Everyone Is Capable Of More Than They Think | A Q&A with Dr. Suzy Walton
Journalist, business leader and keynote speaker, Dr. Suzy Walton is an expert on making boards more strategic and improving HR within organisations with a focus on diversity- as well as juggling complex responsibilities and achieving success in the face of relentless barriers.
A former senior civil servant, including at the MoD, and a Chartered Director with an impressive portfolio of board roles, Suzy uses personal anecdotes and experiences to demonstrate how 'you don’t always have to have a plan to succeed'. She inspires others to believe that with the right motivation and courage, anything can be achieved - everyone is capable of more than they think.
We interviewed her to find out more about her background and just how she balances it all!
Can you briefly describe your background and your key speaking topics?
I’ve been many things. I started out life (by default, not design!) as an actress in the West End. I went on to television and radio before going to university for 2 degrees. I then joined the Ministry of Defence and worked my way up to be a Senior Civil Servant working in several parts of the centre of government including the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. One of my roles in government was to head up a programme called Strategic Futures which reported directly to the Prime Minister. This programme aimed to make Whitehall boards more strategic and to identify future strategic challenges facing the UK. I also acquired a third degree (PhD) during this phase of my career from classified research in the Ministry of Defence. Then I left government, became a Chartered Director (to add to Chartered Scientist) and for the last 10 plus years have enjoyed sitting on a dozen boards of large complex organisations operating both in the UK and globally.
I enjoy talking about my unusual career, which has spanned both the arts and the sciences, and about running different organisations. I also talk about how I have overcome barriers by dint of having 6 children and finding discrimination still lurking in some UK organisations!
You are an expert on corporate governance. What are the key skills and knowledge needed to run large and complex organisations?
A board director has to keep an organisation safe, solvent, strategic and compliant. These are tough legal duties and to be an effective board director you have to have knowledge and experience in many areas. You also need exceptional communication skills for it is a given that, if an organisation functions well, there are tensions between Executive and Non-Executive staff, and you have to negotiate your way through these tensions. You also need to be assertive because a board director will also usually chair a sub-committee of the board. Here you work with subject matter experts where you may be ‘lay’ in the subject. You have to command respect from people to be able to work with them at this level and get the best out of them, and this takes considerable fine-tuning of both diplomacy and pure functional skills.
Why is diversity a key element of success?
Where there is no diversity there is group think. This is a known fact stated in theoretical textbooks but it’s played out in boardrooms across the world. Boards make bad decisions unless their decision-making is challenged by people who have a different perspective. Diversity doesn’t just mean gender or race or disability, it can also be age, or many other factors. At the Institute of Directors, we have published a good governance index now for three years, and it shows, unequivocally, that better boards have diversity. That’s not important only at board level, of course, but at all levels of an organisation.
What key challenges are large organisations facing (now and in the foreseeable future) in light of the current climate, and how can they overcome them?
Brexit is the big issue for almost all organisations, but, unlike many challenges, in this case, you can’t scope the different scenarios accurately and then make your organisation resilient against them. Also, all organisations face continued challenges around corporate governance. The regulatory framework for companies (and charities) around the world becomes ever more onerous and duties on directors and trustees are demanding. Moreover, organisations of all types will always need to bring in and bring on talent and operate in an environment containing much risk (of the Brexit and other variants).
There is no indication that challenges for large organisations will diminish. Better organisations appreciate that the future is uncertain but are constantly scanning the horizon for indicators of the future. While those indicators will not be accurate, an organisation that can constantly test its ability to operate in different scenarios will be as resilient as it is possible to be in the future because they will be flexible enough to change when the environment around them changes. In other words, you can’t predict the future, but, in trying to get indicators of what it could be like, you can prepare staff and operations to respond rapidly when change does occur. What is key is a flexible organisational culture. You don’t know what it will need to flex to be, but the notion of change becomes built into the corporate mindset.
Are there particularly memorable moments during your career and what did it/they teach you?
On a board, we once spent a vast amount of money on contaminated land. This taught me to ask the questions - ask again and ask again. I also remember a member of a board being constantly absent, and we all worried for the person’s apparent continued ill health, before eventually realising they were absent due to a strong involvement in company fraud. This taught me the importance of getting personal assurance on important business issues and never to rely on second hand accounts.
My third, and perhaps most important, memory involves trying to work in challenging circumstances while a widow, with a premature baby (number 5 of the 6), and while under treatment at a cancer hospital. During these particularly stressful points in my life I learnt that you can’t always give 100%. Women in particular are challenged by many responsibilities, and it is simply impossible to do everything, everywhere, to the standards that others ask. I have learnt to do the best that I can but to the standards that I set. I redefine what is needed and then strive to deliver to that.
As a business leader, broadcaster, Chartered Director, Chartered Scientist, and a mother of six, you have a lot going on! How do you maintain a good work-life balance, and what tips can you share for somebody who finds juggling complex responsibilities difficult?
I have learnt how to manage. Firstly I never listen to my ‘no’ network. Everyone has a ‘no’ network. These are the people or groups around you that try to persuade you not to take on another challenge because of the hours, the children, the lack of a particular qualification, the location etc. I listen to my inner voice, and, once I am certain about what I want to do, I go for it. I also spend a lot of time on organisation of my time! I spend one morning every week organising the week ahead in great detail and the weeks beyond that in outline. I use
software which gives me a colour for each job and each child so I can easily ‘eyeball’ the schedule and see what is going on. If there is too much time devoted to one organisation or not enough time to a key commitment for the children, I adjust the schedule until the colour mix is right. I do, of course, prioritise my family life, but it is not possible to operate at board level without recognising that organisational life also requires considerable commitment. So I work very hard at giving my time to both the family and my jobs. As I say, it is usually possible through ruthless time management. And I still have time for ‘fun’ – I exercise a couple of times a week, my partner and I frequently go to the theatre and the cinema, and we are always together with the children at the weekend. It’s not easy to juggle, and short notice changes are hard to accommodate, but it is possible to have a very full life if you are prepared to organise it thoroughly and, on occasion, say no.
As a motivational speaker, how do you go about inspiring your audiences to feel like they can achieve anything?
People all have the capability in them to achieve amazing things; they just need their inner voice legitimised. Everyone has a head full of schemes and dreams but they’ve often not been encouraged to take the ideas forward. Belief in oneself is critical. But it’s more than that; I like to encourage people to take advantage of opportunities that present. I don’t believe it’s possible to have a blueprint for success and follow that plan. I think doors close all too frequently. The trick is when one avenue is closed off to see what other opportunities present and then snatch one and build on it.
You’ve had an incredibly diverse career – from West End actress and radio programme producer, to Senior Civil Servant and sitting on major boards. How has this variety been an advantage to you in your life/career so far?
The variety has been a tremendous advantage for me as I can think both through a scientific lens and a creative one. Thus I can search for data, interrogate it and form valid conclusions from it, but I can go beyond that and engage people in the sentiment of an idea. They used to say in Cabinet Office that I was the only person who could present data but also cry about it! It is also a huge gift to have psychology degrees because I understand human dynamics. So I can usually work well with people who come to an issue with different views and facilitate a solid discussion and an eventual collegiate decision. I don’t think I could do this if I didn’t have the theoretical knowledge about human performance, group dynamics etc. I honed many of my psychology skills while working in military intelligence. I’m not allowed to speak about that very much but I did some of my training with the US Air Force Special Operations School and used the techniques taught to me both in pursuit of optimising human performance for our Armed Forces but also in my everyday life.
I am also tremendously grateful that I had the opportunity to act at a young age. Public speaking is a huge fear for many people and holds them back. But by overcoming the fear when I faced large audiences as a young adult, I turned it into a pleasure. I realised that working ‘with’ an audience is key and that while you give to them, they give to you too. It is a symbiotic relationship, and, once you realise that, the fear of public speaking goes away.
What’s next for you?
Baby 7? A day off? A sleep in? Board of a FTSE 100? There are many possibilities.
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