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Scotland works best when it stays connected

19 Jun 2019

As David Watt, executive director of IoD Scotland for 16 years, prepares to step down from his post, he spoke to Rob Beswick about his years at the helm of the country’s premier business organisation, the people who have inspired him and why he feels the IoD is as relevant today as it has ever been.

When asked, the answer came back swiftly: the people.

The question was, of course, what would David Watt miss most once he’s left the IoD, and his response was immediate.

“I’ve been very fortunate, that this job has brought me into contact with some truly great, inspiring people from right across Scotland and further afield. It’s been a privilege to meet them and hear their stories, and understanding how much they’ve given to Scotland, its economy and its civic structures, has been what has really inspired me in this job.”

It’s a role David has held for some 16 years, having taken up the reins at the IoD in June 2003. Prior to that he had been the Scottish partnership manager at the New Millennium Experience Company – the organisation behind the Millennium Dome – and before that, spent 15 years in sports and leisure management.

The Millennium Dome role, indirectly, led to him becoming IoD Scotland executive director. “I was looking to improve my connections within the business world and joining the IoD was an obvious fit as it brought me into contact with the people I wanted to talk to. It helped that it was strong in the two places I needed to work – in London and in Scotland.

“After joining I volunteered to help out with the IoD Fife Committee and while there heard that the position of executive director was going to fall vacant, and thought it was an interesting sounding job. It was in a similar vein to the Millennium Dome, in that it was reaching out to different sectors and bringing businesses and people together. Again, it seemed a good fit.”

Ever since David has been, for many, the face of the IoD in Scotland and can be credited with raising its profile, to the point that today it is a trusted and valued commentator on all matters concerning business and the economy.

“It is good that the voice of the IoD is heard. We’re asked our position and views on a host of topics – and we’re getting heard more and more in Holyrood and other places that matter.”

Much of the credit for that higher profile has to be put down to David, and whether it’s giving evidence to the Calman Commission – where the IoD was praised by the chair for getting straight to the point and offering a clear contribution on devolution and its future path – or on independence issues, tax reforms or education and training, the IoD has built a reputation for effective, open and clear contributions unfettered by dogma or doctrine: just a desire to ensure Scotland is the most efficient and open place to do business in the world. The siting of the head office next door to the official residence of the First Minister on Charlotte Square is no accident: the IoD is now very much in the centre of Scotland’s public and political debate.

This higher profile isn’t the only thing that has changed during David’s tenure: the make-up of the IoD has changed too – though possibly not by as much as he would have liked. “Our membership has changed: we have far more young directors, more women, and more people representing sectors such as education and the Third Sector. But the fall in the number of large businesses in Scotland and the growth of self-employment has meant we’ve retained a high percentage of consultants and people operating in the business advice areas. We can always spread our membership reach a little more.”

David has also overseen the IoD spreading its wings geographically, giving it a presence in every corner of Scotland. “We’ve increased the number of branches to eight to make them more representative of our key economic areas, and opened premises in Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Glasgow and Stirling as well as Edinburgh.”

It’s a policy that chimes nicely with David’s own desire to improve connectivity within the business world.

The goals of the IoD remain consistent, however. “We’re about driving director excellence, improving boardroom performance and promoting good governance. I’ve always strived to keep the IoD relevant and that’s meant we have to continually re-assess our membership offer, as the world of business is changing so quickly.

“We’ve improved our communications, our events offer, our presence in the digital sphere and our training and CPD. We can always improve more – particularly the digital side, where we know we’re still playing catch up – but I’m pleased with the way we’ve adapted to changes in the way business operates.”

“The goal has always been to bring members together, to improve connections across sectors and see directors learn from each other’s successes. That’s where, I think, the IoD’s USP lies.”

I asked him whether, in a world where connectivity is so easy through social media, that core reason to join an organisation like the IoD still held true: can’t you access the connectivity the IoD brings on your own?

“You can, and I see the point you’re making but I still believe the IoD’s role is to be a place where directors can come together and build relationships.

“There is a danger that directors sit behind an email or online presence: we must remember that the social skills are still important in business.

“Always remember, we do business with people.”

David sees the growth in IoD facilities round Scotland as an important part of this. “Increasing the number of IoD hubs has always been important to me: they are your chance to meet other members’ we need to keep those personal relationships together.”

There have been a number of highlights during his time with the IoD but, as said at the outset, it’s been meeting members, working with them and, hopefully, helping them that has been the main thing that David looks back on with genuine affection. “The thing that has pleased me most has always been bringing people together – it’s that word ‘connectivity’ again. The IoD’s mantra is better directors, better business, and we have helped many directors improve their performance, through our CPD courses, our events and through just bringing people together so they can share best practice.

“I’ve loved the fact that every day has been different, and I’ve met people from every corner of business and of Scotland. If during that time I’ve helped anyone improve as a director, that’s great.

“It’s particularly pleasing to chart some members’ journeys, from business start-ups through growth to the point where they are established SMEs – or larger!”

He’s been privileged to meet many extraordinary people. “I’ve had meetings with every First Minister apart from the first, Donald Dewar, and with many politicians, including four prime ministers. It’s interesting because politicians get a terrible press; they are painted as self-serving, interested only in a narrow ideologue, yet I’ve not found them like that. Even when I’ve not agreed with their particular strand of politics I’ve inevitably been impressed by their unselfishness and genuine desire to serve the people.”

Stand-outs include Lord Jim Wallace and Sir John Major – “a man a million miles away from his public reputation: an intelligent man who cared deeply about the country” – though the person he regards as the most inspirational speaker he’s ever heard came from overseas: Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations. “An incredible speaker; a warm, intelligent, passionate advocate for peace and an ability to hold a room like no other. A delightful man in private, too.”

More homegrown talents from the business world who have left a lasting impression including Sir Sandy Crombie, “a great leader and a man who was the embodiment of a time when banks had a vision about their lending and their practices which they’ve sadly lost;” and Bob Keiller, who was “an inspiring speaker and leader who has taken the Wood Group onto the international stage, as well as transforming Scottish Enterprise.”

“Both these were real leaders out of the top drawer.”

What lessons has he drawn from meeting other business leaders? “You need vision, of where you want to go and how you are going to get there. You then need to be able to communicate that to your team and translate ideas into action.

“I also think transformation is the key to business success: the ability to see a chance for growth or sketch out a plan of how you are going to change the business, and then transform the organisation to meet these new challenges.

“Finally, listen to your staff, to your clients and to your stakeholders.”

Where he falls out with politicians is when they are too wrapped up in dogma and political doctrine. “Too often politicians don’t make decisions; they lack commitment to follow ideas through even when the evidence telling them to take a particular course of action is strong. They fail to act as they’re too obsessed with the politics, not the outcomes.

“The ‘politics’ side is too dominant and too often, I feel that the economy is not placed high enough up the agenda, and we all suffer as a result.”

How has leadership changed during his time with the IoD?

“The biggest challenge leaders face is the pace of change. Whether it’s tech and innovation, societal changes, demographic changes or issues such as the climate change and environmental agendas, leaders have to be on their toes. It is hard to keep up – but it’s also harder to keep moving forward if you fall behind, and with 24-hour comms it’s easy for your business to be on the wrong side of the debate if you don’t keep an eye on the shifting sands of public opinion.”

David believes Scotland has a strong claim to be the best place to do business, but he accepts that there are challenges. “Brexit has damaged our attractiveness to economic migrants which are a necessity as they bring massive benefits and counter the demographic time bomb over our population base. It’s a real concern.”

But he sees numerous positives around him: “Our young people are increasingly entrepreneurial. I’m always struck by how, when I visit education and training establishments, the students I meet are planning to set up their own businesses. They have strong skills to offer and that reflects well on Scotland’s future.”

Other plus points are the finance sector, which remains strong, as does Scotland’s education and training, “which allows us to punch above our weight on the international stage.” But more help is needed from the government. “We need more action and less talk on economic development and creating the base on which business can flourish. We need to build our external connections.

“Scotland is the most entrepreneurial nation in the world, but we need to be more confident about our size and scale, and use it. Too often companies feel constrained by Scotland when it should be the base from which they look to grow and take on the world.”

He cites as an example how Scotland is strong on design and on digital development, but too often these disciplines sit in isolation and aren’t linked up, and “we don’t think of how our ideas have practical applications that can be brought to market, either.”

It is vital that the country’s strengths in education and training are taken to the next level and the government helps stem the ‘brain drain’ as talent leaves to go south or further afield. “Let’s keep our talent in Scotland; they have the skills so let’s give them the tools and support them. That’s what the IoD is doing.”

So, what piece of advice would he give directors? “Carpe diem… seize the day. Grab every opportunity that presents itself as business life changes so quickly, you mustn’t hesitate.”

He urges all members to see the IoD “as a bridge between you all; Scotland has the advantage of being a relatively small business world, in which at times it feels like everyone knows everyone else. Using your personal relationships, you can usually connect to anyone when you need to.”

As he steps down, David has nothing but praise for the team at the IoD. “I’ve been fortunate in being supported by a great bunch of people at head office over the years, and I’m very grateful to them all.”

He was also fulsome in his thanks to for the volunteers who work so hard behind the scenes at branch/committee level. “I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of great regional chairs, who have all brought their own skills and expertise to the table. There is so much expertise on offer at the IoD and it’s been great to tap into that over the years.

“The IoD is an invaluable pool of knowledge.”

As to the future, David is excited for the next stage in the IoD’s development. “We are seeing the start of our own devolution process, with more local control over what we offer and how we operate. There is a genuine desire to increase our diversity and appeal to a wider cross-section of the community, which is also welcome.”

As for David himself, he’s delighted that his position as Hon. Colonel of the Royal Marine Reserve will continue until 2021, and he has accepted the role of chair at Fife College. He is also taking on a non-executive role with fitness equipment supplier BGR Training, and will continue to offer IoD members the benefit of his experience by leading professional development courses.

But away from the office? “I’ll be giving the golf clubs a good airing. I have a goal of getting the handicap down to 12,” he said with a steely glint in his eye. “If anyone has any advice…?"

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