Heads Up with Melanie Smith, CEO, NEC Group

Melanie Smith CBE joined the Blackstone portfolio company, the NEC Group in April 2022 and brings over two decades of experience in executive and operational leadership, successfully delivering performance transformations at leading consumer and retail businesses. Most recently, Melanie was the CEO of Ocado Retail, the online grocer and retail company. She previously held senior positions at Marks & Spencer, Bupa, TalkTalk and McKinsey. She is a NED at SSE plc, Deputy Chair at Sadler’s Wells and Founder of the Mokaraka Trust, supporting women’s education in the Māori community.


What does good leadership mean to you?

I have learnt from working with some amazing leaders over my time in business, and I try to focus on these things:
1. Aligning the organisation around a clear strategy, being disciplined about where to play and how to win
2. Prioritise ruthlessly, often taking the tough decisions to STOP things is hard for leaders to do than come up with new ideas
3. Build a strong culture, culture eats strategy for breakfast

What is the best example you have seen of Transformational Leadership?

I had the privilege of working with Graham Mackay who was the CEO of SABMiller through an extraordinary growth phase – taking his business from a small regional brewer to a global powerhouse. He was a man with unrivalled vision who had mentally mapped out all the potential M&A chess moves in an era of rapid global consolidation. He was super smart, a great listener and a lovely man, and I learnt incredible amounts from watching how he led his team (he probably spoke for about 10% of any meeting, but probably started the meeting with 90% of the answer).

What is the most important thing you have learnt in your career so far?

Always, always act with integrity, be honest, and deliver on your commitments. Always!. Life is long, and you inevitably run into the people more than once throughout your career. Treat others how you would like to be treated.

How did you get to where you are today? Did you take a strategic, planned approach to your career or has it been more opportunistic?

From the outside I think my career looks like a random walk….., however, I have made all of my career choices with four criteria in mind
1. Am I going to learn enormous amounts and will it be challenging?
2. Does the organisation do something that is good for the world?
3. Do I like the values of the people I will be working with and for?
4. Will it be fun?
These criteria probably don’t work for everyone, but they do work for me…. The most important is to know what you are optimising for.

Is there anything you wish you’d known when you started your career? And anything you would tell yourself at an earlier stage in your career?

If you grow up where I grew up, you don’t really expect to end up where I have. I spend a lot of time now telling the young women I sponsor through university to raise their aspirations and believe they can get there. In Māori we say – Whāia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koe, me he maunga teitei – which loosely translates to – aim for the sky and at the very least you will summit a lofty mountain. Dream big, anything is possible.

What type of people do you like to work with and what makes them good leaders?

I have learnt over the years to hire diverse teams – diverse in experience, attitude, background and approach.
I am a huge fan of Myers Briggs and Hogans, as it helps me work out where our collective team strengths and weaknesses lie. I love working with curious and tenacious people, who bring their best whole selves to work and have a lot of fun.

What fascinates you about your job?

Live events are fascinating, I lead a business where I delight in seeing the variety of visitors who walk in the door. I run conference centres, exhibition halls and music arenas. Whether visitors are coming for comic-con, a trade fair, e-gaming, a Tom Jones concert, or a cross fit race, they are coming together with their tribe’s to do whatever it is they love. I love hosting people who find so much joy coming together. Every day is different, and I love the variety.

As a leader what skills do you continuously work on to keep you at the top of your game?

It’s not a skill – but patience! I am famously impatient. I also try hard in every situation to remember to try and sit in the other persons shoes…., it always helps me figure out how to get the best out of everyone.

What is the best way to switch off in your free time?

I try and exercise almost every day (running, cycling or weights), but the best way for me to switch off is to pack my tent and food and walk a few hundred kilometres solo across a mountain range with no signal. Scotland, Nepal, the Pyrenees – it’s the best way to disconnect.