Ruth Lea podcast transcript

Updated: Jul 1, 2019

In this episode, we sit with Ruth Lea and learn all about her journey, her idols and how she defines success. Click the link to listen to the podcast:

Intro: Vocal, opinionated, highly intelligent, Ruth Lea is an economic force to be reckoned with. With an abundance of personality, she isn’t your typical Economist. I must admit I was a little nervous before interviewing Ruth. Her Politics couldn’t be further from my own, but her enthusiasm and passion are contagious. Hearing her Reflect on her Achievements, as a woman in a man’s world, was a privilege I hope you enjoy listening to, as much as I enjoyed recording.

Shona: My guest today is Ruth Lea CBE. Ruth was born in Cheshire, growing up on a farm and attending the local grammar school before heading to university to study economics and statistics and becoming post-grad in the University of Bristol. A natural with numbers and statistics, Ruth, your early career was for the civil service working with the Treasury and Department of Trade and Industry. As an advocate for free markets, your career moved into the banking sector starting at Mitsubishi bank then following since as economic editor at ITN and famously head of the policy unit at the Institute of Director. Other highlights include the director of the Centre of Policy Studies, co-founding the Global Vision in 2007 where you were director until 2010. You’ve been group economic adviser at Arbuthnot banking group since 2007, author of many papers and articles on economic issues as well as published author, keen Twitter user and I’ve heard, a keen singer.

The purpose of this podcast is a little bit of insight into you and how you’ve got to where you are today. The title of it is “Reflecting on Achievements” so with that in mind, would you class yourself as successful? What’s your definition of success?

Ruth: Ironically, you mention that I was a keen singer, that makes me sound very Cheshire doesn’t it, but it was always one of my great ambitions since I was in my 20’s and 30’s to be a singer and I took singing lessons but then I realised by the time I got mid-career I better settle down and do some work because I have been in the civil service for quite a long time and obviously doing a job but without total commitment I think that’s probably the kindest way of doing it because I was too busy singing. Then I decided to leave the civil service then I went off and that’s where I went off to Mitsubishi bank and by the time I got to Mitsubishi, the hours and commitment you need are terrific and so the singing just went, and I just had to decide. I think that was probably one of the most difficult choices I have had to make. I think if I started my singing ambitions earlier in life, I could’ve probably done it, but if you leave it to your twenties it’s getting too late. I think I would’ve made it because, she says with terrific modesty, I did have a good singing voice but the advantage of having done a lot of singing is that I used to be nervous to do it but you’ve got to get into the habit of using an audience and that is such an important thing to do in various other aspects of my career that involve standing up and speaking in front of a group of people or indeed if you’re appearing on TV, you have to be aware of the audience and I think that my singing teacher probably taught me some of the most valuable lessons I have ever learnt in my laugh. She used to say to me “nobody has to watch you, nobody has to listen to you, you’ve got to make them want to do it”. I think that is what has been such a motivating force, with my singing teacher was a terrific Australian chap called John Cameron that I actually think he said, “you’ve got to transpose yourself and then just get on with the work and concentrate on what you’re doing”, it was probably the biggest lesson of my life.

Shona: I didn’t expect you to say that at all but it’s lovely to hear something that was a passion fundamentally enable some of the success you’ve had within work as well. It’s given you that drive or helped you to focus that drive maybe.

Ruth: I think that’s probably right, I think it was realising that if you want to do something, you have to be very committed and very motivated, and I think this a lesson from everybody that, believe me, whatever success there has been in my life has not come measly that there has had to be terrific commitment and there have been setbacks, I got sacked from the Institute of Directors for example which was quite interesting in some ways, but I remember thinking at the time “well blow them, I will just show them their flaws to have sacked me, but they probably thought there were flaws not to have sacked me earlier but that’s a different matter.” You may resent people, but you’ve got to put all that aside, move on, because nobody when you’re working for the next set of people, they don’t want to hear about your grievances, they don’t want you to come to work everyday saying “oh it was better when I was doing such and such”. The important thing is that you focus on what you’re doing at that time.

Shona: That focus, that ambition that you obviously have, where do you think that has come from? Do you think that came from your upbringing or later in life?

Ruth: I was brought up with Victorians, and it’s very female dominated because especially on my father’s side there had been about 6-7 girls and only one boy males were sort of attachments which was quite interesting, and they were all farmers of course. My Great Aunt Maggie was born in 1879 and she was as tough as old boots and she used to go around saying, “if you want to get anything done, do it yourself”. I remember my mother saying from a very early age, “you’re just like Aunty Maggie because you sit there and whatever you do, you’re determined to do it” and it’s quite innate, some people have that great self-sufficiency. They were not always asking people how to do things, but the key thing is that you are self-motivated, and you are determined to see things through and I think that’s innate.

Shona: It sounds like you’ve always had the confidence such as singing in front of an audience and the drive, would you say that you’re a confident.

Ruth: I think the problem is that nearly everyone I’ve met has doubts about themselves, I don’t think it’d be human if you didn’t have doubts, but you get up in the morning and you think “well, this is what I want to do.” If you’ve got drive and ambition, you have to get over those doubts and somehow overcome them and I think as I’ve already said when I first started singing in front of an audience I would be perilously nervous, but you get over it by keeping at it. I think some people think if they do it two or three times it will be fine, but its not. You do it over and over and over again, it’s just that endless experience of coping with problems but the doubts to some extent will always be there. I think in some ways, having doubts is a very useful motivator because if you just carry on through life without any problems or doubts, there’s no motivation and you’ve got no sense of discrimination as to what you should be doing.

Shona: Do you think luck ever plays a part?

Ruth: Hugely, I think ironically when I left the civil service and I went to Mitsubishi, that was a complete punt and I’d been in the civil service 16-17 years which was quite a long time and I was going from a British Civil Service to a Japanese Bank which was plunging into the unknown. It worked out incredibly well, it needn’t have done.

Shona: Do you think that was luck or do you think that was you being able to manage the situation well, being able to take the right risks?

Ruth: Both, because I think if I went to a different bank, it wouldn’t have worked out as well as it did with the Japanese but also what the Japanese wanted for me was interesting because they picked me as a former civil servant and they really wanted to know about how British Government worked and how the Bank of England worked. It wasn’t just a matter of figures on a spreadsheet, they wanted to know how the country worked because of course they were from overseas and very bright people who were strategising their own global strategy and it just happened that they managed to fit that particular slot. It was very strange because I was a woman and it was very male dominated, and economics was an incredibly male dominated profession. I did some teaching as well, and also because of the teaching and the singing, you wanted to reach out to an audience and actually tried to, to explain what was going on whereas unless you’ve had that performing/teaching experience, it’s not innate. But it certainly was an insight into a different culture as well.

Shona: At any stage did you plan your career, did you know where you wanted to end up?

Ruth: Well I wanted to be an opera singer, then I gave up with that ambition and I decided it was time to do something with economic and statistics and then the jobs just came over and then I ended up at Lehman Brothers, but I was only there 6 months. Of course, that was a wonderful investment bank that went bust in 2008 and I never enjoyed that. I found that particular investment American culture very alien. Then I went to ITN, I just saw the adverts, this was just serendipity really just because I was looking around for another job as I didn’t like Lehman Brothers particularly. It was a mismatch, it wasn’t their fault or my fault. I saw this advert in the Financial Times and the economic section said “ITN”, so I thought I’d give it a whirl, so I trotted along to have an interview and hey presto. It was a wonderful experience. You learnt about television, before that I’d done quite a lot of interviewing or being interviewed but of course actually working for a television station, you do see how the news programmes actually function and how they’re put together. Not just the technology but actually but actually the way of thinking of news casters and producers and how they create the news agenda. To some extent, in this country it’s driven by the BBC because it’s so dominant. But when I was there, you’d interview people, and you are aware of the camera and if a cameraman says “move two inches to the left” you move two inches to the left. You don’t say “why’s that” because they want you in shot and again it was knowing they were trying to get the best of you but in order for that to happen, you had to do what they told you as they were the professionals and you trusted them. Then I was headhunted by the Institute of Directors. You said “did I have a plan” but not really and with the Institute of Directors I thought about it and thought it sounds interesting, so I went off to the IoD and I was there for 8 years.

Shona: You obviously had the drive to keep moving forward. There’re so many people who don’t change careers, but it sounds like you’ve seen opportunities and you’ve moved but you also haven’t looked back. Is that quite important?

Ruth: I think you mustn’t look back even if things aren’t going terribly well. It’s a terrible mistake to look back. I was always confident that something somehow would turn up, but I always knew that at the end of the day that things would work out. But you also knew that whatever you did, wherever you were, you had to give your complete commitment otherwise it doesn’t work.

Shona: That’s important though, it doesn’t just happen, and the opportunities don’t arise unless you put the commitment in.

Ruth: I just remember when I was in Mitsubishi and when I was in IoD particular, I used to take just about every TV/radio invitation, you’d be able up at half 5 and believe me it’s utterly exhausting but you said yourself it’s probably the right thing to do at the time and it probably was but I couldn’t do it now because I am getting older and I think this is another part of your career that as you get older you have to realise what you can sensibly do. You can’t do what you did when you were 30 and 40.

Shona: You mentioned before about critical moments and crossroads and moving forward through those, some people would dwell on situations like that. How do you keep looking forward, how are you able not to dwell back on those scenarios?

Ruth: I think you’re absolutely right because people do dwell, and as we know I was sacked by the IoD for political reasons but I was truly sad and I bumped into a friend and he was very sympathetic and I said “that’s very kind of you” and he said “a similar thing to happened to me” so I asked him about it and he did and so I said “when was this?” and he said 10 years ago. Talking to him was probably the best thing I did at that particular time because I thought if I’m still wittering on about this in 10 years’ time, I will have failed. Also, I think that the great motivation is to say, “I’ve been sacked, very upset about it but I’m going to make success out of the next thing I do for myself and I’m not going to let these silly so and so’s in the IoD destroy the rest of my career or the rest of my life.” The trouble is some people do let that happen to them and you’ve got to say no and go and succeed. You’ve got to get that closure into your life very quickly but what you must do is you must focus on the next thing in hand, you must move on and when I hear people who go on and on about things, I just think “move on”. You can’t change what happened in 1975, look ahead. Not just for yourself but for everybody else who’s involved with you.

Shona: You can’t change the past, but you can shape what’s ahead, or attempt to shape it.

Ruth: If you endlessly dwell, you’ll be your own worst enemy.

Shona: Would you consider yourself a lifelong learner? I ask this because to some people this is very important, and they really think through how they go about learning through life, would you class yourself as a lifelong learner?

Ruth: I think to some extent, providing you’re still feeling alive, you’re a lifelong learner and it’s really when people don’t want to hear anything else in life, of course as you get older you just think “well basically, I know what I think well by now and what I’m interested in and what I’m not interested in” and the idea of suddenly taking up a completely new hobby like snooker, I just think you’ve got lots and lots of interests and the important thing is you just keep them alive. With people who have a happy retirement, that’s what they’re doing, they’re using the experience of their life but they’re building on what they have already learnt. It’s more building on your experiences.

Shona: What would you say is your greatest achievement?

Ruth: It’s very hard to say because you’ve got all sorts of various aspects of your life such as personal, family, career wise or anything else and to be honest with you, the fact I’m still alive is my greatest achievement because I used to do a lot of riding in my youth so it’s amazing I’m still alive. My greatest achievement is to be almost in one piece.

Shona: Do you have any particular heroes or gurus or anyone you look up to?

Ruth: Janet Baker is terrific, she was the one who really got me interested in singing and it was in 1966 at the Free Trade hall in Manchester when she was singing Sea Pictures by Elgar with John Barbirolli who was the conductor at the time, and he was a great conductor especially of English music it was a great experience and this woman walked on the stage and just sang and I suppose we can’t call her a hero but that’s what got me so interested in singing. Another thing is you should have different passions and different interests in life, you shouldn’t just be a one note samba. It gives you a different perspective on life. Heroes, such as Margaret Thatcher, she is very divisive but on the other hand she was a formidable politician and I had the privilege to meet her on several occasions, she was actually my MP, but I ran the Centre of Policy Studies, she used to come along, she was quite frail by then but she was still pretty formidable I remember but she was an extraordinary politician and she did great things for this country that is not always recognised but it really came home to me when I was working for the Japanese, when they said “do you realise what an extraordinary difference that woman has made to your country” and when she resigned in 1990, the Japanese just couldn’t understand.

Shona: What advice would you give to anyone starting out on your career path or to your younger self if you could go back?

Ruth: I think the key thing is that if you want to get on in life, you must do something that you feel very committed to then commit yourself but if you’re starting out on a career that you think “crap, I don’t want to do this, why am I doing this” so everyday you’re sitting there asking yourself why you’re doing something, it wont work. It’s frequently the case that people’s abilities be coincident with their interests because you’re interested in what you’re good at so your talent and interests should coordinate and if you have a talent and an interest that’s what to go for. Don’t do things you have no interest in.

Shona: Couple of fun questions to round it off, do you have a favourite book?

Ruth: Well I’ve written a book on stamps and I think it’s absolutely brilliant, I just wrote it for my own interest.

Shona: The joy of Amazon is you can get a hold of anything now can’t you, you’re probably selling the odd copy I would imagine.

Ruth: I have a publisher and I published it last year, it’s just my mother was always a great stamp collector and I’ve got a large collection and what I find interesting about stamps is the reflection history so you know, you pick a stamp up which was Austria or something in 1880 and that told you something about the country in 1880.

Shona: Do you have a favourite app or piece of technology you use?

Ruth: I don’t really understand apps, but I do use my iPhone a lot and I do think the internet is fantastic. I just think what it was like having to do research back before you had access to the world wide web, it was a different world.

Shona: Where’s your favourite place?

Ruth? My favourite place, probably Cheshire, it’s home.

Shona: That’s it, thank you so much for your time, it’s greatly appreciated.

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