CEO Conversation with Carolyn McCall

What makes a successful CEO

Those of us who got our bookings in early, were privileged to hear a truly outstanding live interview, conducted by our Chairman Craig Inglis with Carolyn McCall. Carolyn is CEO of ITV Television but is probably best known for her seven year tenure as CEO of low cost airline, Easyjet.

We heard several trenchant observations on what makes a successful CEO – and for me, one real nugget of insight (we’ll come to that last).

The key observations:

  • To get to the top – you need to broaden your horizons beyond your own discipline and responsibility. Carolyn’s long-time mentor, Mervyn Davies of Standard Chartered Bank, told her to stop going to so many marketing dinners and go to more business dinners. At the Society, we have heard several CEO’s say similar things: Marketing is a great learning ground for future CEO’s, but is not enough on its own.
  • And don’t stop doing this, when you do get to be CEO! Carolyn’s first action as CEO was to get on a flight to Milan – and on through other Easyjet destinations – to talk to the people who ran the business day-to-day: the pilots, the crew, the ground ops teams. These are the people who really know what goes wrong in a customer-facing company – and how to fix it.
  • This observation applies not only to marketing. A marketer who wants to be CEO, has to understand finance. But equally, a good CFO will only be a great CEO, if they can also ‘think commercially’ and have strong people skills.
  • Running a team is not about command and control. As she put it, 'The CEO does not need to be always right.' Teams work well when all the members respect each other, are unafraid to voice opinions, or to disagree, or to make mistakes, because the culture is supportive and not intimidating. That said, she also observed, 'often the biggest mistake a CEO makes is not to remove someone from a role which they are clearly not right for.'
  • CEO’s of publicly quoted companies have a special challenge. They will only succeed, if they establish a long term strategy for the company and its brand(s) and stick to it. Short term fixes are not the answer. But at the same time, they have to deal with quarterly financial reporting and aggressive questioning by stock market analysts, who aren’t impressed by long term strategies. We have all seen how it is: everyone wants results now. Business success is no longer about growth, but the velocity of growth. Two bad quarters and a CEO can be forced out. Carolyn’s take: keep the faith, take the pain and stay close to your people. As she told us, her turnaround of Easyjet’s fortunes showed few measurable results for a year and a half – but the teams on the ground knew things were improving and when the business results came, they were strong and lasting.

And the nugget of insight? Well, of course, Craig had to ask Carolyn, how she got the Easyjet job – moving from a very different environment at Guardian Media Group. 

Turns out Carolyn was the only one of the shortlisted candidates who asked to see the Head of Operations, as part of her interview process. And it was from him, she learned that Easyjet’s biggest challenge was not finance or engineering – but people, culture and perception. Staff morale, attitudes and behaviour - and the image of the brand. Which as a marketer, were very much her area of expertise. As she put it, “think about whether the company’s most critical challenges, are what you are best equipped to answer.” If not, don’t take the job. 

Even as a CEO, career success and happiness are more about who you choose, than about who chooses you.

By Julian Boulding, President of thenetworkone and Honorary Treasurer of the Marketing Society
[email protected] 




Enjoy this? Get more.

Our monthly newsletter, The Edit, curates the very best of our latest content including articles, podcasts, video.

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Become a member

Not a member yet?

Now it's time for you and your team to get involved. Get access to world-class events, exclusive publications, professional development, partner discounts and the chance to grow your network.