Walpole Interview

10 Questions. 10 CEO's. Supporting the Next Generation of Leaders: An interview with Simon Cotton, CEO, Johnstons of Elgin

In this brand-new interview series, Diane Metcalfe, Leadership Coach, puts 10 questions to 10 CEOs - 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. We begin the series with the ever-inspiring Simon Cotton, CEO of fine cashmere brand Johnstons of Elgin, a brand that recently won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for its commitment to sustainability
9th Nov 2021
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Walpole Interview 10 Questions. 10 CEO's. Supporting the Next Generation of Leaders: An interview with Simon Cotton, CEO, Johnstons of Elgin
Discover the Walpole Luxury Leaders of Tomorrow programme at London Business School
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1.    Did you always want to be a CEO and what drove you?
I didn’t really imagine a CEO role until I was in my late 30’s. I then realised that I wasn’t really going to be happy until I had the chance to put my ideas on how to run things into practice.  

2.    How did you land your first CEO role?
I had picked up responsibility for a division within my company and then further development became impossible after we were acquired by a competitor.  I put myself on the job market and found a new role via a friendly head hunter.  

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?
It was very new having ultimate responsibility and a parent company in Switzerland.  I was really unsure of how to act and quickly decided that if I was going to do this I had to act very true to myself and not to try to “play” the role. I still have to remind myself of that today,  

4.    In what ways was the role different from what you expected?
When I went for the interview I was so excited to land a CEO role I didn’t ask about the situation of the company.  They had never made a profit.

5.    What were your greatest challenges early on?
When I started our production team was on strike. We were just heading into the 2007-2008 depression and market demand was about to half. I had to meet the management team offsite and my first email from head office was instructing me to immediately cut costs and headcount.  

6.    Did you have any internal challenges you had to overcome?
Due to the rapid turnaround we needed there was no time for doubts and we had good consensus around actions. It’s natural to doubt yourself in these situations but I always told myself that if I was going to get fired I’d rather get fired for making decisions I believe in, rather than the ones I thought the ownership wanted.  

7.    They say that it is lonely at the top. Is this something you experienced and how did you deal with it?
I joined an organisation called the Young Presidents Organisation. That gave me access to peer-to-peer mentoring from fellow CEOs, who were going through similar challenges. However you find your network of peers it’s really important to have people you can share with.  

8.    What qualities separate out CEOs from other C-Suite executives?
The skills are broadly similar but you must be prepared to put your own “trade” to one side. The biggest challenges come for CEOs who try to do their job and hold onto close control of the function they ran before.  

9.   What qualities does a CEO need to be successful specifically in the luxury sector?
The luxury sector adds a new level of challenges. You must inspire your team to always strive for the very highest standards and keep pushing higher. There is no space for luxury brands who are not the best in their field.  

10.    What advice would you give someone who either aspires to or is new in a CEO role?
Be yourself. Don’t try to play the part. Listen to the experts you have surrounded yourself with but be prepared to challenge them, while respecting their superior knowledge.  

Visit the British Luxury Silent Auction in aid of the NSPCC to bid on a Johnstons of Elgin cashmere Ombré Stole in Natural Multi. Worth £399, the incredibly soft, inherently temperature-regulating Cashmere fibres make this a pleasure to wear, season after season. 
Visit the Auction

johnstonsofelgin.com

With thanks to Diane Metcalfe 

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