Jo Sellwood-Taylor & Sharon Mullen, Serial Entrepreneurs, on the Ideal CEO

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Jo Sellwood-Taylor and Sharon Mullen are co-founders of global executive search firm, Mullwood Partnership and the authors of a revolutionary new paper on “Where Will Our Leaders Come From?” – a study into broadening the CEO succession pool.

With more than 40 years’ experience between them, Jo and Sharon were the brains behind Strategi Executive Search, a hugely-successful international HR resourcing firm which they sold in a multi million pound deal 2011.

Over the past year they have interviewed 130 of Britain’s leading CEOs to find the qualities, characteristics and backgrounds required of future leaders in business.

We spoke to Jo and Sharon about the profile of the ideal CEO; about selling their first business; and about 18 years of working together.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Mullwood Partnership and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into reality?

JST: We have been in executive search for a long time and owned a previous organisation that we sold four years ago. When we sold it we came out with a wealth of experience and a real passion about the work we do. With this experience and passion instilled in us we really wanted to continue our work but focus more on specialist areas. We wanted a business going forward that would allow us to do that whilst also allowing us to continue withinternational board level executive and non-executive search servicesand industry leading research, which was a different balance to what we had done previously.

 After selling our previous businessand when we were released from those restrictions, we then decided to take on select pieces of search work. We began to work with organisations who woulduse our experience to contribute and add real value, beyond the executive search work and get involved in wider business issues. It’smore of a boutique businessand Sharon and I personally execute all our assignments.

TNW: What is next for your company?

JST:

We really want to continue with how it is at the moment as the company is still fairly young and we have been very successful so far.

We want to continue to work on and focus on the areas that we specialise in and particularly from a non-executive director perspective.

In terms of the non-executive directors search assignments, we are currently working with PLCs, SMEs and medium-sized organisations, based on our extensive search experience and also particularly on the back of the research and broadening selection poolsgenerally, not specifically around CEOs. We are finding it quite refreshing to speak to a number of PLCs who are really widening their thoughts on where they will be going in the future.

We are also looking to continue with our research over the next year, with focus being on the role of non-executive directors and how this role and the requirements demanded from it have changed. We want to discover what organisations expect from today’s non-executive directors and so we will be looking into that from a research perspective next year. In terms of the assignments we handle, we are focused on board level HR on a global basis and non-executive director searches.

TNW: What were the key learning’s from your report 'Where Will Our Leaders Come From?' particularly with regard to women leaders? Were there any surprise findings? 

JSTPeople are looking for leaders with a breadth of experience, but obviously there are going to be gaps, and this is where women leaders can sometimes be lost. We found that HR is a very female dominated sector which we already knew to be the case.

However, in order for anyone to be noticed and advance within a company, regardless of gender, they must start ensuring they stand out.

It’s also important businesses work to enable employees to advance too.

TNW: Based on your research findings, can you describe briefly the profile of the ideal CEO, in terms of qualities, characteristics and background?

JST: It’s all to do with the breadth and depth of experience that someone has got and less about a sole function. The most important thing in terms of background of a CEO is leadership experience, as well as being involved in various sectors. A combination of these elements, allows candidates to bring knowledge and innovation from different parts of the business together.

TNW: You sold Strategi Executive Search in 2011. How did you manage the exit process and what advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are looking to sell their business?

JSTEnsure that you are appealing not just to the audience you want to target but to a variety of people. It’s important to think about the timescale of how you want to run your business too. The most important thing is to want it. During the exit process from Strategi Executive Search there was a lot of communication and collaboration that was ongoing even after we had left.

TNW: What lessons did you learn from founding and running Strategi that you went on to apply to The Mullwood Partnership? What did you do differently with the second business, and what did you keep the same?

SMThe values are the same; we have always gone above and beyond for our clients. At Strategi we were searching for HR appointments at various levels, whereas now we are purely focusing on executive level roles, as its something we are very passionate about. Both of us feel there needs to be a bit of shake up to challenge traditional thinking within this role. Mullwood Partnership is more of a boutique business, as we have our own specialist area and conduct our own continuous research.

TNW: Tell us a little about how you work together as co-founders.

SM: Collaboratively. We work well because we have different skills in various areas, we match each other well. We’re used to each other, we understand how the other one thinks, after all it has been 18 years!

TNW: What does your day look like?

JST:

It’s pretty full on really. It tends to be that with running a business, being a head-hunter and focusing on the research - I don’t tend to have an ‘on and off’ time.

You just have to be very well organised, and you need to speak to and meet people at a time that is convenient to them, particularly on a global basis. It is always very busy but with our experience we are pretty good at being organised and very effective these days!

TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?

SM: I’ve probably got a few but I think it’s first and foremost having an expectation of what you can deliver and being reasonable with this.  You have to understand that you will have to make compromises on both sides but it is important to try and make sure that neither business nor family are negatively affected by this.  So, from a parental perspective, making sure that you do the important things that the children remember but recognising also that from a business perspective you have to structure it and have to be really well organised. In addition you have to have the support in place to take up the elements that you can’t do at home.

 I think my tip would be to understand that as a woman you can do both and you can do both extremely well but you can’t do both all the time; you have to be reasonable.

If you are very career orientated, as we are, it’s important not to let that overtake you.

Make sure that you have your down time at weekends and have family time.

TNW: Do you have any pet projects as an entrepreneur?

SM: We both hold non-executive roles with other organisations, so specifically I’m a non-executive for an architect firm and I help them in terms of looking at sustainable growth for the business and the effective management of that. I also mentor some other smaller businesses around how they should grow and what their infrastructure should look like and help them with their business planning and strategic advice.

We also invest in businesses. Some of them are where we are just making an investment from a financial perspective, but there are others where wehave more of an involvement. We are also very active in social entrepreneurialism with an organisation called ‘Wavelength’ which connects organisations and social entrepreneurs to create businesses that make profit whilst doing good at the same time: this goes far beyond the corporate social responsibility.

TNW: What is the best career or management decision you have made?

SM: The best career decision that I ever made was to set up our own business and do it ourselves.

We really trusted our instincts that we could provide a service better than the organisations that we were working for.

We backed ourselves financially and set up the business in 2001 which was very successful.  What that enabled us to do was to establish a business that was founded on our core beliefs and values which were very much around tailoring our service to each of our clients, valuing people and retaining great people. We attracted a lot of really good people because our model worked and our business was very successful.

We operated a flexible working model right from day one where people could be based from the office, home or travel around exactly the way we do now and we have done that for the last 13 years. It was a model that we set up even before we had our children, so it was a based on the belief that it was the right thing to do, not around the fact that we had families at that point. We did this because it’s about measuring output. From this we managed to retain some extremely talented individuals for a very long time throughout the duration of our previous company, which we sold in 2008.

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