Ten Questions

October 27, 2013 11:24 pm

Women at business school – Wendy Alexander, associate dean

Wendy Alexander

Wendy Alexander is associate dean at London Business School where she provides strategic leadership for the school’s degree programmes delivered in London, Dubai, New York and Hong Kong.

In the 1990s, Ms Alexander was with Booz & Co, a global management and consulting company, working mainly in Europe and Asia. She then spent a decade in politics both as UK government adviser and then as member of the first Scottish parliament, where she latterly served as leader of the opposition Labour party. She is currently on the Investment Advisory Board of SEP LLP, and features in the Cranfield School of Management’s 100 Women to Watch supplement, which is part of Cranfield’s Female FTSE board research report on gender representation in business.

In her spare time, Ms Alexander enjoys hiking, birdwatching and visiting friends. She recently featured on the FT Global Fund for Children MBA Challenge judging panel.

1. Who are your business heroes?

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Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, for his leadership on sustainability and setting a corporate mission to save more than 1m children’s lives annually through attention to personal hygiene. And those enduring heroines: Hillary Clinton; Marjorie Scardino and Helena Morrissey, all living embodiments of a better way.

2. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Persuading highly successful entrepreneurs and large corporates to invest in bringing Economics Nobel Laureates to Scotland and study the Scottish economy. Paul Krugman and James Heckman both participated. Their different ideological predispositions were irrelevant. It was the quality of the evidence that counted. Diane Coyle and I co-edited the emerging book New Wealth for Old Nations. But much more important was crystallising the evidence. Hence Heckman decisively influenced the policy community, stimulating new investment in the early years and reshaping policy for years to come.

3. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

Send every student in teams of five to Alex, a township in South Africa, to spend a week with local micro-entrepreneurs, working with them on a business plan. We did this with 80 of our MBAs this year and for many it was a life-changing experience, witnessing the vicissitudes of “necessity entrepreneurship” in the raw. Lynda Gratton, a colleague at LBS, is researching the “crucible moments” we all have and which shape our outlook for the rest of our lives. Business schools need to help create more “crucible moments” for our students. That means being in the business of fostering new mindsets, not simply honed skillsets.

4. What is the worst job you have ever had?

Spring 1983 as a broke student I took an evening telesales job securing home visit consultations for new kitchens at a rate of £1 per visit secured. It was a slog – typically I secured five visits after two hours of telesales. One evening coincided with a crunch Scotland international football match. I secured 10 consultations, double the usual number, because everyone wanted me off the phone so they could get back to the match. The next day my employer cut the piece rate in half to 50p and the following week I quit. But it was a life lesson in the sharp end of a flexible labour market.

5. What advice would you give to women in business?

Be purposeful. Beware the paradox of indispensability – a particular fate for women. Have a big enough support network, male and female, formal and informal, within and out of the company to get you through the tough times. Don’t expect too much from yourself when your children are very young – those first five years are not the ones to try and do it all. Be comforted by the knowledge that history is on your side and so today is immeasurably better than times past. We do all stand on our mother’s shoulders. They won victories for us and we will do the same for our daughters.

6. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

As the only woman you get noticed. Others may want you to be merely decorative but you want to be memorable and often you will succeed. But crucially, as a sole woman, you don’t change the rules of the game. Study after study demonstrates it is only when you have a critical mass of women, about 30 per cent, that the rules start to change. Interestingly it also works the other way. All-women teams miss men. The academic literature shows the very best teamwork comes from having a reasonable number of both men and women. It turns out nature was right all along!

7. What is the last book you read?

Cover to cover – a Horrid Henry book and one by Jacqueline Wilson – non-negotiable bedtime-reading requests from the twins. This contrasts with a tottering pile of half completed, FT-reviewed weighty tomes at my bedside. Infuriatingly, I succumb to sleep too easily to keep completion in sync with purchase. Roll on the summer holidays so I can make better inroads . . . Top of the pile currently is Brand Breakout, just published by LBS professor Nirmalya Kumar. It is about emerging market brands going global and highly relevant to [our school’s] strategy in China, which is one of my current priorities.

8. What is your favourite business book?

Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?, a classic leadership text by LBS professor Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. The title alone encapsulates the fate of many a business career. Other books and articles followed but this one has priceless and timeless advice about showing you are human; getting to know your team; the need for “tough empathy” and understanding that it is your spikes, not your similarities, which invariably bring you professional success.

It mines a seam Charles Handy returned to recently in the FT reminding us that organisations need to stop thinking of their key people as “assets” to be worked to death and instead think of them as talents to be nurtured carefully like plants.

9. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

Life is too short for regrets. But, had circumstances allowed, ie marrying my husband Brian sooner, I would probably have had my children earlier. I really want to keep climbing those Scottish hills with them for many decades to come. I also think it is interesting to figure out quite early on whether you are instinctively a “make the case” person or a “make it happen” person. Politics relies on really making the case. Business is more about making it happen. Knowing if you are one of life’s advocates or its natural collaborators can come in handy.

10. What are your future plans?

Keep doing what I am doing. It is a genuine privilege to be paid to think about “what the well-educated business person needs to know” in the future. We need to help people to not just talk globalisation, but to live it. We are only in the foothills of understanding how we equip people to lead truly global, virtual teams. If we are to decouple growth from environmental degradation, as we must, we will need to learn how to build trust without flying ever increasing numbers of people around the world to work with colleagues. Inevitably, companies are cagey about revealing their corporate challenges to competitors. But the great thing about business schools is that they are safe spaces to share. So many of these corporations or organisations wrestling with these big issues will freely share their experiences with [business] schools, so helping us all find new solutions.

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