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  • Dame Mary Marsh, Non-executive director of HSBC Bank plc, member of the Governing Body, London Business School, UK

    This summer I reach my threescore years and ten but my life to date and my thinking is so different to that of my parents’ journey at this stage and, indeed, that of many of my peers.

    I am fortunate to have had good health, energy, love and support along the way, but this all needs regular investment to help it all flourish. I have lived by the challenge I give to others ‘know yourself, be yourself and look after yourself’ and keep on doing this, including being insatiably curious, reflective, resilient and ready to seize opportunities.  I like to think of achieving ‘life balance’ across everything. I find sometimes I can be most alive when I am ‘working’.

    I am now a truly cross sector leader having moved on recently to solely non-executive roles after 25 years as a ‘chief exec’. I am engaged with the boards of a bank, a business school and a skills academy and I contribute advice for an orchestra, government and charities.  I have every intention of continuing to enjoy the privilege of this active life!

    Looking back, I know that I wanted to make a difference and help to put right some of the injustices in the world. I have found some of my greatest rewards in satisfying my hunger to learn and to nurture other people. There have been some unexpected events and I have taken some flying leaps, but there never was a plan for this.

    My journey has been like a pyramid with the levels wide as I progressed, allowing different directions and ‘tops’ to be possible, always staying open to jumps as well as steps. For example, I took eight years as a full-time mother of four young sons with an often absentee husband travelling on business. This was a rewarding management and personal resilience building experience from which I still thrive.

    My direct leadership experience has mostly been in schools and charities but I have always engaged actively with senior execs in business, education and the wider public sector including government. This breadth of engagement continues to be of huge value as I can move fluently around the sectors, including some days several times a day. I find this shifting and ‘boundary hopping’ hugely stimulating personally as I keep learning something new. Repeatedly too I find new connections and opportunities to bring the different parts of my life together.

    One challenge I have discovered is how to keep the right balance of what I call ‘head space’.  Some of the commitments I have are episodic with gaps of time between them so I can switch in and out, depending on others to keep me briefed as needed. But other responsibilities require my continuous attention so I can be in touch with relevant issues, ideas and opportunities. Effective leaders, including non-executive directors, are alert to context, both in and for the immediate organisation, across the bigger picture and in anticipation of the future. The antennae to pick up on this do need to be constantly switched on.

    I only take on a new commitment if I am satisfied I can do it well and give it the right time and energy.  I have declined to do some roles on the basis on not having sufficient head space at that stage to do the necessary induction, learning and ongoing daily attention. This is one of the keys I have found in trying to have a balanced portfolio of commitments. I try to allow some space too, as events do take over and there will always be some weeks that become 24/7 just to fit it all in and meet the parallel deadlines.

    In achieving my ‘life balance’ I have benefited from some inspirational mentors and friends along the way and great support too. With my continuing passion to nurture and grow people around me I hope I can continue to do some of the same for others myself.

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