Leadership Stories: Susan Young: embracing the power of business and creativity

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Susan Young chaired IWF UK from 2012 to 2014. She is an American entrepreneur who settled in London three decades ago. Susan initiated “PORTRAYED”, 30 portraits of past IWF UK Chairs for the 25th Anniversary. In 2009 she pivoted from senior executive roles to help build City Academy, one of London’s leading performance and creative arts companies.

What does being a leader mean to you, and how has your leadership style changed over time?

This question has given me pause because the topic is so vast. Also, I find myself thinking at times that the world is too obsessed with the topic of leadership. Because of the focus on ‘the leader’ I worry that we've lost sight of what it takes for people in organizations to feel truly engaged at a grass roots level and perform confidently.

For me leadership is inextricably tied to a form of action and, therefore, it is about working effectively. Over time I have moved away from more masculine models to which I was exposed when I started my career – I entered GE on a special MBA programme when ‘neutron’ Jack Welch was at the height of his power and viewed as one of the most important leaders operating in the world.

I now see leadership as something that involves collaboration to get something accomplished. The situational context of leadership is important, as the means by which a leader galvanises people to action needs to be appropriate to the situation. Effective leadership requires self-awareness, a desire to bring a vision to fruition and flexibility. And a sense of humour is very useful. Effective leaders need excellent communication skills to articulate their vision clearly, persuade, support, even share the leadership baton when required.

So I see leadership as something fluid and shared. I used this quote from Edith Wharton in my speech when I was elected Chair of IWF UK a few years ago and I think it appropriately sums up my views on leadership: ‘There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it.

What have been your biggest challenges and successes?

I have combined my challenges and achievements as the one resulted in the other.

The first story is from my last years with Black & Decker, which I had joined when GE sold its Housewares business. I came to London to be part of a team to launch B&D Household products in Europe. I was due to stay for two years, and have been here for 33.

I was asked to join a team that was both experimental and strategic as its mission was to recover B&D’s position in cordless technology. In the 60s, NASA had worked with a B&D engineer – one of my team mates – to develop a cordless drill for use in the first moon landing, but the company had fallen behind other global competitors in recent years.

Even though I was chosen by senior management for the role, I faced many challenges from colleagues who could not believe that an American woman from the Marketing Department, who had previously worked on products for the home, had anything of value to bring to the development and marketing of a new generation of professional cordless power tools.

It took a few months but I carefully listened and learned, especially from the engineers, who were the group most vexed by my appointment. I showed them how to do ‘end user’ research and managed to garner very valuable information about what future customers wanted which made their design work much richer and informed. I remember, a few months into the job, approaching an engineer who was part of our special team and somebody I could trust. I said, ‘All right, come on. Tell me what they're saying about me?’ He looked at me quizzically and said, ‘You? We think of you as one of us!’

I was not expecting that answer. I was aware of stealthily doing my work and contributing as one of the team members. But his response made me realise that paradoxically the differences I contributed ultimately enabled me to ‘blend in’. It is a career memory that I treasure.

The other challenge and achievement of which I am most proud is my work in building City Academy with my business partner Mike. Joining City Academy 11 years ago was not something I had planned. I was fresh from completing an MSc in Organizational Psychology and trying to transition into a new phase of my career. I agreed to do a project for Mike to help him develop a strategy plan for the one-year old company.

My career to this point had involved mostly work with established multinational companies. City Academy was a start-up, had two employees who camped inside a company called Brandfuel. It offered one course each in singing, dancing and acting and had circa 45 students. The day I arrived to begin the project I thought, ‘Oh, god, this is so different from being part of a big company and what the hell am I doing here?’

Nevertheless, I rolled up my sleeves and learned how to build a business and, in the process, developed a most wonderful working partnership and friendship with Mike. The best bit is that I just love what City Academy does. Fast forward to just before the Coronavirus lockdown: it offers thousands of courses annually, produces semi-professional shows in dance, musical theatre, and choir recitals twice a year, and has 33,000 students annually who come to develop their creativity. It has opened my eyes to the power of the performing and creative arts and how it can help people in so many aspects of life.

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

  • Pursue career choices that add to your sense of self confidence and make sure you are enjoying your work.
  • Be sure to make an impact in whatever you do-leave a situation better than you found it.
  • Take advantage of what the performing arts can teach you about confidence, communication, poise, listening – so many skills I wish I had acquired earlier.
  • Keep choosing challenges that teach you something new – lifelong learning is so important.
  • Be kind to yourself and find ways to silence the self-critical voice that stops so many women.

My eyes have been opened to the power of the performing and creative arts and how it can help people in so many aspects of life

Susan Young
Susan Young

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