Julie Ashworth: Be brave and give your people all the time in the world
Position:Executive Chair, Clear Returns MD, Broadreach.
1996-1997 Circumnavigator, Clipper Ventures Around the World Yacht Race.
1998-2001 Retail Director,
Liberty of London
1997-date MD Broad Reach Retail Consultancy
2003-2005 Executive Partner IBM EMEA
2007-2009 Retail Director, The Spirit Group
2014 - date Executive Chair, Clear Returns
What is the greatest recurring challenge you come across in your role, and what is your strategy for dealing with it?
As a business leader, I am constantly faced with having to make decisions in volatile, uncertain, complex and often ambiguous situations. I appreciate we are in the ‘age of acceleration’, and our business is all about big data analytics, and change is the norm.
So, what is my strategy for dealing with it? Well, that is quite simple. I recruit and work with some of the best brains in the business, and it is my job to bring the best that they have out day to day. The better I am at engaging them, provoking their thinking as well as encouraging their thinking to be articulated, then clearly the better the quality of my decision making.
I never sit back on this. I work tirelessly to ensure I do my best here. I have regular meetings, ranging from the informal ‘catch ups’ to the regular quarterly reviews. When faced with consistently changing situations, you cannot over-communicate.
Who or what drives you or inspires you?
I remember someone, a long time ago, passing me a copy of Peter Drucker’s wonderful book The Effective Executive (a timeless classic), and one of the key messages in it was that you should always make your people feel as if you have ‘all the time in the world for them’. That has been my mantra since, and as hard as it is to do, I have tried my utmost to live it as fully as I can. This, more than anything, has paid dividends.
I am very much driven by a sense of wanting to make a difference with whatever I do. In the world of business, I fundamentally believe that our product is fantastic, and will make a massive difference to our retail clients. As a leader within my organisation, I want people to flourish and feel good about themselves. I know if I employ the right person with the right skills and strengths that we can nurture and develop that talent to achieve that vision.
This is something I don’t take lightly and appreciate the huge privilege of my position.
When we make an intervention in an organisation whether with technology at Clear Return or a leadership intervention with Broad Reach, it is vital to me that it makes a difference and the organisation is better for it.
What make a good leader great?
A good leader serves his or her people, inspiring their self-belief, instilling confidence in them, and bringing the best that they have to the fore. I remember listening to Larry Sullivan (the Coins Foundation) who laboured the point that everyone has the right to feel good about themselves, and I believe it is every leader’s mission is to do just that.
A good leader becomes great when they can engage everyone in the room, to bring their voice to bear, to listen with dignity, to value everyone’s contribution and notice and then do something about anyone who is not contributing.
Have you had a mentor, and what did he/she add to your development?
I have not had an official mentor, but I have had many wonderful people who have actively influenced my career. Back when I worked for Tesco, the then Managing Director, David Malpas, was unsurpassed. He believed in me and showed me that failure was something to be embraced.
Audrey Mandela has recently acted as both sounding board and reinforced the absolute impact of good governance.
A couple of years ago Jo Swinson was on our Board. She is tenacious and will never take no for an answer. She never saw any hurdle too high or any barrier too great, so now I find myself thinking, ‘what would Jo have done’?
Even leaders aren’t the finished article. What’s next in your leadership development journey?
At the end of a role, hindsight becomes the most marvellous thing. Oh, I often wish I could go back to every assignment, because I’ve learnt so much from it, and avoid the mistakes. I recognise what has worked well and what I could have done more of.
I try to remember that there is formal learning (for example, IoD and its Women on Boards strategy does a great job of leadership development of directors). However, it is important to make time always to think and draw learning and insights from your latest experiences. I remember Charles Handy once saying that experience without reflection is the learning that’s lost.
What is the next big thing that will transform your sector?
Technology is playing a transformative part in all sectors and businesses, including retail. If you think of how you shopped only five years ago, it’s very different to today. Young people shopping via Instagram on mobile devices, Amazon delivering by drone - and this rate of change will not slow down.
What technology do you rely on?
I would not be without my iPad Pro, my iPhone and Apple pencil and notebook. They are essential to enable me to function in the busy world where the world never sleeps.
Best thing… my Apple pen, which bridges a gap between writing notes and staying connected to the technology. Irreplaceable.
What is your favourite social media platform, and what does it bring to your business / organisation?
For business, Twitter is essential. It brings me contacts and information from a wide and diverse field of individuals who have credibility, respectability and depth of knowledge.
What needs to be fixed?
Homelessness – it’s impossible to walk from one end of Edinburgh City to the other without passing a dozen or more homeless people and Edinburgh is no exception to other cities such as London or Manchester.
As business leaders, I believe we all have a part to play to encourage partnerships such as these, and see them success.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Easy - Be braver, do more and don’t be bound by what society thinks you should or should not do. Don’t try to be right – just do it!