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Sean Pillot de Chenecey chats with Suzy Walton, inspirational board director, corporate governance expert, broadcaster and mother of seven.
Included in the chat:
- Suzy’s role as a board member
- How connectivity, self-organisation and AI affect all businesses
- The important activity of horizon scanning
- Suzy’s fascinating background and how courage has played a part throughout her life
- What inspires Suzy including lessons from working with Dame Maggie Smith CH DBE
- How faster innovation models have raised the bar for companies
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (00:03): Hello this podcast is care of Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau representing a select group of the world’s finest thinkers and thought leaders founded in 1999. Today Speakers Associates operate out of nine offices across seven countries covering the UK, Europe and Middle East. I’m Sean Pillot De Chenecey author of The Post-Truth Business and Influencers & Revolutionaries. In this series, I interview a range of fascinating individuals, proudly represented by the bureau. These change agents and industry experts give an update on their specialised areas of knowledge, and also on their motivations and viewpoints regarding the future of business. Today, I’m really pleased to be joined by Suzy Walton, with a career reaching from the west end to white, tall and boardrooms beyond Suzy frequently speaks about her life. She was originally a west end actress playing the juvenile lead of Lydia. The young deaf girl in the award-winning play children of a lesser God.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (01:04): She then moved into broadcasting and joined three years as a producer presenter, an editor of her own travel show, Time Off on LBC radio. She was also a news producer with sky news and a BBC television reporter. She then embarked on an academic career and picked up two degrees in science before becoming a senior civil servant. She worked in the ministry of defense as a research scientist and then the cabinet office. She also works in the prime minister’s strategy unit for a number of years. Suzy also has six children.
Suzy Walton (02:06): Hi Sean. Good morning.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (02:08): Very good, indeed. Thank you. Absolutely. Here we are on a sunny Monday morning. And so Suzy, just tell me in terms of, I mean, that’s quite an extraordinary background you’ve got and
Suzy Walton (02:28): Yes, and it, it was inaccurate, Sean, actually it’s, it’s, it’s seven children as of three weeks ago. Oh,
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (02:34): So congratulations.
Suzy Walton (02:36): So we set up this interview when it was a me six, but it’s, it is now seven.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (02:41): And I have to ask, have you had any sleep over the last few weeks?
Suzy Walton (02:43): No, I’ve had no sleep, but you find ways of coping and it’s amazing what, what the brain is capable of. If you if you manage yourself carefully.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (02:53): It is quite, quite phenomenal. I mean, Suzy, let me just along alongside your seven children and you, I know you sit on, you know, many boards, so in terms of the, if you like jumping straight to the sort of chase and, and the, the issues around sort of social, cultural trends, business trends, et cetera, what sort of things that, that are impacting the organizations that, that you help run?
Suzy Walton (03:17): It’s a very good question, Sean. And since I left central government, which was 2007, I’ve always sat on boards that are large and complex, but in, in very different policy areas. So for example you’ve alluded to some of the things that I do, but I’m currently on the board of the Institute of directors ACCA, which is a global regulator for the accountancy profession. And I’m also the vice president of the Royal Society of Medicine. So you’d think that if you’re asking me about the, the challenges facing the businesses I run, you would think that all those organizations would be facing different challenges because they’re all in different areas and they are, but there is actually a commonality. So it all organizations at the governance level have a similar set of issues. So they all have to be kept safe, solvent, strategic, and compliant.
Suzy Walton (04:14): And that’s the main role of the board. So that is what you’re trying to do as an non-executive director is to keep all these organizations safe, solvent, strategic, and compliant, but it’s becoming more and more complex in a world where you have this connectivity. So where you used to have previously discrete groups information now flows at a pace that was impossible to predict. And also people, people self-organized in a way that they didn’t use to be capable of. They’ve got flexible careers. They’ve got longer careers in, in career paths that are not linear and people want value added roles in what they do. And also, you know, the world is becoming more challenging because artificial intelligence is completely changing the dynamic between the person and the computer. So all of those challenges mean that every single business that, that I help to run by sitting on the boards has got its own specific technical challenges to do with its industry, but it faces these, these bigger issues all to do with these big driving forces in the world around connectivity, people, self organizing, and the enormous rise of artificial intelligence.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (05:39): Right. Absolutely mean, can I just really interesting to me, the, the point you made right at the beginning there about, or one of the points about people having sort of longer non-linear career paths. And I have to say that if anyone illustrates having a longer
Suzy Walton (06:46): You can look at that in different timeframes. So if you said at a strategic level, what should big business anywhere in the world, not just the UK anywhere, but what should big business be worried about today? I would have to say the obvious coronavirus because of its impact on the staff, on revenue, on people’s sense of safety and security. I don’t think there is any business, be it a foot C 100 S and P 500, any company at all, or even the SES in the UK, there is no company that can distance itself from the potential shocks that coronavirus is going to present. But that’s the shock, hopefully in the short to medium term. So what should big business be worried about in other timeframes? If you look on a long term trajectory, then I think that the, the, the key issue for all big businesses is needing to be sufficiently resilient to withstand any shocks to business continuity.
Suzy Walton (07:50): So it could be from a global pandemic, such as coronavirus that we’re facing now or any other shocks. So when I was, you’ve alluded to some of the things I’ve done, and I should say a lot of those have been by default, not by design. I never planned to have a career that spanned the arts and the sciences that just happened. But one of the things I used to do in central government when I was in the prime minister’s strategy unit was horizon scanning. So a lot of what you try to plan for when you horizon scan actually never comes to pass. But the point is that if you are constantly as, as an organization, as a business, if you are constantly horizon scanning for possible scenarios, and then you build plans to to, to deal with those possible scenarios or the wild cards, which are the things people never really think will happen, but you never know they might.
Suzy Walton (08:45): So if you plan for all of that, what that gives an organization is a culture, which is able to respond, not just to those scenarios that might come to pass, but actually other unthinkable scenarios, because an organization then develops a, a mindset of being able to turn things completely around quickly to deal with a scenario that was never on the table. So I think all businesses, all big businesses need to be, need to be resilient. And, and horizon scanning is the best way to be resilient in the medium to long term. And it’s something that people don’t do well. A lot of people say to me, how can we do it in my business? We don’t understand it very well. We’ve never done it very well, but when I was in government, we didn’t understand it very well either. But what we did was we did the best.
Suzy Walton (09:41): We could trying to find valid sources of data that told us about the future. Some of which will be linear, some of which will be nonlinear. And you try to amass this, this, this huge data set of possible future trends that then gives you your drivers and your possible scenarios. And then you do your best, cuz it’s never perfect. You do your best to understand what that future might look like. And when that future comes to pass, you’ll be resilient against it. But if another future scenario happens, which you didn’t plan for the point I was making earlier is that you will be better placed to suddenly shift into a different mode to face that scenario. So the point I make to businesses is that government finds it hard. Everybody finds it hard. So because it’s difficult is not a reason to not do it. Horizon scanning is one of the most valuable things you can put money and time into as a business.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (10:44): Very, very interesting. And can I ask, I mean, on that exact point, when you’re talking naturally about sort of, you know, COVID 19 or coronavirus, et cetera and cultures of response, I mean I think we, I think we’re all imagining wearing fairly in the early stages of this issue, but when you look around you as a, as a strategist, as, as an individual, I mean watching the news and seeing what’s going on, have any of the responses so far on that level impressed you, or anyone’s really concerned you in terms of, you know, various countries, cultures of response?
Suzy Walton (11:19): I think the UK is I think our government is we have got the infrastructure because we have a joined up health service. We have a health service that plans for scenarios. I think we are doing very well at the moment in an unknown situation. This is back to the scenario. Planning government has always planned for different scenarios and for pandemics, but the, the specifics of any one particular pandemic will not have been modeled because you haven’t got the data. So you can’t model it from what I have been able to see. And I am the, I’m the vice president of the Royal Society of Medicine. So I, I do see some of the modeling that’s going on. I am impressed by what we are doing in the UK. I think some countries also have that capability, but might have been a little slow to deploy it. And I think the problem that nations like the United States face is that they are so large that at the, at the federal level, it’s very difficult to have a policy that operates across the whole of a nation that size. So at the moment things are changing daily. But I think the UK is doing fairly well in a very difficult situation.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (12:40): Okay. Moving on. And in terms of what really drives you and what really sort of, who should say sort of, you know, got you started on this or, or, or powered you through this very, very one might say sort of, you know, erratic, interesting, vibrant, creative career path. Was there a particular sort of a, a motivational thing that really yeah, that really boosted you?
Suzy Walton (13:06): My erratic career, well,
Suzy Walton (14:07): So basically I just wanted a job, any job just to, just to keep myself solvent. And so somebody said, but you lack courage, Suzy, you need to learn a little bit of, you need some confidence to get a job, any job, even a bar job, you need confidence. So they opened up a copy of the stage, the newspaper for actors, and they said, right, we’re gonna send you to an audition for a west end show, because if you can walk out onto that stage at an open audition, hold your head high and come back, then you will have developed some confidence, but I was living in a host at this stage. So I’m in a host on the edges of London. And somebody says, we’re going to just put you on that stage. So you learn some confidence. So I thought that was a good plan.
Suzy Walton (14:53): So I went along to the audition, which was an open audition for a very big show. It was an open audition because they had been unable to cast a particular role. So usually you, you, you hold small auditions for well known names. And then if you can’t find somebody to play the role, you open it up and have an open audition. So I walked on the stage to read for the role of Lydia in children of a lesser God, which had been a Broadway show, which was coming to London for six weeks. And I read for the part of Lydia in order to get confidence. So I could then go and get a bar job and much to my enormous surprise. They asked me to come back and read the show, read the character. Again, the next day told me to go away, read the play, come back, think yourself into Lydia.
Suzy Walton (15:45): So I did that and I was called back about four or five times. So I was now gaining in confidence and thought, I probably could go and get this bar job or this restaurant job. And then much to my absolute amazement. One day, the producer who was sitting in the stalls leaned forward and said, my dear, I want you to have the part. So so I was given a leading role in children of a lesser God, which was, as I say, a Broadway play, which was coming to London for just six weeks. But actually it turned out to be the best show in the west end at the time. And it ran for three and a half years. And I was cast as Lydia, who was the juvenile lead. And she was a young, deaf girl. She was 16 year old, a 16 year old deaf American girl.
Suzy Walton (16:37): And so that was my first job for three and a half years playing Lydia. And I had to learn sign language. So somebody came over from America to teach me sign language. And we ran in the west end for about two years. Then we did a national tour of every venue in the UK. And then we came back into the west end to close the show to close the run. So so that really got me started because I had, I had nothing. And so I was open to all possibilities and it was a great first job being in the west end. And it taught me a lot of skills that then have seen me through my rather erratic career since then.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (17:25): Ah, fantastic. I remember the film as well. I mean, it’s just a yeah. Spectacularly written a piece of work sorting from the podcast. It
Suzy Walton (17:34): Was an astonishing, an astonishing piece of theater. It was absolutely brilliant, but the thing was, I did it and, and I was good at it in the sense that I got good reviews. Mm-Hmm
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (18:34): I mean, it’s just absolutely phenomenal. I can ask. So, in terms of, you know, sort of personal achievements, you know, when you look back, I mean, is that the, the personal achievement that you are proudest about or is there something else even more sort of inspiring?
Suzy Walton (18:49): I was a widow for many years with several children at the time. And I think my biggest personal achievement was being able to continue as a as a professional to continue to do a, do my best for organizations when I was a widow. So at the time I was widowed, I was in the ministry of defense. And I have to now speak very carefully because you signed the official secrets act when you work for the ministry of defense. But I had an amazing job in the ministry of defense. One of the things I did when I was there was I had a, a job as a military psychologist, and that took me all over the world to some really very fascinating assignments, but I also was asked to do a PhD degree ofcourse we had a big problem in the military with suicide.
Suzy Walton (19:46): And the, the secretary of state looked around for somebody that could solve this problem with some good valid research. And I was my name came up, so I was asked to keep my day job, but alongside that to do a PhD into suicide in order to find out what was the cause within the military and how could we ameliorate that? So how could we bring the suicide rates down? So back to your question, which was personal achievement, that was particularly hard at the time, because while I was doing the PhD into suicide alongside my day job I was then widowed at that time. And that was for me to be able to keep everything going. It was immensely difficult because it’s very tempting sometimes to say one’s professionals duties are just a little bit too challenging.
Suzy Walton (20:47): But I’ve always felt that if you, if you don’t keep going, you are never gonna be a role model to people. If, if you don’t show that it is possible to keep going in difficult times. So, so I did and I think that period when I was widowed, but was also in the ministry of defense and had to get that PhD completed because that was going to stop. Hopefully it was going to stop many deaths within the military. I was proud of myself for getting through that and, and getting through that hopefully with all my children intact and, and hopefully still a sense of humor intact.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (21:25): Yeah.
Suzy Walton (21:55): But that, but the
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (22:37): And then what about in terms of, you know, you know, incredibly sort of inspiring individual and speaker, but what about things that inspire you? So, I mean, do you yeah, where do you get your inspiration from? Are you a great reader of, of info or other people or what what’s yeah, what what’s what’s inspiring you,
Suzy Walton (22:54): It, it it’s I, I get inspired by the strangest things. So just a little anecdote there’s which a lot of listeners will identify with. There’s a book, the changing magic of tidying by Marie Kondo. Well, that became my, my Bible for a while. And I discovered that by organizing one’s home and possessions actually it did free up some mental energy for other things. So I got inspired by that. I get inspired by people who you don’t know you’re going to meet, and when you meet them, you learn something from them that you didn’t think you were going to learn. So, for example, when I was when I was back in my teens and when children of a lesser God finished, I took a job at before I went into television and radio, I took a job in west end theater, the theater Royal in the Haymarket mm-hmm
Suzy Walton (23:57): There was no tannoy system. And it was the only theater in London that couldn’t call actors to the stage with a tannoy, because it didn’t have one. Yeah. So it had a person that had to learn the script and then had to run up and down the stairs and get people on the stage at the right time. Well, that was, that was a, a very interesting job. And the first show I did there as the walking tannoy was Virginia and it was a monologue and starring in it was Dame Maggie Smith. And I know she won’t mind me telling this story but I would go and get Maggie before the curtain rose. And I was young and Maggie was a very, very, very established professional, much regarded one of the best actresses in the world. But when I got her to the side of the stage to go on for Virginia, it was just her and me on the side of the stage.
Suzy Walton (24:49): And she would often say many nights, I’m not doing it. I am not going on that stage, Suzy. I’m not. And I’d say, well, come on Maggie, you did it last night. You’re go, you’re going on that stage. And I would literally many nights have to physically push her on the stage. Wow. But the minute so I saw Maggie Smith really anxious on the side of the stage and I had to get her on. But when that curtain rose and when she performed for two and a half hours a monologue, and then she got a standing ovation. If you said to any member of the audience, do you think there was any element of Maggie Smith being a bit nervous or anxious? No, absolutely not. Nobody would’ve seen that. So what that taught me at a very young age is that everybody has vulnerabilities. Everybody has fears, but the public persona that you put across that you see in people often doesn’t show that.
Suzy Walton (25:47): And it was a really valuable lesson for me to learn that it’s okay to be scared and being scared doesn’t mean that you can’t do whatever it is you are doing. So Maggie Smith was scared, but she, she performed brilliantly. So I’ve often I’ve held that close. And when I do public speaking, when I present at my boards, some of the things I do take a lot of courage, but I always remember that in order to do whatever it is you’re doing, you don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to know everything, but you have to have the courage to give it a try and you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to get out there and do your best. And I think that really is, is what I’ve followed all my career. I’ve often felt out of my depth, but I’ve always gone back to Maggie Smith in the wings. And I’ve said, there’s no harm in trying cuz the very worst that can happen is that you don’t get it quite right. So I get inspired by books back to your question. And in terms of people Dame, Maggie Smith definitely stands out for me as somebody who inspired me years ago.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (26:59): Oh brilliant. The great Dame, Maggie Smith. Fantastic. Well look just in the last few minutes we have, and it’s been so interesting. Suzy, thanks you so much. And we very, very happily, you kept this going for, for hours as they say without a doubt. What about, okay, so again, back to the, sort of the straightforward business side of things and in terms of sort of organizational behavior business strategy, et cetera when you’ve consulted with the many organizations that you’ve consulted with and for and, and when you look around you, are there any particular organizations or brands or corporates or whatever that, that you really admire that you think now there is an example say of an, of an organization or a corporate or whatever that really, really leads by example and is evidently you know, really on point.
Suzy Walton (27:54): Very good question. I particularly like, so before I talk about brands, I’ll just touch on what it is. I like about certain brands. I like how disruptive technology has come along. Companies like say Uber and Deliveroo and has challenged the very big players in established industries. So I’m not, that’s not to say that I engage with companies like Uber and Deliveroo because I have to be comfortable with the governance model. But what I like is when an old established brand then has to have a new look at itself because of all these disruptive technologies that have come away that have come into the market. And so if you like that, these faster innovation cycles that companies like Uber and deliver, bring about the faster innovation cycles raises the bar and it becomes a survival of the fittest. So in terms of brands that I do, like, because I think they’ve faced these disruptive technologies and done particularly well and they’re all different brands.
Suzy Walton (29:00): I like national trust, for example, because it used to have a very established market. It did what it did in a niche area, but just in recent years, it’s widened its degree. Its reach to very different markets. I like Ocado because more so than many other operators in that market, it really does put the customer in the driving seat. And it uses a lot of psychology. You know, psychology is very important. If a company is going to survive when it’s got lots of competition out there and I like Netflix, because again, you are in the driving seat, you, you are the one that makes the decisions as to what you watch and when you watch and I, I really like Amazon, particularly Amazon because Amazon has faced Amazon was a disruptor. It was a disruptor initially, initially coming into the market and challenging others. But now it’s become one of the big brands because it’s constantly reinventing itself.
Suzy Walton (30:00): So it’s a classic disruptor, but it’s got even more potential to go after other markets because it’s continually raising the game for others and for itself and unless regulation steps in and stops it doing some of the things it’s doing Amazon is perhaps for me, the best example of, of a disruptor that’s come in and its potential is still, it is still getting bigger and bigger. Sometimes the regulators can stop the, the innovators, but at the moment, Amazon for me is a very good example of of something coming into the marketplace and then becoming an established brand and still having potential to go somewhere.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (30:42): Okay. Absolutely fascinating. Well, look in that case, last question, Suzy, and, and that’ll be this just to be utterly crystal clear for the, you know, for the array of speakers, associates, listeners, wherever they may, may be and Asia middle east Europe America, et cetera. In terms of, if you were to be sort of imagining the absolute ideal event or conference that you’d be speaking at perhaps just give us a, a view on exactly what that would be and what you’d be speaking about to your ideal audience. So, so what is the perfect occasion for you and what precisely would you be be speaking about?
Suzy Walton (31:20): There are two perfect two perfect scenarios for me. Number one, I love speaking about governance. I love speaking about how organizations can run themselves well, and that is really I speak at the macro level because I’ve worked in government and now I work in governance because I’ve sat on over 15 boards. I can, I have a lot of experience of what keeps an organization back to those things we said earlier, safe, solvent, strategic, and compliant. I like talking about governance because I believe I have insights and experience into how companies can run themselves well and can motivate their workforce and can increase revenue, et cetera, et cetera. So that is one of my ideal scenarios. I also absolutely adore talking to audiences of, let’s say people below below the chief executive level, people who have potential and don’t know it. So people who are the rising stars in an organization now you might say, does that mean you like talking to women’s groups?
Suzy Walton (32:29): And of course I do, but it isn’t just women who wonder if they can take the next step up. Men and women often limit themselves at a particular level in their career. And there is nothing nicer for me than having a room full of people who wonder if they might be at board level, but they think they don’t have the skill set or the courage because the answer to that is you do have the courage. You may not have the skill, but you’ve got enough courage and you don’t need all the skills to advance. So I love talking to people and using the anecdotes from my career as to how you can push yourself organizationally higher than you maybe thought you should be. So they are my two scenarios. And in terms of where do I like speaking? I’ll just, I’ll close with an anecdote.
Suzy Walton (33:20): If I may, I, I love public speaking. I, I think I engaged very well with audiences and I love it. And I don’t think I’ve ever said no to any invitation, but I remember a few years ago I was told, would you talk at an event? It’s a business conference. Absolutely. I was free on the date. Absolutely loved to do it. And then, you know, as the time went on, I said, and what is the venue? Oh, by the way, it’s televised Suzy that’s not a problem. What is the venue? I said, it’s the Royal Albert Hall. Well you are a speaker, Sean. I dunno if you’ve spoken at the Royal Albert Hall, but
Suzy Walton (34:11): And it can be quite hard to engage at an individual level when you’re in a venue that size. But I did it and it was great fun. And so I just really enjoy connecting with people in a way that you can, when you bring your personal experiences and your professional experience together, and you see the audience walk out and you see that they have gained something by what you’ve given them. And then hopefully, you know, you give, you give everybody your email address on the screen. And hopefully, you know, a year later you always get an email that says, do you know what I made a different decision because of your talk. And I’ve gone on to do X, Y, Z, and I love making change either at the individual level or the organizational level by sharing knowledge and experience with people.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (35:03): Well, that is well great way to finish. And thank you so much, Suzy that is absolutely well as inspiring as one would expect. So Suzy Walton, the inspirational board director, corporate governance expert, broadcaster and mother of seven.
Suzy Walton (35:21): Thank you, Sean bye bye.
Sean Pillot De Chenecey (35:25): Thank you for listening to The Speaker Show podcast. Please leave a rating on iTunes. We’d really appreciate it. And also it’d be great. If you could subscribe to the podcast itself, you’ll find it also on Google podcasts, SoundCloud, or your favorite podcast app. Thank you.
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Sean Pillot de Chenecey
Foresight strategist, author and podcast host Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an inspirational speaker, who’s also consulted for some of the world’s biggest brands.
Sean has a very deep level of knowledge regarding the genuine issues impacting brands from a cultural, social and business perspective.