The Big Interview: Aidan O’Carroll, the new chair of IoD Scotland

Aidan O'Carroll has worked around the globe, including stints in Japan and the US, but has always kept his home in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
Aidan O'Carroll has worked around the globe, including stints in Japan and the US, but has always kept his home in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
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Having only just taken on his new role as chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD) Scotland, Aidan O’Carroll will later this year take the podium at the organisation’s annual conference in Gleneagles. He will be joined by high-profile figures from Scottish business, including Debbie Crosbie, group chief operating officer and executive director of Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks, Blackcircles.com founder Mike Welch, The Data Lab chief executive Gillian Docherty and Carolyn Jameson, chief legal officer of Skyscanner.

It’s an event that O’Carroll is evidently enthusiastic about, as he seeks to create a better environment for businesses and leadership in Scotland to flourish.

A senior partner at EY by day, O’Carroll said when his IoD Scotland post was announced that he was looking forward to the chance to be “part of an organisation that can help bring greater success to Scotland, shape our economic proposition, engage with government to promote growth, and bring together diverse views on the common theme of leadership”.

IoD Scotland has almost 2,000 members, operates from Charlotte Square in Edinburgh and through branches focusing on the Highlands and Islands, Tayside, Fife, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is part of the London-based IoD, which was founded in 1903 and represents about 35,000 members in the UK and abroad, including chief executives of large corporations as well as entrepreneurs and directors of start-ups, charities and public sector bodies.

O’Carroll cites Scotland’s “very proud” history of entrepreneurship. “We’ve lost sight of some of that at times in terms of the lacking of confidence in really scaling up a business, and I think [we have an opportunity] to promote that confidence to make people who are in leadership positions better leaders, which is one of the clear parts of the Royal Charter of IoD. We call it better directors but it’s really better leaders in the equivalent roles across all sectors.

“To my mind that’s also about gaining confidence, really reinvigorating our mojo when it comes to building the future Skyscanners and other great success stories that we’ve had.

“There’s still too few of those businesses that are growing to that scale and staying in Scotland and being led in Scotland. My ambition would be to have far more of those wanting to prosper, live and grow out of a Scottish base.”

Indeed, a survey published in the summer by the Enterprise Research Centre found that when looking at established firms stepping up from turnover in the £1 million to £2m bracket to £3m-plus in three years, Scotland’s rate of 5.3 per cent was the lowest in the UK and compared to an average of 7.2 per cent.

O’Carroll also stressed on news of his appointment – which saw him take over from Susan Deacon, who became chair of the Scottish Police Authority – that no matter how far afield his work has taken him, including stints in Japan and the US, he has always been able to keep his home in Scotland.

When he started working in London, for example, for what turned out to be nearly two decades, he and his family decided they would stay put and he would come home at weekends.

“I always found that something to look forward to as my base and it’s allowed me to stay connected to Scotland, not just to friends, colleagues and businesses – but also to keep a close eye on what’s going on from a government perspective,” he says.

In chairing IoD Scotland, also taking up the Scottish seat on the IoD’s UK Council, he wanted to bring his experience and perspective, and is keen to engage across the board, including with members from the private, public and third sectors to determine “not just what value they get out of being members of the IoD, but very much listening to their issues, their concerns and where they think IoD could and should be playing a role to help them in their business”.

Also on his agenda is having conversations with government, something he believes is “particularly important within the Scottish context” given the Scottish Government’s focus on growing a bigger and better Scotland. And he highlights the need to speed up the origination of policy into actions.

There is certainly no shortage of prospering business activity north of the Border, with leading biopharmaceutical research and development ability and a highly skilled workforce among the many positives pointed out by O’Carroll. It was revealed last week that Edinburgh is to host the 6th World One Health Congress in 2020, with the University of Edinburgh saying it will offer the chance to demonstrate the work of Scotland’s “world-leading” collective of research institutes.

Yet while “born optimist” O’Carroll cites the opportunities offered by the increasingly dominant digital world, he is keen to point out that it could be a missed opportunity for leaders if they fail to embrace it. “Of course there will be threats along the way, but I think it’s a far more positive opportunity, particularly for Scotland, than a threat.”

O’Carroll started his career “a long time ago” at HMRC as an inspector of taxes, subsequently switching allegiance to the private sector and becoming a chartered accountant.

Tax has remained his core focus throughout his career, “but as I grew into different leadership roles both nationally and globally it was much more about building businesses”.

He has spent the lion’s share of his career at EY, including leadership of the accountancy giant’s compliance and reporting for Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa.

Increasing its size significantly was “great fun”, according to O’Carroll, but given his remit spanned 140 countries, how did he manage vastly differing local regimes? “It boils down to what’s going on in each country and recognising that you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and so really encouraging local leaders to embrace a new way of doing business, to do it more consistently and as such as we were able to grow our business much more effectively and quickly by operating as a much broader team across-country.”

He last year returned to work in his native Scotland, and is now focused on private and family companies, including work with younger leaders hungry to succeed and learn, and perhaps most crucially, willing to adapt to the changing landscape. “I just love the lateral thinking and the innovation that’s going on today.”

IoD Scotland’s billing of the event at Gleneagles, which takes place at the start of November, takes a positive spin on the “unprecedented change” facing the business world, saying this can be daunting for even veteran leaders. But “can we make a huge positive out of what many people see as a negative,” the organisation asks.

O’Carroll acknowledges the cauldron of conditions facing leaders, from higher wage costs to international trade woes, and the inescapable topic of Brexit. There should be more clarity particularly on the latter subject by the time the conference comes around, “one hopes”, he says.

The UK’s extrication from Europe is “clearly probably both the biggest challenge and the biggest change that the country faces… that need for greater certainty and, I would argue, greater openness and transparency as well, is important and that’s regardless of the political views anyone might have”.

But he adds that “business has to mobilise, has to react quickly and has to look forward with a degree of confidence in order to make the investments that are going to be needed to grow the economy and I think this whole confidence piece is undermined by the uncertainty that we face at the moment”. More positively, however, the Scottish economy has moved from laggard to leaping ahead, estimated to have grown by 0.4 per cent in the first three months of the year, and double the rate across the UK as a whole.“I would like us to make sure that we celebrate some of the great things that are going on in the economy,” says O’Carroll.

All in all his drive for engagement is making sure the IoD stays “fresh and… relevant in today and tomorrow’s world”.

And as for what he would like to achieve during his three-year stint in the chair role, his aim is the IoD being viewed as a top leadership organisation in Scotland with an increased membership across all sectors and although he declines to give a target until he is more settled in the role, is keen to see its female membership grow. He also wants the lobby group to “remain not just the voice of business but be seen as a force for good”, with strong governance, open-ness and transparency also seen as key to what the organisation “does and represents – I think that would be a great legacy to leave to the next chair”.

He adds: “We’ve all got a role to play here in building that bigger Scotland regardless of where you’re sitting, which sector you’re in… I think there’s a common theme here that the IoD can help with.”