Becoming the First Female Controller of BBC One | A Q&A with Lorraine Heggessey

25 May 2018

The first female Controller of BBC One, Lorraine Heggessey can be credited with changing the look and feel of the network. From launching Spooks and Strictly to reinventing Doctor Who, Lorraine took risks, managed talent and delivered change to make the channel more popular than ever.

Now an Advisor to Channel 4 Growth Fund, a Creative Consultant and an Angel Investor, Lorraine continues to influence the world of arts and culture with the combination of her creative and commercial outlook. We interviewed her to find out more!

Hi Lorraine - can you introduce yourself?

I'm currently the Chief Executive of The Royal Foundation of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, and (soon-to-be) Meghan Markle, which is their main charity. I was the first woman to run BBC One, and I also set up my own business backed by private equity.

How would you describe your legacy at BBC One?

I'm glad to say that some of my legacy is still on the air! I was the person who commissioned Strictly Come Dancing, who brought back Doctor Who, who moved the news from to 9pm to 10pm. So it's great to see some of those still going.

What key challenges, or memorable moments, did you face during your time working in television?

I don't think I ever specifically saw things as challenges. I just tended to do a job that I wanted to do, and that I enjoyed doing, and get on with doing it! I wasn't that fussed about whether or not I was getting up on the next rung on the ladder and progressing my career. I was always more concerned with short-term satisfaction than long-term gain. But over the years as I zig-zagged my way across the television industry, I gradually gathered more and more experience, and then when I finally came to fun BBC One, it all sort of made sense backwards!

What was the experience of becoming the first female Controller of BBC One like?

It's always difficult to know as a woman doing a job how a man would do a job. The answer is that you don't know exactly what 'the men did differently' but especially as the first woman doing a particular job, you kind of do have to make it up as you go along as there isn't a role model for you.

"Being yourself and moulding the role into your own image is very important."

When I first joined the world of television, there were some women who were senior producers, but it's almost as if they felt they had to out-do the men in being 'male'. However, over the years, I've seen changes and that women can now be women and be celebrated for that and what they bring to the table.

It's quite a complex thing diversity. What you really want is diversity in its broadest sense, not just gender, but class, geographic, and obviously ethnic as well. Part of it is also allowing people to have their own voice. As I've progressed throughout my own career, I've had more courage to be my self. I've realised that being myself is good enough; that my opinion is just as valid as anybody else's; and that my way of doing it is just as good.

You talk about leadership and authenticity. What defines an effective leader?

I think a lot of people rise up through the ranks through their functional skills and whatever their specialism was, and then don't necessarily realise that you then need to take learning leadership skills just as seriously as you took learning your profession, whether you're an accountant or a lawyer. You then need to start thinking about what it is about you that will make you a good leader, what are the aspects or abilities that you need to work on, and how will you motivate people to do their best and create an environment where people actually want to work - because that's what it's really about! In my experience, a lot of people don't take it seriously enough. They seem to think that leadership is just something that you just do. But like anything else in your career, you do need to work hard at it and take it seriously, and learn how to be a good leader.

What advice would you give to organisations hoping to retain their talent?

Obviously, in my career, I've managed a lot of talent, and I think, regardless of what role you're in, your job is about managing talent. You might not be working with A-List stars like I have, but if you work in a hospital, for example, then you've probably got consultants. There are always people in your organisation who are the big stars, and you also need know how to manage everyone else! You want to keep the whole team motivated. That's a really important part of anybody's life.

What are your plans for The Royal Foundation?

My current challenge is taking the Royal Foundation to the next level. When I arrived, it was pretty much running like a start-up, and I've had to professionalise it and move all my skills into a completely different arena. I think one thing that has characterised my career is that I've always been willing to push myself outside my comfort zone. I carry on until I've just about got my head of the water, and then push myself further so that I'm out of my comfort zone again! Even now, after a long career in television, where I've repeatedly done new and different things, I'm now doing something new and running a charity.

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