Liz Mellon is an executive director at Duke Corporate Education in the UK. She founded the London office for Duke CE in 2000 and now also works as a regional management director of the India office, where Duke CE partners with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
Prof Mellon completed an MBA and PhD at London Business School, both of which she studied for part time while working and raising a family. She has also worked as a professor at London Business School and set up her own business: Mellon Marketing Services.
Prof Mellon’s new book on chief executive development, called Inside the Leader’s Mind, is out this month. She also enjoys marathon running, scuba diving and skiing.
1. When did you know you wanted to teach?
I didn’t know until I started! I came to teaching via a series of lateral arabesques and then discovered that I loved it. To see someone grow by understanding something new, or developing a new point of view, is immensely rewarding.
2. What is an average day at work like?
There is no such thing as an average day. I may be in meetings all day in our London office, or travelling to some far-flung destination to deliver an executive education programme. For example, in the last two weeks I spent one day in our London office; one day teaching on a executive programme in London; flew to India, where I delivered a Women’s Leadership Programme; spent a long weekend in Mumbai in business meetings; and flew to Johannesburg to deliver a third executive education programme (this time, to 28 men). Different participants, companies and time zones! It’s an exciting mélange of activities and the only certainty is that the days will be long. I am generally up and started by 7am and rarely finish before 10pm, wherever I am. It’s a global job and there is always somebody awake, somewhere, wanting to talk!
3. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?
Laid down on the floor and held a (male) participant by his ankles. We were talking about being grounded as a leader, so that you can instill confidence in others. This particular executive was shifting from foot to foot, almost dancing on the spot, as he tried to communicate his message. He didn’t look the part of a leader at all. I tried the usual advice (‘imagine your feet are encased in concrete’; ‘stand still and breathe and imagine you are rooted to the spot’; ‘imagine tentacles coming up out of the ground and binding you in one place’) to no avail. In the end I held him by his ankles so that he could feel the difference between ‘dancing’ and being grounded as he talked. It certainly worked in the moment – and I hope it still works for him today!
4. Who are your business influences?
Any CEO. This is one of my research areas and I just admire the scale of the challenges that CEOs are willing to take on, with a smile. Maybe I have been lucky, but the ones I have spoken to, either in the classroom or in research, are committed, energetic, thoughtful and conscientious. Business can often make a difference to societies where governments can’t – by providing employment and building infrastructure. So business needs to be well led – and luckily, there are many talented CEOs out there, leading businesses and making a difference, to organisations and to lives.
5. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
To get help. Women tend to be self-sufficient and to work very hard on their own to achieve. But I have found that you can do even more if you can accept help and support from others.
6. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
The biggest lesson I have learnt, that I have to teach myself time and again, is that people are incredibly talented. When I am teaching executives, I try and include at least one activity that allows each person to talk about pivotal moments in their lives. The real danger with teaching is that we get so entranced with communicating the content, that the executives on the receiving end are pretty much treated as empty vessels. In reality, the life experiences that have shaped them as adults, and their willingness to share what they have learnt, are humbling. We often say that communication is a two-way process. So is teaching.
7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
The problem with any environment dominated by one group is that the minority, who are different, will try and conform. But it’s a mistake to try and change yourself too much. We have all seen women who are more male than men – who think that ‘super sizing’ the male approach and being direct and pushy, even aggressive, will work. We have also seen the women who go the other way – who become very feminine and flirty. Neither route is helpful to women in business. So I do three things. The first is that I try and be myself and exploit my natural skills. The second is that I try and communicate so that men can ‘hear’ me – clear logic, keep it straightforward and don’t try and explain something while they are doing something else. And the third is that I keep a network of women who support me. I may need reassurance that I am doing the right thing, or I may need a helpful coalition of opinion alongside mine.
8. How do you deal with pressure?
I stop and step away. Either I shut down the computer, or I leave the room, or get out into the fresh air. But for me, the important piece is just stopping whatever it is that is putting me under pressure and allowing myself to breathe and reflect. No problem or challenge ever seems so big after that – it really puts it into perspective. I remember I had a biscuit jar for a few years that was shaped like an American policeman and, as you opened the jar, a recorded voice would shout: “Stop! Move AWAY from the cookie jar!” I try and treat pressure in the same way. I stop and move away – and then re-engage with it on my terms.
9. What would be your plan B?
I’d have been an actress. Amateur dramatics was the love of my life from about 14 to my late twenties. I acted at my girls’ school, at the local boys’ school, at university and with a club I joined after university. I just lacked the courage to take on such an uncertain life. Although, you could say that teaching is the next closest thing. I perform regularly, all over the world, to different audiences and the script is always at least updated, if not entirely new.
10. What advice would you give to women in business?
Women in business should be themselves, by which I mean, they should exploit their natural skills. I have a plaque that reads: ‘Career Woman’s Checklist for Success – look like a lady, act like a man and work like a dog’. Although funny, it has more than a grain of truth. And women are no more numerous at the top levels than they were in the 1970s – so much effort, for so little progress. It’s contentious to say it, but women and men have different skills that come to them naturally. Research shows that women are much more skilled at inclusive leadership, consulting others and showing empathy. My advice to every woman is to be authentic as a leader and to relish and use the skills that come to you naturally. Don’t try and conform to a male standard, even if you are in a minority. Building on what comes naturally to you will lead to much greater success. The lead hyena in any pack is a female and to avoid being killed, she grows a set of visible male genitalia to confuse predators. I’d like to think that the female executive is more advanced than a hyena.
Interview by Charlotte Clarke