Hear from Harriet Green OBE, Executive Chair of Mission Beyond. Mission Beyond is a group of cross-sector, purpose-driven leaders striving to have an impact on the grand challenges the world faces today. In this episode, we discover how Harriet found her voice and used it as a way to empower and advocate for herself and others. Be sure to listen to the very end of the episode for bonus content.
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The Sondership podcast is all about inspiring stories from people with purpose and today's person with purpose, today's purp, much easier on the radio.Harriet:
Fiona Bruce does it too.Danny:
Welcome to the Sondership podcast. I'm your host Danny Attias. The Sondership podcast is all about inspiring stories from people with purpose. Today's person with purpose is Harriet green OBE. Harriet, welcome.Harriet:
Harriet was the CEO and chair of IBM, Asia Pacific and previously Thomas Cook as well. Someone who's always inspired me and it's just always been led by purpose and thinking about people and the environment and society and what you do, and now you're, we're both actually involved in a social impact startup called Mission Beyond which I'm hope we'll hear a lot about in a moment. Um, so thank you very much for coming. I'll start with the opening question that I always start these podcasts with, which is about your sonder moment. So to remind people sonder is that, it's that moment, it's that feeling when you realize that everyone's got their own story, it's not just your own story that's happening for your own environment, but you realize that every random passerby have got so much going on highs and lows and experiences. It's that awakening, I suppose, when you realise, it's more than just about you and given the way you conduct yourself in everything that you do, Harriet. I know that you think about other people all the time and with your experience working across four different continents as well, you must have so many different experiences to share. So what's your earliest or most memorable sonder. Moment.Harriet:
Well, thank you, Danny. I appreciate very much being asked. I've watched all of the episodes of, um, uh, sondership and, and your moment. And so I was thrilled, uh, to be asked to, to do this, I'm going to disappoint you to a degree, I fear in that I don't have a moment. Um, I have a layering of experiences that sort of came together to shape, uh, who I am and the journey that I've taken. And I'll describe those distinct layers that have come together to create the sort of skin or the permafrost or whatever, uh, made up of these particles. These, uh, these layerings. So the first piece is locational. So I was brought up in a very tiny village in the middle of the Cotswolds. Um, the Cotswolds is a very rich county, has been for a thousand years. And so feudalism exists perfectly, Lords of the manors, uh, those who support and, uh, us who don't own land, et cetera. And, um, I think one of my first moments about difference and about location is this was big Fox hunting country people on amazing horses in red britches and red jackets and other such things. And my father, um, thought that this was, um, an abomination. And so in the middle of fox hunting country, we would each Saturday morning with our little placards, um, say how bad fox hunting was. And so, you begin to feel a sense that you're different from those around you. It was positive pros-, uh, protest. Uh, it was informed protest, but it was not really welcome, uh, protest. The second piece of layering was around, then my father became very, very ill and my mother was so keen for him to be home and that she, and we could take care of him in this tiny little village. And the other side of village life came to play how people come together to, make you cakes to make sure you walk home, just the sheer unmitigated kindness of other people around you and what a difference. Those tiny acts for my mother, for me and my siblings as my father, you know, became, um, increasingly unwell, uh, and, and sadly died. The third piece of layering was a realization that what other people did in the cotswolds was marry young farmers. And, um, I was actually never asked, which was, you know, important to state here. Uh, maybe if I had been things would have been different, but I realized the power of my education and that if I was going to. Ever, any day own some land or do some good, I had to exit this place, but perhaps the piece that has had the greatest impact on me, um, came when, just before my father's death, um, our phone was cut off. Uh, we had no sort of, um, income as such, and it, these were in the days when your landline could be cut off. And, uh, my mother's horror that the cost of putting the phone back on was actually more than we owed. And, um, you know, I was in my early teens and my mom hardworking, desperately looking to take care of my father. And, I was, I was angry. I was really outraged that someone would do this to us, that we have no phone, who she going to call. There were no mobiles or, you know, we had to run to the nearest neighbor. So we often got on the bus from our little village to go to Cheltenham where in the center of Georgian Cheltenham is, was the GPO headquarters in the days when that's where you paid your bills, etcetera. And without telling my mum. Um, I visited the GPO and with a loud voice expressed my anger to pretty much everyone in the entire GPO office, which was huge, uh, that this was not right. Not fair, not what you did to people. And I remember my mother's reaction to that. My mother would never have done that. And so having a voice and using it for good from a very early age, um, has helped shape me with those other elements. The end of that story is not good. They did not put the phone back on. We did not have a mobile. And I think in hindsight, I might have approached it very differently, but the combinational elements of those pieces kind of defined me for, you know, my full second decade going to university, going to work. And often I think about those elements.Danny:
That's amazing, such a rich tapestry you've shared Harriet. Thank you so much. You've got this mental image of Fox hunting in its glory, picturesque and not in terms of the function clearly, the act. Um, and its, it's also really interesting, we've talked recently about purpose and how you find your purpose. And, and one of the things that we talked about is what makes you angry. And so it's, it's, you know, young Harriet there at that moment at home, uh, just realizing the injustice, I suppose, of, of it costing more to put your phone back on, than you owed and you're being cut off from the rest of society and the rest of the world. So, um, wonderful that it, it's not just sparked the anger, but sparked action. And as you say, you know, as we grow, we learn about different ways to approach things and how to get our way. But just having that drive to be able to go in and take on an establishment at such a young age. From, uh, from the background, kinda, farming type background that you've come from. Not that I know whether your family, you're specifically farming, but that environment, so that's, that's really wonderful. So what I'd really like to, to understand is a bit more of your journey and, um, how you were able to fold this sense of purpose and the sort of helping people and making a difference through the work that you've done. Where was it you went to university, was it in the UK?Harriet:
Yeah, well, I, I came to university here in London and, uh, this theme of voice comes through and, um, I, uh, I started, uh, reading law and I really didn't like that, I didn't like the sort of structure and the repetition and I transferred to medieval history. So I spent a great deal of time in the vaults at Senate house in a very small group, a peripatetically studying medieval history. But there's another example of voice that, um, I think has been an important theme for me as well. Something I believe in profoundly, um, which doesn't come from medieval history or indeed the law, but maybe just having this, I don't know what it is. This, this sense that I have a voice and I should be able to use it. So, um, here in, in London and the history society is very strong, and at the time there was a writer, um, who was doing the rounds. Uh, we had many great speakers, Tony Benn, and, you know, um, many people came to speak here in London's many universities, uh, particularly at, at Kings. And, um, this particular historian wrote, uh, books that suggested that the Holocaust was, um, really a feature of others' imaginations and, um, was really not to be taken seriously, and as a member of the history society and part of the council, I felt very, very strongly that, um, he should come like other people and speak, uh, and we could all then collectively, uh, the Jewish society, the history society, everyone else do what we had done to others, um, which was question and really show that factually and accurately, you know, this was wrong. Um, but, uh, That was not what the university decided to do. Uh, and the view was that we should not allow him to speak. And so my view of freedom of speech that is, um, uh, you know, not violent and ranting and ill-informed. I mean, it clearly was ill-informed, and the books, but they were books that were written and published. That view of voice and freedom of speech that can then, uh, uh, be argued and dealt with. In an, you know, intelligent way, rather than people just going off and writing more, uh, of this inaccurate, uh, uh, opinion, but it is surprising how that issue of freedom of speech, uh, the canc-, the cancel culture has pervaded as I've worked and run everywhere, you know from Indonesia to Korea, to India. That that voice issue is very important. So that was formative in my journey because I lost the battle for freedom of speech. It became something that I didn't realize was important to me. I felt he would come and talk and we would all say, this is complete rubbish. These are the facts. This is the evidence. This is what the Jewish society believes is right. And they would, uh, respond to it. So. You know, these are profound things that happen when you're not yet 20.Danny:
Yeah, I mean lots of kinds of shivers going down my arms.Harriet:
What would you have, if you'd been in my position, would you have stopped him from speaking?Danny:
I think your natural instinct would be to stop, but then it's that considered approach. As a, as a Jew of North African descent, you know, my family have experienced these things firsthand. A couple of things that come out of this for me. One is you went up against the telephone company. And you failed. And then you went up against your university about free speech and you failed and that's really important, and especially for anyone young listening, you know, failures are the bedrock of learning and growth. And if you don't have those failures, then quite frankly you're playing it a bit too safe, aren't you, you're not finding the limits and the boundaries.Harriet:
I would say, I think, um, I think you're absolutely right. And you've seen the, the criticality of those connections. I am, however, the type of individual who never really considered them as failures, that these were, you know, their loss, uh, actually with the phone company was never anyone's, but my mom's lost. But, um, but that you pick yourself up, you take the learnings from this and you gather a sort of strength from, and I always say. It's me that I should have done better, that I should have presented more cogently. I certainly know that one learning, uh, at that time with the university as I should have taken more, one-on-ones more, um, you know, individual discussions rather than the oratory of trying to persuade the entire university and its leadership that, you know, this was, um, you know, the right thing to do. So I think. If you are driven and you are naturally resilient because of what has befallen you in your early years, if you believe in Confucian theory, as I, I kind of do, um, you, you, you believe that you have to improve. I never considered, uh, uh, that it was other people's failings. I have to be better. I've been gifted with this voice. And, you know, uh, an education that people around the world would die for in a country that protects our freedoms and liberties on the whole, um, uh, and I have to do better. So I'm not sure I considered it failure, uh, because that's just my, my nature, but the learnings are intense. And that's what I always say, you know, with, with our children, with, with, with families. With the teams of people that work for me. Okay. What, what can we learn from this? You know, but your other point is something that I profoundly believe. And I don't know much about sport, even in this country. When I went to live in the states, you know, I had to learn, uh, you know, sports stuff in the town I was in, who plays in miami is it bounce, bounce throw. Is it hockey? Is it, what is it? And study them before I would talk to people. But Wayne Gretzky, uh, who is a famous ice hockey coach as everyone seems to know people say, why do you say that afterwards? But I didn't know. He, he says that. 100% of the shots you don't take on goal wont go in. And I believe that. And if you, you know, if you can, if you can survive losing the most important person in your life, your father, if you can take on the GPO and fail, take on London university and fail on something, kind of like that, um, then, you know, keep going and, and keep just expanding your own envelope of what you can and can't do.Danny:
Let's go a little deeper on your work across four different continents and how working in different societies has changed the way that you approach purpose or change the way that you approach yourself, your outlook on life and what you do.Harriet:
Yeah. I think, um, experiencing living, working in different countries of the world, uh, as a, as a leader, as a citizen makes you sort of rounder, uh, and, and richer, uh, I think people around the world are mostly the same. I think there are, uh, people will get up in the morning, they want to do great work and they want to be well led and they want to have purpose and feel good about what they do. I think in, in Asia where I've spent a lot of my career, that sense of teenage energy, you know, they don't know what they don't know, and we can achieve anything, which is the sort of hallmark of developing nations is, is wonderfully invigorating. The challenge is if things start to go a little bit wrong, people unravel as quickly as they sort of excite. Um, north America, I think it's kind of essential, I've lived and worked there, to understand compensation. I'm not saying that greed is good in America, but, uh, you know, uh, how one is incented to do things is extremely important, but that same extraordinary worth eth-, uh, work ethic, uh, is, is very strong. And then in Europe, a more mature environment where, you know, trying to create differentiation and maybe cut through cynicism, been there, done that, know how to do it. I think that, you know, the, the acts of any one individual can be powerful, but I've also seen across the world where, you know, purpose led corporations, companies like IBM take their scale and digital and how we reached 4 million teachers and a million young women across India, uh, to help aid stem skills, uh, equip them with not only, uh, technology, but capability and learning, you know, the, the ability to do good, uh, is almost limitless at large scale at kind of medium scale. And, and we can talk at, at sort of startup level, but I think, you know, that sense that I remember as my first public company CEO ship in the UK with an amazing, uh, chairman, uh, and my, my first strategy paper, this is, uh, 2006 to the investors who own the company was people, planet, profits, and some of those, um, of course it's all changed now, investors who said, yeah, really interesting Harriet, let's get to the profits. And now of course, uh, EDI, ESG, all of those metrics have become fundamental in the decision-making for, um, stakeholders to buy in to organizations, which I think shows progress just in my own, uh, short lifetime.Danny:
That's really wonderful. So 2006, you're talking about the things and it's interesting, you talk about IBM and being purpose driven. Well, most people wouldn't think of IBM as a purpose to, they just think of IBM as a big technology behemoth. Um, but actually we are seeing that organizations like IBM and Microsoft more recently as well, are really starting to focus on that because-.Harriet:
Well, IBM would say, you know, in fairness that 110 years, uh, uh, which is, um, longer than any other company in tech and most other companies is because of the purpose of the organization that IBM's below the waterline and above the waterline of developing investing. Whether it's, P-tech programs, you know, corporate citizenship programs where employees work around the world, that it's ability to have this longevity is its ability to change and provide purpose for its vast numbers of employees. So this is not some tech fad, uh, you know, uh, and sadly many, many tech organizations are not diverse, are not inclusive and hardly stand the test of time.Danny:
Certainly, and, um, in previous episodes, we talk a lot about artificial intelligence. And again, this is not a technology port- podcast, but we talk about the impact of diversity in the people who are designing artificial intelligence and training it because it's going to impact all of our lives.Harriet:
So Harriet, let's talk about Mission Beyond, it's at it's nascent stage at the moment, tell us about what it is.Harriet:
Yeah. So. A whole range of people, including your goodself, from corporations, individuals, uh, units, government came together to really talk about as a coalition based on the, uh, the sort of, uh, thoughts of, uh, many that the way that you tackle some of the world's big problems is in a strong coalition. And we worked together, identified that social mobility, particularly the part of social mobility that has five life stages from education to work would be an area of great a, a, a focus. And so, um, by talking to everyone that provides support in this area, coaching, uh, mentorships, internships, apprenticeships, jobs, um, we came up with a digital platform. Uh, open doors, we developed, uh, an amazing MVP, uh, Red Badger, a digital consultancy helped us work on that. Really working with the beneficiaries. How did they build their confidence, their knowledge, their CV, their skills, uh, sort of a career advisor in your pocket. How do we put all of the SMEs, the coaches, the, the supporters, the, the charities, the NHS's with all their jobs onto this ecosystem. And most importantly, the corporates who with the best will in the world want to hire people that don't look like the white aryan males from eight universities that they hired today. And so creating this marketplace, this ecosystem, which is so much more than a jobs board because young people can keep this in their, in their, on their phone. Uh, uh, um, and provides them with a journey of confidence to financial independence. And boy is the timing right now. Anyone who was underrepresented or disadvantaged before this vortex of change before the technology changed the pandemic, the climate change and the need for deep, deep, uh, inclusion and diversity, they're even less represented. Uh, and now, so we're out there, a large part of my day, trying to get funding to take this amazing NVP, uh, from the most brilliant demo, uh, into, um, uh, uh, uh, a platform marketplace with all of the real-time data, all of the security. All of the AI that we need to help young people, um, many have helped us get where we are, it really is a powerful example of a coalition at work to solve a problem. And our goal, uh, is with the first phase of funding to get a million young people, uh, on a thousand SMEs and corporates coming to GAPA in this marketplace. So we're very excited, as you can tell.Danny:
I'm also excited I, as an employer of technology staff, we've recently gone out to try and find apprentices for entry level roles. And it's been quite hard. It's not easy, it's not being readily available. And there are some organizations doing some stuff there, but they're also charging a lot of money for it. And you just think how much are you trying to profit, versus how much are you trying to really give people a leg up. So I think this is something that's just so incredibly.Harriet:
Thank you, I mean you've been such a powerful part of that coalition, giving advice, you know, you're a pretty, a pretty rock star leading CIO yourself, uh, in the UK. And so the influence that you can have in others trying to, you know, if we can do this with a platform, a digital platform that provides scale and security and information here, we can use it in many, many other areas. So, you know, it takes an entire village, a tribe to do this, and you've been a part of it. So thank you.Danny:
Thank you Harriet. Let's finish up with just your thoughts on leading with purpose. From all the experience you've had across these continents and across these organizations and the social startups, what would you tell people who are in the humdrum, the day-to-day and thinking I want to add more value, I want to, I want my purpose to lead what I do. What advice would you have?Harriet:
I've got sort of two pockets of advice. The first is, you know, as an individual, any one of us can lead with our heart and be more interested, more kind, more providing allyship. Whether it's seeing someone, you know, shouted at in the street, someone rolled over in a meeting. You know, we all can have a voice if we choose to it doesn't matter whether you're an introvert, an extrovert. It doesn't matter whether you know, a huge amount about the LGBT plus community, whether you don't know if someone is, is, you know, Jewish or had free school meals, it doesn't really matter. Leading with your heart on a daily basis can make an amazing difference, on a more structured level. The questions that I, as an employee, as a citizen, uh, asked every single day in any company that gets my money, or I have to co-exist with it is about the psychology, the physiology, and the anatomy of your commitment to purpose. First of all, where is your, um, you know, your psychological commitment as a company or a government or as an organization? Where is your diversity and inclusion plan? Where is your volunteering plan for people? If it was a new product, where is your climate change plan? What are you leading with as that unit? What, uh, what is supposed to capture the hearts and minds of a young individual? Oh, well, we're not sure about working from home, you know, kind of work its way out. This is a time to lead and I think leaders have got to step up and really be bold and be much more brilliant. Secondly, the physiology. Are you having, when you interview people a diverse slate, what are all these, you know, Asian women are no different, you know, community represented. Where are the processes and the practices that hire people, uh, because they're great. Not because they went to a school or you think they come from a good family. And how are those, how is that, uh, physiology, nerve endings, blood flows, the IT stuff. How does it drive purpose? And then finally, it's the piece about anatomy? What is the structure of your business? I am a huge believer in, if you can see it, you can be it. When I was running businesses across Asia-Pac, uh, across 14 countries, half of the executives were women. That means that a young woman who wants to join the company can look up and say, my leader in Malaysia is a woman. My leader in, uh, this part of India is a woman, or, uh, is, is, um, you know, someone who is not, you know, if I can see it, I can be it. And it removes all the sense of doubt of unconscious bias, uh, and of prejudice. And so, psychology physiology and anatomy. We can all ask those questions. We can be the person with a better end result in the GPO officing. Excuse me. Why have you done this? And the power of employees, uh, today, every single employee has a voice to ask those questions. And if they're not satisfied, they have a choice. And so all of us can vote for purpose and be part of the change that we want to see in the world, every one of us.Danny:
That's perfect, thank you very much, Harriet. The importance of role modeling, so critical and thank you for being such an amazing role model for so many people, women across the world. Thank you very much, Harriet, for being on the Sondership podcast.Harriet:
It's my great pleasure, thank you. What do you think about dad's performance?Amy:
Yeah, he's okay, I listened, well no I don't listen to his podcast because he kicks us out of the house when he's recording, but he's okay.
Global Business Leader
Harriet is a businesswoman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, and a passionate lifetime learner. For the last two decades, she has been leading and driving business transformations across the world.
She received my OBE for services to electronics in 2010. In 2016 she was invited to join the Women in IT Hall of Fame (WITI), and in 2019 she was named one of Fortune's Most Powerful Women Internationally. Most recently LinkedIn named her a Top Voice, one of the UK’s Top Ten Influencers.
Three passions and the intersectionality between them have shaped Harriet's journey as a purpose-driven business leader: solving complex business problems; creating environments of deep inclusion, and building cultures that embrace lifelong learning and reinvention, including developing the new skills the world needs.