Sir Peter Bazalgette, the hugely successfully media leader currently serving as chair of ITV plc, is very clear about who he is and what his skills and strengths are, as well as what is needed to make a business leadership team succeed. His focus is on creativity, and culture – and in particular the need to create empathy in organisations. He feels strongly enough to have researched and written a book, “The Empathy Instinct”, which takes the reader on a journey of understanding of the crucial role that empathy plays in civilised, harmonious societies and successful organisations. Speaking at a Stonehaven Board Practice breakfast event, Peter joined me in front of an audience of business leaders to talk about the book, and share stories about his phenomenally successful career in entertainment.

“I’ve got none of the engineering capabilities of my great-great grandfather, the DNA had been diluted too much over the generations” he claimed, when I asked him if he felt he had inherited any of the technical skills of his famous ancestor, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian designer of the London sewage system. Both men have had a transformational impact on the lives of millions of people. Peter’s creative entrepreneurialism brought a whole new kind of entertainment to our screens in the form of reality TV shows that were hugely successful. His instinct for what would appeal to the public, and his capabilities as a business leader brought us a string of shows, the most famous and ground-breaking of which was “Big Brother”. The TV production company he ran trebled its market cap in just 18 months under his leadership and established his claim to be the most influential individual in the sector.

I asked Peter what he’s learned from working in both public sector and private sector institutions and what each can learn from the other. He told us that he’d seen good and bad leadership in both sectors. What he believes works best is to move away from traditional hierarchies, and to have physical environments that encourage openness and collaboration. He’s definitely not a fan of private offices, or of leaders who make it hard for their colleagues to see or talk to them and clearly sees the dragon-like executive PA who protects the boss from interruptions as an anachronism. “When I was chair of Arts Council England and we moved offices, changing to an open plan layout was transformational. I insisted that the CEO and I both sat in the open area, and it had a very positive effect on the culture of the organisation.”

These simple, open approaches are symptomatic of Peter’s style of leadership and setting organisational dynamics. Creating empathy is hugely important to him, and he’s been quick to identify how TV can create and nurture empathy in huge groups who develop a common interest in programmes that capture the popular imagination. ITV’s “Love Island” which has just launched its fourth series of this show to great success, is a good example of how TV shows can bring us together round a single interest. The same principles, coalescing groups of people around ideas, are at the core of his success in business.

Our audience asked him about his views on diversity. He pointed out his own track record – he’s appointed a woman to be ITV’s CEO and exactly half of the non-executives on his board are women. He’d like to see more diversity in the ITV executive leadership team, and beyond, and I suspect that he’ll make sure this happens. He shared with all of us a passage from his book which examines the differences between men and women which highlights his appreciation of the contribution that women can make alongside men in the workplace – and he was very clear that he believes that “there are far more similarities between men and women than there are differences.”

Peter’s been quite outspoken in recent months about the way in which some of the big international businesses that publish content and offer search and content access via the internet operate, and about his concerns that they don’t see themselves as publishers, but as platforms for content. I asked him about this and he told us that he had concerns that some of the very large companies in this field don’t see themselves as publishers, and are not concerned with any cares about the content they enable users to access, even when it is quite clearly pornographic or supportive of racism or extremist movements like those that enable terrorism. He reminded us of the steps that UK mainstream TV broadcasters take to ensure they are compliant with many specific regulations that protect viewers from inappropriate content.

Much of Peter’s career has been devoted to delivering success through the highly commercial entities he’s been part of and led. But he’s also devoted large chunks of time to public service roles. And when he talked about his work now, there was a strong sense that he sees public broadcasters as organisations that must think of the common good, and add to civil society. I served as a non-executive with Peter for a short time a few years ago, around the time the government chose to honour him with a knighthood for services to broadcasting. It’s not hard to see why he deserves this special distinction. From our conversation, as well as from the evidence of his career, Peter is a man with a strong moral compass, and combines his strong entrepreneurial flair with a deep sense of purpose and a desire to do things fairly, and benefit as many people as possible through his work. ITV are evidently lucky to have him. And he’s creating a great example of a balanced and thoughtful board at this iconic business.

Sir Peter Bazalgette was speaking at the Stonehaven Board Practice Event on 7th June 2018 at the Lansdowne Club.
Catherine May, a leadership consultant and NED, is a Senior Adviser in the Board Practice at Stonehaven International and Vice Chair of Stonehaven Campaigns.