Interviews

An inspiring journey from academia into business

Andrew McLaughlin

Chief Executive Officer of RBSI and Jersey IoD Award winner for the Large Business category 2019

Many people who move from academia into the commercial world struggle with operating in the business world – how did you manage to over-come this?

I was fortunate because the bank hired me to bring my economic and public policy expertise to the team. So I had the opportunity to apply my technical skills to practical challenges. I then found that the great things you pick up in academia were all valued in the commercial world – presentation and coaching skills; researching and synthesizing data, and being curious about changing things. There is no doubt the work you do to achieve a PhD creates a base layer of confidence that you have the ability to learn anything.

You won the Walter Bagehot Prize for the best dissertation in the field of government and public administration. Why didn’t you go down the path of politics?

I was interested in trying to craft policies that would make peoples lives better, less so the cut and thrust of political life. When I was about 10 the heart was ripped out of my local area by industrial decline and unemployment. I was lucky that my father had his own business. Seeing so many friends afflicted by economic change and poverty sparked my interest in economics. Like all young people I wanted to understand why it was happening. I didn’t really have a great opportunity to go into government but did have many opportunities to influence policy first as an academic, then at Ernst and Young and finally as a banker. I believe business leaders have an obligation to help those people brave enough to lead in Government. It’s too easy to become an armchair critic.

Summarise your commercial career journey so far and explain how your role of Chief Economist helped you to achieve CEO status at RBSI?

I started my commercial career as an economic advisor. We were a little unit set up with outsiders to challenge conventional wisdom and bring something different to table. It was a brilliant experience. My next role was a rotation into the private equity side of the business focused on property turnarounds following the early 90s recession. I then left banking to work in Ernst and Young – they were setting up a small team of outsiders to try and build and advisory business helping governments with major infrastructure challenges. I am very proud of some of those projects including regeneration in Manchester and Liverpool and the complete overhaul of the public housing stock in places like Glasgow. I then came back into banking as Deputy then Chief Economist. The bank wanted me to broaden out my leadership and see if I could work across a bigger portfolio so I then combined this role with a Direct or Communications and Marketing. That was a fantastic learning experience. It was about the most stressful job you could ask for in a financial crisis and helped me build a deep store of resilience. By 2014 I had led an expert team, a big function, big projects and big deals but not a full entity P&L and balance sheet. I felt I was ready to do that and, thankfully, so did the bank.

There is no doubt, the work you do to achieve a PhD creates a base layer of confidence that you have the ability to learn anything.

What have you learnt from your experiences as a NED (with the Prince’s Trust, Universities of Oxford & Nottingham etc)?

The Prince’s Trust is a good example. I chaired the Board in Scotland and was a member of the UK Board, led at that time by the wonderful Sir Charlie Dunstone. It was a great test of influencing skills and operating as a chairman rather than a CEO. You have an awesome responsibility to ensure the charity makes a difference to the lives of young people – the people who were suffering many of the same problems I saw in my community as child. The Prince had merged many of his charities before I arrived so there was a need to rebuild the Board of volunteers, appoint a new CEO and reinvigorate the fund-raising. It was all about influencing skills, building alliances with partners and appealing to the public spirt of many business leaders who wanted to help those less fortunate than themselves provided the money was being well spent. Fortunately, I found a great CEO (in Hong Kong of all places) and we had great success. I learned how to read a room as the Chair, that you had to do most of your best work between meetings and that if you want something done then ask a busy person. For example, Sir Brian Soutar was passionate about training up a new generation of engineers for his transport business and worked tirelessly in the background of the Trust to make it happen. It was truly uplifting to see young people whose lives had been blighted in some way becoming qualified and going straight into work.

What made you enter the IoD Director of the Year Awards in 2019 and how did you feel after winning the category of Large Business?

I was pleased to be nominated by people who felt I’d help them and their business. I was hesitant about entering because a leader is the captain of a team. Once I was clear in my head that the team would share in any success, I was at peace. I was elated by the award which seemed to validate that our strategy, team and culture were headed in the right direction.

Given your varied experience, what do you think Jersey can do to best po-sition itself to maximise its recovery from COVID-19?

This pandemic, like cholera in the 19th century, is sending some big signals to every country about the structure of its society. We all have a part to play in helping Jersey figure out what this means for us and therefore what we need to change for the future.

I am cautious on prescriptions whilst it’s still happening. Your best advice to public officials should be given privately. There is a lot of personal sacrifice in public office – more so than ever with social media – and they don’t need people who aren’t brave enough to do the job telling them how it should be done. The big issues for Jersey were the same before the crisis – patiently build brilliant infrastructure, recognize you are vulnerable and keep a strong public sector balance sheet and rainy day fund, protect your natural environment and seize the opportunity of the 4th industrial revolution i.e. digital, by ensuring that your people can adapt and thrive in the world it creates. To win in a digital you don’t need lots of land and people, you just need to be enterprising and that suits Jersey’s resources.

What advice would you give to a young Andrew on how to choose the right career journey?

Take every opportunity offered to understand your personality, your default settings as a person and your energy sources. Take every opportunity to gain a new technical qualification. Change your role every 3 years until your 40, then every 5 years until your retire if you are lucky enough to be in a big leadership role. That is enough time to make a difference in the role.