C-suite career advice: Russell Haworth, NBS – IDG Connect

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Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? “Early on in my career, I…
What conferences are on your must-attend list? “I love the spirit and content of Security BSides…
What type of CTO are you? “As CTO, the most important thing for me is to make sure I’m creating a…
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? “Jump right in, don’t wait…
Name: Russell Haworth
Company: NBS
Job Title: CEO
Location: Greater Oxford Area
Russell Haworth is NBS CEO, a construction technology platform. He has a proven track record of growing businesses with new products and scaling them internationally with organic growth and via acquisitions. His specialism is optimising the intersect of data, cloud, and machine learning for SaaS products. Haworth’s career includes strategy consultancy, FinTech and Cyber Security where he’s successfully leveraged software, information and data analytics to drive business success. Previously he was CEO of Nominet, the UK internet domain registry and award-winning cyber security business. Beyond the day job, Haworth’s a non-executive board member and tech firm advisor. He’s writing a book on digital leadership with Forbes which is due out later in 2022.
What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Doing something you’re passionate about and take a real interest in your work. There’s lots of career advice you get over your time. But doing something that you enjoy,- and you feel as though you can add value doing it –  is the most important part. If you’re not getting enjoyment from work, that’s the time when you need to reconsider what you’re doing and why. Life is too short to waste time on something you’re not genuinely motivated with.  I like to work in environments that have three ingredients – performance, collaboration and fun.
What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Stick to your knitting, don’t take any risks dogmatically stick to what you know and are comfortable with Sometimes that’s got merit, but often its debilitating.
There’s an analogy I like: in a storm some people take shelter, whilst others build windmills to harness the winds of change. Do you hunker down, or do you look for opportunities and build windmills?
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Don’t get freaked out if you’re not the smartest person in the room, you don’t have to have all the technical chops to build a solid career in technology. There’s no need to be the best coder, it’s about painting a vision and understanding how technology can play a role in that.
At the end of the day, technology is an enabler. So, I think if somebody comes in, and has a bit of imposter syndrome, thinking say… ‘I’m in tech, but I’m not really a techie’, that’s not the way to approach it. What’s needed is mental and cognitive diversity which certainly includes people who’re able to bring creativity and fresh perspectives, to get the most from tech to solve complex.
Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No, not really. I started out early in my career as a computer programmer, and I was terrible! So I thought I was doomed in terms of this as an option and, in fact, was probably more likely going to join the military than I was to go into tech. That said, over the course of my career, I’ve been in strategy consultancy, financial services and cyber security – all of which involves data and software. Serendipitously, data, software, information and technology have converged now.
What was your first job in IT/tech? I had a rotation on the grad trainee scheme at Xerox as an SQL programmer… not my forte. I then moved into management consultancy, and then to work at Thomson Reuters, which provides data to a range of sectors – from financial to legal. During my time there the environment changed, in line with the gradual digitisation of the workplace.
What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? You don’t have to have a really pointy hat to work in tech, there’s a lot of creative thinking. Added to which most technology firms are essentially people businesses and while there are people who come in the morning and cut great code, that’s not everything.  Having strong commercial, sales and marketing skills are critical as it becomes harder to offer unique, customer focused solutions in a much more competitive market.
What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? When it comes to the skill set needed for leadership, you have to be a bit of a Swiss Army Knife, flexible and capable of many things. Added to which you’ve got to be curious about how technology can play a role. What are the dangers of technology? It can be used for good and for ill. So how do you use technology in a way that’s socially and ethically responsible? And, just because you can doesn’t mean to say that you should.
And so if you can deploy software in a way that’s on the right side of the ethical realm is I think that is an important element for any C-level position. Then it’s about making sure that people are inspired and engaged. You’ve always got to think about what to change and adapt as the half-life of technology is short.
What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Not by a long-shot, here at NBS we’re making the built environment and buildings safer and more environmentally sustainable. In the UK we’re really well known for this, and the ambition is to create an organisation that’s globally known for doing something that’s really, really good and internationalise it.
As to future goals, I’d really like to be involved in a business from relatively early beginnings to something that is international and highly scalable, providing really positive solutions for society and customers’ challenges.
Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes, I do, apart from being on a conference call last night at midnight, which lasted till one o’clock in the morning, and up again at 6am (not my normal day!)
While now I do have a good work life balance I didn’t in my earlier years. I learnt to delegate more, I make time to exercise and do stuff with the family. The funny thing is actually you’re better for it. And that’s what I believe for my team as well, which is they’re better at work if they are mentally more engaged. That engagement comes by having time away from work.
I also believe in working really hard. At my heart, I’m a grafter, and I expect others to work hard around me. But I equally think we must reserve time for other areas of life beyond work and part of being in a leadership role is modelling this.
What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? It’s been an enjoyable trip! I’ve travelled around the world and I’ve lived in the US, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, which I think teaches cultural empathy for different societies. Learning how one model doesn’t fit all”
There have been roles where I probably should have changed earlier, looking back in my prior jobs, I tap out after about three years in terms of my enjoyment. I need a change, it can be in the same organisation but doing something different. Looking back I should have changed things up sooner.
Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Well I’ve got neither, but I’d say go for the degree, there’s a lot to be said for total immersion in one topic for a longer amount of time.
How important are specific certifications? It depends on what level you are. As you develop in your career, it becomes more about being able to demonstrate leadership, getting back to my earlier point, you don’t have to have the deep specialisation.  I’m a fellow of the British Computer Association (Chartered Institute for IT), but that doesn’t require coding skills it requires understanding how many of the technology stack – cloud, data, machine learning etc. fit together. Then being able to ask questions to make better decisions to lead teams.
I’m essentially self-taught. My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering, so I didn’t come from a computer science background. But I actually thought this topic interesting enough to teach myself. It’s part of the reason why I’m writing a book on digital leadership at the moment with Forbes, because I’m trying to share some of that knowledge to help others get there quicker.
What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Judgement. They need to have this and be able to demonstrate it. Enthusiasm. Somebody who’s really enthusiastic and really wants to throw themselves into something.  Finally, good values. These are things which again, you can’t teach, they’ve been built up over the years. If you’ve got those three characteristics, you won’t go far wrong.
What would put you off a candidate? Arrogance, on the assumption that they think they’re closed to listening, the inability to think outside the box. A close second is obstinance – not being able to compromise and be adaptable to new ideas or different opinions. Third is being a team player. Being part of a team is contributing but also committing to something you may have reservations about. I often use the phrase ‘you can disagree, but once you say you’re on board, you need to commit.
What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not being prepared. When I go to an interview, I speak to people, I try and do some research. I try and make sure that I really understood what the organisation does. I’ve looked up the people I’m meeting – their backgrounds, shared connections etc.
A small example of this is when I met someone who was trying to look for a job at my company. They asked me what my background was and were genuinely not aware of some of the details of the company or my background. I thought that was lazy and careless. It would have taken two minutes to look at my profile, 10 minutes to look at the company’s website etc. That showed a lack of engagement, a bit of arrogance. Choosing new people is a tremendously important decision and candidates need to take each opportunity as seriously as the next. Take a couple of hours to prep and make sure that you know what you’re talking about.
Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? That depends on the role, but if you’re aspiring for leadership you need to understand the commercials as well as knowing what motivates people. Having both will really stand you apart.
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