CEO letter | Seven things I’ve learned in my first year as a CEO

By the time you read this, I will have been at Walpole exactly a year. It’s been an exhilarating 12 months, characterised by missionary zeal and relentless graft, pushing Walpole forward into its next quarter century, and focusing on the ambition of getting British luxury the recognition it deserves.

It was also a year in which I discovered that, no matter that I’d run my own business, or led substantial parts of other people’s, the role of CEO requires one to rapidly acquire new skills and upgrade existing ones, particularly if you want to effect change quickly and effectively. Phil Barnes, who runs The Savoy, said to me ‘You only need to know two things: strategy and leadership’ but the trick, of course, is in the execution of those two things. I also learned that some of the things you need as a Chief Executive have nothing to do with work at all, but without them, you can’t maximise performance.

Here are seven things I’ve learnt in my first year as a CEO. 

1. Find your purpose, serve your customer 
When I got the job, my husband bought me a copy of Joan Magretta’s ‘Understanding Michael Porter: the essential guide to competition and strategy’. Michael Porter is apparently the world’s foremost strategy guru, whose thoughts are so profound he needs Joan Magretta to explain them. His insights into not-for-profits – like Walpole – struck a chord: “A major challenge for every non profit is to define its goal or goals in terms of the social benefits it seeks to create… Once the non profit has a clear handle on what it’s trying to do, then all of the other strategy principles apply. What ‘customer’ are you serving? What’s the unique value you will deliver: What needs will you meet? How is your value chain tailored to best serve those needs? Do you know what your organisation will not do?” I check my thinking against those questions almost daily.

2. You can’t do it all by yourself 
“Oh dear. You have made it to the top and somehow you thought you would be in charge once you got there…” Eve Poole writes in her brilliant book, ‘Leadersmithing’, “But when you are finally there, you know as you never really knew before that you can only deliver through others.” Poole writes with great humanity about the challenges of leadership, offering practical ways to improve how one leads, and understand oneself in relation to others.

3. Observe the behaviour of those better than you
Without wishing to come across as an incorrigible swot, I also read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, just in case I came across any Borgias. I found this sage advice instead: A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.” The job puts me in contact with the great and the good of British luxury every day – not least Walpole’s Chairman, Harrods’ Michael Ward – and I study them closely so I can learn by their example.

4. CEO stands for Chief Evangelist and Orator 
I had no idea how often I’d be required to get up in front of anything from 50 to 400 people and propound the importance of British luxury. To be an effective evangelist, you need to be compelling orator, and able to hold a room – passion, enthusiasm and knowing your stuff will get you only so far, you also need technique – stagecraft. An early session with Walpole member RADA in Business laid the foundations, and I invested in private lessons from acting coach Steve Watts for the rest. The role of CEO is not for shrinking violets, it seems.

5. It can be lonely, so use your network 
As Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ has it, “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown”. Sometimes the responsibility of leading an organisation can weigh heavily and you’ll be paralysed by self-doubt. Within one’s network there will be a mentor, or supporter, or sometimes just someone who’s been there and done that. I’ve learnt never to be afraid to ask for advice.

6. Focus 
You can’t please all the people all the time, much as one might want to, particularly in a membership organisation. It’s essential to prioritise the things that have the most impact for the most people, to do what’s right, rather than try to please. Part of year one has been to focus Walpole’s work on two strategic priorities: International Trade – how we help members do better business overseas, primarily in the US, luxury’s biggest market; and Luxury in the Making – the importance of craftsmanship, the value of ‘Made in Britain’, and the skills and jobs that power the engine room of British luxury.

7. Enjoy it 
The thing I feel most about my first year is how lucky I am to lead the organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and developing the luxury sector in the UK. British luxury represents the very best this country has to offer – extraordinary products and services produced by creative, entrepreneurial, highly skilled people – and it’s a huge privilege to work to put that centre stage.

helen.brocklebank@thewalpole.co.uk