is right to undertake a substantial change in my career and take a detour from the path I’ve travelled on so far.”