Changing Direction

Dame Amelia Fawcett talked with Stuart Crainer about her life journey and what she believes the future holds for her.

One person can make a difference. Dame Amelia Fawcett talked with Stuart Crainer about her life journey and what she believes the future holds for her.


Few people decide to change the direction of their lives as completely as Dame Amelia Fawcett has. After helping to build the European office of an American investment bank into an international powerhouse, she took a midlife break that was an adventure in itself which helped her decide on a new career path. Fawcett talked with Stuart Crainer about her life journey and what she believes the future holds for her.

You really began to make a mark at Morgan Stanley International.

Yes, I was at Morgan Stanley International in Europe at a very special time. In 1986, the company employed about 450 people. Its operations were limited to London, and it was earning about a couple of hundred million dollars of revenues a year; it was a bit like a start-up — while it was well-established in Eurobonds, many of its other businesses were in their infancy in Europe. It allowed me to become a very senior person at a pretty young age in an industry that didn’t have many women. We grew because a group of us decided in the mid-1990s that, with more focus and more resources (and a very rigorous strategy combined with ruthless execution), we could turn the business into a major European business — not an American business in Europe, but a European business.

Is that what you did?

We changed the strategy a bit here and there over the next 10 years, but basically we just delivered on the goals we set out for ourselves. When I left in 2006, the $200 million in revenues earned in 1987 had grown to about $9 billion; and the company had some 15 offices in 14 countries. From a company that was virtually unknown in the UK when I joined it (hard to distinguish between Morgan Grenfell, Morgan Guaranty and Morgan Stanley), by the time I left, many more people knew who Morgan Stanley International was, including its leadership role in working with communities in the East End of London. It also was one of the most profitable and fastest growing businesses. My time there was a great education and a unique opportunity.

Setting sail

The thing many people remember you for is your sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in 17 days to raise funds to fight breast cancer. Why did you choose to fundraise in that way?

It was a confluence of a number of things. I was on the Generations Appeal Board of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and we were talking about the usual fund-raising events — gala balls and such. As I listened, I thought, ‘I’m tired of this “same old, same old”. There must be another way.’ At the time, I was nearing 50 and realised I was becoming restless at Morgan Stanley after two decades working there. Having brought it, as part of a great team, to a point where it was strong and stable as a European business, I knew there were other challenges for me outside the world of investment banking. Add to that, when I was a little girl growing up in New England, Sir Francis Chichester did his round-the-world trip in Gypsy Moth IV. We were a big sailing family; and so I read all I could find about him, including his book about sailing across the Atlantic a few years earlier. I decided then — it may sound silly — that I wanted to do what he had done some day. Somehow it struck me that fulfilling this dream might be an opportunity to raise money. As soon as I thought of it, I spoke to two people. The first was my brother, who’s a fantastic sailor and a yacht designer; I asked him if he would like to join me and be the captain of the journey. It turned out that both of us had had the same dream as young kids (though we never spoke about it to each other), and he said he’d love to help; but he warned me that nobody would “pay” for us to cross the Atlantic. Second, I went to Mervyn Davies, another member of the Breakthrough Generations Appeal board, and told him about my idea. He encouraged me — and best of all, gave me some great ideas about how to go about turning it into a successful fundraising endeavour. I bought a boat (and paid for all the expenses of the journey so every penny raised would go to Breakthrough), we followed Mervyn’s advice and we raised nearly £300,000 from big donations as well as many small ones — the majority of the donations were small. It was a wonderful experience, and, best of all, it was a way to make a real difference.

How do you now view those 17 days at sea?

It is funny: if I think of all the things that I could be remembered for in my years in London — from being involved with the building of a major financial company, encouraging large banks to focus on the needs of the East End, regulatory reform, being a senior woman in the City, supporting the arts, you name it — the one thing everybody always remembers is my sailing across the Atlantic.

What is the relevance of that journey to the path you’re on now?

I learned that, whether it’s in your professional life or your personal life, there are some core principles that are very, very important to you and who you are. As my mother used to say, ‘you can’t have a Queen Anne front and a Mary Ann back!’ So, not surprisingly, those core principles which I believe in most deeply became vivid in my transatlantic journey too.

The trip reaffirmed the importance, to me, of things such as integrity in how we deal with each other, maintaining commitments to one another and setting and reaching an important goal. Then, too, I saw the importance of enthusiasm and passion, perseverance, going that extra mile, having a sense of humour — you see such core principles at work on a boat just the way you see them in business.

Such principles must have been developed at an early age.

Yes, I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. My parents felt very strongly that, no matter what you choose to do, you have to make a commitment, you have to try to do the best you can — we all need an inherent belief in ourselves — you have to be true to yourself, and you also need to look out for the little guy.

You began serving on boards while you were at Morgan Stanley. Did your transatlantic journey help you decide to focus on that going forward?

Being a part of organisations that made a difference gave me great pleasure. For example, I loved my time serving on the board of the National Portrait Gallery, which I joined in 2003 while still at Morgan Stanley. And as a member of the Court of the Bank of England, particularly during the recent financial crisis, I was able both to bring my industry experience and perspective to the Bank and, equally importantly, to learn from the Bank and Court in turn. As those kinds of board opportunities have appeared, I have been very open to them. At the moment, my two biggest commitments are my position as non-executive chairman of the Guardian Media Group and my role as a non-executive director of State Street Corporation in Boston.

Regarding the Guardian Media Group, what was the attraction of that job and what has surprised you most about the business?

It was the first significant nonfinancial services organisation I’d been involved with (other than a number of charitable organisations). It appealed to my values of integrity, openness, fairness and excellence. Basically, whether or not you are a Guardian reader, it is an important part of the British “ecosystem”, and the standard of its journalism is exceptionally high. Today, it is a business that is going through change at an almost unimaginable velocity, more change than I possibly could have imagined when first thinking about joining the Board. Four years ago, at one of my first board meetings, we were talking about the Guardian wanting to expand internationally; they were looking to the US, they were looking at India (maybe even China), and the conversations were about joint ventures and getting access to distribution and printing. It was all very “bricks and mortar” in a sense. Today, you can have global impact and global reach if your content is good enough — distribution of that content on that kind of scale is all about the Web and digital businesses.

Boardroom dynamics

Given your experiences on both sides of the Atlantic, do you favour splitting the roles of CEOs and Board chairmen? If so, what challenges are there in managing the relationship between the CEO and the chairman?

Yes, I do favour splitting the roles. It’s a considerable task for a CEO to manage a Board, manage corporate governance, manage the business, keep her eye on day-to-day matters as well as focus on strategic direction. Moreover, investors really like and value independent access to the Board. They don’t always want to have to go through management. That said, it can be a delicate matter for the Board/Chairman to work out the right relationship with the CEO. You don’t want to smother him, but equally you don’t want to be so distant that he doesn’t feel that he can rely on you. You don’t want to be in his face so that people sort of go around him and go to you, but you do want to be there as a source of stability for him and for the company. Learning how to manage that relationship takes some time because people who rise to the senior levels of organisations tend to be type-A personalities, very goal-orientated and used to being very directional. As chairman, your role is more suggesting, debating, challenging, questioning — but not instructing. Initially, it can be very hard for anybody who is used to being in charge to deal with being some distance from the day-to-day running of the company. In fact, I think it would be difficult to be a chairman without having been a non-executive for some period of time. One of the key things chairmen have to do is remember that they are conductors, not soloists. They have to learn to limit themselves when it comes to the natural urge to get actively involved day-to-day, and they need to be a strong link between the board and the CEO.

What about the company’s strategy?

That’s another challenge. The top managers must work with the Board to come up with a vision and strategy, and the Board then needs to empower the CEO and the management team, to innovate and to grow the business within that vision and strategy. The role of the Board isn’t “to do” — it’s to challenge, to debate and to suggest so that management can be as creative and innovative as it can be. In that context, being chairman is about listening, mentoring and sharing ideas (including on early thinking around strategic direction), as well as working with the CEO to set management philosophy. But it also involves succession planning, risk management and leveraging your business contacts and relationships for the CEO.

Although Boards aren’t usually thought of as teams, are you saying that’s what they should be?

Yes, in a sense, and that is where I think the role of the chairman becomes so important. You have to ensure that you have the right balance on the Board, that you have the right skill sets and that the tone in the Board is collegial. In addition, in a team that’s working well together, it’s important to have an atmosphere in which anybody can ask what seems like a silly question or be the discordant note in the room. It’s the role of the chairman to create an environment in which the silly question can be asked and the discordant note will be heard, because it’s often the discordant note that causes everybody else to step back and say, “Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that.”

What do you find most difficult about the role of chairman and what are the rewards?

Most difficult is not being in charge day-to-day; so, particularly if you are a very goal-orientated person and a hyperactive doer, it can be very frustrating. The other thing that can be very frustrating is when boards don’t work all that well together, when the members don’t listen to one another or you have members who lose sight of the big picture and carp over little things that don’t really matter or who always push the same narrow agenda. The rewards come when a board works really well together: those tend to be ones in which there’s good give and take, where someone makes a presentation and someone else says,

“That’s good, but how come you didn’t add something about…?” And the next person jumps in and says, “That’s interesting; but I wondered, in light of what you said…” The result is you get a round table conversation going, ideas fly and, with luck, a better result is achieved.

Dame Amelia Fawcett is speaking at London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit on 20 May 2013. For more information
This article was first published in Business Strategy Review in 2011

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