After 10 years as CEO of a FTSE company, Ruby McGregor-Smith tells Radhika Sanghani working parents should put family first.
“It’s quite a lonely job being a woman running a FTSE company,” admits Ruby McGregor-Smith. She would know. At 43, young by any measure, she became the first Asian woman to take the helm of a FTSE 250 company, and has spent the last decade as chief executive of Mitie, where the outsourcing firm’s turnover increased by more than £1-billion (R17.3-billion) on her watch.
Last week, she gave it all up. In a move that raised eyebrows, she announced she would be stepping down from her role as CEO, with its enviable £2.5-million (R43.3-million) salary, just a month after Mitie issued a profit warning that saw its share price plunge by 26%, wiping millions from the firm’s value.
Meanwhile, headlines – “I want my mum back! £2.5-million-a-year executive quits after her children say they don’t see her enough” – suggested Baroness McGregor-Smith (she was made a Conservative peer last year) was yet another high-flying female scalp sacrificed at the altar of Having It All.
In fact, she’s already had it all: her daughter, 20, is at university, while her 17-year-old son is in the middle of his A-level studies as a weekly boarder. While the desire to “hang out” with them more did play a part in her decision, she tells me, they are not the only reason why she is bidding adieu to the top job.
Nor were Mitie’s current struggles (blamed on Brexit-related uncertainty, government spending cuts and rising labour costs); after all, the fact that her replacement, Phil Bentley, was announced simultaneously means the wheels of succession must have been in motion for some time.
“When you’re running a listed company, you have to decide how long you want to do that for, especially when you do it for quite a long time,” she explains.
“You cannot do these roles for ever. It’s a tough job. I always felt a decade would be enough. Life isn’t all about your job. I’m an individual, a mum of two, I’ve got other things I’d like to do that don’t involve work.
“Getting that balance right over the years has been quite interesting. As a female as well, especially when you’re one of the first senior women, you don’t have that many women who’ve done it before. You have to sit down and decide what’s right for you.”
Born Ruby Ahmad in Lucknow, India, Baroness McGregor-Smith’s parents moved to Stanmore, north London, when she was just two. Her childhood was “not privileged“, but after graduating from Kingston University with a degree in economics, she went on to train as an accountant – where she met her husband, Graham – and started at Serco in 1991. After rising through the ranks over nine years, before having her two children, she moved to Mitie as group finance director in 2002, becoming its CEO in 2007.
We meet at Mitie’s offices, which overlook London Bridge, but in a generic meeting room rather than a swish corner suite – she doesn’t “believe” in such hierarchy, preferring to hot-desk. Swathed in a purple wrap-dress and a friendly smile, there is no sign of the “prickly peer” described by previous interviewers – until I hit record on my dictaphone, and caution takes over.
She refuses to tell me her children’s names, for the sake of their privacy, but can’t conceal her excitement at having more time to spend with them.
“Once they’re at university, and then working, you see less of them,” she explains.
“It’s a good time to spend time with [my son] while he’s still here. It’s a great age for them and for me to do things with them.”
She doesn’t feel she missed out on their childhood – “I was a very hands-on mum. They don’t feel they missed out, either” – but admits they were only able to make it work because her husband left his own high-pressured job in private equity to take on a variety of part-time roles as soon as she was made CEO.
“I wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without him. That’s 100% without a doubt. [To do this job] you need close family or friends’ support. You need a great personal network around you.”
While she doesn’t care for the “working mum” label, she will admit: “It was quite tough when you’re going to board meetings with sleepless nights.
“I’d always try to get back once or twice a week to do [school pick-ups], because I’d miss the kids. I wanted to be around them. They’re a massive part of my world. And if I wasn’t there, as they got older, the texts started: ‘Mum, where are you?’”
Her only regret is that the maternity leave she took for both children was “too short”.
How short, exactly, she refuses to elaborate on, but “I rushed back too quickly,” she admits. “It wasn’t brilliant. You think everything’s going to be okay, but you have to give yourself some time to recover.”
When her newborn son was struck with a sudden illness for 72 hours (before fully recovering), it was the catalyst for her to spend the next two years working part-time.
“It was very tough; that really threw me. I was sitting there, looking at him in a tank with tubes down him, and thinking, life isn’t just about careers and jobs. It’s about really important things as well.”
Keen that her experience inspires other working parents – note, not just mothers – to get their priorities straight, passion rises for the first time.
“Focus on the family,” she urges. “Get that right and the rest comes. If you do it the other way round, where you’re only thinking about your career, if the family stuff goes wrong, it will impact your career anyway. Put yourself, your health and the health of your family first. The career will come back.”
Motherhood has not been her only challenge. As a young Indian woman entering the workplace in the ’90s, she regularly experienced discrimination, but she refuses to dwell on it, saying “I don’t expect any sympathy.
“My big message is ignore it. Don’t look at it, don’t talk about it, just focus on what you’re good at. If you do that, people recognise that. It’s not about shouting things out; it’s about working with the people who are right for your career.”
Having previously railed against being defined by either her race or her gender, she is now a proud ambassador for the government-backed Women’s Business Council, hoping to hasten the day her position as a female Asian CEO is the norm, not a novelty.
“I’m so looking forward to [a time] when no one has to ask a female about being a mum and their personal life. They do it because it is unusual, and one day it won’t be.”
In order to reach this utopia, she believes workplaces have to be more flexible for both genders, and credits her supportive employers as one of the secrets to her success.
She also lauds Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” philosophy (“I always say to women, they should always put themselves forward for opportunities, even if they don’t get them. Be more aspirational”), but only up to a point.
“The big thing I learnt was that I should have said no a little bit more. Make the choices that are right for you as an individual, not your career. Never the other way round. I know that’s tough.
“I gave up, whether it was earnings or whatever, to do it my way and do less because that was right for me and my family.”
Now, she is looking forward to unlimited time with her children, her sisters and her hobbies – baking, running and gardening in her countryside Ascot home. But she refuses to retire, and though she won’t disclose her next step, it’s clear she has plans.
“Being a FTSE chief executive is great, but it would be great to do other things as well. I can’t imagine not working, especially after a break. I’m still too young to stop.” – The Daily Telegraph