Dame Carolyn McCall


16 February 2023

Dame Carolyn McCall


Pathways to CEO

Dame Carolyn McCall

Why has ITV joined 25×25?

I think the reason why we’ve joined 25×25 is because you and I have probably been involved in gender equality for, I don’t know, 30 years—maybe more, actually. So, all my career, all my working life, and certainly since I’ve had positions where I can have a positive impact, I’ve been involved in it. And I chaired Opportunity Now for a period of time—for about four years, five years, and what strikes me is that despite the focus on diversity, equality and inclusion, actually, the pace of change at senior levels in the organisation, for women, remains quite slow.

And if you look at the FTSE, if you look at very senior positions in many other aspects of life, you would have expected much more progress.

And I think, therefore, companies have got to be—including ITV—have got to be very conscious about how hard it is to make change and also what action we can take, rather than what words we can speak about equality. And that applies as much to gender equality as anything else.

The 25×25 Framework focuses on improving gender balance at senior executive levels. Why do you think that’s important?

I think that’s so important because, actually, a lot of very good work has been done for women in companies. But mainly the focus has been since Mervyn Davies [Baron Davies of Abersoch, CBE] did his report on non-exec directors and the paucity of them 15 years ago. That has definitely improved—I think most boards are now 30, 35% female.

But it’s mainly the Executive that create the culture of an organisation, and if the culture isn’t right then gender equality—or any other equality, actually—has barriers everywhere. So for me, I think it was the right focus to start really thinking about the executive pipeline for CEO.

You have been a CEO three times over. Can you tell us a bit about your personal experience and what you think makes a good CEO?

I’m not sure there’s any particular formula, actually, but I will say that I think my grounding at the Guardian Media Group [GMG] allowed me to get my first CEO job in the Guardian Media Group. And I had been able to do many different areas before I became CEO of the Guardian Media Group. And I’m not sure it would have been as smooth if I hadn’t worked in research, in sales, in marketing, in digital, in ‘new media,’ as it was called then. And I also got quite a lot of management experience early on because we had lots of different levels of management. And I think people management and communication and bringing people with you is a very important skill in any CEO.

You know, I took all that experience from my GMG role to EasyJet and it stood me in incredibly good stead. The communication skills, the empathy with people.

It’s really important that you relate to people well and that they want to talk to you and they want to tell you what’s really wrong, and also what’s going well. And that’s how you can be analytical about what needs to be done, what needs to be changed, to actually make everything go faster.

Can you discuss the Pathways to CEO at Easyjet?

I think that the fundamental principle is you have to have a chairman [chairperson] who believes that you don’t need to be an airline person to be able to run an airline. And that’s a difficult one, that’s a Rubicon for a lot of people. I mean, a lot of people, if you take Willie Walsh, many of them have been pilots and then have become CEO. And so Mike Rake, who was my chairman at EasyJet took a massive risk on me. Massive. I’d never run a public company. I’d never been in an airline, ever, not even remotely close. But he thought I had the qualities and skills that would be able to transform the airline into a customer-facing, successful airline.

But the pathways now for EasyJet, for CEO, they can come from network management. That’s a hugely critical job in an airline. It could still come from pilot management, but you’ve got more of a chance now that a female could come through pilot management because we put in an initiative eight years ago at EasyJet.

And at ITV?

Actually, I think at ITV we have multiple pathways for the CEO role, because I think that it could come from a production background, but it really doesn’t have to come from a production background because there’s a massive commercial engine. So, it could be commercial, it could be marketing, it could be production, it could be commissioning—there’s a range. Really, honestly, there are multiple pathways, and that’s how we look at succession in the whole area of diversity and equality.

People have different backgrounds and therefore some are more adept at being great in interviews or being able to do psychometric testing, for instance.

Whereas, what you want to try and do is give them all of that quite early on so they get used to that, so that when they are in a position where they can go for the job, they can represent themselves to the best of their abilities. It is about giving people that chance to seize the opportunity and have equal opportunity.

How robust is the succession and talent plan at ITV?

The process is extremely robust and rigorous. We take it twice a year to the PLC board. We do our own executive committee sessions on Talent. We do that twice a year. And we do that across the organisation, so everyone is in the room when we’re talking about other people’s Talent, so that we can actually see whether they can cross over in a more operational or senior role to be able to get further.

And then I have a session with the non-execs and the chairman, on my own, to talk about Exco succession and other things. And that’s a very useful session, actually, because they ask a lot of questions—they’re part to understand, part to prod, part to probe. It’s very, very useful. And that makes you realise that it’s a continuous process.

What are the key skills for being a successful CEO?

I think you do have to have a vision and I think you do have to have a mission, a passion for what you’re doing, as a good leader, as a good CEO.

But I think you do have to have those analytical skills and those strategic skills where you pin down what the real issues are and then how you’re going to move a company from this to this. That applies to any sector, any CEO role, wherever you are.

And I learnt a lot of resilience at EasyJet, that definitely was formative for being a very resilient CEO, whether it was a very difficult kind of activist type of founder/investor or whether it was Brexit, which was a massive crisis. I inherited quite an operational meltdown. Whatever that was, no matter how difficult those years were, they were incredibly good for my operational muscles and also for my resilience.

What advice would you give to a senior woman who is keen to become a CEO?

I would say set your sights high and make sure that you are putting your energy into the right things: [in] your own work, and having those career conversations in your own organisation about your ambition—and don’t be ashamed of ambition—and also in wider networks.

Someone very wise, in fact, Mervyn Davies said to me: “You don’t need to be doing more media dinners. You need to be doing some business dinners.” And I said: “Why?” And he said: “Because if you want to get into business and out of media, you need to know some business people.” Well, anyway, he was right and I listened to him. Coming out of your industry, sometimes, can also be very helpful.

And I think get the right support for what you are aiming to do. So whether that’s a mentor, whether that’s a coach—coaching can be invaluable when you go for your first interview as a CEO, because you probably haven’t been interviewed for quite a long time if you’re coming up an organisation.

It can be invaluable to really think through how you present yourself and how you’re going to think through what you say and how you say it.