Interview: How Gavin Patterson will bounce back from BT

18 June 2018 -

BTBT chief executive Gavin Patterson has stepped down. Here’s what he told CMI about his challenging role last year

Gavin Patterson will leave his post as chief executive of BT, when a replacement is found later this year.

Appointed as managing director of BT's consumer division in 2004, Patterson was promoted to chief executive of the BT Group in 2013. During his tenure, BT made a return to mobile phone networking by acquiring EE from Deutsche Telekom and Orange. It has also established its own sports broadcasting channels, which feature English Premier League football.

Twelve months ago, Patterson spoke to the Chartered Management Institute (CMI)’s chief executive Ann Francke, about the challenges of his role, his ambitions for the future – and the corporate culture.


Patterson explained how his long-term management approach has been centred on building a more robust BT that will reap rewards over decades.

“We are part way through a transformation across the business as a whole,” he said in summer 2017. “We’ve taken the business from one that was seen as backward-looking to one that’s increasingly seen as looking to the future: investing in fibre and next-gen networks; investing in media through sports rights; and beginning to think about mobile again through the acquisition of EE. So it’s a journey and it’s only partly done, but at its heart it’s about creating a forward-looking BT.”


The difficulty of balancing investment in long-term projects and acquisitions, and short-term results for shareholders is a challenge Patterson alluded to in his interview with CMI boss Ann Francke:

“I don’t know any CEO who doesn’t feel that focusing on longer-term, sustainable metrics around business would be a better thing. Why doesn’t it happen? The quarterly reporting cycle. The challenge always is to make sure you don’t do things on a quarterly basis that you wouldn’t do on an annual or multi-year basis. It’s a balance,” he declared.

“The shareholders own the company and they want to understand that you’re making progress against your strategy and you can show that on a quarterly basis. When you get it right, it’s part of a pattern; you make sure that the machine on a quarterly basis does not distract you from doing the right things over the long term. But great businesses are based ultimately on really having a strong relationship with your customers and your customers really valuing what you do.”


Patterson has served as chief executive during a period that has reportedly seen accounting issues at its Italian business that left a £530m deficit, as well as regulator intervention over the fate of national broadband network Openreach.

Speaking on the numerous obstacles to his position, Patterson explained: “If you’re a CEO for a number of years, it’s highly unusual not to come across a setback on the way. One of the things you have to accept is that you may inherit a business with many good things, but there’ll always be things you have to clean up that don’t relate to things you did yourself. That’s life. You have to step forward and take it for the company and be an agent of change, ultimately.”

“In terms of resilience, to really function at the highest level as a CEO, you have to have balance in your life. You have to recognise that just working more and more hours doesn’t necessarily bring a better result. You have to ensure you’re mentally, physically and emotionally fit. Relationships outside of work are key. You need to make sure everything is in equilibrium. That’s key to resilience.”


A central feature of Patterson’s leadership has been his goal to evolve BT’s working culture into simpler, continuously-learning, customer-centric environment.

Patterson explained: “At its heart [BT’s culture] has a strong sense of social purpose, wanting to play a role in society and being embedded right in the fabric of society, particularly in the UK. That’s one of the things that makes it quite difficult. There is a desire to serve that is part of what people do here. Can we more consistently deliver? Of course, but that ability to think like a customer is one of the areas we’re trying to work on.

He added: “Gone are the days when you started in the company, did your apprenticeship, and then effectively didn’t learn – you just did that job for the next 40 or 50 years. The culture we’re trying to make is one that is trying to learn, to adapt. Everybody who joins the company now will go through many different careers, regardless of whether they join at 16 or later in their career. That focus around self-development and willingness to take on new roles is key to a 21st-century career.”

Gavin Patterson, former chief executive of BT, was interviewed by Ann Francke – chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute – in the Summer 2017 issue of the CMI’s quarterly members’ magazine, Professional Manager.

Image: Shutterstock

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