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Terry A'Hearn

  • Programme: Senior Executive Programme
  • Nationality: Australian
  • Job Post-programme: CEO, Scotland Environment Protection Agency

The environment: getting down to business

“If we don’t have clean water,” says Terry A’Hearn, “we’ll all die within a week. That’s how dependent we are on the environment.” The importance of our planet’s resources is A’Hearn’s main driver in his role as CEO of the Scotland Environment Agency: “I like doing things that make a difference,” he says, “and unless I can help people get much smarter about how we use the environment, our future will suffer.”

Scotland Environment Protection Agency’s (SEPA) main task is regulating big business: making sure companies comply with government directives and, in the 21st century, go even further. That could be anything from ensuring organisations use certain products to get them to change their supply chains. According to A’Hearn, that challenge has global ramifications. “If we can get into those businesses and help them make the changes we need, we make a huge difference to the future of our environment. The success of our economies and societies depends on it.”

Different interests, one goal: uniting teams

A’Hearn says he was drawn to the Senior Executive Programme (SEP) at London Business School (LBS) because he’s “always been motivated by world-class excellence, and what LBS teaches you is how to be world-class.” After 25 years of government experience in his native Australia and two years in consulting in London, he won his first CEO role at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, partly, he says, on the basis of his experience on the SEP.

“The SEP teaches you how to understand an organisation and the market you operate in, but also it teaches you situational skills. LBS gave me the capacity to understand the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland. It gave me skills in bringing different interests together to find common ground, which is very important for a community coming out of serious conflict.”

The skills A’Hearn gained on the SEP helped him align the agency’s disparate parts. “In Northern Ireland there were six divisions of the Environment Agency, so it was siloed. My SEP knowledge helped me bring those executives together and form a solid team.”

Learning from the best

It’s knowledge that A’Hearn took with him to his present role as CEO of SEPA. “Northern Ireland and Scotland are hugely different places,” he says, “but I apply the same principles to both jobs. There’s no recipe for leadership. There’s no recipe for strategy. But SEP has equipped me with the right way to think. ”

"In Scotland I’m inheriting one of the best environment agencies in the world so my challenge there is to make sure that they’re doing what they’re set up to do – in business terms, what the market needs. In the 20th century that was controlling factory pollution. But right now it’s stopping the overuse of resources. So I’ve got to take all of my organisation’s strengths and build a new approach for tomorrow’s job. As CEO, I have to galvanize everyone and enable them to contribute to society.”

After reading LBS Professor Emeritus Rob Goffee’s book ‘Why should anyone work here?’ three times, A’Hearn decided to give the chapter on bureaucracy to his “process people” at work. “Old organisations tend to build up extra processes,” he says, “and when I started the role in Scotland I said that I wanted to slash process by about 80%. Great organisations have a small amount of process that staff love because it gives them independence and autonomy.” What did his staff think of it? “Some are excited, and some say, ‘Who put this lunatic in charge’. But then I applied the other skills that the book talks about – on how to present the changes you want – and I got the key people over the line.”

Right now, A’Hearn says he has all the raw materials he needs to make SEPA a world-class organisation. “If I can’t”, he says, “I’m not using what I learned at LBS correctly. I’ve got a great platform, a really good organisation, and the government is very strong on this agenda. I’ve also got a great board.”

He credits the SEP for the clear view he has on what excellence and brilliance is, and says that now in Scotland the opportunity is there to make it happen. “I have the benchmark in my mind,” he says. “I want to create something that’s good enough to show the professors on SEP – Costas Markides or Rob Goffee – and say, ‘Have a look at this, here’s an example of an organisation that’s doing amazing things’.”