Interview with Margaret Heffernan
Why do clients typically hire you to speak?
Some organisations hire me to ask questions and pose challenges of a kind that insiders feel they can’t ask or which they feel will command more attention when delivered from an outsider. Some companies bring me in to create a different kind of discussion or debate based on thinking everyone has shared with me. Some want me to re-frame some of the problems they face. Some bring me in to deliver brain food.
All of my speaking involves posing questions and offering potential solutions but it is designed to provoke discussion and debate. Also, if I’m being honest, many organisations bring me in because I’m female and they’re increasingly uncomfortable convening conferences of business thought leaders all of whom are male.
They recognise that this looks old fashioned and alienates female executives, clients and customers and are looking for high caliber, cutting edge thinking developed by someone who isn’t male. They want the rigour of academic thinking coupled with the pragmatism of someone who has run businesses. They’re also highly focused on risk reduction which is a recurrent theme in my book.
What types of knowledge and lessons did you take with you from your time at BBC?
Two things: the need to check, double check, interrogate and question what you’re told. When I worked at the BBC, you could count on viewers to tell you if you’d made a mistake so you worked very hard to check your facts and assumptions. The other thing I learned was that you should continue to improve a programme for as long as it was practically feasible. Even if a show was in the can, if you could improve it you should. If you are spending public money, you owe it to the public to deliver the very best finished product that you can.
What are some of the biggest challenges companies currently face?
When I talk to and work with CEOs, their biggest issues are: how do I get the best from my people? (They all know that they don’t.) Where are my blind spots? (They all know they have some.) How can I test and challenge my own thinking to ensure good decision making? How do I get people to tell me the unvarnished truth and to do unfettered exploration?
What types of projects are you currently working on?
I am currently finishing a new book about how to make organisations (from families to multinational businesses) more creative.
What kinds of clients have you worked with in the past?
I talk to a very wide range of organisations, from national governments, Federal Banks in the U.S. to business schools and entrepreneurs. Much of my work focuses on the assumptions we make about work and business which turn out, in reality, to be wrong. And there’s really no organisation impervious to those issues.
As a former CEO, I am focused on the intersection between robust academic work with pragmatic business needs. I work with solid research but am always looking at it through the lens of business experience, asking the questions: do I believe this? What does it mean in practice? What does it change – and how?