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Caroline Harper joined Sightsavers in 2005 as chief executive, having made the decision to move into the not-for-profit sector, inspired by several blind family members.
Prior to joining Sightsavers, Ms Harper ran her own interim management business and worked as a non-executive director for a housing association in west London. She also has a PhD in energy studies from the University of Cambridge and was awarded an OBE for services to the gas industry in 2000.
Ms Harper is one of the judges of our FT Sightsavers MBA Challenge and will be available for a live web chat this Thursday, 2nd February 2012, between 13.00 – 14.00 GMT. Post your questions now to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be answered on the day.
1. Who are your business heroes?
There were a number of people during my business career who took a risk on promoting me – and without whom I would not have achieved nearly so much. They are heroes to me, not least because they were criticised at the time for doing so. I hope I vindicated them!
I am also impressed by people like Steve Jobs, who have such an impact on society - although I suspect he was very difficult to work for and better as a distant hero. I also remember Sir John Harvey-Jones, who had a tremendously varied career and whose business advice I think was always down to earth, common sense.
2. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
Getting a PhD has to be it – the sheer slog of writing up the thesis, the panic of the viva when you think everything you have done is superficial and can’t possibly be a genuine contribution to knowledge and then the joy of hearing you can now call yourself Dr Harper.
3. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
There are a few. First, that you should surround yourself with the best people you can find – never be afraid to have a strong team. Second, trust your instincts – especially for recruitment. I have only ever made mistakes if I have persuaded myself that a candidate is right through logic when my intuition is saying no. And third, that today’s disaster is tomorrow’s learning experience. Tomorrow is usually another day and bad things do happen to everyone.
4. What advice would you give to women in business education?
Have more confidence in yourselves. I have often seen really good women focus so much on their flaws (we all have them) that they ignore their strengths and undersell themselves.
5. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
Men at work are just people in more boring clothes. I’ve always found that straight talking and being unflappable works well. I can honestly say I have never had any real problems, despite working in the oil industry which is pretty male dominated. You have to deal with the odd sexist comment, but I can be very cutting and sarcastic if I want to be and that worked well for unacceptable behaviour. Otherwise, men usually worry about the same things women do, they just show it differently. I try to get to know the people I work with well to find out what makes them tick.
6. Have you even been to any workshops/seminars that have helped you in your career?
I once went on a conference called the Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Conference. It was divided into groups who toured various areas of the UK, meeting people from different parts of the community looking at leadership examples. My group covered Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was early on in my career, when Northern Ireland was still troubled and it was quite shocking to discuss protectionism and to walk down the Falls Road and see evidence of conflict at your back door.
We met women in Glasgow (Drumchapel), who were leaders in their community and who had achieved tremendous things in getting their houses renovated and the neighbourhood cleaned up. They had little formal education though and it was sad - when talking to a business leader who said ‘I just can’t get the talent and leadership skills that I want’ - to realise that academic qualifications are such a prerequisite and a lot of talent is going to waste. This conference made me think more widely about skills and talent and realise that leadership isn’t just something you learn from a course.
7. What is your favourite business book?
I’m tempted to say Dilbert, who still has a lot to say about some of the madder aspects of business life. Actually I really like the series of books by Patrick Lencioni, which are leadership fables. They are short but full of insight. I particularly liked The Five Temptations of a CEO and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (I used the latter in team building work at Sightsavers). They really resonated with me and have helped me understand some of my weaknesses.
8. What inspires you?
Meeting someone who has just had their sight restored after years in the dark and knowing that we helped. Those who can give great speeches and move you to tears without being patronising or fake. Seeing someone I’ve worked with and helped develop take on a leadership role and do well in it. Then sometimes a beautiful place can do it – the pyramids lit up at night, Antarctica with blue skies (my best ever holiday), the African bush at sunset.
9. How do you deal with pressure?
Just get on with it. I meet people whose lives are immeasurably more stressful than mine could ever be – living in the slums of Dhaka, or eking out a living in the Thar desert. Mothers with blind children who are terrified about what will happen to them and people who work in quarries for 12 hours or more a day for a pittance. I find it difficult now to complain about deadlines or work pressure. When it gets on top of me, I go out with friends or colleagues and have some decent red wine and vent out frustrations. When I was younger I threw things, but I try not to now…
10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I would not go to university in my home town just because I thought I was in love with my boyfriend. I would not worry that I was stupid when some men at university said the exams were ‘so easy they were insulting’, as these men got thirds. I would eat less and exercise more.
Compiled by Charlotte Clarke