28 Mar 2013

As I see it

Ian Livingston, chief executive at BT Group, shares his career highs and lows

Where did you study?
I did a degree in economics at the University of Manchester, graduating when I was 19. I trained as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant at Arthur Andersen to give myself plenty of career options. I then moved to Bank of America, where I spent a year on the swaps trading desk and then to venture capitalist firm 3i. Being a chartered accountant is a good badge, a strong mark of quality.

What motivates you?
Making a difference. I like knowing that what I do today matters and has a real impact on people’s lives.

How do you describe yourself?
I’m impatient to make things happen. It’s a belief, a knowledge, that things don’t have to be the way they are. You can change things if you are passionate, you care and are willing to put in the hard work.

What are your career highlights?
I learned a lot as CFO at Dixons. It was a big business that acted small, it was very agile. CEO of BT Group has to be a high point. I enjoy leading a FTSE 100 company, especially a British institution like BT.

What is your philosophy?
It’s about taking advantage of the opportunities that come your way. The biggest influence on my career has been luck, you shouldn’t try to plan too much.

How did you handle the transition from CFO to CEO?
At some firms the finance director is a highly technical role and it may be impossible to move to a CEO position. But at BT the gap is far narrower. The difference is, as CEO, there is no one else to turn to – you have to lead from the front all the time. Plus there’s the sheer width of all the different issues and people you have to deal with.

What has been the goal at BT?
You often hear of companies saying, “We are going to cut costs by 10%” when what they should be saying is, “We are going to improve efficiency and free up resources to invest”. We’ve taken out £4bn of costs, and seen customer complaints fall by half.

What challenges do you face?
There are new demands. The pace of change is far quicker, with greater time pressures from modern technology. There is also a need for a higher level of visibility as leaders of people internally and externally.

What do you believe in?
It’s really important for companies, their employees and their customers to be clear that what the company is doing is important and good for society.

What has the ACA done for you?
You get wide-scale training, exposure to different businesses and your eyes are opened to many different ways of doing things. When I encounter a qualified chartered accountant today I know what this person can do and what it’s taken to get there.

How do you achieve success?
Be passionate about what you do. If you aren’t passionate, it’s unlikely you’ll put in the work that’s needed to go further. Make change happen – don’t wait for change. If something doesn’t work or could be better, know that it doesn’t need to be like this. Resist trying to plan your career too far ahead but when opportunity comes, recognise it and seize it.