Discussion Featured Voice: Ian Marchant

by Francesca Fitzgerald _______2nd April 2019

Ian was born in South London, was the first in his family to get O-levels and go to university. He chose to study accountancy, and went on to work for Southern Electric, and then SSE, before leaving to do non-exec work and chairing several boards. He also invests in small companies, and advises a charity called Maggie’s, which aims to help and support anyone affected by cancer.

He spoke about the importance of articulating and re-articulating purpose in one’s life and business, the need for a sense of self-worth and value which for many people is found in their work and about businesses needing to better understand and recognise the good they already do in society.

I joined Southern Electric in 1992. At that stage I still didn’t want to be a CEO. I wanted to be a CFO. I got that after 4 years through a whole set of circumstances. Having done that, I thought I would quite like to do the top job, so got that. Enjoyed doing it. But eventually, after nearly 11 years, I’d had enough. So I decided to stop. At that point, I was only 52.

I enjoy being an non-executive. I found that what I wanted was the stimulation of business and strategic problems and questions without the hassle of having to do all the hard work. Being a non-exec gives you that. I find it really rewarding. My motto, my purpose as a chairman, is to create an environment in which the executive team can prosper and flourish. I enjoy seeing that happen, the team doing well. It’s not for everybody, but it is for me at this stage in life.

Do you think that there is now a sense of an imperative to do more than provide a service and to be a force for good?

I think that most organizations are a much bigger force for good than they realise. In the case of SSE, we provided meaningful employment and a decent living wage to 20,000 people. That is a force for good. And having a sense of personal purpose comes for a lot of people from that sense of worth at work. Something a lot of organisations forget is that you need to aim to create an environment where people will actually enjoy coming to work.

I think that most organizations are a much bigger force for good than they realise. _______

So that’s the first bit. The second way to do good is in how you interact with the communities you’re in. You’re an embedded part of a number of places where you have major operations, but you also affect vast swathes of the country. So what you do and how you do it can be a force for good.

And that’s before you get on to the other aspects of what companies can do. I think businesses have become too reticent in explaining the good they do, for a number of reasons. The first is that there’s an idea only the shareholders really matter. Actually within most businesses that’s never been true. Then there’s the cynicism that has been developed in society over the last 15 years. The idea that businesses are a force for bad. Whenever you try to say something to counter, you just get shot down.

Those two reasons are why businesses stopped understanding their potential as a force for good, but there needs to be a recognition that an awful lot of progress can be, and has been, made because of business. I think where societies make the best progress is when we have a competent and benign government working with competent and benign companies.

The change that’s happened in politics is interesting. When I was growing up, it used to be that your vote was determined by your class and that’s what mattered. In the last 10 years, what I think I’ve wanted from my government is competence and compassion, goodness. I don’t care what class they’re in. But if I look at the current wave of politicians, I don’t see those attributes very often. It’s sort of what you want from business, too. You want competence, and – it’s not exactly compassion – but a sense of purpose, a desire to be a force for good.

Business is a key part of our society. I think there is a need to try and articulate that so it doesn’t get caught up in the class philosophy that we had – that business is run by the managerial class. Business is not them and us. Actually I’m an example of someone who defies categorisation. My grandfather worked on the docks in London. There are lots of people in leadership who came from more privileged backgrounds. I feel sad that the social mobility that I had is not available for current generations. If I was at that stage now, with the upbringing that my parents had,  it doesn’t seem like I would be given the same education that I had, which has given me so many opportunities since.

I spent 10 years at what is now PWC. They invested a lot of time and money in me. I am only what I am because of that. My kids are 27 and 23, so you start seeing the world through their experiences and you see the same thing happening. Their employers are developing them. They are more mature people than when they left university. I see both of them maturing and developing as people, and that’s work that is doing that – that’s not us anymore. It’s not the education system.

I think there’s a lot of mixed messages around what companies can do, what their motivations might be. One of the ways that companies can make a huge difference is by engaging with charities. Not necessarily just on a monetary level. Companies engaging in an advisory capacity or through employee volunteering can be very valuable.

I was chairman of a cancer charity called Maggie’s –  a good example of engagement was a company that effectively went through all of the procurement Maggie’s did and put them on their deals. They saved us £60,000. They donated not a penny – just the time of their procurement team.

It’s really saying to people, use your skills.  Say if you’re accountants – how can you use your time and skill most effectively to help?

And what does progress look like to you in all of this?

I think you can only measure progress over the long-term, because the direction of travel is never universally in one direction. You have to ask – objectively – is the world better than it was 10 years ago? On a personal level, how can I help people? Are there people I can point to who are better off because of the impact that I’ve had? If you were doing a scorecard, progress would be being able to say, life is good, it’s better. The world is a better place. From an organization’s point of view you have to ask, is your industry, are your people in a better place now than they were 10 years ago?

It’s not necessarily easy to measure; progress in organisations isn’t just financial. But there are only three answers: yes, no, and I’m not sure, and in this case the answer is probably you’re just not being honest. All organisations have cycles. Even if you’re at the bottom of your cycle, you should try and look back to a previous point in the cycle. Ask – are we better off now than we were at this part in previous cycles? You have to think long-term.