Dame Carolyn McCall: meet the ITV boss who tackled an EasyJet meltdown and rewrote TV history

She's the ITV boss who rewrote TV history after becoming the media giant's first ever female chief executive.
ITV boss Dame Carolyn McCall rewrote TV history after becoming the media giant's first ever female chief executive.ITV boss Dame Carolyn McCall rewrote TV history after becoming the media giant's first ever female chief executive.
ITV boss Dame Carolyn McCall rewrote TV history after becoming the media giant's first ever female chief executive.

Dame Carolyn McCall DBE went from dealing with an EasyJet crisis to running the show at one of Britain's biggest cultural institutions when she took over the reigns of ITV in January 2018.

Clitheroe business woman Linda Walmsley, Carolyn's former workmate at The Guardian, speaks to her about her incredible career journey and the lessons she's learnt along the way.

What were your career aspirations when you were younger?

Clitheroe business womanLinda Walmsley worked with Dame Carolyn McCall for 14 years at The Guardian.Clitheroe business womanLinda Walmsley worked with Dame Carolyn McCall for 14 years at The Guardian.
Clitheroe business womanLinda Walmsley worked with Dame Carolyn McCall for 14 years at The Guardian.
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I don't think I knew but I was brought up abroad and there was a program on TV called Police Woman with Angie Dickinson and I remember thinking I want to do something like that, because she was really strong and dynamic.

Tell us about your first job?

My very first job was actually teaching. I left because they were laying off very experienced teachers which I really didn't approve of. They were offering rubbish teachers like me a job. I had hardly any experience, so they were cutting costs and I thought that was wrong and if that's what teaching was going to be about, then I didn’t want to pursue it. I then did my master’s degree in politics. My first job really was The Guardian where I started as a planner.

Was there a "who" or a "what" that inspired you to develop a career in business?

I remember being at my newcomer's lunch at The Guardian and Peter Preston who was the then editor had a long conversation with me about why we didn't have a Sunday newspaper at the time. That was 1986. I remember coming out of that room thinking this is an amazing place because anyone will talk to anyone, it's very open, it was very non-

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hierarchical, and it just felt like the culture and the purpose of the Guardian was really right for me. If you were good at what you did, you had views and you proved yourself, then it was a meritocracy and I loved that. I think I flourished in a meritocracy.

Do you have a favourite saying or quote?

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it” - I feel that is a really appropriate quote. I’ve got three kids and they roll their eyes when I say it to them as I say it so often. It’s by Michelangelo and it’s still very relevant.

What technology are you passionate about?

Everything! When I have been asked to do speeches to women who are rising in their careers and want top tips, I look at something I did 20 something years ago and what I said then was use every piece of technology you can, to find the balance in your life so that all the juggling becomes easier. When you've got mobile technology or technology to make your life quicker, more productive, more efficient, more remotely, you can do more while you're travelling, you can do more on your commute. I start my day very early, but I've also been able to drop my kids off at school. That's because of technology. I do all my phone calls, do all my emails before I even walk in the door of the office.

Do you think workplace diversity has now become embedded or is there still a lot more work to do?

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There is loads more work to do. Everyone is now aware of it, so what has really shifted is the awareness around diversity, whether that's around disability, BAME, LGBT or gender. I think the awareness has increased but I think the “how” is still quite hard for a lot of people. At ITV, we are quite advanced. We need to represent the diversity of the people who are viewing it. We are therefore doing quite well on screen.

At EasyJet, I set up a women's network and encouraged a LGBT network. We had to do lots of things from scratch because it wasn't even really on the radar there in 2010. I implemented the female pilot initiative with a close colleague. We got all the pilots on board and all the male pilots were actually amazing about it, really supportive. Before this, no one was championing female pilots, they were just saying the lack of them was woeful. At the time there were only 3 percent of female pilots in the worldwide pilot population; it was so low.

We had to change things structurally to get more female pilots in the pipeline, in order to achieve the goal that 20 percent of female pilots were to be recruited by 2020. This pipeline plan was a really good goal; one in five new entrants coming in will be women, which is fabulous.

I'm telling you that because I think it needs, not just the principle and the awareness, it also needs the structure, process and the action to actually drive it forward, otherwise it won't shift. It’s a big cultural shift.

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What do you see as your biggest career highlights or achievement to date?

There’s so many good things that I feel very proud to have been associated with. If I go back to the Guardian days, I think about launching the Guardian websites in 1996, which came on the back of launching Wired magazine in the UK; that was massive. I'll never forget merging The Observer and The Guardian and also when I sold Auto Trader to Apax and got a load of money for the Guardian. It was a big moment selling 50 percent of it and having £800 million in the bank.

Then easyJet, the day I felt we really turned a corner. I realised we'd cracked the operational issues when I got an email at Easter. I started in July 2010 and it was in meltdown everywhere. The pilots were up in arms. They absolutely hated what had been happening. We weren't on time, customers were very unhappy, we were cancelling flights in the middle of summer, cancelling people's holidays, it was really miserable.

After some months, I received an e-mail from an Irish pilot based at Charles de Gaulle airport. It started with “Dear Carolyn”, I thought he was going to complain but he went on to say “this is the first Easter in many years that my roster has been stable, that I have been able to see my family and not been late every single night, so something is going well. Thank you. Yours sincerely Captain X. P.S. crew food is still shit.” It was a breakthrough moment. This was just nine months in and I thought okay there's still quite a lot to do but we're on our way, because when the pilots tell you things are getting better than you really know they are.

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EasyJet was a complete turnaround and it became a customer facing airline which won awards for being customer-centric. It was a complex business to get right, so I feel very proud of my EasyJet years and my team there. My team were just extraordinary, they were a brilliant top team.

There's not one moment at ITV yet because I've just been here a year and a quarter, but I know that it is so important to Britain that ITV does well. That’s what drives me and keeps me motivated.

What's next for you and ITV?

At ITV we have big times ahead. We're launching Britbox which is the BBC and ITV, a new subscription video service. This is the best of British content from the past so very rich content in multi-services box sets. We will also commission original content. So if you want to see every episode of Vera or Endeavour or Fleabag, it will all be on Britbox, so it’s a one-stop shop for depth and breadth of British originated content. It’s quite bold, going into a market which Netflix has already been in for eight years but it's not Netflix. It's about differentiating the brand and being very distinct. That's very exciting.