Courage is today's most valuable asset, says Ruby McGregor-Smith

8th July, 2013 by Anna Simpson

The Chief Executive of MITIE tells Anna Simpson why managers should venture beyond their comfort zone.

Over the last 10 years, Ruby McGregor-Smith has amassed 15 awards recognising her influence as a role model, high achiever and pioneer. Most recently, she received a CBE – the UK’s highest royal accolade – for her contribution to business and the wide impact of her work. I can’t imagine there’s a cabinet to display the trophies, though: for her, impact is the goal, and self-importance the hurdle. On her first day as Chief Executive of the outsourcing services company MITIE, McGregor-Smith took down the glass divides that offered her not just an office but the traditional trappings of leadership – status, exclusivity, distance.

There’s a danger when you think you’re big

“Let’s not start pretending we’ve done well. We’re only as good as tomorrow”, she warns. This isn’t modesty speaking. It’s ambition. MITIE, McGregor-Smith insists, is a small business: “There’s a danger when you think you’re big: you stop growing.” Her words apply as much to personal development as they do to the growth of business, and it’s a distinction she is happy to blur. For her, businesses only grow through people – which explains her passion for outsourcing: “Bringing in expertise to support your business strategy is very important.”    

What McGregor-Smith aims to establish at MITIE, and advocates in other organisations, is a culture of openness: one which welcomes in fresh thinking and challenges each individual to venture beyond their comfort zone. She sees this as the only way for businesses to win in a slow-growth economy and a resource-constrained world: innovation is the way forward, and fear its nemesis. She remembers her own terror at the prospect of public speaking.

 “When I first trained as an accountant we were filmed presenting and I had to stop half way through and sit down – I couldn’t do it. But you learn. I just made myself do more and more”, she says. It’s not defiance for the sake of it, she insists. “As terrified as you may be, you’ll come out a different person.  And then at least you know you can change something”, she explains.

She’s serious about the need for business leaders to get over their fears. As Chair of the Women’s Business Council, a member of the Presidents Board for the Confederation of British Industry, and a Member of the Board of Trustee Directors for Business in the Community, McGregor-Smith is more aware than some of the opportunities missed through lack of courage. “Senior managers need to be capable of change all the time”, she argues. “We’re all too tick-box.”

One of her bugbears is recruitment. Success depends on getting the right talent in the pipeline, McGregor insists but, again, fear often gets in the way: “You need to find fantastic talent. You might not like what you get: everyone in the world has a bias when they recruit people.”

She has herself taken diversity training to become more aware of any bias, and would advise every recruiter to do the same.

“It would be wrong for MITIE to have 72,000 employees in my image. You have to ask, do you look for the broadest experiences? Do you look for talent that is actually better than you are? The best management teams are those that have the best experience, collectively – not all wrapped up in a top dog. Businesses will get better when they crack that.”

But lack of diversity in the boardroom can’t just be blamed on selection processes: many bright young minds don’t get that far, held back through a combination of poor careers advice and low self-esteem. It’s one of the things she is most keen to see young people overcome:  

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell a group of 15-year-olds in school that they needn’t worry about half the things on their minds? If you could only convince them that it’s alright to be a bit different! Most of them just follow what they think is expected of them, instead of putting their efforts into something they have a passion for. I think quite often people don’t realise how much that energy can drive others.”

To prove her point, she tells me that she would never have been made a partner at the accountancy firm where she trained. “They weren’t particularly excited by me, and I wasn’t excited by the work.” It’s hard to believe, but a helpful reminder that a great attitude to work isn’t just something people are born with: it comes with a conviction that what you’re doing is worth it.

“If you could get kids to focus on what they love, we’d be in a better place. It’s about raising aspirations.”

I ask her whether young people know what they want to do: are they asking themselves this sort of question?

“No”, she replies, bemoaning the absence of a joined-up careers service, that would bring together businesses, colleges and universities together to tell 14-16-year-olds what the opportunities are, and help them find their path. That said, nurturing talent in a business isn’t just about letting more youngsters get a foot in the door, McGregor-Smith insists. We must also learn to listen to them:

“You need them to come in without a care in the world and ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing. And you need to promote them to very senior levels very quickly. Hierarchy will hold you back.”

This shift towards a culture which values diverse insights and collective wisdom, over the monopoly of a few leading figures, is mirrored across our increasingly connected world, from social media to decentralised energy. Embracing it, McGregor-Smith says, is “a huge opportunity”, and one that depends on human capital.

Take the cost savings businesses could enjoy by generating their own power supply. “If the people at the heart of your company know how your buildings and facilities work and understand it, then you can see what decentralised energy would do for you.”

And the same goes for energy-saving solutions, she adds. “Energy is quite misunderstood: few managers know what they spend on energy and what’s driving the cost up. Think about what power you use in each room, throughout the day. Do you realise how much you spend just by switching the kettle on? You might change your behaviour just because you know the consequences.”

I ask for an example, and she gives the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which examined its energy use and how it correlated to peak tariffs, and actually changed its rehearsal times as a result. It all comes down to awareness, she insists:

“I think the Government should launch a big campaign on it. It’s not on top of the agenda for many industries, but it needs to be. We need the sort of high-profile campaign for energy-saving that you see for health issues.”

An interesting proposition, and no idle comparison. Awareness of the correlation between energy supply and public health is growing. It becomes obvious when you’re suffering from a chill in a poorly insulated house, or struggling to breathe in an urban pollution hot-spot. Of course, the less an economy has to spend on energy, the more it can spend on improving health. Take the UK’s National Health Service.

“A lot of its structures are old, in many cases Victorian. To upgrade it is expensive, but the savings could be put back into health services”, says McGregor-Smith. “That means more doctors and nurses, shorter waiting lists for operations, better care.”

It’s something the NHS is addressing, with a new energy innovation centre for Cambridge University Hospitals with £36 million funding from Aviva and the UK Green Investment Bank. The centre, which will house a combined heat and power unit, biomass boiler and efficient dual fuel boilers, and recover heat from medical incineration, is expected to save the NHS £20 million in energy costs and 25,000 tonnes of CO2 over the 25-year contract term. It will be developed and operated by MITIE.

I congratulate McGregor-Smith on winning the bid, but there’s no self-satisfaction in her response: her eye is already on the next project, and the obstacles in her path. Let’s not start pretending we’ve done well…

“That took us 18 months, once we’d been identified as the preferred bidder. It’s taken too long to happen. We can only do one: I would love to do 10 of them, but not at this cost.”

She wants to see decisions made more rapidly by more people in more places. That means deregulation: the courage to let go of the reins.

“There should be hundreds of Green Bank projects across the UK. If you gave people the data showing why we need to do these things, they would happen as a matter of course.”

Anna Simpson is Editor, Green Futures.

Photos: MITIE GROUP PLC

Featured in

Advertise block

We've been a subscriber to Green Futures for as long as I can remember, and we always value the breadth of stories profiled and the positive tone provided.

Matt Crossman, Ethical Research & Corporate Management, Rathbone Greenbank Investments