Alison Wheaton: "Look for opportunities to hone your skills and talents"
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Alison Wheaton is chief executive of GSM London, a private business school in the UK – formerly known as Greenwich School of Management – which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Before joining GSM London, Ms Wheaton worked for Mitchells & Butlers, a restaurant and pub chain in the UK, Morgan Stanley and PepsiCo. She has an MBA in finance from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and has served as a non-executive director for the London Development Agency, which closed in 2012.

In her spare time, Ms Wheaton enjoys running, skiing, hiking and visiting art museums.

1. Who are your business influences?

The standouts for me are: My first boss at Morgan Stanley. She was an exceptionally smart woman who was never afraid to ask the seemingly stupid questions; The leader at PepsiCo who introduced the “upside down triangle” organisation chart with the customer-facing staff at the top and the senior executives at the bottom. (It was quite controversial in the early 1990s); My chief executive officer at Mitchells & Butlers who managed to get a mix of executives with very different skills, perspectives and temperaments to work well together by having a common, worthwhile goal. And finally, my mentor on the FTSE 100 Mentoring Scheme, who reminded me I would one day make a better non-executive director if I continue to build my experience as an executive.

2. What is an average day at work like?

Since I am new to the higher education sector, I have spent a lot of time getting to know not only our staff and students but also learning about the landscape, challenges and opportunities by meeting key stakeholders such as policy makers and regulators.

3. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

It was from my university tutor, who encouraged me to get a passport and get on a plane for two terms of study at the London School of Economics.

4. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

Don’t try to do everything yourself; harness the talents, enthusiasm and energy of others. And don’t be afraid to work with smarter, functional or technical experts. You just have to be happy to ask the occasional ‘stupid question’.

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

Removing tassels from row after row of corn in a field one hot summer in central Pennsylvania – as good a motivator as any to do well in school.

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

Same advice as I give anyone. Think about what you want to be when you “grow up”. Look for opportunities to hone your skills and talents; occasionally get out of your comfort zone. Seek honest feedback. Make sure you identify and address your gaps and weaknesses en route. Take others with you. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

7. What is the last book you read?

Quiet by Susan Cain. It is about the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.

8. What is your favourite business book?

There are two and both are remarkably corny, but have a meaningful message. The first is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. It’s about building networks. The other is Gung Ho! by Ken Blanchard. It’s about improving staff engagement by identifying a common goal, being clear what the rules are and celebrating success.

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

Nothing, besides doing more exercise in my 30s. I am making up for it now.

10. What is your plan B?

This is my plan B – after so many years in large, corporate organisations, I wanted to work in a sector which is very important and where I hope my skills can support the development of a great higher education institution.

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