“Be your own counsel – your own judge and jury” Suzy Walton CDir, Multi-sector board director
Dr Suzy Walton has had an unorthodox career. She began as an actress and broadcaster, attending university as a mature student, before becoming an operational psychologist and senior scientist with the Ministry of Defence. When she realised she didn’t have all the experience required to become a Whitehall Board Director, she resigned as a Senior Civil Servant in the Cabinet Office to complete the IoD’s Chartered Director qualification. Now she uses her skills and experience to support many organisations as a board director – including the IoD.
Don’t take no for an answer.
“A lot of my achievements are down to the fact that I felt I had no option. I have had to fend for myself from the age of 16 and I have always been prepared to give everything a go. I’m not afraid to fail and I give everything my all. I have been given lots of reasons why I shouldn’t or can’t do something but if you think you can, then anything is possible.
When I left home and moved to London, I expected to get a pretty basic job. My friends encouraged me to attend an open audition for a role in “Children of a Lesser God” in the West End just as a way of helping me build confidence. But I got the part! I played the role of Lydia a young deaf American girl in the West End and on tour. I had to learn sign language for the part. The show won awards both on Broadway and in the West End. From there I worked at LBC Radio where I was producer, presenter, and editor of my own travel programme – Time Off – and then onto BBC Television and Sky TV. I soon realised I was one of the few people in the media without a degree. So, in my mid-twenties I corrected that.
I had my first child while I was studying for Open University qualifications and then onto Hertfordshire University to do a BSc degree in psychology followed by an MSc. This led to a fulfilling career as a scientist with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). While there I undertook research for the MoD into military suicide. I was awarded a PhD from Cranfield University for this. During this period, I also had my second child.
People ask how I manage my career with children – I now have seven, the youngest arriving at the start of the Covid pandemic – particularly when my husband died of leukaemia. The answer is that I didn’t really have a choice. I didn’t have a safety net. I needed to support my family, so I just tried and gave it my all. I took my children to work if necessary, including an occasion when I had to attend an event on a US Airbase. When I arrived, I asked if someone could assist and the ‘can do’ attitude of the military prevailed. The boys had experiences on the air base that they still talk about now! I don’t let practicalities get in the way as they can usually be overcome. Of course, this takes a lot of juggling and I have realised you can’t be perfect in all settings all the time.
Childcare in the UK has come a long way since I first started work, when we didn’t even have maternity leave, but it still isn’t good enough. We need some new thinking, for example, about nursery top-up fees and making childcare a legitimate tax-deductible expense for the self-employed. We need a dedicated UK Childcare Tsar, in my opinion, to drive the agenda forward.
My relationship with the IoD began when I discovered that I couldn’t achieve my goal of becoming a board director in government with my experience and qualifications. I popped in to the IoD on my way to work and found some information about the Chartered Director programme. Soon after, I gave up my role with government and basically moved in to the IoD Headquarters at 116 Pall Mall until I had completed all the relevant training and experience to become a Chartered Director. I should add that I was already part of the way there in terms of experience as while a senior civil servant I already had a couple of non-executive director roles on government committees.
With the Chartered Director qualification, I have been able to join the boards of over 15 organisations. I’ve been the Deputy Chair of the University of Westminster and the Deputy Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation which seeks to minimise child sexual abuse on the internet. I was also Deputy Chair at the Royal Society of Arts – an apolitical think tank. I’ve also been Vice-President of the Royal Society of Medicine and I had several years on the board at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
I’ve worked internationally, having spent six years on the main regulatory board of ACCA which is the global regulator for accountancy and for them I was also Chair of the global Qualifications Board. In terms of government work, I have been a member of the State Honours Committee which makes recommendations for knighthoods, CBEs etc to the Prime Minister and the Queen I have also sat on the Ethics Group of the National DNA Database in the Home Office, and I’ve had a couple of board and committee roles in the Department of Health. Currently I sit on the board of the IoD, and for the Secretary of State for Health I’m on the Independent Reconfiguration Panel which deals with contested NHS services. I’m also working for the Ministry of Justice hearing disciplinary cases involving members of the judiciary. I have also been involved with Combat Stress – which helps veterans with PTSD – for many years, firstly as a board member and now as a vice-president. I make it a rule not to be on more than one board in the same area at any given time. That way I can bring fresh energy and ideas to each role.
I do a lot of public speaking and I greatly enjoy talking about my experiences. I know that sometimes you simply need to nudge someone towards a difficult decision and that person – often a woman with children – will take on a challenge. I think it helps that I can talk about not just where I have succeeded but where I have failed and how I dealt with that.
If I had to offer someone career advice, it would be to be your own counsel – your own judge and jury. If you want to do something, do it. Don’t be held back by what people say is going to go wrong. And if there are practical hurdles, find a way over them.”
Hear more from Dr Suzy Walton on the IoD Role Model Podcast