Intro/Chat: Dido Harding & Nigel Sullivan


(“The dynamic between CEO & Entrepreneurial Founder”)

Back at the beginning of last week an email appeared in my inbox which read something along the lines of;

Hi Sam,

A slot has come available for you to have a 30min introduction with Dido and Nigel later this week.

Please respond back confirming your availability and I’ll book you in.


This was received by me with a mixture of excitement and a big gulp! Brilliant, I’d just been invited for a private audience with Dido Harding, CEO of TalkTalk plc., and Nigel Sullivan, Director of Group HR, now all I needed to do was get mentally prepared and sort out some good questions to make the most of this opportunity! So I did just that, got some advice from a few people around me, got excited some more, and then got in the lift up to the top floor.

For those that don’t know much about her in advance, Dido has been the CEO of TalkTalk for around 4 years now, and previous to that held a number of high standing positions at Sainsbury’s, including Convenience Director. Nigel’s background is more automotive and technology, having previously worked for Land Rover, Marconi, and Wincanton amongst others.

I was introduced at the door of Dido’s office, went in and took my seat and quickly relaxed. The conversation was very relaxed and easy going. After introducing myself, my background and what I am about the discussion quickly turned to my interests, business, the state of business in the UK today, the state of education, entrepreneurs and disruptive startups. It was all great stuff and both Dido and Nigel were very engaging and easy to talk to. This was exactly what I had been told to expect and I wasn’t disappointed! I haven’t been in many corporate offices, board rooms or the like, and I think Dido is the first CEO of her calibre that I’ve spoken to personally; but I quickly grew an appreciation that the top management in this company are very, very approachable, energetic, passionate and happy to talk to and meet their staff.

I seized my opportunity and quickly turned to some of the questions I had prepared. Both Dido and Nigel seemed very responsive to this and I think they genuinely enjoyed the fact that I had come prepared with some searching questions and thoughts to discuss with them.

An early question I posed to Dido was to ask what does she see as being her personal mission or top priority as CEO of TalkTalk; what is the one thing, initiative or change, that she’d like to be remembered for. I think this was the only “oh-shit” moment I had, because initially I didn’t think this question had gone down too well! Dido made a start to respond that she really didn’t like to think like that, or with a personal agenda in mind, rather that she’d be happier to look back and say ‘we’, that’s what we achieved during my time as CEO of TalkTalk. I quickly built up the impression that Dido doesn’t like to talk about herself or take sole gratification for an achievement, she is very much a team player and takes her satisfaction from the success of the team she works within and the people and staff around her. Very humble, and indeed Nigel then stepped in to build upon this and suggest to Dido that surely she’d like to be remembered or known for her efforts towards making Britain better off through opening up and increasing access to digital products for the general public (particularly broadband). Dido conceded on this one, and agreed that she’d be happy to be known for being part of the team that is continually making Britain better off.

Interestingly, neither Dido nor Nigel have ever been involved in a startup or business of their own in their pasts. They’ve both enjoyed successful careers very much in the large corporate working space. “Like the secure wage”, and “just get out of bed on the other side (to an entrepreneur)” were both snippets of conversation as Nigel tried to convey his opinion that he’s just not of the entrepreneurial mind-set or inclination. Fair enough really. It isn’t me – I don’t think I could follow an obvious or typical career path through corporates, but it is interesting to find and talk to people who are of that other mind-set and who do, as Nigel said; just get out of bed on the other side each morning.

This rolled over quite nicely into my next question and the big searching topic that I’ve spent some considerable time pondering recently;

“How do you see/regard the differences between people who are maybe ‘born CEOs’ of corporates and other large businesses, and those ‘Entrepreneurs’ who startup new ventures and pursue their own new and novel ideas? What do you see as being the key strengths, skillsets, and differences of each, and critically – can one do both?!”

So, to answer the underlying question as to being born a CEO, or likewise born an Entrepreneur, Nigel offered up the following opinion: “If either, then CEOs are more made, and Entrepreneurs born. Or at least the make-up, the curiosity and dissatisfaction with the status quo – that’s in the DNA of an Entrepreneur. To be a CEO is most often the end result of structured learning, a corporate environment and years of built up experience and knowledge.” So, while all of that stuff might well help to round-out and Entrepreneur and make for some successful idea execution – the fundamental spark, that ambition and creativity that starts the Entrepreneur – that isn’t something born out of structure and corporate climbing.

At this point I pitched in the question about the relationship between Dido and Sir Charles Dunstone. For those who don’t already know, Charles is the founder and now Chairman of TalkTalk. He originally co-founded The Carphone Warehouse with a friend, selling mobile phones out of his flat in 1989. He’s the original Entrepreneur and driving force behind both Carphone and TalkTalk. At present Charles holds position as Chairman of TalkTalk and so his involvement requires a very close relationship with his CEO, Dido. I had identified this previously and wanted to start probing – how does it work, the intricate relationship between a CEO sat at the helm of a large corporate with a huge staff base and answerable to the City, and an Entrepreneur, the founding father who wants to try new things and take his venture to new territories?

The dynamic of this relationship is key, and similar examples exist all over the business world. Charles is the Entrepreneur, the innovator and the disruptor, but he hasn’t necessarily got the skills, the will or drive to manage and run such a huge company and staff base on a day to day basis. That’s where Dido steps in and takes up her role at the helm. Dido finds the CEO role addictive, highly engaging and satisfying, and she loves the corporate world and the challenges it throws up.

I think I’m maybe leaning slightly more on Charles’ side of the fence, but I’d still love to gain the skills and experience that come from the CEO role – I wonder if you can be both?

It was at this point that Dido interjected to say that I really should try get half an hour with Charles sometime soon and take these same questions to him – he would enjoy these and be able to offer me his own take, a valuable insight and opinion. (Post note: I’ve now got this follow up meeting in place and I’ll be sure to record how it went in coming weeks).

In the typical story, the Entrepreneur comes up with the new ideas, the innovation, vision and steer for where they want to go. The CEO and business management team around the Entrepreneur then work out how to manage and deliver this; how to implement the big idea and run a successful and long-life business on the back of it. It takes great maturity and self-awareness from a successful Entrepreneur – to know when to step aside and let someone else take the reins and manage their business. A brilliant modern day example of this dynamic in action might well be Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook (although yes, Zuckerberg does currently hold the CEO title in that dance).

Dido/Nigel: You can’t go into an Entrepreneurial venture or a new business with an ego or an end game of “being a successful businessman/Entrepreneur”. The driver has to be passion. Passion to change, deliver benefits, innovation, new products and services etc. You really need to commit to and believe in your idea and keep pushing it – even when faced with people who don’t believe in it. If everyone believed in a given idea then it would have been done already and there would be X examples of it in the marketplace today.

Pretty fantastic half hour chat and I was really grateful to Dido and Nigel for their time and level of engagement with me. Next up – Sir Charles Dunstone.