"My imperative is around breaking down barriers for people."
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.
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
“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…
The climate continues to be a burning platform for society as a whole. I’ve not been to an investor meeting or a capital markets day where this isn’t the number one question on people’s lips. But there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Our role is to help managers navigate through these waters.
On helping managers navigate climate change
One of the things that worries me as we move to this world of hybrid working – which offers so many opportunities for women and for others – is how we maintain connectivity in how to get things done in the workplace. I’ve always had a tremendous network ... and I’ve always had a support group, often women in business. Building that in a hybrid or remote setting is something we’ll need to continue to reflect on.
On building networks in a hybrid world
My imperative is around continuing to break down barriers for people. It’s really about transparency – of policies, pay guidance, and how to get promoted. But it’s not just giving them the opportunities. It’s also understanding the barriers, and making sure people have the confidence and the skills to be able to walk through them.
On breaking down barriers
I started off life as a people-pleaser. I would have liked everyone to like me the whole time, and to have been giving everybody great news and pats on the back. But business is not like that. Life is not like that.
On learning not to be a people-pleaser
Managing people, particularly giving difficult news or bad messages, can be terrifying. How could you do that without any training, without making significant mistakes or avoiding it and just letting bad performance continue?
On managing people
At its best, purpose is part of the absolute DNA of the business. It’s the North Star, it’s the guiding light of how you take difficult decisions that may have a cost impact but in the longer term are the right things to do. At its worst, purpose is a slogan, a catchy title, something that’s on the wall. What I really admire in companies like Lego, Mars and others where I’ve worked is the ability to say: ‘We said we were going to do this, but actually we found out it has an unintended consequence’. That’s what brave companies do.
On encouraging brave organisations
AI is going to continue to be very important as an unlocker of productivity for businesses. But it comes with a shadow side around security and misuse that we need to be cognisant of. So we need to continue to equip ourselves, within CMI and other bodies, to make sure we understand what’s vital for managers to be able to understand it more broadly.
On demystifying technology
At CMI, we’re hugely privileged to have contributed to many people’s management and leadership journeys. Take a look back at some of the people we’ve interviewed for some top tips and exclusive insight.
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