Dame Mary Marsh

Dame Mary Marsh is a non-executive director of HSBC Bank plc and a member of the Governing Body at London Business School.

She was the Founding Director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme from 2008 to 2015 and the Chief Executive of the charity National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) from 2000 to 2008.

Prior to this she was in education. . She started her career as a Geography teacher and later became Deputy Head of St Christopher School in Letchworth. From 1987-9 she completed an executive MBA at London Business School. She was appointed Headteacher of Queens’ School in Hertfordshire in 1990 and moved to be Head of Holland Park School, London in 1995.

In the 2007 New Year Honours she was awarded a DBE for “services to families and children”.


For how many years have you held leadership positions?

Certainly 25: there’s 10 years as a head, the last 15 years NSPCC and at Clore Social, but then I was a deputy head for 10 years before all that. So it could be 35. It was as small school and I was the only deputy head so I did all sorts of things while I was there. I had to run the junior school and the Montessori for a while after the head of the junior school left on short notice following some other changes of staff there. The head said, “You’re going to have to go and stabilize this.” I took on running it. I didn’t know anything about primary education at all. I learnt a lot actually. I think all secondary teachers should spend some time in primary schools and understand the fundamentals of learning.

In those early roles how did you learn to support other people that you were working with?

I’ve always had good relationships with the people I’ve worked with. That passion that I have for growing other people has driven me through the whole journey. I think that’s a big driver for me.

When you were deputy head and head, did you make up techniques or approaches of how to work and support others in the school?

I’ve always had a very open door, always been very accessible, always been around and about. I’ve always tried to give a narrative, give a direction from quite early on. When I look back at some of those moments when I’ve done that it’s always felt pretty brave. My techniques were values-based—even though I might not initially have expressed it that way, because it’s become clearer that that’s how you explicitly define it now.

Have there been any techniques or approaches particularly around managing or supporting others that you have tried and then not continued with? 

I think handling a demoralised teaching workforce at Holland Park was challenging, particularly as I was trying to do it in this inclusive way. There could have been another approach which would have been a bit more confrontational approach. I did try and avoid that, but it was fragile with many conflicting stakeholders too.

I think having the right people around you in your senior team is critical. I may have taken too long in getting to that sometimes because of my passion to work with people and give them a chance to develop. Maybe I could have been harder-edged about who’s there with me. Sometimes it’s been quite hard to disentangle and certainly the London schools of the ’80s and ’90s were challenging places.

What is the link between well-supported teams and the impact that the organisation has?

I think it is important to get people out of their functional silos and to think holistically. If people are going to be ready to be in senior teams they’ve got to start having a wider view. To start with I would always make the line management of any subject area by the senior team in a school to be absolutely not their specialism. At NSPCC I did a lot to get people out of their functional silos and I’d get them to collaborate across boundaries. I did budget challenge meetings with the senior team (called the Leadership team) where every function presenting their annual budget would have a robust discussion with other members of the senior team. It meant giving a richer understanding to us all but also getting people to be interrogated from a different perspective. I think that’s a really healthy thing to do.

Do you believe that the same expectations should be applied to everyone whether they were part of the team, you yourself, or the people who you were working to support?

That’s essential. At St Christopher School in Letchworth, a key idea from the early leaders was that you should never expect more of children than you do of yourself. I think if you’re going to have expectations of other people, there’s just no integrity to it if you don’t hold yourself to the same.

I was just wondering through your work over the last 30 or more years what opportunities there have been for you to scaffold opportunities for growth and development, not actually amongst the beneficiaries or the students but amongst the teams that you’ve been working with or who’ve been working with you?

I think that this concept in relation to learning is absolutely key. Often I’ve described it as being a bit like a tree: until you’ve got the shape of the tree you can’t hang the leaves on it. I’ve always given people development opportunities. People have often said, “But you’ve given all these people that have had fantastic learning opportunities. Now they’re off and going to another job. Why have you done that?” My line always is that if you do develop people – and yes, they may well move on – that that will always attract the next lot of people you recruit to be all as strong or stronger because they’ll see coming and working with you and your team is a good place to be.

To what extent do you think that co-designing projects or programs is beneficial and what the limitations of that approach might be?

An interesting document to look at is the All Party Parliamentary Commission on Leadership and Management that was published last year. I was a commissioner on that. The final conclusions were that there were three things that were seen to be critical. They apply across all organizations – public, private and the social sector. The first one was clarity of purpose and sticking to it. The second one was people. The third one was potential, making sure that you were building for the longer term. I think that purpose, people and potential is a really good three-legged stool to build any organisation on. I think that in order to make the most of what’s available, you have got to start with the people you have. You’ve got to develop them. They’re going to develop best by learning from others as well as for themselves. But it takes time. You can’t do many shortcuts.

Have you had any processes for recognising character strengths or soft skills within any of your organisations or teams?

I like the things that Duckworth has in her view —zest, curiosity, optimism. One thing that I have always written into job specs is the ability to sustain good humour. I just do think it works across all approaches to life, the optimism and energy. This whole thing about lifelong learning, is learning all the time, so the curiosity that she mentions is absolutely key.

Are there any formal or informal ways that you recognise strengths and skills?

I think finding ways to thank people is really important. You can do a lot of it by just what you say. I think I’ve had aspirations to do the personal note thing to lots of people. I think the postcard is still quite a good way of saying thank you. But I probably should have done much more of it.

How would you define a teacher or educator?

A teacher is a brilliant educator. I don’t think they’re separate. I think we know a lot from cognitive psychology about learning and about motivation and about character building. We’ve known this for a long time but we’ve been very slow to communicate it. For example, the best context for learning is high challenge and low threat, but there are lots of people who are educationalists, and maybe even who have spent time actually directly teaching a lot of people who think fear is a very good weapon in getting people to learn. I think high expectations, ambition, aspiration are very different from fear.

How would you define a leader?

Leaders are coaches: the skill of a coach is enabling somebody to find their own way. Teaching is more than coaching when you’re actually teaching concepts and content understanding, but I think the way in which you do it very much can be strengthened by a coaching approach. That is what effective leaders are. They are also good at telling a narrative that makes sense to people, so they follow because they know where they’re going. They know why they’re going where they’re going. They know what you’re trying to get to. They understand some of the means of getting there because it’s all been articulated in a way that makes sense. And the good leader has the grit and determination too to see it through.

Do you think you would have been a different type of leader if you hadn’t taught first?

I don’t know really, because I didn’t train as teacher. I just went and taught as one could in those days. Then I did a diploma in education later, before I then did my MBA at London Business School. No, because I think there have just been lots of influences on me. I do think that the degree to which I’ve had cross sector exposure and engagement has been as significant as the fact that I did work as a teacher. I think that cross sector perspective is really important.

What’s always fascinated me is that when I used to meet as a head with chief executives of major FTSE 100 companies, fundamentally the issues that we were grappling with were the same because they were often about people. That’s what I do at the moment for HSBC. I have a particular interest for the Board about people, values and culture. I spend quite a bit of time are reviewing things with our regional head of HR and understanding what we’re doing about bringing the development of people consistently across the business, because obviously conduct, values, culture is a big, big issue. I’m applying the same things in my discussion at HSBC as I did with all of the Clore Social Leadership Fellows. It’s quite an interesting spectrum with more similarities than differences.

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