London, April 30th, light rain and wind do not seem to bother the busy and energetic Mayfair vibe as I walk past the familiar Ritz hotel, heading to my 2pm meeting on the historical St. James street.
As I push open the heavy doors of her office building I am greeted by a polite and matter-of-factly “Hello. You must be here for Heather”. I get in the elevator and realize that no matter how many wonderful and famous people I have come across in my life, I still have an incredible admiration for women and men that have left a mark, on society and on my own life.
As a curious reader of her column in the Financial Times for many years, as a reader of her highly inspiring books and later as I prepared material for my work at the World Economic Forum this year, I could never stop admiring, being inspired and amused by her wit and wisdom.
Director of headhunters Taylor Bennett, author of the Financial Times' Mrs Moneypenny column (in which she refers to her children as cost centres one, two and three, this had me empathizing long before I had children myself!), executive Dean of Edinburgh Business School, champion of diversity in the workplace, CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to business, director of Non-Standard Finance PLC and IGT plc, and member of the Honours Committee for the Economy. Does this sum up Prof. Heather McGregor?
Her book ‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’ has helped women all over the world to conquer their career challenges with her wit and straight talking, and has been praised by Arianna Huffington as a wisdom-filled guide that “does the invaluable service of redefining success and happiness for everyone.”
She is described as an international business leader with many strings to her bow, an academic, author, TV presenter, philanthropist and financial journalist. Somehow she also has found time to qualify as a private pilot and do two seasons of stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe.
I found out years ago that the average life span is 4,000 weeks. Normally this statement announced to adults results in a collective gulp. The day I found out that our weeks are zipping by in a blur I decided I was going to shift gears and own the way I lived my life (that’s where the name of my 4 year old blog comes from, in case you are wondering) and leave behind highly uninspiring energy drainers, arrogance and people who love to hear themselves complaining. I have been on a mission since then to achieve the milestones and goals I had for long dreamt about, to surround myself with positive doers and givers. How did she do it I wonder?
“What you know represents the foundations of your career. But you won`t be able to build much above the first floor if you don’t have the right materials, and the most important material of all is connections – a network. The truth is, if you want to achieve your goals in life, you need to be both good at what you do and good at building relationships with people who matter.” (Extract from Careers Advice). Needless to say that part of the inspiration that led to one of my businesses, SmartPlan, comes from her advice.
And may I add, you will need your best emotional intelligence, strong soft skills and charisma to be able to connect and stay in regular contact with your network. “Developing a style that works for you and shows people the real “you” – personal chemistry counts for a lot”. “A good place to start is offering help to others when you don`t need anything yourself. What are the top two or three things that you want people to remember you for?” (Extract from Careers Advice)
Less than a year ago I was sitting in our garden on a weekend watching my kids playing while (re)reading two of her most famous books. Thinking of timelines, business plans and figures and getting inspired by who I consider one of the most successful leaders on self-brand and witty thought leadership.
Fast forward of 10 months, I have left my corporate role after 17 years, set up two running businesses, have opened many doors, and the one I am pushing open right now is the door of Heather`s London office.
As I enter our meeting room, Heather is finishing a business call, I sip my tea and write down a few early thoughts next to my meeting agenda, a few seconds later she wraps up her call and greets me with a welcoming smile and much interest. One great “secret” of the best leaders I know? Not only showing, but genuinely having interest in who sits in front of you.
We speak for 45 minutes, about her current projects and mission, of my businesses and past career, of combining motherhood with busy schedules, my years in London, her years writing for the FT, time management, learning to say no and third dimensions. We agree to this interview, and to a few more next steps, we speak some more about the importance of social capital, her current platform with BBC, and I even get her fresh perspective on social media channels.
Q. Heather, much has been written about you over the years and in many interviews. Today I would like to reveal a few angles of your professional life and the impact you have had. Shall we start with who is Heather McGregor today?
A. I am a full-time academic and head of the Business School at Heriot-Watt University.
Q. What is the best and worst decision you've ever made?
A. Best – to marry my husband as he is the most supportive husband you could ever find.
Worst – probably selling my house in London just before property prices really took off.
Q. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
A. I think there are 10 major barriers that stand in the way of a women’s career progression and I list all 10 in my book Careers Advice for Ambitious Women but to give you an example think about the dual language people use when talking about male and female leaders, when did you ever hear the word ‘strident’ used about a man?
Q. What woman inspires you and why?
A, I meet new women who inspire me every day, to give you an example I recently interviewed Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, who I found very inspiring and whose new book, the Virgin Bank is a must read . I feel equally inspired by the woman who leads my business in Asia, Sarah Crawshaws, who qualified as a helicopter pilot at the age of 21.
Q. You once said “do not let a year go by without a clear goal to pursue”. Only one?
A. I have one goal for personal development reasons, but I’m sure there’s lots of other goals you can set to do with work and family. But I think every woman should have one personal development goal they should set for themselves which if they achieve will add massively to their self-confidence.
Q. What’s a typical day like for you?
A. I travel a lot so no two days are the same. But if I’m in Edinburgh, my day normally starts with my husband bringing me a cup of tea at 6 o’clock in the morning, I drink this while looking out at the Marina and reading the morning papers. I then normally cycle along the Union Canal to my work at Heriot-Watt University where I try to see as many people as I possibly can in the hours given and then I cycle home. We are lucky to have lovely light in Scotland till late which allows me to cycle rather than take the car. Once home I have dinner with my husband and go to bed.
Q. If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
A. I would qualify as a chartered accountant; this is the one thing I regret in life.
Q. What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?
A. The power and brand of Adam Smith who lived from 1778 to when he died in 1790 in Panmure House, a building purchased and rejuvenated by Edinburgh Business School which is opening in the Autumn of this year.
Q. Any success habits you would like to share?
A. There are 168 hours in week make them count. This includes sleeping!
Q. How do you manage your energy?
A. I’ve learnt to say no. People ask me to do things all day long, and its not always pleasant but saying no is a necessary life skill.
Q. What drives you?
A. Wanting to make a difference.
Q. How would you describe the impact you have had on people and on the world?
A. I hope my legacy is the foundation (Taylor Bennet Foundation) I established in 2008 to develop black and minority ethnic graduates so they have a better opportunities in the job market.
Q. There is a large debate going on around the future of work, talent retention, women and millennials values. What do you think the future holds?
A. We are going to live longer and we are all going to have multiple employers. I think everyone should plan for this and visit the www.100yearlife.com
Q. A few final words of wisdom for our career-oriented, professionals and entrepreneurs alike, women and men?
A. There is no such sentence as I can’t do it; the correct sentence is, I can’t do it alone.
Thank you Heather!