…This is such an embarrassing one for me! The lesson is definitely ‘never assume anything’. It’s so dangerous to draw conclusions without understanding the full context. I remember doing some training years ago, mainly about the softer skills, how to refer to someone’s partner without assuming gender, that sort of thing. I was just out of university in my first job, and I was speaking on the phone to someone with a very croaky voice, and I was attempting to make light of it: joking about them not being well, and why were they working if they were so sick? It was then that I realised that everyone in the office was laughing. I discovered after the call that the person I was speaking to had an electrolarynx. They had experienced a skiing accident, and rather than being unwell, they always sounded like that. It was an embarrassing lesson to learn, but it was learned: never assume anything, particularly where people are concerned.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Merle Hall. Merle is CEO of Kinneir Dufort, a world leading user-centred Innovation and product development consultancy. She has 20 years’ experience in launching life-changing products and services globally for businesses such as Roche, AstraZeneca, Unilever, Coca Cola and Raspberry Pi.Merle sits on the board of Kerning the Gap, currently rolling out a national UK programme focused on equality in design leadership and also the Design Business Association (DBA), as well as partnering with STEM organisations Teen Tech and the Big Bang, delivering diversity in next generation of innovators, designers and engineers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s interesting; I have always loved art and design, and that is where my passions have been — but I cannot draw to save my life! I quickly learned that the vicarious path of working within design consultancy, innovation, and product developments means that my creative ideas can be met by those with the skills to actually manifest them. When I joined Kinneir Dufort (KD) ten years ago, however, it was my front-end brand innovation skill set the team were after. They also offered me flexibility, and after having just had my first child, that was important to me — and ten years later, many businesses still aren’t offering that flexibility.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since I’ve become CEO at KD, I regularly receive emails, phone calls, and physical mail from people assuming that I am a man! I understand that Merle is an unusual name, but it was only when I became CEO that this problem really started to increase in frequency.
It reached a point last year when, after receiving yet another email addressed to ‘Dear sir’, I anonymised the email and posted an image of it online. It quickly went viral — and not only did I receive support, but also misogynistic, vitriolic comments. I took the post down after a few weeks..
The assumptions about being a leader and being male are absolutely everywhere. Even my HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the UK tax branch of government) correspondence changed from Mrs to Mr Merle after becoming CEO..
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is such an embarrassing one for me! The lesson is definitely ‘never assume anything’. It’s so dangerous to draw conclusions without understanding the full context. I remember doing some training years ago, mainly about the softer skills, how to refer to someone’s partner without assuming gender, that sort of thing. I was just out of university in my first job, and I was speaking on the phone to someone with a very croaky voice, and I was attempting to make light of it: joking about them not being well, and why were they working if they were so sick?
It was then that I realised that everyone in the office was laughing. I discovered after the call that the person I was speaking to had an electrolarynx. They had experienced a skiing accident, and rather than being unwell, they always sounded like that.
It was an embarrassing lesson to learn, but it was learned: never assume anything, particularly where people are concerned.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
For us it’s our purpose. We’ve done significant work in the last few years about gaining clarity on what that means for us as a business, and we revealed some of that thinking as ‘resolutions’: ranging from striving to understand, respect, and improve the lives of the people we design for.
We want to create a positive impact through the work that we do, and that means making sustainable and positive decisions for our business, our clients and our team.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Essentially, everything that we do is exciting! That’s our criteria!
We’re currently doing intense work around creating access in developing markets: whether drug delivery, diagnostic tools, or prosthetic limbs. We’re constantly asking ourselves: how can we get things that we take for granted in the developed world, and make them easily accessible in the developing world?
One of our clients really delivering on this is Raspberry Pi. It’s the third bestselling computer in the world since its launch six years ago, and it costs just $35. This makes it accessible for young people globally of all backgrounds so the next generation can learn to code.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I always recommend our mantra at KD: act honourably, even when no one is looking. That enables individuals as well as teams to thrive.
Diverse recruitment is something we focus a huge amount on in our business, but we mirror that with investing in people. Every business is the sum of our parts, and people are the greatest assets. It’s not just about getting the right ones on the bus, but listening to them, investing in them, and acting fairly for them. Otherwise they won’t hang around.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The biggest challenge with larger teams is maintaining positive culture. My personal approach to this is that a company’s culture is defined as the worst behaviour that management will tolerate.
It’s got to be zero tolerance when it comes to culture; as soon as something slips through the net, it’s assumed by all to be acceptable. Making sure that your standards never drop is vital to me.
Another thing that I’d recommend female leaders to always keep in mind is that you should never take something personally. You’ll need thick skin. You can do everything in your power to create the best environment in the world, and people still leave: for their own ambitions, geographical changes, because of a million other reasons.
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 about that?
It’s got to be my Chief Design Officer (CDO) Craig. We’ve worked together for ten years, and although we are very different people, with different perspectives, we do work together brilliantly. We share an ethos and he has always demonstrated faith in me — with a realistic tinge! Craig is never going to big me up; he’ll criticise me constructively and we’ll push each other to improve and grow. Any leadership is a journey, and it’s great to have company, otherwise it can be a lonely path.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As KD, we believe that we are in a place of privilege and it’s important to pay it forward.
With that in mind, we partner with six charities or organisations that are doing good: Kerning the Gap, Babassa, Teen Tech, Big Bang, RSA, and Frankwater. We also give a percentage of our profits to charity — last year we supported 40 different charities.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Work hard, be nice to people and have fun! This is so important to who we are, and I was brought up to believe that focused hard work will lead to success. Life is too short to not treat people with respect and kindness and you’ve got to laugh along the way!
2. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. When you scratch the surface and discover why they do certain things or things in a certain way, it’s always because of a reason. That’s why we always encourage people to respect. You don’t know what’s going on in individuals lives.
3. Understanding what motivates people in the team. You can’t make assumptions. Not everyone is going to be like you, and it’s vital that you don’t just employ people who are.
4. Always ask questions. Asking and listening need to come hand in hand — there’s no point in just asking! You’ll learn a lot more from listening to someone else than to your own voice.
5. Pick your battles. This is something that I think people learn when you become a parent! I’ve been known to put ‘Let it Go’ on the sound system at work! Really self-assessing what you want to say when in contentious situations. Is what you want to say actually going to improve things? Is it important/valuable to everyone, not just you?
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Equality! Equality in terms of gender diversity is so bad in our industry; in industrial design and engineering, women are just 5% of the consultancy workforce so there’s a responsibility in a position of power to do something about it. Within KD we are at 35% now, which is not perfect, but probably one of the best in our industry.
I find myself arguing about equality so much more than I want to. I don’t enjoy that debate! I feel like many men feel that things are pretty good for women in business now, but I just don’t believe it. It’s just a perception for men, women are living it every day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Cheesy, but true: ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal.’
You have one shot, and actually in many cases, the biggest thing that stands in our way is ourselves. When we were buying the business in 2015/2016, through a private equity backed management buyout (MBO), I felt like a bit of a fraud, asking PE firms for millions. It was only halfway through the process when I realised they were competing to partner us, that it dawned on me I must be doing something right!
Life isn’t a walk in the park all the time, but time and time again I’ve seen proof that the only thing restricting you in your ambition is your self-belief..
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/merle-hall/
You can follow KD on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/company/kinneir-dufort/
And you can find KD on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/KinneirDufort
Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!