Transcript - Helen Anne Alexander CBE, President, CBI

Nicholas O’regan, Professor of strategy and innovation talks to Helen Anne Alexander about the changing structure of firms.

Nicholas: Anne Alexander, Thank you for coming down to Bristol. The recession’s impact on all business, with many just managing to survive, what are the main challenges facing businesses in the next 3 to 5 years?

Anne: It’s a big question, I think there a number of huge challenges clearly, what we’ve found is that the world is not the same again as it was before the crisis. So I think there is going to be quite a lot to do in terms of actually getting finances sorted out for most businesses, creditors tighter and more its expensive, so that shift is going to happen.

We’re also seeing a much, much different world in terms of openness and communication from individual firms. Transparency, access from all their stakeholders and I think we’re also going to see a huge internationalisation we’ve got a lot of people, a lot of firms who already have big international markets and its going to be more important in the future.

Nicholas: Now many firms are changing, or will have to change. How can resistance to change be overcome?

Anne: I think it’s all about communication; we’ve got clarity of objectives as part of how business leaders communicate with their workforce and customers. Of course people, many people don’t like change, some do, a few do.

But actually making sure people understand the reason behind decisions, making sure that as I said clarity of objectives, is really, really clear and constantly keeping people in touch is the only way to do it. You or I in our daily jobs we don’t like being left uncertain. We like to know where we stand, that’s what it’s about.

Nicholas: There’s a great deal about effective leadership in the private sector now, what do you think the attributes of good leadership are?

Anne: I think certainly communication is part of it. I think the days of the, iconic CEO are changed if you like, perhaps not necessarily gone but changed. The whole idea of actually being able to talk to the workforce, talk to the staff, talk to customers and to be really clear what customers want is part of what a good leader is going to look like in the future.

Nicholas: There is some anti business sentiment, Is it a passing phase?

Anne: I think things have changed out of all recognition and actually what’s going to happen or already happened about reputation is not going to go away just because the world gets a little bit easier economically. I think businesses are going to concentrate on different things in the future because their staff and their customers are going to want different things and what that probably is going to look like is a much greater focus on customers and what is delivered to them rather than what shareholders want.

Nicholas: Concerns have often been raised about the small number of woman appointed to top management roles, How has your own career shaped your views on this?

Anne: Well clearly I think a greater diversity at the top is important. It’s important for good business reasons. We also know that diversity or what you might call cognitive diversity, different backgrounds different expertises, different sectors, and different experiences. Because if we were all from the same group and were giving a problem with the same kind of background we tend to get stuck at the same place don’t we?

If we have different backgrounds and different skills and different cultural heritage, we get stuck at different places, so we come out of problems more quickly. And I think that that’s the kind of merit I see in more diverse boardrooms and more diverse senior management teams. And it’s much, much cleaner and clearer for staff and again customers all important to understand companies are in tune with what they want.

Nicholas: How do you manage your relationships with the key stakeholders, within the CBI and government bodies?

Anne: Well the CBI is very interesting because it’s so family grounded in its membership and government bodies can listen to all sorts of think tanks and people can come up with new ideas because their clever and they spend their time thinking about policy.

What’s different about the CBI, is that it does have a real process for getting its members views and that process allows that check and balance to be in place because if the centre of the CBI comes up with an idea there are all the members have a chance to input into how its shaped. So that’s why the CBI get to listen too in a way frankly that is more deep, and long term than some of the other people making a noise in the marketplace.

Nicholas: The CBI’s membership organisations, How important is networking for business?

Anne: I think most people would say that in any organisation part of the benefit when you go to a conference, part of the benefit is that the other people you meet the ideas you get from them the contacts you make. But for the CBI, we are the voice of business; our main role is to actually represent what business wants and what the economy needs to government. So networking is important but the main benefit comes from the lobbying.

Nicholas: Now finally, what advice do you have for the MBA students as they enter the business world?

Anne: Gosh, I think most importantly it’s about trusting your own judgement. I think keeping an open mind about what you do. If your set on specific sector as a place to work, I think most of us find in the end that the range of opportunities is much greater than we thought possible. And allowing that chance to come into play is very important. But trusting your own judgement and your own gut is, there’s no replacement for it’s not what they teach in business schools but it matters.

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