08 Feb 2012
Person To Person
Interview with Margaret Heffernan
There’s something almost masculine about Margaret Heffernan’s self-assurance, her authoritative air. She made her reputation, and her money, running, buying and selling IT companies at the height of the US internet boom, in an industry not famous for female bosses. You could say that she succeeded in spite of being a woman. Yet she would tell you that she also succeeded because of it.
Today, Heffernan writes books. Her third, Wilful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril, is an engrossing, eloquent study of a group phenomenon that has bred disasters like the collapse of Enron and the banking crisis. Given that her first job was as a temp at the BBC, she has travelled some distance.
A Texas-born American who grew up largely in Holland and England, Heffernan’s early ambition to be a theatre director didn’t survive her undergraduate years at Cambridge. She started temping “to pay the rent” and, being the woman she is, briskly scaled the BBC ladder to become first a radio and then a TV producer. As such, she commissioned the inaugural series of Masterchef and introduced a no doubt grateful nation to the first TV sightings of Simon Schama and David Starkey.
Good at cutting deals as well as spotting talent, she decided that the business side of her work interested her most, and left for what she calls “the outside world”. She took a job running the trade association representing independent film and TV producers – the Financial Times later called it “the most formidable lobbying organisation in England”.
She loved running an organisation, and she blossomed. But in 1994 her husband took a post at Harvard University and Heffernan returned to America. “I fetched up in Boston with no job, no friends and a three-month old baby. It’s not something I would recommend.”
The Boston television world, where she could have used her experience, was deadly dull. But one world was very much alive. “The happening thing was multimedia software,” she says. “I have always been a bit of a geek, and the people were nice, smart, energetic and fun.”
Heffernan began working with companies that were developing interactive multimedia products. They were trying to marry audio and video in ways that would provide a quality experience – a tall order at a time when not many internet users had broadband access. She was headhunted by a venture capitalist and became chief executive of a number of leading internet companies, buying and selling other businesses along the way. This was the dot.com boom in all its frenzy.
Being a lone woman in a man’s business had some unexpectedly positive results. Heffernan lasted longer than other CEOs, many of whom burned out through overwork. In Wilful Blindness, Heffernan notes how the heroic hours so prized by IT (and investment banking!) merely lead to sleep deprivation and fatigue. And these reduce productivity, increase errors and suffocate rational thought.
“I believe in sleep,” she says. “Because I was female, I went home at night. I didn’t get involved in jockeying for position. I didn’t care if people liked me. If I wanted to be loved, I went home.”
The way she managed the business was different too. She worked harder to achieve consensus, to avoid head-on confrontation and produce win/win rather than win/lose results. Eventually, Heffernan had her fill of multimedia. Someone said she should write a book on the internet business. “I didn’t have anything to say,” she says. “But I was really interested in what was happening to women’s careers. There were so few of them at the top level, so few in technology. Why were these really talented people disparaged and undervalued, and why was no one talking about it?”
Heffernan’s first book, The Naked Truth, did talk about it. It attracted so many responses from women with their own stories that she wrote another, Women on Top, describing how women create new businesses at twice the rate of men, are more likely to succeed, but attract far less investment.
Wilful Blindness has a different subject but a similar theme – the human dynamics inside business and communities. It shows how our need to be liked and accepted, to be part of something and not to rock the boat can blind us to what is really going on around us. Her examples range from fraud inside Enron to the chilling story of a town, dependent on the local asbestos mine, in denial about asbestosis.
“One reason our institutions are so badly run is that they are full of clones,” Heffernan insists. “We have an inbuilt bias in favour of people like ourselves, which makes us miss things we really need to see. Diversity in business is about different kinds of people noticing and taking seriously different kinds of information.” More women in business may be just the start.
Baillie Gifford sponsored Margaret Heffernan’s event at Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival 2012.
Writes on financial and economic affairs for the Financial Times, The Banker and New Statesman. His book, The House of Money: A History of the Great Banks, from the Medici to Goldman Sachs, will be published later this year.