Nua Training is kicking off a new interview seriesLeadership Insights: Three Questions With…

We thought we would begin by interviewing the latest addition to our team Chris Kerwin.

Chris began his career 25 years ago as a strategist in banking, soon moving to the more ‘exciting’ world of media, working again in strategy, but this time for the BBC.  He ultimately led significant transformation, usually digital in nature, across a range of media organisations from the BBC, Channel 5, Immediate Media to Future plc.  He has led on brands as diverse as BBC Good Food, BBC Gardeners’ World, The Gadget Show, Top Gear, T3, Country Life and Decanter.

His most recent leadership role was as a Vertical MD at Future publishing.

Chris believes that it’s the combination of a clear strategy and intentionally building and motivating excellent, diverse teams that is the key to driving impactful and lasting change.  

Here are Chris’ thoughts:

If you could rewind the clock to when you started out on your leadership journey, what advice would you give yourself?

The first thing is that I would think about how to lead earlier in my career and more intentionally than I did.  I really believe organisations need to do more to support their managers earlier in their careers, rather than simply dropping them in at the deep end without any support.

As I got to be a more senior leader in my career, working across and within multiple teams, I started to spend time on things like understanding my values.  I started to be taught theories of leadership and useful models to use to understand other people and problems.  I wish I’d done this work sooner and had been able to understand and articulate my leadership style and preferences earlier.  I think this would have made me feel a more confident leader earlier, rather than having the imposter syndrome I so often felt.  It would have helped me lean into my own style sooner and understand where I was less strong.  It would have definitely helped with a lot of difficult conversations that inevitably happen as part of any leadership role.

Secondly, I would advise myself to be much more open about my own mental health sooner.  I have had depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember and, as I got more senior, I learned to be much more open about myself at work.  I actually think this helped my career and gave me more opportunities.  It certainly made me more genuine and I hope helped some others in my teams to talk about issues in their personal lives.

What is the best advice you have been given about creating a positive team culture/being a leader?

A great colleague of mine loves to say about life as a leader at work (and probably life in general) that ‘all you’ve got is your conduct.’ I think this simple quote is the best advice I’ve been given, so let me unpack it a little bit.

To me, this means doing what you say you’ll do, it means getting back to people, it means taking and delivering your actions, it means setting and striving to achieve objectives.  It means listening actively and seeking to understand.

It means working to define a clear direction, clear and well articulated strategic priorities with clear ownership.  It means supporting your teams to deliver, removing obstacles, solving problems and understanding any issues.

It also means putting people first, giving them opportunities to develop their careers, and supporting requests for flexibility which enabled me to build more diverse teams.  A diverse team is not only the right thing to do, a diverse team is better at solving problems.

It means saying thank you, celebrating successes and understanding failures. It means creating the right working environment and bringing groups of people together to discuss issues and resolve them.

It means giving yourself and your teams time to think (see the next question), the space to resolve complex issues and the leeway to try things that might not work.

Finally, it means trying to make work a good place to be.  It means having some fun and it means building some lifelong relationships.

What is the one book, that has most influenced your approach to leadership ?

I have to confess that I’ve not been a great reader of business books throughout my career, but as part of a coaching course I am currently doing at Barefoot, I’ve recently read Time to Think by Nancy Kline and have found it life-changing.  It is about creating the time and space to properly think, in the belief that the mind that holds the problem often holds the solution… and usually the best one.  To me, this flies in the face of a lot of current ‘tech-bro’ philosophy about delivering at pace and doing things as quickly as possible.  She argues that slowing down with the aim of achieving better quality of thinking will actually speed things up.

Over a decade, I led BBC Good Food, initially at BBC Studios and then at Immediate Media. Recently, I’ve reflected on how we transformed the brand from a successful magazine when I joined in 2013 to multi- media publishing giant by 2022 with over 50% of revenues from digital and an audience of millions and revenues in the tens of millions. Looking back, I believe we had ‘time to think.’

We prioritised quality thinking, collaborating extensively to devise ambitious strategies. We embraced debate, learning from mistakes and seeking external expertise when needed. We invested in skills and ensured the team understood and owned the strategy.

Things often took longer to realise that we wanted or planned, but we didn’t lose sight of our goals and initiatives in the fog of delivery. We believed in the quality of our thinking, and delivered an ambitious 10-point plan over several years, adjusting as needed.

Read Time to Think, I can guarantee it’s revelatory and could really help you and your team deliver real change.

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