This series spotlights senior Walpole members, many of whom are mentors or speakers on the Walpole Luxury Leaders of Tomorrow programme at London Business School - to discover their journey to getting and succeeding in the role, and any advice they have for the next generation. Interview by Diane Metcalfe, Leadership Coach.
1. Did you always want to be a CEO and what drove you?
Not at all. While it is good to have both goals and ambition – mine has always been to be the best I can be, rather than a specific job or role. Doors open up as you go through your career and if you are too narrow in your goals you might miss some fabulous opportunities.
2. How did you land your first CEO role?
I was an Investment Director for a private equity firm, working in their Hong Kong office, across Asia. A Non-Exec of a portfolio company I was also a Non-Executive on was invested in a business that needed strategic direction and wanted to grow into China. He approached me about the CEO role - and it went from there!
3. What did you do to prepare yourself for the role and, in retrospect, what else should or could you have done to prepare better?
Having backed numerous CEOs during my career in private equity I met with each of them for advice. I read a LOT of leadership books and engaged with a leadership mentor. I researched and diligenced the company – writing a 100-day plan.
I am not sure what I would have done to prepare better – but I think it’s fair to say you can never be truly prepared until you are living and breathing the business and brand.
4. In what way was the role different from what you expected?
The speed at which you can make change is always slower in reality than in your plan! No matter how much you have prepared in advance there will be areas of the business that will not be as you expected and will require you to adapt your strategy
5. What were your greatest challenges early on?
My background is business – it is what I love and where my passion lies - understanding how a business works and how it can be improved and optimised. Bringing change as an ‘industry outsider’ will always bring with it challenges. It is essential to gain trust but to also not shy away from making the tough decisions.
6. Did you have any internal challenges you had to overcome?
Every new role should bring a certain level of anxiety/nerves – over confidence can be worse than a lack of confidence. However, too much imposter syndrome will debilitate you from succeeding in your job. Whether it’s your first rodeo or whether you are a seasoned CEO, every new role brings new elements you need to learn and new challenges you need to embrace – that’s what makes it interesting. Embrace the challenge, knowing that the many years of experience that got you the job will ensure you rise to the challenge successfully.
7. They say that it is lonely at the top. Is this something you experience/d and how did/do you deal with it?
It can be lonely, but if you surround yourself with a strong internal leadership team who you trust, as well as external mentors, you will always have people you can bounce ideas and strategies around with – as well as vent the odd frustration with! The strongest leaders are those that surround themselves with the very best people they can find.
8. What qualities separate out CEOs from other C-Suite executives?
A CEO needs to be able to look across the whole business and use the information available to make decisions that work for the overall business – with a greater consideration for the longer-term impact not just the shorter term. Often you won’t have the luxury of the in-depth knowledge others may have in their specific business areas, so you need to have the confidence and experience to make informed judgement calls. You also need to be able to motivate and communicate across the whole organization, which requires adapting your leadership style as necessary to get the best out of everyone.
9. What qualities does a CEO need to be successful specifically in the luxury sector?
The majority of the qualities are the same regardless of sector, for example:
- Calm under pressure, confidence to make necessary decisions with speed and conviction – no decision can often be worse than a wrong decision, but you should also know when it is better to delay or not make a decision!
- Have the confidence and agility to adapt those decisions if they prove to be the wrong ones.
- Motivate, lead, and win over stakeholders and colleagues by instilling confidence that you will lead the business to success rather than by trying to be likeable – you need the confidence to make unpopular decisions at times
With regards the luxury sector – you will have a luxury brand to nurture and protect. As the CEO you are the custodian and ambassador of that brand, but you are also responsible for the business. A brand won’t survive without a business and nor will the business grow without the brand. This may sound obvious but constantly adapting and growing both in harmony with each other is in fact often a fine balance to achieve and can at times be conflicting.
10. What advice would you give someone who either aspires to or is new in a CEO role?
Surround yourself with mentors – formal and informal – who can help you build the skills needed. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – they are rarely ‘undoable’, and you often learn more from them as you do your successes.