The first Asian woman to have hit the FTSE 250 list, Ruby McGregor-Smith, CBE, hates nothing more than being introduced this way.
Striving all her life to ‘blend in’ and not stand out as ‘different’, Ruby’s celebrity took her by surprise when she took central stage of the MITIE Group as newly appointed CEO in 2007 – a business she turned from £0.5bn to over £2bn in a few years. Not only leading 72,000 employees across the globe, Ruby is also a non-exec director at the Page Group, chair of the Women’s Business Council, and a hands-on mum and wife. She talks to Myriam O’Carroll about her passion for an industry where shining comes from within.
You joined the outsourcing business very early in your career – what attracted you to this industry?
After I qualified as an accountant I met a group of people I really liked at one interview and decided to work for them. It was the Serco Group and I stayed there for 9 years. It was quite a young industry and growing very fast. It never occurred to me that I would work in any other industry.
You joined the MITIE Group in 2002 where you have had an impressive career progression – what was your initial reaction when you were appointed CEO in 2007?
I was actually happy doing my previous role as Finance Director. I hadn’t really taken central stage before, like being in the media or doing the big results conferences internally, etc. which I had to get used to. It was an interesting process.
As a CEO of 72,000 employees, a wife and a mother of two teenagers, what sacrifices have you made?
I always wanted a career and I gave that up for a while when the children were small, which was the right thing to do because I wanted to spend more time with them when they were little.
I have a great career and a very happy family life, so I don’t feel I have sacrificed anything.
I view it as having made decisions at certain times of my life. I’m a mum and every mum who has a job makes compromises. Just because my job title is a bit different does not mean it’s different – we all just get through it!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would say fairly informal, focused and ambitious. I want to deliver a lot.
How do you motivate your staff?
Motivation is about good feedback and empowering people to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. It is also about really getting more out of people and making them realise what their potential is. My big thing has always been to promote young. I put people in at the deep end. I think this is what they need and they will thrive in 99% of cases.
Finally, it’s also about making people seriously love what they do and making them excited, because that’s what you need to do brilliantly.
With hindsight, what would you tell a younger you to do differently?
Be more confident, make the decisions you need to make and worry less. Worrying is part of what makes you better at what you are, but it can hold you back too.
You say you ‘don’t do failure’ – does it mean you never doubt?
When I say I ‘don’t do failure’, it really means I’m quite good at not dwelling. I move on quickly. I believe there’s always the next route to take. Even if you’ve got something that doesn’t succeed, you can still make the best of it. I am a bit of an optimist about this.
You have received numerous prestigious awards. Which ones means the most to you?
I think there are probably two – the first is the British Business Award. It was so delightful to receive something on behalf of my business. I was really touched actually that no-one made it about gender or about race because all I’ve craved for in my life was to be the same as anyone else and fit in. My CBE obviously was also very important, as that was, again, more about recognition for my achievement at MITIE. It was very special, for us all.
You have been married for 20 years – as a couple, did you have to adjust to your celebrity status?
Hardly! We’ve not changed… I met my husband when I was 22 and we’ve grown together over that time. We are obviously different from when we were 22, but we are best mates and I cannot really imagine my world without him.
What’s green in your life?
My family is into recycling and compost making. I am into my gardening and all the organic stuff at home, like eating the eggs from my chickens.
What do you teach your children?
Love what you do and always strive to do the best. Be more confident; learn self-belief early. Travel, see the world for what it is and have a global perspective on life.
Oh and love every day of it because life goes past too quickly.