Graeme Yorston is the Group CEO at Principality Building Society, the sixth largest Building Society in the UK and the largest in Wales. Graeme has been CEO for over three years, but has been at Principality for more than nine years, previously as Chief Operating Officer.
How did you find your way to your current role?
I have been in retail financial services for over 40 years. I joined a building society at the age of 17 as a management trainee, which provided me with a very broad training. From there I was the youngest appointed assistant branch manager at just 20 years of age and held a number of assistant branch manager appointments until I was the youngest appointed Branch Manager, aged 26.
I then went on to be an Area Manager and Regional Director (both as the youngest appointed) before changing career direction to run a number of strategic projects for the organisation (now a plc bank). I then ran the call centre operation before being appointed as the IT Director for the retail bank.
As can be seen, I have had a very varied career – and that I left school when I was 17! I subsequently went on to become a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers and I studied for an MBA at Warwick Business School.
Within your career to date, was there a specific period, role or action that you believe helped you become the successful leader you are today?
I have benefited from having been part of many varied disciplines and this has undoubtedly helped me. I have taken some risks – for example moving into IT from a non IT background – but in doing so I have also benefited from learning how different functions operate, from different leaders and with different peers.
Throughout my career, I have learned about my own capacity and different learning and coping strategies, particularly at times such as studying for my MBA whilst running a major business.
I think that I have “created” my own luck by being open to new challenges, being flexible on location (I have lived all over the UK) and by showing a strong willingness to learn – something I think I continue to do.
Did you set out to be a leader? Did you think you would be this successful?
I guess I have been a little surprised by what I have achieved, considering that I left school at 17. But then I have adopted a very clear “have a go” approach to my career, which has worked out well for me even though it has come with its sacrifices – such as not having family close by. When you are raising three boys (which my wife largely did) and having a wife with a very successful career as well, then it can be very challenging indeed.
My only “ambition” is that I’m driven by just doing and being the very best that I can be no matter what I’m doing.
What was the first job you had that entailed managing people and what lessons did you learn?
I have been very fortunate in my career to work for organisations that have been prepared to invest in people. This is becoming even more important as the labour market begins to heat up again. Investing in people can often be seen as a “risk” – which is that people get training and then leave. But if you don’t invest, then they are just as likely to go – if not more so – and I would rather people left my organisation thinking that it was a good place to work. Surely that’s a better outcome!
My first job managing people was when I was appointed an Assistant Branch Manager at the age of 20… and I think it’s fair to say that I made quite a few mistakes! Fortunately I had a very good team who were supportive and very forgiving, but I also had a very good manager who taught me a lot.
My main learning styles are observation and reading. I guess I’m just not too good in any sort of “classroom” – I find that I learn best through observation, but also knowing intuitively what feels right and wrong!
Throughout your career, what leadership and management development have you undertaken? We’re all aware of how lonely it is at the top – how do you cope?
I guess I never really understood when people said how lonely it can be at the top – and I’m not sure that I have found it to be as bad as people can lead you to believe. Perhaps that’s down to my approach to leading a team. I think I’m very inclusive and really do value a wide range of opinions – my style is to really soak up views from all over the landscape, including colleagues inside and outside my organisation. It also helps that I have a very understanding wife with whom I will often talk through issues just to get an objective opinion on something.
But, of course, there is no getting away from the fact that, as CEO, I am paid to make the big calls. When you have an organisation of over 1,200 people looking at you for this, it brings its own responsibilities – I absolutely try and think about the human impact that our decisions can have, both inside and outside our business. Balancing commercial with other dimensions is a key challenge.
What has been the toughest decision you have had to make in the past six months?
I would go back a little further than six months. We had carried out a strategic review of our group businesses and concluded that a business we had owned for no less than 28 years was no longer core to our strategy going forward, so we decided to sell it. Having delivered a process to identify the new owners, we came to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do – for the group and for that particular business. Nonetheless, when you know some of the people in the business very well, it was tough to say “great news… we are selling you and here are your new owners”. You sometimes have to depersonalise things to keep your sanity, but we are human and I certainly am always concerned for the people.
Having made the decision, it’s important to deal with it in the right way. I always say that people can rationalise away why a decision is made and the logic behind it, but if you deal with it badly, then people will remember that.
With regards to your current role, how would you describe your style of leadership?
I don’t have all the answers! I’m consultative in my approach, but I have also recognised that this has to be balanced with the ability to be decisive as well. I’m also very intuitive, drawing on my years of experience as a basis and then build on it by using facts and data. Through being consultative, I’m also prepared to be persuaded to a different view and encourage people to challenge my thinking.
What would you say is your greatest achievement in a leadership role?
Seeing people develop and become great leaders themselves.
How do you relax? Do you manage to have a work/life balance?
It’s fair to say that I didn’t always achieve this balance and there have been many times when my wife has threatened to throw my phone into a pool! I’m much better now than I was – although I still work pretty long hours, I’m very clear about taking my holidays and ensuring that my team take theirs. I’m a passionate golfer and play as much as I can. I’m also fortunate that my wife plays, which takes a lot of pressure off and we also play as a team.
What would be your top tip to other leaders and managers?
Listen to what others around you are saying – sometimes they can have some real gems. Leadership to me has to be lived through values – never expect anyone to behave or do things that you are not demonstrating yourself. When you have to come to a very hard decision, remember there are usually people involved – deal with it with a genuine and demonstrable understanding of the impact this is having. They will remember you, and the organisation, for that – positive or negative!
The LMW Team would sincerely like to thank Graeme Yorston for this interview.