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“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of Exeter City Futures”, With Liz O’Driscoll

You don’t have to act like a man — it sounds like a terrible thing to say, but there is a stereotype of a CEO: strong, full of gravitas. Through my career I’ve often been told to emulate these behaviors but I don’t think it’s a true reflection of diversity. What’s the point of having female […]

You don’t have to act like a man — it sounds like a terrible thing to say, but there is a stereotype of a CEO: strong, full of gravitas. Through my career I’ve often been told to emulate these behaviors but I don’t think it’s a true reflection of diversity. What’s the point of having female CEOs if they act like men? Women bring different skills and manage in different ways. I struggled with the transition from innovation to engineering teams, and found that whenever I tried to artificially ‘adjust’ my management style, my team didn’t thrive because I wasn’t being authentic with them.


I had the pleasure to interview Liz O’Driscoll, the CEO of Exeter City Futures. With a PhD in Electrical Engineering and over 15 years’ experience working in systems engineering, innovation, and change management for the public and private sector, Liz works collaboratively to design strategies, systems, and processes that deliver benefit to the people who use them. In 2017, she joined Exeter City Futures as Managing Director, to deliver a vision of a carbon neutral, sustainable, citizen-engaged City of Exeter.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After working for BAE Systems for over 13 years, the large organization had afforded me a lot of opportunities to learn a wide range of skills in my capacity as a system engineer: innovation, strategy, process improvement. But I was beginning to ask myself whether I wanted to use my skills to do something new.

I then received a phone call from a colleague of mine. He told me I needed to get out of the same organization I had always worked for, and experience some new challenges. He had been to Exeter and met an incredible and crazy man who had an amazing vision for the city.

By 2050 over 60% of the world’s population will live in cities and it’s critical to find ways to manage this growth to ensure that people thrive. From my conversation with him, it was clear that this city had ambition — but they needed someone to help them make a plan.

This was a unique opportunity to use my skills for a mission with a social focus, something to create value other than for shareholders. I wanted in.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

The biggest challenge when joining Exeter City Futures was realizing that the organization had a bold goal but it wasn’t yet owned by the city — there was much to shape and build.

It quickly turned out that the city stakeholders were not looking for the company model we had assumed. The multiple problems we were seeking to solve needed a very collaborative design, with people sensitive to what had already been done. They didn’t just want a company to come in and solve the problems — they wanted a company to come in to provide cohesion and a way to help the people of the city itself to solve the problems.

That meant I had to continuously redesign and relaunch until we found a model that met the needs of the wide range of stakeholders, and added value to the city — and of course, all of this was in the public eye.

It was an important lesson in ensuring you know your stakeholders and audience, listening to their needs, and being happy to reassess your own plans. It showed me how important it was to reflect on your assumptions and be prepared to make changes.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Curiosity — being interested in what people want and why they aren’t happy with what you are offering, willing to listen to feedback, and accept that my own assumptions might be wrong.

Big vision — holding on to a clear vision that everyone can buy into, regardless of their own perspectives and current activities. With a complex city-change program with multiple stakeholders — especially when dealing with people’s lives — it’s important to work together around a common goal, taking small steps and celebrating each one.

Passion/tenacity — I genuinely believe in the cause and for that I’m prepared to put in everything I’ve got, stick with it, keep reworking the model, and listening and engaging with people. Be prepared that things will go wrong, and pick yourself up and keep going.

I love the quote from JFK: “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

It’s OK not to know everything — most people don’t. As the CEO, people in the team look to you for guidance and support. They need you to hold the vision and keep driving forwards. In tough times it’s hard to know where to go for support, and that’s where having a wider network of peers and mentors is key. The key is to build a team around you to fill your gaps. One of my managers once told me that a sign of a good CEO isn’t how well the team runs when you are here, it’s how well it runs when you aren’t.

You don’t have to act like a man — it sounds like a terrible thing to say, but there is a stereotype of a CEO: strong, full of gravitas. Through my career I’ve often been told to emulate these behaviors but I don’t think it’s a true reflection of diversity. What’s the point of having female CEOs if they act like men? Women bring different skills and manage in different ways. I struggled with the transition from innovation to engineering teams, and found that whenever I tried to artificially ‘adjust’ my management style, my team didn’t thrive because I wasn’t being authentic with them.

It’s okay to show emotion — I remember watching Teresa May when she resigned and how her voice cracked. Many people told me it was a sign of weakness, and a reason why she (or even in some cases why women) can’t do the job. But for me, I think it’s a sign of passion. Why should passion be considered weakness? I think that the strongest leaders are in that position because they care deeply about what their actions are creating.

Get a thick skin (but not too thick) — when you are a CEO, people will think they can do the job better than you. In fact, any team member with ambition will be craving your role, and stakeholders will all think you are doing something wrong. In a role like mine at Exeter City Futures, there is a diverse set of stakeholders: residents, businesses, local authority, cyclists, drivers…. Over 120,000 stakeholders all watching what I am doing and having an opinion. Social media means that these opinions are often very public. It’s important to find a way not to take all this too personally. While everyone has an opinion that is valuable, and it’s important to listen and welcome the debate, it’s incredibly hard (yet vital) not to take it all very personally.

Balance competing priorities — helping a city to become carbon neutral means everyone will need to make some degree of change — in fact quite significant change is probably required. If we seek to please everyone, we will end up with a vanilla solution that does not solve the goal. It’s important to be strong and committed, prepared to make bold decisions to move forwards with what you believe is the best plan.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Try to remember to lift up out of the vortex some days — don’t forget why you are committed to the cause. Step back and recognize some of the things that have gone well. Too often we are so head down in the hard bits, that we forget to reflect on what we can be proud of — and on those days it can feel impossible.

Being a CEO isn’t your whole life. It’s ok to pause and regroup, spend some time with friends and family, indulge in your hobbies. Your team will be thankful for a clear headed leader.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

So many people! I’m lucky to have had some great bosses and diverse teams who have taught me much about myself as well as work.

I remember an early mentor telling me that one of the best things I could do is to “get a broad range of skills and earn a reputation as a safe and capable pair of hands”.

Thanks to this advice, I believe I’ve progressed quickly, being offered challenging and difficult roles where someone needs to make clear plans out of huge, messy, and sometimes seemingly impossible visions.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

My top goal right now has to be delivering a roadmap to a carbon-neutral Exeter that generates solutions that meet the needs of the residents and businesses.

Personally I’m trying to coach myself to lift up so that I can be more objective, balancing passion with logic. When you are balancing life and work, it’s easy to feel you aren’t doing anything properly and that can knock your confidence.

On one hand you might have just delivered an amazing project but if on that same day your kid hasn’t got any clean school socks it’ll make you feel rubbish!

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

To have been part of creating a change in the ways that cities work, creating places where people are thriving in great urban spaces. I would love to tell my kids that their mum was part of that change.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I’m a fan of all the slow movements — slow fashion, slow eating. Being sustainable isn’t about having loads of money to buy organic, for me it’s about making the best choices you can within the means you have; choose what’s local and in season, eat a little of what’s good, walk in the fresh air when you can and repurpose your stuff instead of buying new. Life has become very fast with social media, constant news updates, and a real push to be showing what you’ve done and what you’ve got. It’s easy to forget that it’s good to be here in this moment rather than trying to capture it all in a post.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I actually turned my Twitter off because it was eating all my time! But you can connect with me on LinkedIn, and follow Exeter City Futures on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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