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With hindsight: Dear Rowena…

The Chair of Women on Boards UK, Rowena Ironside, looks back on her career to pen an inspiring letter of business advice to her younger self.

Reflecting on my career, it is clear that it has been very eclectic, but there
are themes to the success across organisations and sectors which underpin the advice I can give to you.

The one principle that stands out across every role is that the key to a successful organisation is the people. Even when you are operating on the bleeding edge of technology, the most critical and difficult thing to get right is the human beings you are working with.

So always start from the principle that everyone comes to work wanting to do a good job and needing a sense of achievement and inclusion; and know that, if you can tap into that effectively, you will have created a solid platform for success.

Everyone also has the potential to be a superstar in the right role, so when you become the boss, remember that you are ultimately responsible if someone is failing, because either directly or indirectly you put them in that job. Above all, don’t delegate talent decisions to the HR department; put them front and centre of your strategy and own them personally.

The one principle that stands out across every role is that the key to a successful organisation is the people.

My next piece of advice is linked to the first, and why the people stuff can be so hard to get right. It has taken me nearly 60 years to fully comprehend that what you say to someone is never the same as what they hear, and that everyone’s version of ‘reality’ is different, shaped strongly by their individual life experience.

So remember never to assume a common understanding of what has been said and be prepared to acknowledge the validity of everyone’s perspective. Most importantly, when delegating, trust but verify.

My final advice relates to the importance of knowing your customer. Whether you find yourself in a commercial business or a not-or-profit, start with the problem the organisation is solving for whoever is paying the bill.

It’s easy to make assumptions about what the customer is buying from you and why they come back, but unless you have solicited a broad range of perspectives on this, including your customers, you will probably be only partly right (check out Clayton Christensen on the theory of ‘jobs-to-be-done’).

Delighting the customer is not a new idea, but it is one I have found to be a winner. And as competition gets stronger in a global world, remember that exceeding expectations is one of the best guarantees of customer loyalty and
a sustainable economic model.



  1. D

    This is a great article and is a reminder of some of the simple, but key lessons that we tend to lose sight of in our day to day. I am not yet a member, but this has helped me to decide that this is a network that I will benefit from being part of.

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