Thank you to Lucy Yu for taking the time to reflect upon experiences as a female leader, both positive and negative, for International Women’s Day, a day we champion 365 days a year. Lucy is a non-executive board member at Connected Places Catapult, the UK’s innovation accelerator for cities; and at E3G, a leading global think tank for environmental influence.
As well as her non-executive roles, Lucy is CEO at Centre for Net Zero, Octopus Energy’s not-for-profit research unit leading research to make the future energy system a reality. She has two decades of experience building tech ventures and developing tech policy and regulation for governments around the world. Her work has focused on sustainability and renewable energy; future mobility and the built environment; artificial intelligence; open data and open source; and regulating emerging technologies.
What has shaped your leadership career and your focus on Net Zero, energy and sustainability?
I never entered the workplace thinking that I wanted to lead organisations or sit on boards, but I have known for a long time that my personal values place a high emphasis on freedom, autonomy, learning, innovation, and change. I think people who place high importance on those things are naturally more likely to gravitate towards leadership positions, especially in mission-driven organisations.
I’ve also spent a lot of time working in the tech industry. In tech there’s a real ‘cult of the leader’. I don’t think that’s always healthy but it does cause one to reflect on how the approach and success of an organisation can be radically influenced by the ambition and character of the person leading it. It’s helped me to understand how I can use my own style and approach to vision-build and get buy-in for ideas and projects that might not otherwise have got off the ground.
The environmental focus of my work is something that’s probably been a long time coming. I’ve been interested and engaged in climate and sustainability issues on a personal level for many years, but hadn’t previously found myself in the right place and time to pursue those interests more directly on a professional level. There’s much more awareness and action around these topics in all sectors now, so there are many more professional opportunities than before.
What positive influences have helped on that journey?
A lot of people have been generous with their time along the way. As a young civil servant the Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development made time to meet me for occasional mentoring sessions, and several others in senior roles in government and in industry have also done so over the years. When you are early in your career the gap between you and the most senior roles might seem too large for these sorts of arrangements to be of much practical consequence. But in my experience if even ten percent of the conversation gives you some encouragement or something to learn from and apply in your day to day work, then collectively they can add up to very valuable counsel. Now that I am further along in my own career I try to return the favour by mentoring others myself, or just meeting for a coffee and a chat.
What difference can/do you make as a NED vs your Executive role?
When I talk to others about the role of a NED it’s clear that some people think we exist to go into an organisation and point out all the things the exec team is doing wrong! But I think those sorts of boards are the exception rather than the rule. Many boards are more collegiate in nature – it’s about helping the exec team to find the right approaches and come to their own answers, not telling them what to do. Because I have worked with such a wide variety of organisations I’m able to look at a situation from a range of perspectives and draw on a large bank of experience to help organisations navigate the challenges and opportunities in front of them and see connections and possibilities that others might not.
Being on the board of other organisations also helps me think through some of the challenges I might be facing in my own exec role. Sometimes I find myself thinking about an issue at work and considering what advice I might give to myself as a NED!
What are your current priorities in your day job?
Centre for Net Zero will double in size over the next six to twelve months – so a short term priority is to find the right people and integrate them into the organisation effectively. But beyond that and more strategically, I’m deeply focused on finding the levers that can unlock dramatic system change, for us to push on as a team. People join mission-driven organisations because they want to make a difference. It’s not always as straightforward to measure that sort of impact as it might be to measure sales or customer growth in a regular business context, but it’s by no means impossible. Finding the right things to focus on is critical.
Other than that, I don’t like to sit still. I’ve read a lot of the work of Clayton Christensen and others who study disruptive innovation. People are used to considering his theories in the context of startups and commercial enterprises, but I think they’re equally valid for other types of organisation – if you don’t continue to innovate then you risk becoming less relevant. The world moves so quickly and our particular focus at Centre for Net Zero (the transition to future energy systems) is the subject of so much global attention and interest that we need to be ready and responsive to make changes to the ways we operate. So I always have an unofficial priority to keep these things turning over in my mind and make sure we’re injecting fresh thinking as we go along.
Why is it still important to raise the profile of women in leadership?
A couple of years ago a friend sent me a copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘cli-fi’ (climate fiction) blockbuster, The Ministry for the Future. I rarely read fiction but he told me this was one of Barack Obama’s favourite books, so I was intrigued. I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t read it, but the title of the novel refers to a body established under the Paris Agreement whose role is to act as an advocate for future (unborn) generations as if their rights are as valid as those of the present generation.
I love this idea of creating a mechanism to give a voice around the table for those who are unable to represent themselves. In this case it’s future generations but of course most of us realise that we have a long way to go yet before we adequately represent everyone in today’s world. There are still so many moments in which women are disproportionately more likely than men to drop out of the workplace – raising young children; caring for elderly parents; and during the menopause – and these can often coincide with the point at which those same women are beginning to move into important leadership roles.
Without more women in leadership our voices might not be adequately heard, and a lack of visible female role models risks perpetuating the situation when it comes to younger women looking at the path ahead. I’ve huge admiration for the Octopus Energy Group in this regard – there are many women leaders across the group who are highly visible both in and outside their respective organisations. It’s a privilege to be part of an organisation leading the charge to a clean energy future and doing so with so many women leaders.