CEO Secrets – Book review

Image above: Dougal Shaw; CEO Secrets

Pearls of wisdom from those who have succeeded in business

Dougal Shaw’s excellent book CEO Secrets is a collection of advice, insights and stories collected by the BBC’s Business news team over the past seven years as famous entrepreneurs and business leaders have pitched up to be interviewed by the BBC.

Unlike the usual business memoirs, ghost-written for those too famous and busy to write their own, you don’t have to plough all through the turgid bits about what their school days were like and whether they got on with their fathers.

This is just the good bits – the golden nuggets of advice and salutary tales from leaders in a range of industries from engineering to fashion: men and women, entrepreneurs and ‘corporate ladder climbers.’ He asked them all the same question: “What’s the advice you wished you had when you started out”.

It is both very useful to anyone who is thinking of running their own business, or already running one and thinking of expanding it, and it is well edited and entertaining enough to be of interest to the general reader. The book is a selection of 47 interviews from the video series recorded between 2015 and 2022and here are a few of the highlights.

Images above: Tom Blomfield; Monzo card

Tom Blomfield – Monzo

There are very few ‘Unicorn’ businesses in the UK -privately held start-up companies which have grown to be valued by investors at $1 billion. We do not have the experience the United States does of building companies like Google or Amazon which become huge global names, but we do have a few.

Tom Blomfield started Monzo, which I only came across because my children got Monzo cards to access their money when they were off travelling. And that’s the point, these so-called ‘challenger banks’ sprouted up from around 2015, Dougal writes, realising that regular customers no longer required a physical bank branch on the high street.

‘A new breed of millennials that had grown up online (with phones and apps in their pockets during adolescence) was happy to bank primarily through an app. Banking is ultimately about trust – and this generation put their trust in online services.’

Tom Blomfield started his career with a management consultancy firm, where he was seen as ‘disruptive’. He realised that he was not suited to working in big organisations where you have to learn to live within the rules. He wanted to make his own rules and his number one piece of advice is “trust your gut”.

He was offered a job with a prestigious city firm.

“A family friend, who used to work in investment banking, took me for a drink in a fancy champagne bar at the top of a tower in central London and told me it would be the worst decision of my life if I turned down this job. I think he chose the bar as a subliminal message: choose the city job and you can have this lifestyle.

“And I thought about what he said for a few days and I turned it down. I started my own business and honestly I haven’t looked back since.”

Saying this, he recognises the privilege involved in that statement.

“I had when I started out two parents, a good education and a stable family background. That meant that if everything went wrong, I could go and live in my parents’ house. There was a safety net there and it’s not true of everyone, and there is evidence that shows that the biggest indicator of entrepreneurial success is whether you have a wealthy family.”

Images above: Justine Roberts, photograph BBC; Mother feeding her baby, image from Mumsnet

Justine Roberts – Mumsnet

Justine Roberts, founder of the online community with over a million registered members and seven million unique users visiting the site each month, nearly gave up before she started because of sexism.

When she floated the idea of reaching other parents to share information and experience with a potential investor, he said he liked the idea but didn’t like her to run it because she “didn’t look the part.” In her mind, she was quite clear that meant “because you are a woman.”

The social forum which has created its own acronyms, such as AIBU (Am I Being Unreasonable), and is considered such an important target audience they are courted by politicians during election campaigns, almost didn’t exist because of that remark.

“I went away from that and I doubted myself. I thought ‘Well, maybe he’s right.’ I almost, almost took him seriously. And then I thought ‘No, I’m not ready to give up just yet.’ ”

Amy Golding of the recruitment company Opus had a similar experience. She was told she was “too girly to be a CEO”.

Images above: Alex Depledge, photograph Breat British Speakers; Cleaner, featured picture on helpling.co.uk, which bought hassle.com

Alex Depledge – Hassle.com

In general, Dougal has found women more ready to share their doubts and failings, which is probably why he also found women preferred to receive business advice from other women.

Alex Depledge, co-founder of the online domestic cleaning platform Hassle.com told him such a disarmingly honest tale that he was quite taken aback.

“She recalled the time, just after she had raised millions in funding, when her husband had found her at home rolled up in a ball, crying on the floor, saying over and over again: ‘I don’t know how to be a CEO.’

“That’s a million miles away from the kind of Wall St, Gordon Gekko stereotype of the alpha-male, all-powerful, super-confident business boss.”

Images above: Devacci fashion brand; Gerald Manu

Gerald Manu – Devacci

Predictably, Black business people also have to deal with negative stereotypes which act as an additional barrier, but they are still shocking when you hear the ordinary every day tales of racism recounted.

Fashion designer Gerald Manu started his business when still at school in south London. He told Dougal how, after promising sales, he arranged a meeting with an angel investor.

“It didn’t go well. The investor told him: ‘I know that if I give you this money, you will most likely blow it all on an expensive lifestyle or spend it recklessly. Why don’t you go and ask other Black, influential, wealthy people in the UK for the money instead?’ ”

Images above: Ojoma Idegwu, photograph BBC; Dearcurves fashio, photograph Dearcurves

Ojoma Idegwu – Dearcurves

Black women of course receive a double whammy. Fashion entrepreneur Ojoma Idegwu, founder of Dearcurves, which specialises in designs for plus size women, is routinely overlooked and says she has to fight twice as hard as white designers to even get a look in.

“I’ve been stared at in disbelief [at business events] when I introduce myself as the owner of Dearcurves. From their reaction you can tell they didn’t expect to see a Black person… I’m often asked again, as if to clarify I am who I ‘claim’ to be! It can end up with them walking away in embarrassment.”

When they spoke in April 2020 Ojoma had four members of staff, including herself, and was shipping her clothing to customers in more than 40 countries. In 2019 her label had been selected to represent Britain as part of a delegation to Sweden, organised by the UK Government’s Department for International Trade. She had even managed to persuade some Hollywood celebrities to wear her creations – “the holy grail of aspiring fashion labels in the digital age.”

Image above: Stephen Allan; image from BBC video

Stephen Allan – MediaCom

I have picked out some of the deeper purple passages, which are to me what makes this book so much more interesting than the usual dry-as-dust ‘how to succeed in business’ books, but CEO Secrets is by no means all garment-rending and emotional sharing. There are some vitally important practical tips.

“Cash is king. Do not run out of money!” says handbag designer Anya Hindmarsh.

“Listen” says Stephen Allan, CEO of global advertising and marketing brand MediaCom.

While the entrepreneur’s mantra is self-belief and perserverance – not being put off by the boulders thrown in your path – Stephen Allan is the other sort of CEO Dougal highlights in the book – the corporate ladder climber. He talks about how to rise up in large organisations, having joined MediaCom in 1982 and taken over as CEO in 2008.

He now runs a business which has more than 8,000 employees in 100 countries, handling accounts for brands such as adidas, Uber and Coca-Cola. When he became CEO one of his first actions was:

“to literally hide myself away for about a month and spend time, one on one, with every single member of the team, no matter what they did in the agency; whether they were front of house or back of house.

“It was one of the best things I ever did, it really informed me on where we needed to go as a business. And actually, in a sense, those people that I spoke to wrote the business plan. All I did then was put it together, edit it and do some prioritization.”

Image above: MediaCom image from their ‘About Us’ page

“Be relentless”

Other than listening, his other big piece of advice is “be relentless”. As a teenager he decided he wanted to get into advertising but did not know anyone in the business. He sent out 82 letter and received 82 rejections.

From a chance meeting at a bus stop, someone introduced him to their next door neighbour who worked in a design team. Through meeting them, he networked his way into some work experience, which gave him a reference.

“I wrote again to many of the same companies that previously rejected me. I managed to get a number of interviews, which then led to me being offered jobs.”

His advice for young people:

“There comes a point in organisations where younger people in particular need to speak up and ‘be in the room’. Sometimes the cleverest person in the room might be the quietest person in the room. And if you are the quietest person in the room – but happen to have the best ideas – no one’s going to know.

“So I think it’s really important we hear about hand-raisers. I think it’s important that people put their hand up and make suggestions. Wherever possible, volunteer to get involved in anything. Be a participant, a doer, a leader, and you won’t go wrong.”

CEO Secrets is published by Bloomsbury business and is available online and in all good bookshops.

Dougal Shaw works in BBC News ‘Money & Work story team’ (formerly known as the Business Unit) and lives in Acton. He frequently draws inspiration for business news stories from west London.

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