Vivienne Cox, a member of Oxford Saïd’s Global Leadership Council, talks leadership, purpose, and legacy with Caroline Scotter Mainprize.
What do you think makes a good leader?
I think it’s an ego which is under control; a degree of personal humility; and I think it is the capacity to truly listen. Those to me are the three fundamental qualities of a great leader. However, they are in contrast to many of the examples that we see around the place! There are many leaders who like to position themselves as riding in on a white charger, and I find that actually they can achieve a lot – but what they don’t achieve is truly great followership and the very, very best from every single person in their organisation. Whereas I think this other style, which is a lower ego, more humble, more open style of leadership actually does get that.
People who’ve got those characteristics don’t necessarily even think of themselves as leaders, but when they get to the tops of organisations they can be very effective. And it’s also a much lower-stress way of leading, both for the individual involved and also for everyone around them.
You need a certain amount of ego to be able to push yourself forward …
Yes, but not so much that it takes over. Also, I’ve observed people who don’t seem to have large egos when they first move into a leadership role, but over time that ego becomes more and more present. It is a lonely place at the top of an organisation and people do tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, and after a while you start to believe it.
So what’s the best way to get round that?
Having a few kids helps! They are the great levellers, especially young children. Seriously, I think it’s really important to have family and friends around, and colleagues at work, who tell you the truth, and who keep telling you the truth, and keep reflecting back to you what’s really going on.
At Oxford Saïd we talk a lot about ‘purpose’ in relation to leadership. And it seems to mean different things to different people. What’s your take on it?
I think it’s incredibly important that businesses have a sense of purpose, and it has to be felt throughout the organisation. In fact, it’s among my criteria when I’m choosing boards to sit on.
To me, purpose is something bigger than the pure business objectives – although those of course are important. If I take the example of GSK [she is on the board], they’ve done some really ground-breaking work in the way they price vaccines into different markets, to the extent that other pharmaceutical companies are beginning to follow suit. GSK introduced the notion of tiered pricing - there are different pricing levels depending on the GDP of the country. I think that’s a brilliant idea. What’s really interesting is that it has increased the volume of vaccines that they sell, and that of course brings down the variable cost! I do think that if you’ve got your purpose right, it ends up being good for your business too.
In this area, the focus tends to be on the Chief Executive. But the Chief Executive has to deal with lots of different people, and major shareholders are also stakeholders. How do you manage those relationships in order to be able to follow a purpose?
Yes, Unilever’s Paul Polman has gone on record as saying ‘I’ve been spending too much time on things relating to our corporate purpose, and the investors are telling me I need to spend more time on the business’ And I’ve heard other Chief Executives say similar things, that you’ve got to get the balance right. But I don’t think this notion of purpose is held only by the CEO. For it to work and for it to be real, it has to be held everywhere in the organisation from top to bottom, and genuinely influence all everyday business decisions.
When you were at BP you created the alternative energy business. How did you do that and how did you feel about the fact that it seemed to lose focus after you left?
First, I was in the right job to do it, because I was the Executive Vice President of Gas, Power and Renewables. But that renewables business that I inherited was a very old, small solar business, and I had to make a decision about what to do with it. Do I keep it? Do I sell it, or do I make it part of something bigger? And my logic was deeply strategic. I could see that there would be an end to the use of hydrocarbons. Yes, it would be decades away, but concerns about the environment and global warming, combined with the fact that technology would certainly find other means to produce energy, meant that there was a finite life for hydrocarbons. So there was a strategic opportunity to make BP an energy company as opposed to an oil and gas company. That shift would take a long time and I believed that the way to start that would be the creation of a much broader based renewables business. Critically, I had huge support from then-CEO John Browne. He shared this sense of its being a strategic opportunity, he understood the time that it would take – but he was really clear with me that it had to be set up as a business and that it would have to compete for capital with the rest of BP.
It was fascinating that the business quickly became a magnet for the very best talent inside BP. New graduates were coming into BP saying, ’I want to work in alternative energy’, and the best people from around the business were attracted to it too. And if you surround yourself with the very best people, not surprisingly the business is a very great success. And so we did really very well in the first four to five years, both in terms of building the business and becoming a magnet for great people.
Then, of course, there was a change of leadership, and Tony Hayward’s focus was more about growing the upstream business.
It was also the case that capital is a finite resource: every dollar that I was spending was a dollar that was not being spent on the core BP business. That created tension inside the organisation, and to some extent the more successful I was the less they had to play with. So it definitely created a backlash: there’s no two ways about it.
Are these big companies really capable of making the sort of change that is needed to deal with challenges such as climate change?
It is very hard. And it requires extraordinary leadership to have the clarity of strategic vision and also the persistence to support these new types of businesses. What I did with alternative energy was quite deliberately to carve the business out. I put it in a different building. It developed over time a slightly different culture. I wanted it to be more entrepreneurial. I wanted it to be very fast moving. I wanted it to be very open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of working. And so we tested a lot of those things inside alternative energy. And I always felt that I was testing them for the rest of the organisation.
Although you’re right that BP’s commitment to alternative energy was reduced after I left, my legacy is the tens of people who worked in alternative energy, who left BP, but who are now out there as CEOs of some of the greatest renewables businesses around. And that’s my legacy: the belief in renewable energy, and the understanding of its importance, has spread, and these are great leaders.
So you have continued to achieve your own purpose, just not in the way you started?
Yes, and what I’ve done, and quite deliberately, is broaden beyond renewable energy into the notion of sustainable development and what that means when businesses embrace it profitably. Everything I do is connected with that in some way.
No major change is going to happen instantaneously and it’s never going to be linear. Change isn’t. And the people who start the change may not be the people who follow it through: that may be taken up by others.
Legacy is about accepting that you might not be the person to see through everything. It’s one of the most difficult things for many leaders – to let go. It’s like letting your children go. But it’s very important that you do what you can do, as well as accepting that at some point there are others better placed to carry it on.
Why did you agree to join Oxford Saïd’s Global Leadership Council?
When I was first approached I had not been involved with a business school for a couple of years. I had a growing sense of frustration that many business schools are derivative: they follow business rather than leading it – especially those that focus on the case study approach. I really think that to be a great business school you should be out ahead of business, doing research and teaching, of course, but actually creating the next generation of business leaders who are better than the ones that came before.
So when I was approached by Oxford Saïd I did some research and thought that they seemed to be less derivative and more purpose-driven, which is important to me. So, applying the same criteria that I use when making decisions about boards, I accepted.
The GLC is in its infancy. But it’s a very impressive group of people. And if the School is astute they will use them individually as well as collectively to engage and get the benefit of their experience and insights. But I think that collectively the group can be used to test ideas, to give a sense of what the trends are in the world that will come back to influence the School and the way that it operates. And I think both those things, and access to some external, experienced perspectives on the world, can be very valuable.
Business schools, after all, have some challenges that are similar to those faced by businesses. For example, businesses are measured by their investors on the amount of profit they generate, not the way in which they generate that profit. And yet there are a lot of people around who want to assess them in terms of the way in which they make their money. Similarly, some people look at business schools only in terms of the salaries their graduates command after leaving.
Everything’s a balance and I think the business schools that focus solely or predominantly on developing people to earn a lot of money will not be attractive to a lot of students. The danger that you have to guard against is that if you focus exclusively on any one measure to attract a certain group of people, it becomes completely self-reinforcing.
And that’s where diversity comes in. The more diverse you are, bringing in different ideas and values, the less likely you are to become straitjacketed by a single world-view. And diversity also creates the tension and debate that actually makes a good experience, whether you’re working in a company or studying at a business school.
Dr Vivienne Cox, MA (Oxon), MBA (INSEAD), CBE, Ph.D., is Chairman of Vallourec SA, Senior Independent Director at Pearson plc, a Non-Executive Director of GSK, a member of the board of Stena International, and a member of the Global Leadership Council, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
She worked for BP plc for 28 years, in posts including Executive Vice President and Chief Executive of BP’s gas, power and renewable business and its alternative energy unit. Vivienne was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to the UK Economy and Sustainability.