What I’ve Learnt: Linda Conlon

December 7, 2018

Linda Conlon is chief executive of the International Centre for Life, a £90 million science village in Newcastle, which brings together a research institute, two NHS clinics, biotechnology businesses, a science centre and education facilities on a single site. Previously, she was a non-executive director of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne NHS Trust and an executive member of NE1. Linda is also immediate past president of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, which represents more than 600 science centres around the world and was the first European woman to hold the post. Linda currently sits on the board of Newcastle University and is a trustee of the Heart of the City Partnership. She is also business mentor for small charities and voluntary groups. In 2016, Linda was awarded an MBE for services to science and science education in the North East

There is no mission without margin’. Life is a mission-driven charity, but we raise the best part of £3 million every year from a wide range of commercial activities to keep the show on the road. Being a charity and being commercially astute are not mutually exclusive; rather, you cannot have one without the other.

To be successful in business, you need focus, dogged determination, a thick skin and the ability to communicate well at all levels. In the charitable sector, it’s also crucial to be able to get buy-in to the vision of the organisation. At this level, it is more about inspirational leadership than management skills. I believe that you can achieve almost anything you set your mind to if you are prepared to listen, learn and get stuck in. Thomas Edison was right when he said that genius accounted for one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration!

Surrounding yourself by people who think and act the same as you is a recipe for disaster. You need people who are the best in their fields and who can challenge, innovate and bring different perspectives.

It’s important to see things through both the lens of a telescope and a microscope. In other words, be aware of the day-to-day needs of the business, but regularly use that telescope to assess what is happening in the wider world. What are the trends and how might they affect your business? Big changes are happening in demographics, technology and the expectations of the individual. Is your business model flexible enough to accommodate these changes? Try out new ways of doing things. They won’t always work, but it’s a great way to energise staff and learn from the process. Above all, continue to listen and learn.

Show interest in staff and their families and remember to thank people for their hard work. Everyone likes their contribution to be acknowledged. I always encourage staff to speak up – some of the best ideas come from the most unlikely sources.

There aren’t enough women in leadership positions. There are currently only 30 women in full-time executive roles in the FTSE 250. For real change, we need to go beyond challenging blatant sexism and look at subtle gender bias. It can be anything from assuming the woman at the boardroom table will ‘be mum’ and serve the tea to asking female colleagues by default to do tasks deemed as ‘office housework’, or referring to an assertive woman as ‘bossy’ or ‘bitchy’. I think the ‘amplification’ strategy employed by female staffers in Obama’s White House administration – in which a point made by a woman, if it was ignored, was repeated by other women, giving credit to their female colleague – was fantastic.

Centre for Life
www.life.org.uk/about
@LindaLifeCEO

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