Q&A with Paul Geddes - CEO of Direct Line

Sarah Atkinson
Stakeholder Engagement Manager | University of the West of England
15th February 2017
UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Paul Geddes, chief executive officer of Direct Line, before he gave his address:

1. What is the one characteristic every leader should have?

I’m going to ask for two – that’s cheating maybe?

I think you need a great blend of optimism and realism.

If you’re totally optimistic you’ll end up doing unwise things, but if you’re totally realistic at all stages you won’t really stretch yourself or inspire other people.

2. What inspires you?

I should say my children, who of course I love deeply, but I think my inspiration actually comes from how hard and challenging it is to run a business in a very competitive market.

Every day is like playing a three dimensional game of chess and it’s as good as any computer game.

It’s just fantastically interesting, exciting, challenging and it gives me a huge amount of inspiration every day.

3. What do you do to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?

I think there are two things you need to do.

First, be open to the idea that you’re not perfect.

Second, listen to people’s feedback on how you can improve - although it’s quite hardly taking that onboard and doing something about it!

But I think an overriding belief that you’re not as good as you could be is really the start point.

4. Do you have a pivotal moment when you decided to pursue this career path?

I was probably a marketeer before I knew I was one.

At university I was running things and setting things up and Proctor and Gamble, my first employer, targeted people like me.

I did an internship there for the summer, and then suddenly I realised that what I was doing a career of marketing!

5. What characteristics would you look for in a graduate employee?

The framework I use is looking for drive, influence and judgement.

Drive – the get up and go and wants to change the world a bit; influence – having sufficient people skills to bring people with you; and judgement, which is basically making some pretty good decisions and being smart.

If you have two of the three, it can be quite dangerous.

If you’ve got lots of drive and influence but no judgement you end getting people to do silly things.

If you’ve got two of the three; if you lack influence but you have lots of great ideas and you have lots of energy but people won’t actually come with you - that’s a problem.

So you need all three!

6. If you could go back what advice would you give yourself as a new graduate?

Probably to take a year off! I’ve been at this for 27 years in a row. The best time to be young and care free is when you’re young and care free because it’s quite hard and expensive to do it later!

7. How does a marketing background benefit your career?

I think marketing is a pretty good skill set for a CEO and there are a couple of reasons for this:

First of all, marketing is a general management training – it helps you work out how to run a profit and loss, what matters to customers – what’s your product and what’s your proposition.

This is a really good general management training.

Second, a lot of being a CEO is marketing. It’s about communicating; it’s about explaining your company to investors and staff, explaining your strategy to people. I think it’s a pretty good training, other trainings are available but I think marketing is a good one.

8. How important is it to keep up with technology trends?

It’s pretty much everything to keep up with technology. It’s pretty hard. Our staff expect all the systems at work to be as good as they have at home, which is really hard because their systems at home can be amazing.

Customers change every day - their expectations and what they want to be able to do with us.

And the products which we insure are changing. Cars and homes are getting much more connected. Ownership is changing, technology is changing, so keeping up is everything and it determines whether or not we are winners in the future.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. The full schedule for spring 2017 is now available. If you have any queries please contact events@uwe.ac.uk. Discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures. View content from Peter Geddes' lecture here.

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