Micro-ambition is one of the keys to success

1 March 2018 15:43
LUMS building

Richard Clegg has gone from being a nuclear research scientist to Chief Executive of the UK’s largest engineering charity - all without ever applying formally for a job.How’s it done? Having micro-ambition helps, says Richard.

“I’ve never had a career plan. I’ve always thought of a career as something that should only be a verb, its something you do and keep doing, not a noun. If you have a plan to become CEO of a FTSE 100 firm by the time you’re 40 you can become so fixed on that route you don’t see all the other little opportunities, those in your peripheral vision."

One of those unexpected opportunities was the LUMS Executive MBA, the kind of programme which was an unusual pathway to take for a research scientist in the late 1980s.

Richard combined his early career at British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) with two years of study, spending blocks of a week at a time at Lancaster to learn a whole new area of business skills and perspectives.

“It was a fascinating opportunity, intellectually stimulating, and that combination of skills in science and in commerce and the workings of organisations has been fundamental to my working roles since that time. I picked up a great deal from spending time with people from very different organisational and commercial backgrounds, as well as the lessons about working in teams.

By nature scientists are analytical, data-driven, always looking for causes and effects, while a programme like an MBA was largely made up of the theoretical and abstract. It sparked a useful tension - learning all those elegant ideas and models for how organisations work, the ways to help you think, while at the same time always questioning how the models would be used in practice. 

I think one of the most memorable episodes of this time was a visit to a business school in Lyon. We heard first-hand from Renault about their joint venture with Volvo and the differences between theory and practice. It all looked fantastic on the Powerpoint presentation, but would it work? The Volvo management approach was linear and process-oriented, and the two businesses ended up talking on different wavelengths - it was an important insight into how you always have to take people with you on any collaborative venture.”

Richard’s clear-headed management style has been central to his work in helping to revitalise UK nuclear research and education. He became Head of BNFL’s Corporate Research Laboratory in 1995, before going on to set up the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. Here he developed a new portfolio of specifically nuclear engineering focused teaching and research programmes as a means of building up the nation’s nuclear skills base. While at Manchester Richard was approached and became the Chief Scientific Advisor at Aldermaston on the atomic weapons programme. Following that, when the UK Government was assembling plans for a new National Nuclear Centre of Excellence to provide independent policy advice on nuclear energy and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, Richard Clegg was approached as the stand-out candidate.

“When I started to study nuclear engineering it was a white hot technology, an age when universities even had their own experimental nuclear facilities. Nuclear still has an important contribution to make to energy generation. It’s the only technology we have in the bank, so to speak, that produces enough clean energy to meet demand.

Nuclear has had a difficult history because the science has been wrapped up in secrecy, meaning its potential has not been fully appreciated or understood by the public. It has a major brand problem - not least because of the scale of upfront capital costs involved. Fewer private companies have been willing to invest because the gains come over the long-term. The extent of the future use of nuclear will depend on the development of other technologies, like solar and tidal. Either way, nuclear facilities will be smaller, more modular, with lower set up costs.”

Richard took on the role of Foundation Chief Executive of Lloyd’s Register Foundation, a global charity dedicated to engineering-related research and education in 2014. He administers a live grants portfolio of £100 million for research aimed at enhancing the safety of life and property.

“The charity has a unique form of governance because it has its own trading arm, of which its the sole shareholder. There’s no need to shake cans in the street. We’re looking to fund large projects, £10-15 million a time for large and long-term work with hand-picked locations and partners. A central aim is to improve public understanding of risk, and to accelerate the uptake of technologies in areas such as AI and autonomous systems.”

One of the funded projects is the International Joint Research Centre for the Safety of Nuclear Energy, led by Lancaster.

“Universities have a massive and growing role in terms of shaping the future of societies, economies and business activity. They are able to look over horizon while most commercial organisations, just because of market pressures, have to focus on the short-term. Working together with business makes sure we’re all working on the right things.”

Richard sits on a number of UK government and international advisory and governance committees. He is a trustee of the Science Museum Group in London, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and holds Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool as well as the National University of Singapore

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