The Route To Success

Nigel Clifford took over the reins at Ordnance Survey (OS) and Rob Shepherd found out how he is shaping an exciting future of innovation and partnerships within the geospatial information sector, and how his style of leadership ensures a flexible, customer focused outlook. 

Pop pickers of the late 1980s might recall a pair of songstresses called Mel and Kim, who hit the charts with a ditty titled Fun, Love and Money. While for most of us this paean to having a good time was little more than a throwaway pop song, for Nigel Clifford these three words perfectly encapsulate his attitude towards success in business. 

Top of the pops

“In 1987, I was working at BT and had just been given my first team to manage,” he explains. “I was due to speak to them at a conference and this song seemed to be playing non-stop on the radio, so I used it as a marker for the day. You have to enjoy going to work and have a sense of fun while doing you job, make the customers love you, and generate money so that internal and external stakeholders can gain genuine benefit. I’ve stuck to this ethos throughout my career and I suppose it just foes to highlight the power of a catchy tune!”

Clifford joined BT after graduating from Cambridge University with an honours degree in geography, as part of its highly prestigious fast-track graduate scheme. It was around this time that the company was going through privatisation, so provided great opportunities for him to experience marketing, product management, service management, domestic and international business development – all invaluable grounding for his later roles. 

During this period Clifford took his Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, and shortly after completing it his career took a new turn. He explains, “for various reasons my wife gave birth to our first baby in Glasgow. I come from a medical family with a range of doctors and nurses and it felt like an area where I could make a real difference. The upshot was that at the age of 33 I found myself chief executive of Glasgow Royal Infirmary University NHS Trust, in charge of 5,000 people and six hospitals across one of Britain’s most deprived areas. It gave me a tremendous sense of purpose.”

Never one to stand still, after six “wonderful” years Clifford moved back to the private sector with Cable & Wireless and subsequently took senior roles at technology enterprises including Tertio Telecoms, Symbian Software, Nokia, Micro Focus International and Procserve Holdings. It was while at the latter that his career turned full circle, as in 2014 he was approached as a candidate for the position of chief executive officer (CEO) at OS. 

Next Step

As a geographer, long-time member of the Royal Geographical Society, enthusiastic traveller and hill walker, he had maintained a keen interest in OS for many years and this represented an opportunity for 56-year-old Clifford to combine his business and person interests. 

OS celebrated its 225th birthday in June 2016 and since last year has been a GovCo – still wholly owned by the UK government. With an annual turnover of £145m, it has spent the last 225 years producing the most accurate and current geographic picture of Great Britain. Government, businesses and the general public rely upon its database of 500,000,000 unique geographic features and it is also the leader in geospatial analysis – an approach to applying statistical analysis and other techniques to data that has a geographical aspect. 

“As soon as I entered the building I was captivated by the work that was going on,” says Clifford. “Interestingly, during my interview I was asked how my degree has influenced my career. I think geography teaches the interconnected nature of the world and I have applied this thinking to all the roles I’ve had, regardless of sector. It allows me to look at how all aspects of an operation work together and assess the diverse impact of any decisions.” 

Time Travel

After a year at the helm of OS, Clifford believed that the organisation is at the epicentre of an exciting future of innovation in the geospatial information sector. With 1,200 employees, he is based at the organisation’s head office in Southhampton, where OS is at the forefront of creating world-leading user experiences and pioneering the use of 3D, virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as assisting with the development of smart cities. 

He states, “It’s a really interesting time for any technology based company. There are opportunities flowing from the Internet of Things (IOT), new forms of data collection and analysis as well as new data demands. At the same time we have funding and resource pressures. However, at OS we see this as a challenge rather than a constraint and have innovated by working with partners at home and overseas to create and build pilot schemes and new business opportunities.” 

Although Clifford is responsible for the strategic direction that OS takes, he understands that effective internal communication is key in terms of turning theory into reality. “This is a challenge for any CEO,” he opines. “I firmly believe that there’s no substitute for authenticity and direct personal communication. Bland PowerPoint presentations do not galvanise people’s thinking and employees need to fully buy into any strategic initiatives if they are to be successful. The slightest whiff of insincerity will be detected. We have regular staff meetings and yesterday I did a “round the company tour”, where I spoke at each tea point and held a question and answer session afterwards to exchange views and ideas. We also have online magazines and newsletters to update people on what’s happening throughout the organisation.”

Put Into Practice

The team of administrative managers at OS provides the vital link in making sure that Clifford’s aims and objectives permeate the day-to-day operation of the enterprise. 

He comments, “They carry the flame when I’m not around and ensure that corporate policy is communicated and adhered to at all times. They really do act as a force of change and we are fortunate to have a very enthusiastic team of managers who have tremendous amounts of energy. That is more important than age, experience, background and heritage, and we have a positive attitude towards training and skills that involves twice yearly reviews with individual development plans mapped out.”

With an eye wateringly busy agenda, he also values the role his diary secretary and chief of staff perform in helping him to optimise his time. “Without these two women in my life would get very chaotic very quickly and they are incredibly important to me. I trust them to ensure that my time is carefully prioritised so that I can get as much done as possible and they have a fantastic ability to manage my time in the most effective ways.”

Learning Curve

It was clear from speaking to Clifford that his success is based in part of his ability to draw inspiration and knowledge from a diverse range of sources. He is particularly keen to highlight the role that different people have played in his career and how they have helped shape his distinctive management style. 

“When I was at BT in London the first colleague I had was a genuine east-ender called Harry Nash,” he explains. “It was definitely an “odd couple” relationships but he took me under his wing, was very supportive and his generosity of spirit has always touched me. Jim Doyle was also at BT with me and was my boss. He was incredibly trusting and gave me opportunities to succeed and show my abilities. Finally, while at Symbian Software I worked with Sir Peter Gershon, who taught me a great deal about chairmanship and the need for crisp and objective management, including how to get the most out of briefings and meetings. All three changed my worldview in one way or another”. 

Rules of engagement 

As he enters his second year at OS, Clifford’s enthusiasm for the task at hand is infectious and he is clearly relishing what the future holds. He concludes, “It’s astonishing that an organisation that started in 1791 is still at the cutting edge of what it does and continually evolved with the times. I’m looking forward to leading and being part of a team that is at the forefront of geospatial development in the 21st century.”


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