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7 Questions with Richard Marsden

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Jonno White

7 Questions with Richard Marsden

Name: Richard Marsden
Current title: CEO
Current organisation: Redair Limited

In a career spanning more than 35 years, Richard Marsden has held senior management roles in Fortune 500 “BigTech” companies and, in 2017, stepped out of large corporates to start his own InsurTech business, Redair. In addition to his corporate activities, Richard is also an active regional team member and fervent fundraiser for Young Enterprise, the UK charity that helps secondary school student to learn about financial management and to gain first-hand experience of running a company via YE’s Company Programme – an extra-curricular activity that runs throughout the school year to give students the chance to start, run and compete in business against other school teams across the UK and internationally, as YE is part of the global Junior Achievement organisation.

At a corporate level, Richard is bringing all of the experience and insights from 35+ years in international roles to bear in his new enterprise. With a wealth of knowledge in sales, channel/partner management, living/working internationally across Asia, EMEA and the Americas, and with a network of contacts spanning the globe, Richard is well placed to lead Redair whilst also attracting some incredibly talented industry specialists into the Redair team to support the international growth and business development that are needed when working with the world’s leading airlines. Growing a business during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy but the resilience, experience and innovation that sparked the creation of Redair 3 years ago are still alive and flourishing in Richard and the rest of the Redair team to support them through what is clearly a challenging period for the aviation sector.

7 Questions with Richard Marsden

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1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?

I don’t think you’d be surprised to learn that I’m going to say COVID19, given the year that we’ve all experienced in 2020. As a business leader, you work diligently with your colleagues to model all the possible business and sales scenarios that could impact the business but sometimes there are events that simply don’t register on your radar and you get caught out. The trick though is being able to adapt to these situations and to embrace the situation to work out how you can benefit from it.

There are two fantastic quotes about a crisis situation that I love and have somewhat overused this year. The first is from Winston Churchill who said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The other is from the late, great Andy Grove who founded Intel. He said, “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” The fact that many people have simply stuck their heads in their hands and wished for a return to “normal” is not only misguided but negligent. Too many people fear change rather than embracing it for the chance it offers to improve outdated processes.

2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?

There was no single event that really triggered it but rather a collective series of situations and opportunities that led to me thinking that it was time to start a new company to address a market need.

As a business volunteer and leadership team member of Young Enterprise, a UK charity focussed on teaching children how to manage money and run a business, it also dawned on me that working with secondary school children and telling them to “follow their business dreams” but not doing it myself was somewhat hypocritical. You need to have the courage of your convictions and lead by example so that’s what I did with a core team of trusted friends and colleagues.

We initially suffered the same issues that I’m sure many new companies face, resistance to change. Nelson Mandela famously said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done” and so we persevered and leveraged some of the issues that COVID19 threw up to help us make people see that digitisation and automation were not things to be feared but rather they were advantages in a time when human interactions were impeded by COVID19 restrictions.

You sometimes need a little luck too in order to make a great idea a “must have” solution.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Whilst I recognise that planning and structuring my diary is important, I also know from first-hand experience gleaned over 35+ years in business that it’s important to have some gaps and to have flexibility in your day. Inbound communications and unexpected events will always pop up and these invariably need dealing with in a timely manner.

That said, it’s important to be focussed and structured and to be able to triage activities and prioritise the most important things. In the digital world we live in, I live on my phone. It allows me the flexibility to quickly reply to WhatsApp messages and emails or to make/take calls so that people get the answers they need from me quickly enough to make key decisions.

I’m a people person and so direct communication is important to me. It gives all parties the chance to discuss what’s needed and to explore situations and nuances in detail. Email is often used to protect the sender and it’s rarely a good way to explore complex issues or to portray real human emotion. I encourage direct communication to avoid that but also because I prefer to talk things through with people in a more human way.
Speaking of human level activities, it’s important to me to spend quality time in the evening with my family. This includes helping to prepare family meals and sitting down together as a family to chat and laugh together. I also enjoy the freedom to think things through while walking my dog in the countryside near to where I live – in 2020 that was a luxury that I appreciate not everyone had at their disposal.

In summary, planning and structuring your day are great things to do but you also need to plan time to be flexible, if that makes sense. Being disciplined and balancing work and home life are critical for peace of mind. It’s become too easy in 2020 to suffer back-to-back video meeting fatigue. Take time for you too.

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

There’s an old saying that “you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself”. Let people do what they do best – as a CEO you need to have your finger on the pulse of everything but not necessarily control everything or try to do it all yourself. You just can’t. Trust and delegation are critical. But I already knew that.

So, what I’d say I’ve really learned recently that is linked to this is to make sure that you are aware of people’s personal circumstances and that you know them on a human level and not just to accept and interact with the “professional persona” that they project. We decided from the outset that RedAir would be a different place to work and flexible working days and hours are a big part of that – outcomes mean more than anything and the old-fashioned notion of the 9-5 and being chained to a desk were never working models that fitted our approach.

What working remotely has helped me to do is to get to know people’s partners, family, dogs, etc. and to get a glimpse into who they really are, beyond the work colleague role they perform. Breaking down those artificial barriers is vital and accepting people for who and what they are is a lesson that more business leaders should embrace. The old days of office politics and artificial hierarchies are gone – the world post-COVID19 is going to be very different and I think it will be better for it.

5. What one book has had the most profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

There are so many great books that I could pick from that cover business strategy and sales techniques (The Art of War, The Prince, Solution Selling, SPIN Selling, etc.), others that deal with problem solving and critical thinking techniques (The Obstacle is the Way, Six Thinking Hats, etc.) and autobiographies of great leaders in sports and business but I think the one that had the greatest impact was “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by Robert Perkins.

Everyone knows that the worlds of politics and commerce intertwine but this book really shows the very worst of the Machiavellian ways in which governments and corporations “play the game” at the top tables around the world to exert influence. It’s one of those books that makes the “scales fall from your eyes” and helps business leaders to understand the complexities of doing business in the 21st Century.

For my part, knowing that subterfuge and personal relationships have such a major impact on doing business helped me to refine who and how we work with to make our business a success. Working with the right people the right way is critical.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?

Leading by example is critical. It sets a tone in the business for others to follow – it helps to create the culture of the business, if you like. I am not a great fan of recruiting “yes” people. I like having people challenge ideas and strategies – it’s vital that they feel that they can contribute and that they add value where others, including myself, may have missed it. Leadership teams are not superhuman, although there is often an expectation that they should be. That’s not healthy – we employ people to add value, not to follow orders.

Surrounding yourself with the most capable people and making them feel able to voice an opinion without fear of rebuttal or retaliation is vital. I remember watching Toto Wolff (Team Principal at Mercedes) being interview earlier this year and talking about the team culture in Mercedes F1 that he encourages. He said that it’s important when things go wrong to “blame the situation and not the person”. That really made sense to me and I think people appreciate it when leaders don’t behave like outdated and stereotypical “bad bosses”. I’d hate to be “that guy”!

7. If you had to pick just one story, what would be the most meaningful story from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?

That’s an easy one. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great people over 35 years. You always remember the really good ones as well as (sadly) the really bad ones. You strive to be like the former and to surround yourself with as many people of that ilk as possible. So I would have to say that my more treasured experience in the last 35 years has been building the team in RedAir and shaping an organisation that enables people to thrive and to be the best version of them that they can be.

I’ve enjoyed many memorable experiences in other great companies but creating a business and a world-class team from scratch and being able to “follow your dream” while creating success for others has to be by far the most rewarding and meaningful thing I’ve done so far.