A Conversation with Peter Ashman, previously CEO of BMJ and Chair of ALPSP

Peter Ashman kindly agreed to talk to me about his life, career, and how retirement is treating him. He took the unusual decision of investing in activities outside of publishing since his academic career, rather than consult within the industry. Here we discuss why he made that decision and the highlights and insights he has gained throughout his varied work life.

Peter left school at 16 years old and started in the post room at a media company, subsequently rising to the tough role of selling advertising. Having not attended University, he is unusual in academic publishing industry as in spite of this he was promoted to being CEO of the British Medical Journal. Peter feels proud achieving this role in parallel to being Chair of ALPSP, and looks fondly on his career highlights as a result. Now retired, Peter is working in local radio and is Chair of the Mountain Training Trust in Plas y Brenin, Wales. Both roles seem like fun and dare I say more interesting than continuing to work in publishing as a consultant! His overarching career had a number of unexpected twists and diversions, and he emphasised how resilience and tenacity are pivotal in his path to success. Peter’s recent interview with ALPSP about his leadership experience is below:

So having worked in television advertising sales, compelling large corporates like Walls and Heinz to buy from him. Peter describes ‘burning out’ before being offered another post room role in academic publishing for Current Science. On hearing that Peter had experience in Sales, he was appointed to sell again before moving to the publishing side at The Lancet. I met Peter at BMJ as their Account Manager in HighWire Press, during which period he applied for CEO but was not awarded the role at that time. On reapplying a few years later, he was successfully appointed and credits the synergy between him personally with the organisational readiness for the changes he proposed. The main priority at the time was improving staff motivation and Peter felt this would be achieved by establishing a clarity of direction. When appointed Peter was well known within the organisation but perhaps not known for his views of leadership and company strategy. He decided to meet with each employee to best disseminate his vision, aims, and cultural aims – this involved speaking to around 485 staff for 15 minutes which was a huge investment of time. The conversations were primarily around proposed strategy and his leadership style, all of which were closely linked with the BMJ core values. Peter aligned every decision with the core values and made this clear to every person, ensuring it was clearly understood. This clarified each person’s role internally with the aim of enabling true empowerment of individuals.

Talking to Peter about his leadership style was revealing especially in relation to his overall, people-oriented leadership ethos, where each individual is central to organisational success. The investment of time in interviewing everyone illustrates Peter’s willingness to lead by employing a direct approach to cultural influence. Of course, Peter found there were employees that did not agree with the direction the company was taking under his leadership. He viewed this as inevitable with a large group, and approached the introduction of the new strategy with the requisite hubris 😊. His acceptance that some of his inherited team might leave given their differing views did play out in reality. In discussion we felt the only other option would have been to adjust plans accordingly, which Peter felt would have been contrary to his vision of unanimity around the direction the company was going. Personally, I would have adjusted my plans according to conflicting views but then I’ve never been a CEO! We agreed there is a fine balance between planning cultural change and catering to all tastes.

Needless to say, Peter was in the position of making some people redundant to achieve the goals of the organisation. I asked how he coped with these difficult decisions, and his reply interested me. He said that some people, particularly long-standing employees, actually flourish after redundancy having been liberated by a decision taken by someone else. I’m sure the redundancy package helped some way with this, but if the process is managed kindly and generously without bitterness it can be unexpectedly positive. In the end that person no longer fits the ‘journey’ the organisation is set to take and so Peter does not lose sleep over this type of decision, as long as the right preparation has been made in delivering the overall plan. He felt it’s rare for a company to succeed with unhappy staff, and I recently heard that your culture is illustrated in how your staff feel on a Sunday night before going into work the next day. I wonder how this ‘feeling’ could be captured and incorporated into a company vision. Peter mentioned that the staff engagement figures rose under his leadership, and there was more enthusiasm around fundraising for various charities.

We discussed the up and coming generation into the workplace and the perception by some senior leaders that all they need is a table tennis table and some hanging chairs. For myself, having worked in some companies where the culture really works and others where the culture really doesn’t, I’ve thought long about why this is. The conclusion I’ve come to under Coronavirus especially, is that culture sits with the people who are not involved in the strategy meetings. It’s in the lower tier in terms of hierarchy and the communication with this more junior level is critical for ensuring alignment in company ethos and direction. There is a theory that everyone is replaceable, and this is true except collectively. Everyone is not replaceable at the same time, so if there is a mass exodus within an organisation productivity would grind to a halt. Where I’ve seen this happen, it seemed to be caused by cultural fragmentation, lack of process, too much policy-based enforced change, and not enough listening. To introduce the perception and belief that your organisation is listening, one approach I have experienced was when a senior leader had an open and non-prepared Q&A session with anyone who chose to attend. He was asked many questions and replied honestly and with a level of detail that really impressed me, and left me with a feeling of reassurance that I could believe in the company direction.

Moving on to retirement, Peter openly talked about the deliberate decision not to consult or have any part-time publishing roles. At first, he had no idea what that would mean for him but had previously met someone similar who started work for Plas y Brenin who have multiple centres for mountaineering, mountain biking, and open water swimming. They are iconic in mountain training, partly as local conditions for mountaineers are some of the most extreme. He became a Trustee in early 2020 and stood as Chair in recent months. Peter has not been up a mountain in his life, so was employed for his leadership skills not his mountaineering one! As a hospitality organisation, Covid hit them hard and they are now faced with a rebuild of their business with perfectly matched with his skills. Peter is having fun while also contributing to something entirely new. His love of music has played out in his choice to become a radio DJ, currently playing the golden oldies on Radio Dacorum a charity radio station. The charity helps people with transport to hospitals and meals on wheels for example, so a great entity to be involved with.

Thank you to Peter for your insights in leadership and managing your career. It was great to hear more on your life and career. I wish you all the best for the future.

Kind regards, Ruth

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