As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Caroline Harper.
Dr. Caroline Harper became Chief Exec of the international charity Sightsavers in 2005, working to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote the rights of people with disabilities. Under her leadership the organization has expanded significantly, treating millions of people and advocating for policy reforms around the world. She started her career in the gas business before changing direction to international development. In 2015 she received a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to people with visual impairments. In November 2021 she led Sightsavers’ deworming program to GiveWell top charity status for the sixth year running.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started off doing a Physics degree and PhD inspired by my father who was convinced that I would get a better job with a science background. My PhD was in energy studies so it seemed logical to go into the gas industry. My early jobs there gave me a grounding in contract negotiation which stood me in good stead for commercial work and dealmaking later on. I built the downstream gas and electricity business for the company Amerada Hess and when that was sold I had the opportunity to develop my own business helping others turn around and sell energy companies. After a few years, I felt it was time for a radical change. I took a ‘gap year’ travelling to a number of developing countries and decided that I wanted to work in international development. There is a lot of visual impairment in my family and I feel a personal connection to Sightsavers. When I saw their advert for a new CEO I jumped at the chance. I got the job, and 16 years later am still here and loving it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It has to be when we entered and won significant funding from the Audacious prize, hosted by TED. We never expected to be successful, but gradually went from being one of over 250 to one of ten programs hoping for funding. I went to the TED studios in New York to film a pitch (for ending the horrible blinding disease trachoma), then had a grilling via Zoom with a number of philanthropists gathered together on Necker Island, by Richard Branson. The next day I got a call from Richard saying ‘we are going to give you $50m’. I was staying with friends at the time who couldn’t believe what was happening. We went on to raise over $100m altogether as Richard helped bring in a number of other funders, and we persuaded the UK government to give us funding as part of a program to support the Commonwealth, announced at the big heads of government meeting. It was one of those fairy tales that you can’t quite believe is true, and has given us a huge boost on the road to eliminating this horrific disease.
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?
I think the most memorable experience was on a business trip to Italy when I was a junior in British Gas. I was accompanying a very senior leader, who was negotiating to buy gas from a major field. I was there to take notes and learn. The night before we flew, I went to a barbeque at a friend’s house and didn’t realise he hadn’t cooked the beef burgers properly. The food poisoning kicked in during a seven-course lunch in Italy and I ended up projectile vomiting all over the Italian offices — on myself, carpets, walls, everything, for several hours. I was mortified and came down the next morning assuming I would be fired or would need to resign. The Director just said to me “their price offer was so risible that throwing up was the only sensible response.” I have never forgotten that — instead of being censorious to a scared junior person he used humour to make me feel everything was ok. It was an example of leadership that has stayed with me ever since, don’t underestimate the impact a few words from a CEO can have on someone further down within the organization!
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?
There are several. One was a senior manager in the gas industry who promoted me in the face of significant opposition. There were other candidates with more experience but he insisted that I had the better skill and approach. Another was a trustee in Sightsavers who worked really closely with me in the early days when I was looking to make major changes to turn us from a charity to a development organization. Not all the board were on my side but he helped me sell my ideas and worked behind the scenes to persuade those who weren’t sure. This change has been essential in enabling us to grow both in terms of income and influence and wouldn’t have happened without him. I’d also like to recognize the widow of Sightsavers founder, Lady Jean Wilson, who at 99 still inspires me. She helped persuade our board and the Charity Commission that we should expand our activities beyond blindness to support all people with disabilities.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I confess I like nothing better than a high-profile meeting — especially speaking to large audiences. I loved doing my TED talk — so many people paying your attention! Making sure you really know your subject (in this case the devastating blinding disease trachoma), what you want to get across and the emotions you want people to feel (not just the data you want them to understand) is critical.
I have had a couple of hair-raising moments in speech giving — one was when I gave an after dinner speech to the Pipeline Industries Guild in the UK — it was Christmas time and the room had some 1,500 engineers all rather the worse for wear in it. When I stood up to speak I realized that I had left my notes in my other handbag and had to busk it. Another time I was in Benin at a major community meeting (several hundred people gathered together). The village chief asked me to address the people in French. I had five minutes to translate what I wanted to say with help from my team and my schoolgirl French.
When it comes to making decisions I will get the opinions of as many people as I can before deciding what to do. The most difficult and stressful meetings are when you have to impart bad news — telling a board that something hasn’t gone well, or worse still telling someone that they no longer have a job. I do tend to toss and turn the night before and even though I’ve thought carefully about my decision I still find these conversations incredibly hard.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
You just won’t make good decisions if your whole team comes from the same ethnic or class background, is dominated by one gender, or has an identical perspective. You will inevitably get ‘groupthink’, won’t consider all the various angles and may make clumsy mistakes. In Sightsavers, we are making decisions that impact marginalized people in developing countries — if we don’t have a way to hear their voices how will we make the right decisions? We have improved our diversity over the years, but still aren’t good enough. In particular as an organization making decisions that affect people with disabilities we don’t have enough of these people in influential positions. We are pretty good on gender balance and our in-country teams are all local nationals, but we could still do better in terms of ethnicity in our central offices.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
For me, it is critical that we find ways to listen to the voices of people at risk of being left behind. The Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015 had ‘leave no one behind’ as a core message, and I remember being very emotional as we were in New York when the announcements were made with a lot of people with disabilities with whom we had campaigned. It was a great success but I’m worried that this has been lost, especially as the pandemic drove out almost all other considerations.
We have seen inequity increase during the pandemic — particularly for people with disabilities. We try hard to help organizations that represent these people to get their message across — it’s definitely better to amplify what they are saying rather than say it for them. We’ve had some success with governments such as Pakistan, Ghana, and Kenya introducing new laws to empower people and to fight discrimination. This includes ensuring disabled children can get an education, and that companies understand the potential of working with people with disabilities and are confident in doing so. We have had some success here working with a range of household name companies such as Unilever and hope to scale this up.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Fundamentally the buck stops here. I’m responsible for everything that happens in the organization, and accountable for anything that may go wrong. But everything that goes right is entirely down to my team. I think that maxim is really important — never claim credit but always accept blame.
The CEO is also the bridge between the board (which in my sector are all volunteers who only have a relatively small amount of time to devote to the organization) and the staff, who live and breathe the work.
Much of my job is about giving our staff space to thrive, try out new ideas and grow. I will see connections that they might miss because I have an overview of the whole organization. But they have more expertise than I do in so many areas.
Throughout the pandemic a big part of my job has been to keep everyone informed and dispel false rumours. People were scared by what they heard on the news, or through the grapevine, and so I have been sending out a weekly video to everyone ‘telling it like it is,’ good news and bad. I want them to know what is happening and hear it from me.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
CEOs are not superhuman. I remember being asked about how I was an exemplar to my organization in terms of maintaining work/life balance, staying strong or keeping good habits during the lockdowns. Instead, I confessed that there were times when I watched box sets all night, ate comfort food, or just cried because I was lonely not being allowed to see people other than on a screen for months. In today’s world where mental health is such a big issue, I think it is important to show that CEOs are people and face uncertainties and worries too. There is a balance to be struck in being a source of strength and showing that it is ok to be vulnerable sometimes.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Actually, I think it is harder for women earlier in their careers than once you become an executive. I honestly haven’t faced discrimination as a CEO, but I did as a junior when some men wouldn’t take me seriously.
There are countries where Sightsavers works where women face significant difficulties — parts of Nigeria for example. I’m welcome because the men know I bring investment and they want something from me, but other women would struggle. I haven’t had a family, but I see my female friends still facing significant challenges with childcare and a sense of being wrenched in different directions which seems more acute than the work/life challenges faced by men.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I first joined, I assumed the pace of a ‘charity’ would be slow, that I would be able to reduce my working hours, and it would be far less stressful than my time in the private sector. I soon realized that being CEO of Sightsavers was far more complex than my previous role — the geographical and cultural spread, including significant security issues, the range of work we were doing, the breadth of partnerships from governments to major donors to small volunteer groups in rural areas. This made it more interesting but quickly dispelled any sense that this would be a ‘much easier role.’
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Not everyone wants to be an executive and that’s a good thing. We need a lot of people to deliver for organizations and make things happen.
Looking at the CEO role, and my role in particular, you have to be comfortable meeting lots of different types of people — whether that is working a room of donors, talking to a President, or chatting to a group of patients in a low-income country. You have to be confident speaking in public, or managing a board, and representing your organization. You have to be willing to make difficult decisions, sometimes without all the information you would want and take responsibility for the consequences.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Get the right people on your team. Jim Collins was absolutely right when he said, “get the right people on the bus.” This can mean getting people off the bus if they aren’t right. I’ve learned that sometimes we wait too long to do this, and that hurts the whole team. When you are confident you have the right people, you need to give them space and delegate properly. Be a sounding board, ask probing questions, but let them get on with it. Don’t be a micromanager. Share the glory and have their backs when stuff goes wrong.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
There are now many thousands of people in the world who can see who were previously blind, and millions who are free from horrible neglected tropical diseases, who wouldn’t be if I’d been a dismal failure. There are people with disabilities who have had education, who are in jobs, or who are no longer stigmatized. That said there are still many more who can’t access healthcare, or who remain marginalized so there is a lot still to do, both for me, for my team, and for my successors.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
i) You don’t have to be strong all the time, people will respect you more if they see you’re a human. I found this particularly relevant during the pandemic when I decided to show emotion during my weekly videos — the reaction I got was hugely positive.
ii) Don’t be intimidated by arrogant people. Early in my career quite a few people tried to put me down by claiming to know better than me. I noticed this at university too where some claimed to find the course ‘insultingly easy’ but then failed their exams. People bluster when they are insecure — don’t assume they are better than you are.
iii) Don’t respond in anger. We’ve all had that outrageous email, or cutting remark, when we want to fire off a response and ‘show them.’ The advice to not send the response till the next day when you are cooler is gold dust — you will be far more articulate. A reasoned response always works better than a knee-jerk one.
iv) Surround yourself with the best possible people. When you are early in your career it is easy to be intimidated and think that if you hire someone who knows more than you, they may overshadow you. Actually, you will shine more if you have a great team — and many roles will require more technical know-how or different skills than yours. Surrounding yourself with people who won’t challenge you or clones of yourself will never work.
v) Find a better way to manage stress than comfort eating. I would be half the woman I am if I’d taken that tack.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There is already a huge movement of people fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, anything I can do to make it louder and more effective would be great.
I also wish some of the rhetoric about the importance of global health systems was matched with proper funding. The pandemic has set us back because the funding provided to help developing countries tackle Covid-19 has been taken from other global health programmes (e.g. polio, sexual and reproductive health, and the fight against neglected tropical diseases).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m not sure I have one of these — although in terms of exemplary leadership I’ve always looked to Queen Elizabeth I, who gave brilliant speeches and was an incredible female leader in what must have been very difficult circumstances.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I’ve always wanted to meet President Obama — I remember crying with joy when he became President thinking this was a magnificent new chapter for the world. His oratory is fabulous and I’ve quoted him in my own speeches. I’ve been impressed by what past Presidents can do — perhaps the most wonderful is President Carter, who I’ve been lucky to meet several times. He not only does great work, but is a down to earth and thoughtful man who reaches out to people in trouble in a unique way.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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