Interview with Mark Henderson

To mark our 15th year in business our founder Wayne Reynolds is interviewing a wide range of highly accomplished corporate affairs leaders about their experience and views of the function. This interview is with Mark Henderson who leads corporate affairs at the global foundation, Wellcome Trust.

Bio

Director of Corporate Affairs, Wellcome Trust (current)

Science Editor, The Times (2000 to 2011)

What advice would you give to yourself 15 years ago?

I’d have told myself to get on with making the transition from journalism into Corporate Affairs that I was just starting to think about.

In my experience there are two types of journalists, those who are constructive and those who are destructive. Constructive journalists aim to inform by setting things in context and helping their reader, listener or viewer to better understand a topic over time, with each story building on the previous one. Destructive journalists like to throw rocks and run away. They write the most interesting story they can justify, rather than what they believe is genuinely important, fair, illuminating and true. The media needs both: outlets with all destructive journalists are irresponsible, outlets with all constructive journalists are boring.

Only constructive journalists generally make a successful transition into comms and corporate affairs. I like to think I was a constructive journalist and so the advice I would give to myself 15 years ago is get on with it, make the jump sooner. It took me another three years before I joined Wellcome.

How has corporate affairs changed over the last 15 years, and what do you expect next?

Social media was certainly easier – Twitter was fantastic 15 years ago!

More seriously, trust in institutions and leaders has taken a battering – the global financial crisis, the expenses scandal, Oxfam staff’s exploitation of survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti… it’s a long list – and trust is ultimately the currency of corporate affairs. As a consequence, it has become much more about shaping what the organisation does rather than just what it says. Looking ahead, I think trust will continue to be hard fought for and more CEOs will recognise that they need properly strategic corporate affairs leaders who are able to influence every aspect of the business and help it to be authentic and ultimately, trusted.

What three skills does a modern-day corporate affairs director need?  And if you could pick only one, which would it be and why?

It’s more a mindset than a skill but top of the list for me is being comfortable with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. You need to be able to maintain a calm head and think rationally and dispassionately in challenging times, and comfortable with the idea that there might not be a right answer. Secondly, it’s to prioritise on behalf of the organisation and focus. The late Danny Truell was our Chief Investment Officer when I joined Wellcome, he used to say it’s easier to get six out of ten decisions right than 60 out of 100. He meant focusing on fewer, bigger questions where your level of strategic leadership and experience are likely to have a higher impact on the organisation than spreading yourself too thinly. Finally, being comfortable telling people unpopular things when they are in the best interest of the organisation.

What do you love about the job?

I love the variety, it really can feel like being the minister without portfolio. Over time you get involved in pretty much every area of the business and that gives you a licence to interfere with the best interests of the organisation at heart, although it’s important to use that privilege carefully. And I get a real thrill out of seeing great people develop, grow in their role and go on to do even greater things.

If you didn’t work in corporate affairs, what would you do instead?

I am intrigued by the business opportunities in women’s sport – especially cricket, which I’m very involved in. That would be a very interesting thing to work on.

What was the last book you read?

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad by my former colleague at The Times Danny Finkelstein. It’s outstanding storytelling, brilliantly written, and the history of the Holocaust and the Gulag sadly needs to be told and retold.

What would be your specialist subject on Mastermind?

The original Star Wars trilogy. If I could bring my son with me that would be helpful!

What do you enjoy doing away from the office?

I run girls cricket at Dulwich Cricket Club and coach my daughter’s team. It’s genuinely rewarding to see girls develop as players and enjoy the game, and a properly immersive distraction from work.

If you enjoyed this you may also like Wayne’s interviews with:

Caitlin Hayden, Group Communications Director at BAE Systems

Greg Dawson, Group Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at DS Smith

Lisa Tremble, Chief People, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Officer at British Airways

Matt Ridsdale, Group Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Sky

Rachel Hopcroft, Corporate Affairs Director at KPMG

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22nd May 2024

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