In a fast-paced tech world, executive director of Sensor City, Alison Mitchell tells BQ of the importance of delegation, using common sense to cut through jargon, and other business lessons she learned along the way.
What is it the company does?
Backed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), Sensor City is a joint venture between The University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University. It is one of only four University Enterprise Zones (UEZs) in the country.
Located at the gateway to Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter, the purpose-built innovation hub enables businesses to develop, fund and promote sensor solutions and IoT to a global market. Positioned at the intersection of industry and academia, Sensor City facilitates connectivity and fosters progress, helping partners to capitalise on the growing sensor revolution and develop concepts into prototypes with speed and accuracy.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
As executive director, I am responsible for establishing Sensor City as a national asset for emerging technologies, placing Liverpool and the UK at the forefront of world innovation in the sector. I also support the establishment of hi-tech sensor businesses and start-ups, enabling SMEs from across the Liverpool city region to access leading experts and world-class research from the field of sensor technologies.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I received an MBA from Cranfield University, which specialises in science, engineering, technology and management. I also received a postgraduate degree in marketing from Liverpool John Moores University, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Liverpool.
I then went on to run several dot-com companies in the dot-com boom and continue to run my own company specialising in property rental. As such, I am a keen supporter of SMEs in addition to being able to work with and understand the needs of very large and high growth companies.
I also have a wealth of high-level technology industry experience, having formerly been chief information officer at BT Business in Essex, helping to transform the telecom giant’s products, services and technical delivery.
I moved back to Liverpool in 2017, after spending 30 years in Essex, to take up the position of executive director at Sensor City. I believed that the time had come for the Internet of Things (IoT) to really take off and saw the North as a growing powerhouse for sensor technology, which is a key part of the IoT ecosystem.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Being able to delegate. You can’t do everything yourself. You have to trust people, ensure they know what is needed and let them run with it.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Having come in from industry, I have had to learn how the public sector and in particular universities work. They have a different approach and focus, which enables them to be a success in teaching young people and carrying out research.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Being a member of the Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat Racing Team, ‘Pool of Life’, helps me develop a positive support network and exercise routine outside of work. The camaraderie and social aspect of the team is a good distraction from the daily stresses of a working environment and I enjoy supporting such a worthwhile cause.
In November last year, I also arranged a charity abseil at Sensor City, which raised over £9,000 for Pool of Life, and saw the local community, staff, SMEs and University contacts get involved.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be in marketing, although I didn’t know that was the name. I was interested in why products were packaged the way they were, what offers were available, and why the products changed shape. My Dad worked at John West in Liverpool, so we would have tins without labels and have to guess what the food was. I loved seeing tins with labels and seeing how they portrayed the contents and enticed customers to eat them. I vividly remember when Mars changed their packaging from a folder wrapper to one with compressed ends. I obviously needed more toys to play with!
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Any workplace requires a team to make things happen, even if it is virtual. Miracles can be achieved when a team believes they can do it. It is important that everyone can work together, building on each other’s strengths in a culture of trust and respect. One person who is determined to undermine this can destroy a good team.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Sensor City will continue to provide budding entrepreneurs, start-ups and established companies with specialist facilities, equipment and expert engineering input that are transferable across a wide range of sectors, to turn their innovative sensor concepts into commercially viable solutions at pace.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Keep learning. The world changes rapidly. What you knew and learnt ten years ago may no longer apply. Be curious, enjoy the area you are in. Be passionate about what you do.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Use your common sense. There is a lot of jargon out there. It can be used by people to boost their egos and to hide behind. I try and cut to the point and find out what it really means for the end customer, or the next stage in the journey. Logic, common sense, asking questions and listening will take you a long way.
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