2015 leaders fairbairn 883x432 1

Carolyn Fairbairn, non-executive director of the Competition and Markets Authority, Lloyds Banking Group, the Vitec Group, Capita, the UK Statistics Authority and a Trustee of Marie Curie Cancer Care

27 August 2015

The article at a glance

From Downing Street to the Lloyds Banking Group, via the BBC, ITV and McKinsey to name a few, Carolyn Fairbairn knows that …

From Downing Street to the Lloyds Banking Group, via the BBC, ITV and McKinsey to name a few, Carolyn Fairbairn knows that there’s no “one size fits all” approach to leadership.

Lots of multicolored men silhouettes made with paper for crowd concept

Carolyn Fairbairn
Carolyn Fairbairn

People lead in different ways. There’s no one method that will work for everyone. To be a good leader, I think you have to work out what you’re really good at, take that core of what you know and build your leadership style around it. Confidence is key, but my own leadership style was an evolution. My skills developed over time.

I’ve always been encouraged to push myself harder. My father was an eminent business leader who taught me a lot, but my grandfather was one of my greatest inspirations – he grew up in London’s East End and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, winning scholarships to grammar school and then Cambridge. He was always encouraging me to think differently. I was academic but quiet, whereas he was an extrovert who would constantly say: “Come on, you’ve got to have an opinion on this.” He made me feel like I was a leader.

Thinking differently has become the hallmark of my career. I was the first female economics student at Caius and maybe because of that, the then Director of Studies Dr Iain Macpherson – who had also taught my father – took me under his wing. He inspired me with a combination of challenge and praise. Some education is pedestrian but Dr Macpherson inspired me to think originally, asking me: “What’s the original thought here?” And once you start to consider the world in that different way, the habit never leaves you.

As a leader, you’re always being watched. When I was at the BBC, I got a brilliant piece of 360-degree feedback. One of my team said: “Some mornings Carolyn walks to the left of the photocopier and comes and says good morning to us, and chats. Other mornings she walks to the right of the photocopier, straight past us, and we’re left wondering what we’ve done wrong.” That was a huge turning point for me – it made me realise that as a leader, every little thing you do has an impact on your team, and that everything you do is being watched. I never walked on the right side of the photocopier again!

I have had some inspirational mentors. Greg Dyke at the BBC was an extraordinary presence who influenced me hugely. I was a good technocrat, diplomatic, cautious and just beginning to take on some significant leadership roles. He was very open and honest about the things he didn’t do so well and taught me to be the same – he pushed me really hard on my people skills. Michael Grade, too, whom I worked with at the BBC and ITV, was a great inspiration because he had such an upbeat approach to everything. When he has faced difficult periods in his life he has always had such resilience, such charm – that’s an incredible quality to aspire to.

I like to think I am a collaborative leader, open with myself and my teams. I think leading with conviction helps people deliver their best. I believe I bring clarity, direction, vision and energy, particularly in complex organisations such as the BBC with its commercial and public service remits. One of my greatest challenges came at the BBC amid the Hutton inquiry that led to resignation of (director general) Greg Dyke and (chairman) Gavyn Davies, right in the middle of the BBC charter review. Amid all this confusion I was asked to lead the charter submission – when no one was even sure what the process was or what the Corporation was trying to say. I gathered a team of 50 people and when we clarified exactly what was needed, you could feel everyone saying: “Phew!” We were then able to produce a document clearly reflecting the BBC’s purpose.

I have no time for leaders who publicly humiliate their staff. Giving someone a dressing-down in front of their peers has such a negative effect on everyone. I’m certainly capable of saying: “That work isn’t very good”, but you don’t tell someone: “You’ve really screwed up.” That’s personal, induces fear and has no place in my leadership style.

Above all, remember the people in your team are almost always trying their best. It’s a view I have come to sincerely subscribe to. If you recognise that your staff are really trying to do the best job they can, you will be a positive leader.

Carolyn Fairbairn is a member of Cambridge Judge Business School’s Advisory Board, and will take up her post as Director General of the CBI in November.

Carolyn was the Cambridge Executive MBA after-dinner speaker at Gonville & Cauis College on Friday 10 April 2015. Learn more about the Cambridge Executive MBA


Cambridge Judge Business School Advisory Board Carolyn Fairbairn Executive MBA leadership