"My imperative is around breaking down barriers for people."

Words David Waller / Photography Alastair Staley

CMI’s new president Fiona Dawson CBE CMgr CCMI on good and bad management; the leaders who inspired her; and helping managers navigate climate change.

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Back in 1988, Fiona Dawson arrived at Mars for a graduate trainee role. She was 21. It was a great opportunity to learn, and she expected to be working at the confectionary giant for a couple of years. She ended up staying for 33. Fiona calls that period “probably one of the longest trainings in the world”.

It certainly demonstrates the loyalty that companies can inspire when they invest properly in people. Mars gave Fiona a deep knowledge of everything from sales and marketing to general management, and she finally became global president of food, multisales and global customers at the company in 2015.

In October 2023, Fiona’s career took another twist: she became president of CMI. For Fiona, who takes over from Lord Mark Price, the role is a golden opportunity to advocate for ongoing personal development. 

“I had to continue to learn in every role I did in Mars,” she told CMI CEO Ann Francke OBE, in a recent edition of The Leading Issue. “I want to help celebrate the skills of management.”

As the new CMI president, Fiona is keen to further the progress made through the Everyone Economy campaign, launched during Lord Price’s tenure. These include ensuring a more diverse and inclusive workplace, and making an impact on management in every corner of society. She also hopes to help equip CMI members with the tools to manage the “very unpredictable waters” of this fast-changing working world.

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Watch Fiona in The Leading Issue with Ann Francke OBE


The shocking truth about bad management

Fiona already serves on the boards of Lego, Marks & Spencer and Kerry Group. So why take on a senior role at CMI too? As a long-standing Chartered Companion of CMI she says she was drawn by her belief in the power of good management.

You can’t get results without good training, good people and good line management. I’ve long admired the work within CMI. I think it’s so vital.

“When I was running sales divisions, people would often say to me, ‘I don't have time for the people; it's all about the results’. But when you’ve been as fortunate as I have, to be trained and work within a company that really values line management, you see that the two go hand-in-hand. You can’t get results without good training, good people and good line management. I’ve long admired the work within CMI. I think it’s so vital.”

What did Fiona make of CMI’s September 2023 report, Better Managed Britain, which exposed the impact of the country’s sub-standard management in many key areas? She says the report contained some “shocking, shocking numbers”. For Fiona, the most striking were the fact that 82% of managers had no formal training, and that bad management has led to 56% of corporate failures.

“Even for the greatest naysayers out there, these are hard facts that we cannot continue to ignore,” she reasons.


The managers who inspired me

Fiona knows what it means to be inspired by great managers. She recalls with admiration how Kieran Murphy, then general manager of Mars in Ireland, set the tone for the organisation she was joining – and showed how much he valued every contribution. 

“Even though I was a newbie graduate trainee who really didn’t know anything about the corporate world, he was as interested in my opinion, and those of my peers, as he was in those of his direct leadership team.

“He encouraged us to speak up and speak out. He led with a huge degree of humanity and empathy. He talked to everyone irrespective of hierarchy, and he was someone who you wanted to go that extra mile for. Throughout my career I’ve been lucky enough to have people like that.”

When describing her own management style, Fiona gives credit to Grant Reied, her most recent CEO at Mars, who pushed her to take on tasks she feared she wasn’t capable of.

“He really unlocked a huge degree of potential that I didn’t really believe I had,” she says. “I've tried to emulate and learn from that combination – of nourishing but challenging.”


Here’s an insight into what Fiona sees as the most pressing issues in management, in her own words…