Leadership interview with Vic Darvey
We caught up with former Purplebricks CEO Vic Darvey to get his perspective on leadership and driving growth;
Tell us about the evolution of your career so far?
If I was going to summarize my career, I’d say that I’ve spent it working for companies at the forefront of digital disruption. I have been fortunate enough to work for a number of high-profile businesses, including Purplebricks, MoneySuperMarket, and lastminute.com. I was also part of the founding team of a technology startup called Online Travel Corporation. From my perspective, I absolutely love helping companies scale.
You have worked in the internet sector since pretty much its inception. What do you consider to be some of your proudest achievements during that time?
That’s a really hard question to answer. I’ve never really stopped long enough to reflect on past achievements, but I think perhaps two things stand out.
The first one is Online Travel Corporation. Pretty much straight out of university, I was part of the founding team of a technology startup in the travel sector. We experienced significant growth in a very short space of time, and floated the company on the London Stock Exchange in 2000. We ended up selling the business to lastminute.com in 2004. Without doubt, it was the most exciting and the most terrifying time of my life.
I’d also mention my time at MoneySuperMarket. It was a period of significant growth. During my time there, we delivered consecutive years of profit and revenue growth, and we delivered significant returns to our shareholders. Just as importantly, we also saved hard-pressed British families nearly 10 billion pounds on their household bills in that same period. I’d say that’s definitely something that made me feel very proud.
You mentioned the growth of MoneySuperMarket. One of the challenges of a growing business can be that it is harder to have that shared sense of purpose and culture, compared to smaller businesses where there are fewer moving parts. How do you ensure that a company retains a strong culture and purpose as it gets bigger?
I think it’s a great question. It’s hard because cultures can evolve and grow but they can also be subject to decline. I would always start with the fact that you need to play with purpose. Certainly, at MoneySuperMarket, we had a very clear purpose that underpinned the values of the business. That purpose of saving customers’ money actually ended up becoming a collaborative goal, the reason we existed. But we also made sure that our values were front and centre to the business.
I’d also say we were very, very focused on hiring the right people. Even during the interview process, we would talk about culture, and set very clear expectations to the people joining our business, so they understood our culture from the outset. We’d communicate often. We’d always use our town halls as an opportunity to reflect and reinforce the values of the business. We would also incorporate our values into our measurement framework.
One thing I really liked about MoneySuperMarket is that when we talked about our success internally, we rarely talked about revenue. We talked about savings and how much money we were saving our customers. By focussing on saving our customers money, our people felt more connected to the business and our revenues grew in turn.
Perhaps one of the other characteristics of your career is that you’ve got a lot of experience of working in a public company environment, something which is perceived to be notoriously challenging. What have been some of your learnings from working within public companies?
I’ve worked for nearly 20 years for public companies across a number of different industries. I think perhaps there are three things about working in a public company environment that stand out to me.
I think the first thing to say is it is really important to create a clear and transparent narrative. That’s the only way people can hold you accountable. I’ve always been transparent around things like our strategy, our product roadmap, and the key milestones that underpin the strategy. That always helped me to align with stakeholders, both internally and externally, and make sure that we are all travelling in the same direction.
Secondly, it is very important to under promise and over deliver. Ensure you’re aiming high as an organization, but also make sure you’re setting realistic (and stretching) goals for your team. Whilst everyone finds a “moon shot” very inspiring, shareholders always need something more tangible and it’s important you set your team up for success. It’s very important to break that down into key milestones and deliverables and hold yourself accountable to them.
It’s also really important to play the long game. There’s always a lot of temptation for the CEO to be focusing on the day to day activities of the business but you need to have a long-term, sustainable vision. I was once at a travel conference where I heard the CEO of a leading travel company give a speech. He was asked a question about the strategy, and he said “I don’t think about the numbers for the next three years. Unless something material happens, I know we’re going to deliver them. I’m always thinking beyond that.” I thought “What an amazing position to be in” but it takes a lot of hard work to get there and a lot of discipline to stay there.
I’d imagine that one of the challenges of being a CEO is that you’re responsible for everything theoretically in the business. Of course, different leaders have different specialisms and different areas where they have the more personal expertise. As a CEO, do you think there are certain areas where you should delegate, and areas where you shouldn’t? How would you describe the distinction between the two?
I think, from my perspective, it all depends on where you are in the transformation of the business. If you look at the key responsibilities of a CEO, they are very clear and there are several things I would never delegate. The first one is that the CEO must lead the strategy. A CEO has to have a clear vision of how to win as a business and make sure that they have the right capabilities and operating model to deliver against that vision. Things like organizational design, operating levers and the technology underpinning the business have to be owned wholeheartedly by the CEO. I’d also say that the CEO is the storyteller. They have to own the narrative both internally and externally with the board, shareholders and employees.
However, as we know, leaders create leaders. They do that by passing responsibility, creating ownership, accountability, and trust. It is very important to make sure that you are empowering your team and creating an environment where they can make a meaningful contribution to the business.
How do you describe or characterise your leadership style?
I think I would describe myself as a transformational leader. What I mean by that is I very much focus on motivating and empowering employees to drive change throughout the organization. I like to give my team “high expectations, high support”. I set a very high bar but will give my team all the support they need to be able to get there.
The second thing I’d say is that I’m always trying to be a very authentic leader. You hear that phrase a lot so it’s probably important to describe it a bit more detail. For me, that means being more genuine, staying true to myself, but always trying to create an environment that encourages safe conflict, honesty, and integrity. It’s very important to create a psychologically safe environment for teams so that we can hold each other accountable and challenge each other in a positive way.
Being a CEO is challenging in many aspects. Many people who become CEO sometimes feel lonely because you don’t have many true peers in the business. What do you see some of the key challenges of being a CEO and how do you overcome them?
The first thing that I would say is it is very important to know your leadership style and to stick to that. As a CEO you don’t know all the answers. Everyone expects you to, but you don’t and that’s okay. I think it’s important to understand that, but also, it’s important to make sure you have the right people around you.
As you mentioned, the second thing I’d day is that it can sometimes be lonely at the top, so it’s very important to build a network. A former boss once said to me “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, it’s a sign of strength, not weakness.” That’s always stuck with me. If I don’t understand anything, I’ll be the first one in the meeting to say “I don’t understand.” I’m never afraid to ask for help and I’ve built a significant network externally.
When you hire other people or hire other senior leaders into your team, what are the qualities, from the personality perspective, you tend to look for in them?
I’ve always worked in quite disruptive organizations, so I tend to look for leaders with certain attributes. The first thing I always say is that I try to recruit someone that can adapt and evolve at pace to move forward constantly in a period of change. If you look at the calibre and the attributes of those types of individuals, first and foremost, they can deal with ambiguity. In a rapidly growing organization, there’ll always be moments of uncertainty, so I look for someone that can demonstrate a track record of having dealt with ambiguity.
I look for people that are curious. I think curiosity is an underrated attribute. I always want people to challenge me, to challenge the business, to challenge the strategy, but also to ask questions. I look for people that have a real clear drive for results and can demonstrate a significant amount of learning agility. Those are the people that can adapt on the fly and that can learn things very quickly.
I also look for people that are not too big to do the small things. Inevitably, in a fast-moving business, you are going to get your hands dirty so I look for individuals who are used to that. I’m always trying to create a reasonably flat hierarchy, because I think it’s important that people are held accountable not only by their leaders but also by their colleagues. That’s a very important trait of a meritocracy.
If you go back in time and give your 21-year-old self some business advice or coaching, what would you say?
“Your work ethic and some lucky breaks will serve you well over time, so be careful what you sacrifice along the way”. That’s the first thing I’d say to myself. I’ve put a huge amount of time and effort into the businesses I’ve worked for over the last 25 years but I’ve also had to sacrifice a lot, especially time with the family. I haven’t always got that right.
The second thing I’d say, although I can’t believe I’m going to do this, is a quote from Ferris Bueller. He says “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s not that we took everything for granted, but rather that things seemed to move so quickly, and we were always on to the next thing. If I had my time again, I would definitely stop to recognise some of the great things that we achieved and to fully appreciate some of the amazing people I’ve worked with.
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