IWF UK Leadership Stories: Judith Donovan CBE

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Judith Donovan CBE, is a pragmatic leader who cares for and champions the causes of her communities. Having started in advertising and direct marketing, she has been a successful entrepreneur and holds many non executive roles. Judith has received several awards and honours for bringing people together to solve problems and create opportunities.

What does being a leader mean to you?

It means being able to sell ideas. I am an original and creative thinker. I like to be able to persuade people to go along with my thinking so that ideas get implemented.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

When I returned to Yorkshire from London, where I had worked with modern advertising agencies, I joined Grattan, a catalogue company. This was the 1970s and the company had a very old fashioned, male culture. Every year I got an A+ in my job appraisal. Every year I was told I could stay the rest of my life and they'd love to have me. I asked every year when could I start climbing the management ladder because I had ambitions to get on to the board eventually. Every year I was told that I was at the highest level that a woman was allowed to be.

After five years there I thought “sod it! I’m going on my own”. I couldn’t go on for a sixth year as I thought it was morally wrong. I resigned and started my own business. That was 1982 in Bradford. It was an extremely brave thing to do. It went very, very well and we grew very fast. By 1990 I was employing 111 staff, had 52 company cars and tons of clients in London. Then in 1991 there was a mini recession that hit financial services companies. Two thirds of my clients were in financial services. Budgets were literally cut overnight. Our management forecasts went from a £0.5 million profit to a £50,000 loss. That was a massively frightening and tough experience to go through.

If you are outside London and the southeast, your staff are your family, your community are your stakeholders. I had to retrench 45 of my staff and to cut back massively. It hurt badly because Yorkshire wasn’t a thriving economy. I was the rainmaker and I felt more pressure than ever before. I felt I had no option. I had to protect the families and their mortgages. I had to go hunting for clients anywhere and everywhere, talking to strangers on trains, talking to people in airport departure lounges, going to any and every networking event, making a nuisance of myself as I chiselled away to find anyone with an advertising budget.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

I was one of the first women to start a business in Bradford and one of the very first female entrepreneurs in Yorkshire, for which I got Yorkshire Business Woman of the Year and Yorkshire Woman of the Year awards.

I was the first ever female President of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce. I also chaired the Bradford Training and Enterprise Council. What I did that I am most proud of is I brought together a lot of different, major organisations that didn’t talk to each other: the police, the university, educational authorities, the Labour and Tory leaders, Chief Executives and the Chamber of Commerce. We would meet every two months to talk informally and off the record about why Bradford wasn’t thriving. After five years it was so successful that we invited the members of parliament. It became one of the very early public and private sector partnerships. It was one of the main reasons I got my CBE.

In 2000 I sold my business to my staff and went off to be a non-executive director. I loved being a Millennium Commissioner, on projects like Eden, the Tate Modern and the Deep in Hull. I currently chair a lobbying campaign called Keep Me Posted, which was launched in 2013. It is about dissuading big brands from forcing their customers to go online if they don't want to. Some customers may have a disability, can’t afford broadband connections or live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have a connection. We make sure they get their paper bills and statements to manage their financial affairs. I have signed up 46 national brands to promise not to force people online and I’ve protected about 173 million transactional relationships. I’m a fixer. I cannot be a spectator. I’m proud that since selling my business I have been on over 30 boards and chaired more than 10 of them.

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

I’ve got gentler. I was a very blunt instrument in the ‘90s. I was brutal and it was about the bottom line and job survival. I’ve learned in my 20 years of being a NED about different ways of negotiating and losing the battle to win the war. My vocabulary is broader. I think it’s about language and how you communicate. I think my ears have got bigger and my mouth has got smaller. Because it's absolutely about listening and having understanding. I think I've matured as a leader.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

First, don't be too proud to take a humble job. If you want to become a leader, you actually have to watch leaders. That doesn't necessarily mean leaders where you work. It means volunteer for something. I don't care if it is a parish council. They can be a pain in the neck. If you want to see bad leadership and how not to run a committee join a council. Just join something. Don't say because I want to be Lord Chancellor, or to get a gong from Buckingham Palace or to become the MD of BP that I’m not going to start with the grassroots. Because the grassroots are where you can learn from mistakes and broaden your learning.

The second thing is make sure you're not narrowing your thinking. You have to understand the broad spectrum of stuff: arts, music, culture, science, politics, government and international. I don't care which newspaper you take. Just read every day so you know the intelligent conversation across the piece.

I’m a fixer. I cannot be a spectator.

Judith Donovan CBE
Judith Donovan CBE

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