Simon Harwood

Director of Defence and Security – Cranfield University

An academic and a politician who is inspired by Winston Churchill.

Growing up in the North East of England during the 1970s and 80s provided Simon Harwood with a valuable perspective on life which he’ll never forget, and from which he draws daily inspiration.  The need to be friendly, open, honest, faithful, and hardworking were things he saw during his childhood that have left an imprint on who he is today.

His early involvement with the military, through both his family and the air cadets, led Simon, from very early in life, to pursue a career with the military.  After a few brief years with the RAF, he was lucky enough to gain a PhD and find his way back into the Civil Service with the MOD.  Working across the world and across the Government he was exposed to many different experiences and roles that have stood him in good stead for his career.

Following 8 years in the industry with the Boeing company, today Simon is both an academic (Director of Defence and Security work at Cranfield University) and a (local) politician.

Welcome to the Leadership Interview, Simon.

How do you start your day?

After 20 years of hard commuting to London and travelling globally I enjoy rising between 0630 – 0700, a late start, for a pleasant drive to Cranfield University, or as I write this during the COVID pandemic, my home office.  Sadly I’m not a breakfast person, preferring to eat around about 1000, albeit I do aspire to find a work-life balance so I can have a sit-down breakfast.  In fact, some advice I would offer are the benefits of a business breakfast – combining a pleasant start with food – everyone always shows up and it’s a good start to the day!

What was your first job, and what is the worst job you’ve ever done?

My first job was as a Saturday shop assistant in the now defunct Ciro Citterio, selling men’s suits.  It was great fun due to the people I worked with, bizarrely my colleagues were mainly ex-ship builders from Swan Hunters, made unemployed and looking for a way to bring home a wage.  They certainly knew how to have a laugh at work, and as I remember goliaths of men.  The worst job I ever had was the milk round.  I had to get up at 0200 and carry 8 bottles of frozen milk in two hands around the arctic streets of Durham in deep winter.  I lasted about a week…….

What advice would you give to others about furthering their careers?

Two bits of advice (i) Critically evaluate everything – just because that’s how it’s done now does not mean it the right way to do it (ii) Do it right the first time.  Perhaps it’s my inner salesman but I standby it’s got to be well planned, practised, look good, and be big and ambitious.  Anything you do, be it sport, education, making something or cleaning the house do it right, do it well and give it that extra 10% – this will stand you above everyone else who is happy with the 90%.

Who inspires you and why?

I hold myself to very high account, I always have a subconscious thought of – would my family be proud, so who inspires me, my family I guess.  Although I must admit, like a lot of people, I do find Winston Churchill inspiring, his life and biography are fascinating, and he always had a good witty one-liner.

Do you think a talent to lead is nature or nurture?

I am a firm believer in that you can train (nurture) a manager but a leader is borne through nature.  Nature in the sense that it is a culmination of natural talent (humility, humour, leadership) and life experiences that make people great inspiring leaders.

How can a leader fail?  Do you have a personal example?

Leaders can fail by not grasping those around them and moving them forwards.  You are as only as strong as the weakest link, so the parable goes.   Sadly I’ve seen this a few times, where the leader delegates too much responsibility to those ‘weak-links’ and then does not provide critical oversight of their activities.  Often for genuine reasons of complexity and bureaucracy.  Unfortunately, something will happen in the environment that will stress the system – and then the weak link will break.  As you’re at the top – you take the fall – your fault or not!  The key to success sometimes though is when you’re not the top leader – but leading from the middle – or leading in a flat structure, and how you influence those around you.

What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

My greatest weakness is not listening at length – two ears and one mouth is a term I’ve heard a lot.  However, on the flip side, my strength is to make decisions and take responsibility from limited information or when there is a lack of clarity or information – something I took from the military.

What do you find most challenging about being a leader?

I’m still working through this one – and how to solve it.  The honest answer is seeing through / moving forwards in a bureaucracy – you can see the blockers to progress but you can’t go around it/them.  You want to achieve for the success of the business (your actual employer or UK plc. in general) but the system always tries to slow you down.

What are you most proud of?

My wife and children!

What’s your biggest self-indulgence?

I love to watch Rugby with friends and a beer.

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