My leadership lessons – René Carayol shares his career inspirations

Rene Carayol

René Carayol, the executive coach and broadcaster, has advised organisations including the United Nations and the World Bank. He talks about meeting Nelson Mandela, challenging racism and why it’s not vital for leaders to be all-rounders

Adversity can drive you to go the extra mile. My parents came to the UK from the Gambia in the 1960s to give us a better education. Being the son of immigrants gave me a never-give-up attitude.

Doing what’s right is more important than doing what makes you successful. It’s the biggest lesson my father ever taught me, albeit inadvertently. Our landlord once put up a sign that said: ‘Room to let: no Jews, no blacks, no Irish, no dogs!’ Dad was so angry, but he was a diplomat who’d learnt to suppress his anger. He crushed a glass he was holding in his hand – blood everywhere. The anger that comes with kowtowing is so negative. Standing up can lead to change.

I ended up in IT by accident. I was in my boss’s office, resigning from my £2,000-a-year job as a trainee accountant. He asked what I’d like to do. I didn’t know, but I saw a picture of a computer behind him and said that I wanted to work in computers. Two days later I sat an IQ test for trainee programmer. That transformed my life.

Having a mentor early in my career was crucial. I was working at M&S and didn’t feel worthy of stepping forward. Joe Rowe [father of its current CEO, Steve] was a director who told me otherwise. He said it was the route to the top. If you’ve got an idea, nobody will listen unless you tell them.

Working in retail taught me that every voice needs to be heard. Margins tend to be smaller – a store trading badly for three days can go under – so you’ve really got to listen to your customers. They are the ones who drive innovation.

‘What do you think?’ are the four most powerful words to use in any business transformation. Big-margin businesses don’t ask that; they go to consultants instead.

It’s Dickensian to think you can’t be a top executive without a degree. We’re starving ourselves of talent if we focus on academic achievement alone. The biggest entrepreneurs all dropped out of high school. The new dawn of apprenticeships is great.

I learnt about leadership at PepsiCo. It was the world’s number-one challenger brand, waking up every day fighting the might of Coca-Cola. PepsiCo couldn’t compete on resources, so it lived on the innovation and entrepreneurialism of its people.

British business sees failure as a totally negative thing. But at PepsiCo the boss would say to us: ‘The only mistake is the one you don’t learn from.’ How empowering is that?

You don’t need to be an all-rounder. Play to your strengths. I’m passionate, I communicate well and I’m good at seeing the big picture, for instance. The trick is to find team members who can do all of the things you’re not good at.

I’ve worked with great leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton. I always send them a handwritten note. I advise the World Bank – and I love visiting [its president] Jim Yong Kim and seeing my card on his desk.

Mandela was the master of the pregnant pause. If he was challenged, he had this unique ability to stop, lean back and be silent in the heat of the moment while the audience came to his side. He’d then lean forward and say: ‘I respect your point of view.’ But that pause says: ‘I completely disagree with it.’

I didn’t realise that Sir Richard Branson had a stutter until I interviewed him in front of an audience. He stammered once, twice, three times. Everybody drew breath, willing him to succeed. On his seventh attempt he nailed it. That will to overcome is why he’s an entrepreneur.

People still don’t expect an adviser to CEOs to look like me. I remember sitting in the reception area of a large insurance firm, waiting to meet the chairman. I was suited, but the PA still assumed that the Lycra-clad cycle courier next to me was ‘René’ instead.

Brexit has taken us a few chapters back in terms of inclusion. But I’m proud that business is playing a part. There was a time when we’d say: ‘That’s a government problem.’ But we are standing up to be counted.

Do a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. I like to think I retired 20 to 30 years ago. I get paid to do my hobby.

It’s brilliant to see people in their fifties and sixties starting businesses. You’re never too old to learn. Role models who’ve been there and done that are lessons for all of us. We can’t lose that energy, that knowledge, that wisdom.

René Carayol CV

Education Cardinal Hinsley High School, north-west London. Studied politics and sociology at the London School of Economics


1983-92 Senior IT manager, M&S

1992-95 Systems director, PepsiCo; board director, Pizza Hut

1995-99 Board director, IPC Magazines

1999-2000 Managing director, IPC Magazines

2001 Business and leadership speaker; broadcaster (Pay Off Your Mortgage in Two Years, BBC2); visiting professor at Cass Business School; consultant to the World Bank, United Nations, CBI, McKinsey & Co and Barclays; founder of the Inspired Leaders Network. In 2004 he
was awarded an MBE for outstanding service to the business community

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Read the IoD’s report on older entrepreneurs at

Rene Carayol

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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