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Interview with Ruby McGregor-Smith
An insight into the complementary benefit of a non-exec post to a high profile executive career.
Ruby McGregor-Smith qualified as a chartered accountant with BDO Stoy Hayward and then held a series of gradually more senior positions in the support services sector, primarily at Serco Plc. Ruby joined MITIE as group finance director in 2004 and subsequently became chief operating officer before being promoted to chief executive in March 2007. Ruby was appointed to the board of Michael Page International plc as an independent non-executive director on 23 May 2007 and is also now chair of Michael Page’s audit committee and a member of the remuneration and nomination committees. Having led MITIE through its growth from a £500m business in 2007, to the £2bn FTSE 250 powerhouse it is today, whilst also providing her expertise to Michael Page, Ruby offers a clear insight into the role of an NED and how this complementary experience can benefit someone in their executive career.
Why did you take on the NED role at Michael Page?
I had just been promoted to CEO of MITIE and had experienced the contribution of NEDs from the management side but wanted to experience it from the NED side. I felt this would help me be a better leader and MITIE were very supportive. I liked Michael Page because it is a people business and this is my passion.
...I do not think anyone would get the best out of me unless I was happy.
How has it worked?
I like the fact Michael Page has a global presence and that its people make up its value. This appeals to me and dovetails nicely with MITIE, which is also a people based business. In practice the role has been different to what I expected, with some incredible challenges over the last five years. It’s been an interesting experience to support a service business through a downturn and help prepare it for the subsequent upturn. As a CEO you are responsible and in control, but I have really enjoyed the advisory role a good NED plays. The business models of Michael Page and MITIE are both people-centric but MITIE has a much longer term visibility of revenue which has meant it has been more stable through the recession. Contributing to the management challenges of a really good business like Michael Page going through harsh economic cycles has been a really rewarding experience.
What do you see as the role of a good NED?
Supporting and advising the CEO and their management team, whilst maintaining an independent viewpoint. I am not one to hold back and this robust style has been effective while working with the Michael Page board. There is also an evolution as you get to understand the business drivers so you become more effective with time.
The role is increasingly heavy with regulatory and compliance requirements and there is a danger that this distracts from the core requirement of business focus and adding value. You also need to look at where you can add the most worth from your own skills, and I have become heavily involved in the Women in Page initiative due to my passion for developing the best and most diverse talent pool possible within an organisation.
What are your plans with regard to NED positions in the future?
I don’t see myself having a portfolio non-exec career and one additional role is more than enough along with my role at MITIE.
What do you think is the most robust way of selecting an NED board member?
The first priority is to select someone who is a great cultural fit for the business. My belief is that you should look for someone with good sector alignment as this makes it easier for that person to get passionate about the business and also have the ability to deliver quickly. I am not a big believer in selecting someone from a completely unrelated environment. When you are supporting the board you need to be able to understand the business drivers in order to add strategic value. It is highly likely that the right person will need to be found within a broader network that goes beyond the reach of those immediately known to the business. From an independence point of view it is also paramount that they demonstrably do not come from the ‘known network’. Above all you need to be able to get on with people, understand what motivates and challenges them, to then support the development of a coherent strategy that enables achievement of personal goals at all organisational levels.
What advice would you give anyone looking to embark on a non-exec career?
Analyse your own strengths and look for businesses that align with these strengths where you can provide insight and leadership quickly.
What’s your greatest career lesson?
When I look back to what has made me successful in my industry, I would say I have been very driven, very hard working and really do not do failure. To me, everything will work and I have a very positive attitude, even when things do go wrong I have learnt to move on quickly and just accept that it is not worth dwelling on things too deeply. I also know that to be the best in your role means having the best team around you and I have always recruited people who I think have complementary skills to me, and who I think are better. I also have to be happy with what I do every day – I do not think anyone would get the best out of me unless I was happy.
How do you unwind?
I enjoy gardening and I’ve also started doing 5km runs when I can. But most of my free time is spent with my family – I have two teenage children – which keeps me very busy.
What’s an interesting fact about you?
I was painfully shy when I was a child so I’ve had to change a lot to be able to run a FTSE 250 company, but it certainly wasn’t easy. When I had my first ever media interview after being appointed CEO, I was terrified.