5 Questions for a Business School Dean: Heather McGregor

Edinburgh Business School’s executive dean discusses the challenges women face in business

Having undertaken her own MBA at London Business School while working and raising a family, Heather McGregor had become a champion of women in business, penning a career advice book for women, making television appearances and writing the Mrs Moneypenny column for the Financial Times, where she documented her life as a businesswoman over 17 years.

She was a founding member of the 30% Club, which aims to increase the number of women on the boards of FTSE-100 companies, and she is still a member of its steering committee.

In 2015 Professor McGregor received a CBE, or Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for her services to diversity, specifically women, in business.

Last year Professor McGregor gave up her executive recruiting business when she was invited to become Executive Dean of Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University.

Here she tells Find MBA about why she swapped out business for academia, and her long-time service to women in business.

How did you come to do an MBA?

I did my undergraduate degree at Newcastle University in the north of England.

I then spent my twenties working in PR and communications, and particularly in financial communications.

Then I did my own MBA, because I was very interested in business and management. So I did an MBA at the London Business School. I did it part time while working and having a family, which I have to say is the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. I’m amazed that my marriage survived – and I’m still married, same man. But I tell you what, those first years, when I was studying for my MBA, and having my first baby, and working, I do encourage people now not to try and do all of those things at the same time if they can avoid it.

What did your MBA enable you to do next?

Then I went to have a 10-year career in investment banking which was made possible by that MBA. And towards the end of my time in investment banking I worked for a Dutch bank called ABN Amro and I worked all around the world: in Hong Kong, in Singapore, in Tokyo for two years, and I was moving constantly with my husband and my children.

Towards the end of that time at the bank I decided to do a PhD at the University of Hong Kong. I was really struggling to finish it and [I was] doing this part time, also, while raising a family and working and so I took the decision in 2000 that I would stop working as a banker and that I would join a business that I could buy.

I’d always had my eye on this headhunting business, an executive search business, that specialized in finding people in communications.

When I joined this company it was a nine-person company, in a tiny little office. I built it up so that today, 16 or 17 years later, there are now 60 people, and they are in seven offices on four continents.

We fill the top communications jobs for the top companies all around the world from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all the way through to Vodafone or the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

So what made you want to give that up for the academic world?

I’d been minding my own business running the company when I got the call last year asking, would I like to go to Edinburgh? First of all my reaction was, ‘you must be joking, how could I possibly leave my business?’ But then, I did think to myself, ‘if I go and do this job, it’s a really special business school because it’s effectively a distance learning business school’, so I got the opportunity to work really globally with people. And also, I’d be in a position of influence with the opportunity to get more women to do an MBA.

The good thing about owning your own company is that you don’t have any shareholders to explain your decision to. I only had to explain to my husband.

And so I moved to Edinburgh to take on this leadership role.

How does your role at Edinburgh Business School fit in with your support of women in business?

One of the reasons I took this position, and gave up a very successful business and took a big decrease in compensation, is that our MBA is quite different to other MBAs. You take it unit by unit, and there’s no time limit.

So if you’ve done three of your nine units and then you have a baby, and you can’t keep going, you can stop for a bit and then come back. That, to me, is so helpful for women.

My vision is to enable more women to try it out, because I think it’s a model that will work, especially for women who are working and have families and so on.

What does your work life look like today?

The business school is my full-time job, but I also sit as a board director of a public company in the UK and a public company in the US.

I have a CBE for services to diversity, which is a UK government honor. And this year, 2017, the government has asked me to join the very small group of people who recommend to the Queen and the Prime Minister who in the business community in the UK should be honored. So I now sit on what they call the honors committee: economy, which means that I recommend which businesspeople are given public honors.

The business school, by two company directorships and the committee keep me very busy, as do my three children.

Image: Professor Heather McGregor by Neil Hanna for Heriot-Watt University

Header image: Edinburgh street by Tatters CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

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