The Big Interview: IoD Scotland national director Louise Macdonald

Louise Macdonald is national director of the Institute of Directors (IoD) Scotland, a post she took up in 2021 after 12 years as chief executive of Young Scot.

The IoD, which was founded in 1903, says it acts to ensure leaders’ views are taken into account when government is reviewing policy, legislation or seeking the opinions of the wider business community.

North of the Border it has seven branches – Glasgow, Central, Fife and Tayside, South of Scotland, Aberdeen and Highlands & Islands in addition to Edinburgh – and a membership base of about 1,100, out of 20,000 across the UK.

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Its Scottish arm said on revealing Ms Macdonald’s national director appointment that she has throughout her career “dedicated herself to shaping Scotland’s future,” has an “exemplary reputation amongst the business community in Scotland,” and “we believe that she has the right skills, connections and experiences to ensure that our members’ voices will be heard loud and clear”.

Ms Macdonald flags diversifying and growing membership as key priorities. Picture: contributed.

The businesswoman started her career as a print journalist, before moving to the voluntary sector, focused on youth engagement and communications –and she was awarded an OBE in 2015, the following year named IoD Scotland’s Female Director of the Year, and went on to be awarded IoD UK Third Sector Director of the Year.

In addition to her current leadership role, she is also co-chair of the First Minister's National Advisory Council on Women and Girls, and an independent board member of the Scottish Parliament think tank Scotland’s Futures Forum.

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She cites inequality and a lack of compassion for others as bugbears. “Though I try to turn my anger into energy to then do something about it. As the saying goes, it you’re not angry then you’re not paying enough attention.”

You started in your role as IoD Scotland’s national director in the summer, saying when your appointment was announced in March that you were “excited by [the organisation’s] potential for growth and impact”. How have your first few months progressed, and what are your biggest priorities?

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The business leader says the best thing about her job is 'getting to learn the stories of so many outstanding cross-sector people in our membership'. Picture: Phil Wilkinson.

It’s been a fast six months! It has been – first and foremost – a privilege to get to know our small but mighty team here in Scotland, as well as the wider team across the UK. We also have brilliant volunteers in our branches across Scotland, who do so much with us.

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Our members have been very welcoming, and I’ve spent most of my time so far in listening mode. I want to understand their experience with us, their hopes and aspirations, and how the core purpose of the IoD here in Scotland can support them.

Our priorities are around diversifying and growing our membership, strengthening the awareness of our world-leading professional-development training, and creating more effective ways for our members – who are all senior cross-sector leaders – to share their insight and ideas with decision-makers in the spheres of local, Scottish and UK government.

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You are the first woman to hold this role – how significant is this and what is your view on how female entrepreneurship can be fostered?

I’ve been “the first woman” in spaces a few times – but it only serves to make me thoughtful and grateful to all the women who have fought the good fight for equalities and carved the path for these opportunities to happen. We stand on the shoulders of giants in the women’s movement.

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Women make up half the population and we should not settle on waiting for equality to happen “in due course”. We must accelerate the system changes needed to make it so now.

There is fantastic work happening around women’s entrepreneurship – such as Women’s Enterprise Scotland, the Association of Scottish Businesswomen, and Women on Boards. I’d love to see even more happening with younger women to encourage them to start their own ventures. Plus, more options around investment – we need more equity being directed to fund diverse women’s start-ups and scale ups.

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IoD Scotland in December announced its Director of The Year winners – and at the time you praised their achievements against a highly challenging backdrop… can you give your thoughts on how such firms have adapted, what Scottish businesses as a whole must do to thrive going forward amid an environment that still poses many hurdles, and how the IoD can help them?

I’ve been in awe not just of the agility and adaptivity of directors in communities across Scotland, but also their compassion and commitment to supporting their teams, customers, stakeholders and suppliers.

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At our Director of the Year Awards there was no shortage of examples where directors had led with their values as we responded collectively as a nation to the pandemic. There is learning from that, but also a need to recognise that there will be fatigue and overwhelm for many – so paying attention to their own wellbeing and self-care is imperative. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup!

IoD Scotland is a fantastic community for directors to have some space to reflect, share with their peers, and explore professional-development opportunities to help them re-energise and build on their strengths.

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What is your view on how leadership is changing, amid broader efforts in society to see greater inclusivity in terms of race, gender, and socio-economic background, and a move towards making a more positive and sustainable contribution to society?

Diversity is a win for everyone. Tackling the root causes – at system level – of inequality is a win for everyone. And I believe the leaders of organisations, whether they are public services or in the private sector, have a significant contribution to make.

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They can lead by example; they can innovate and “walk the talk” and they can share what has and hasn’t worked for them. There is clear evidence things are changing, and whilst it can sometimes feel like one step forward and two steps back, I believe the dial is shifting.

Critical to this is purposeful leadership and directors who take seriously, and think deeply about, their own role and the contributions they want to make to the world.

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To what extent can digital connectivity catalyse Scotland’s economic recovery, for example helping foster both flexible working and the levelling-up of rural areas?

There’s no question that digital has a part to play. The actions we have had to take due to the pandemic have super-charged the “art of the possible” and helped to deliver ways of working and service-delivery that we previously thought might take years.

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I’m always mindful, though, that digital is only a tool. In practically every context, people and their relationships with each other (along with a bit of human creativity) are what will make things work well.

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For rural areas, I’m keen to see the potential of digital connectivity realised, but equally excited about regeneration, place-based and community wealth-building work. This is all being developed in partnerships between the enterprise agencies, local businesses and organisations plus the local council – because it is people in local communities who know what is needed.

What has been the most significant-ever moment for you professionally – and what advice would you give your younger self?

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There are truly too many to mention! I’ve had lots of learning points along the way – and lots of fabulous people who have helped me to learn and grow. Whether that’s the people who took that one chance on me, or those who generously shared their knowledge and expertise, I’m the product of their belief in me and the chances I was given. Although I recognise that those chances are often not open to those who are from more diverse backgrounds than me.

Advice to my younger self? Don’t listen to your older self – make the mistakes, take the risks – do it your way and be your own person, because everything will be ok. Enjoy the ride, and always be kind.

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What are the biggest challenges for you as head of IoD Scotland going forward – what would you ultimately like to achieve as its leader?

At the top of my list is diversity and inclusion. We are working hard to make IoD Scotland a community of cross-sector directors representing every part of Scotland, and the multitude of experience they all have.

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I’d also like to achieve a legacy where more people understand – and properly value – the need for time and investment in their own professional development as senior leaders. Raising the calibre of directors around the boardrooms of Scotland can only be a good thing, as the benefits will flow in so many directions – especially in relation to sustainability and a wellbeing economy.

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