When Susan Hart makes an entrance she looks much more the marketing guru she is sometimes described as than bluestocking. But while the red lipstick, red coat, shiny shoes and ready charm may suggest high flying executive, she has in fact spent most of her professional life in an ivory tower.
She was the youngest woman to be made a professor in Scotland, when in 1993 she was given a chair in marketing at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and has been Dean of the University of Strathclyde Business School since 2008, as well as a director of a number of international accreditation boards.
She has taught on five continents and is in demand globally as a keynote speaker, a mentor, adviser, thinker and educator. Yet Professor Hart wears her academic credentials lightly; she says her attention span is ‘seriously bad’ and paints herself as a plodder rather than an inspired intellectual.
‘Things didn’t come to me particularly easily at school,’ she says when we meet up at Glasgow’s Gamba seafood restaurant. ‘I was always OK, I was never a genius, I was never a straight ‘A’ student, I had to work and I just got used to it.’
But she ended up in such a scholarly calling. How did that happen?
‘I guess I’m competitive,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to be at the bottom of the class... I
didn’t want to be best – I wasn’t that competitive – but I was sure as hell I didn’t want to be worst.’
Academia might not have been a planned career path, but within a few years of graduating from Strathclyde University in French and Marketing she found herself back there, working on her PhD. Although I’ve just met her, I suspect the seat of learning is very much her natural habitat. I mention ‘product deletion’, the focus of her doctoral research, only to show I’ve done my research, but it’s like lighting the touch paper and she is off, warming to her marketing theme.
‘What I found in my PhD (and I’d love to go back to this) is there’s often a delay between the decision to delete a product and the actual fact of deletion.’
Soon she is on to what makes a product international, and ketchup and mustard, not that she has even thought about lunch yet. She devours marketing books and talks animatedly about Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw. Such reading is ‘restful’, says Susan, ‘because it gets you off the track you are on’, though she does read fiction too and was enjoying J.K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy before she left it behind in a hotel room on one of her many trips abroad.
Gamba, in a quiet basement on West George Street, is filling up with business suits but there is an unhurried calm, both in the discreet service and at our corner table. When the waitress arrives Susan hasn’t looked at the menu but is marvelling about her students and the way they express themselves.
‘The speed with which they scan data and get, from pages of internet content, what they need, and understand that the rest they don’t need – it’s brain processing – is far faster than us.’
She agrees with the common lament among the older generation that students’ writing skills may not be what they once were, but poses the interesting question, ‘what do writing skills tell us about people?’
‘In another 20 years they’ll be the leaders and writing skills won’t have the kudos that you and I give them and should they have the kudos?’
But it was writing to a certain extent that propelled Susan’s career forward, and she is the author or more than 100 articles and papers, numerous books and publications.
She is modest though, and attributes her success to her teachers.
‘I owe my career to two people…one was my first PhD supervisor, a Greek guy who is now the professor of marketing at the Athens School of Economics and Business Science. He taught me a great deal about the academic research process and I worked with him for two years on the deletion process. So he gave me a passion for that kind of enquiry that hadn’t really occurred to me.
‘But the person who really helped me with my career was Michael Baker and he was the founding professor of marketing at Strathclyde University. He just put me into situations that I would never have put myself into.’
She found herself at the age of 29 giving lectures to managers in their 40s. ‘I just used to die inside but I would steel myself to it and I would do it and, hey, I did okay. Michael kept putting good opportunities in front of me and when I would hesitate he’d encourage me.’
By now the wine waiter is hovering and, in the interests of restaurant reviewing I order a glass of the house white, a South African Chenin Blanc from Paarl in the Western Cape.
Susan joins me and I wonder if a bottle would be appropriate. We could always have a second glass, I offer.
‘No, we could not,’ she laughs, ‘I have to work this afternoon.’
It’s not that hard to imagine the professor, softly spoken and convivial as she is, at the lectern in complete command of her postgraduates. She still teaches a few classes on Strathclyde’s esteemed MBA course (the university receives top rankings from the Economist and the Financial Times) but her job is mostly managerial these days, and it often takes her away from Glasgow. While being Dean is her ‘vertical responsibility’, internationalisation is her ‘horizontal responsibility’ and it’s a subject she returns to regularly over lunch.
She has just been re-elected to the board of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and also sits on the European Advisory Committee and Accreditation Panel for AACSB, as well as taking on directorships outside her field – the RSNO until recently and now Yorkhill Children’s Hospital. Management has brought challenges of its own, she admits, and she has had coaching to learn how to motivate people.
‘I think you can get fairly far into academia without having to manage people…you might have a research team but it’s usually quite a small team. You are very autonomous. In industry and commercial situations with bigger teams it’s not what you do but how you do it that makes a difference. When I started paying attention to how I did things I was aware that I hadn’t paid attention to that and I needed to. And in order to accelerate the process I drafted in help.’
Susan says she also took classes in public speaking, many years ago, although a lot of
it was ‘self-help’, watching videos of herself.
‘I would sit in a darkened room. It’s horrible, you see all your habits and irritating mannerisms. I think I concentrate more on the material now. I know how to project my voice, I’ve learnt to do that over the years and I don’t have to consciously think about it now. I probably still have my irritating mannerisms. I speak too fast always.’
More recently, she has picked up breathing techniques from singing classes, which she embarked on because she wanted to be able to stand up and deliver a song (‘it’s not a
I put it to her that it’s a particularly female trait to acknowledge your shortcomings and try to rectify them, but she plays down gender imbalances in the business world. She wrote an article for the Financial Times last November about perceptions of the MBA as a male preserve, and while she says ‘we’re a long way from fifty-fifty’ on any of the boards or committees she sits on, her experience has not been woman-unfriendly, either in academic circles or in her extensive links to the corporate community.
‘I do think there are personality types that don’t necessarily align with gender. I think you can get many very clear, rather loud, rather focused women and some guys in the classes that I teach who are more reticent. I think if we hide behind gender stereotypes we miss the subtleties in what we really need to do in terms of educating a generation of future leaders, which is teaching the value of lots of different perspectives on a problem. So if you have a quiet person – let’s forget their gender – you need to find a way of allowing that
quiet person to speak.’
She does accept that child care, or the lack of it, can hold back women’s careers, although university gave her flexibility when her daughter and son, now 21 and 16, were growing up. She had a nanny but could be home to cook their tea, do their homework with them and put them to bed, after which she would return to her books.
Rearing children has kept Susan in Scotland but with that ‘coming to an end soonish’, would she consider offers outside this country?
‘Oh definitely. It has to be for the right challenge, that’s what would drive me. I don’t want to name schools because then they’d think, oh God, she’s going to phone us! There are a few schools in the wider UK that I think are very good schools that could be stretched a bit further and that’s also true of some locations internationally. At the moment there are lots of possibilities and I haven’t got to the stage of thinking which ones I want to pursue.’
Is she head-hunted on a regular basis then? Yes, she says, I think everyone is. (I assure her this isn’t the case.) Before she leaves for her three o’clock meeting, her fifth (excluding lunch) in a day that began at her desk at 8am and will probably end in the gym. She says
her dream job is somewhere she could make a difference. How about politics?
‘I’m not nearly talented enough. When I listen to politicians they amaze me at how adept they are at thinking on their feet (which I’m terrible at), at how articulate they are.
I’m an addict of the Today programme…
Boris Johnson was on this morning and I was just amazed. I do think what I ended up doing fitted very well with my strengths and weaknesses.’
She firmly believes that whatever the outcome of the independence referendum in September, her job is to promote Strathclyde as an international school.
‘We want to serve the Scottish community but we are an international school with nine other centres and all my students there are important and the communities that they feed are also important.’
But is she in the Yes or the No camp? ‘As the leader of a big institution I have to consider the impact of both results,’ she says, bringing that line of enquiry to a swift close. Academia’s gain is politics’ loss.
Gamba: A haven of flavour in the city
Gamba is an award winning restaurant in Glasgow’s city centre. It specialises in simple seafood cooking and prides itself on using fish direct from sustainable stocks.
Run by Derek Marshall, it has a loyal and loving clientele, judging from the superlatives (‘lip-smacking’, ‘superb’, ‘mouth-watering’) on its website.
The lunch menu is £18 for two courses and wine starts at £21 for a bottle (£6 a glass) of the Lowry’s Pass 2013 Chenin Blanc from South Africa (light, crisp and quaffable), and goes up to £99 for a Puligny Montrachet 2010 (maybe next time).
For her starter, Susan chose the crayfish, prawn and pear cocktail with spiced Marie Rose sauce which, she said, wasn’t too creamy and ‘had a nice kick to it’.
I had Gamba’s fish soup with Portland crabmeat, stem ginger and coriander, flavoursome
This was followed by crisp fried sea bream with shrimp, piquant peppers and lentil salad for Susan (served without goat cheese at her request) and though she said the bream had ‘nice crispy skin’ and the peppers were pleasantly piquant, she confessed she ‘could have done with some carbs’.
I opted for the roasted Loch Duart salmon with orange teriyaki, fragrant rice and wasabi, which was dark and delicious, with a cloying citrus sweetness.
The servings were generous, or perhaps we just talked too much, but the little side dish of broccoli was not really needed. As it was whisked away, Susan summed it up as ‘nice and green with the promise of a crunchiness that did not deliver’.
We passed on the puddings but could have indulged in cherry bakewell with vanilla ice cream, rosemary crème brulee, honeycomb ice cream and chocolate sauce, or Mull cheddar. As it was, the bill came to around £55, a drop in the ocean for such high-class cuisine.
Gamba Restaurant, 225 West George Street, Glasgow, G2 2ND.