Catherine McWilliam is Nations Director of the Institute of Directors Scotland (IoD).  IoD Scotland is dedicated to assisting its members and the Scottish economy in dealing with the challenges that affect every sector and size of organisation. Dr. Julie McElroy, the winner of IoD Scotland Director of the Year Awards 2021 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion category, writes about Catherine’s leadership journey ahead of IoD Scotland Directors’ 2023 Awards.     

Catherine McWilliam’s background stemmed working from public affairs to marketing in a Silicon Valley PR firm, from growing up in Stranraer to moving to Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh where her managerial and leadership positions continue to flourish. She talks candidly about how she navigated her career to become the director of IoD Scotland. She says: ‘I graduated from Queen Margaret University in 2010 with an Honours Degree in Public Relations & Marketing, but found myself in that familiar position that whilst I might have had the qualification, I didn’t have the experience that would let me get a job that would cover the rent to start in Edinburgh. I moved back home to Stranraer and worked for the council delivering a community engagement project and saved up for my next move.’ She sought her next move on a global scale when she travelled to San Francisco. She says: ‘I did an internship with a PR agency out there. This was in 2012 right when Apple launched the iPhone 5 and many of the clients that I was working with were involved in app and accessory development. It was absolutely fascinating and set the course for my career. On my return to Edinburgh in December 2012, I was offered a position in a PR agency called Orbit Communications and many of my initial clients there were commercial wind farm developers, allowing me to fine tune my PR skills and building upon my community and wider stakeholder engagement experience that the local council role had started. My initial role at the IoD came about by accident. I literally clicked a button on LinkedIn and was chuffed to bits to find that the recruiters just started to come to me. One recruiter piqued my interest. She really took the time to understand me and what made me tick and then got in touch with this role that once again, it sounded like it had been made for me. The key aspect was membership engagement and supporting people to really benefit from their professional membership … Before I even knew what the organisation was, I knew I wanted to the role. The icing on the cake then came when I discovered that I would get to work with Louise Macdonald, a leader I had admired and been following since my agency days. When I heard that I had an interview, I knew that I really wanted the role.’

Catherine joined the IoD Scotland at a time when a pretty fundamental transformation was taking place. The organisation was consciously looking to move away from historic perceptions that we were an old-fashioned exclusive boys club and it felt important to me to be part of that transformation. She says: ‘If I’m being really honest, the opportunity to step into the Nations Director role came before I felt that I was ready for it. I remember chatting with my family about the opportunity and they were all really encouraging about going for it, but I definitely had the beginnings of imposter syndrome and felt like I hadn’t established myself enough with our membership to have the credibility that I felt I needed.’

Scotland and the world have evolved over the last three years. People have found themselves as a result of this new shift in working habits, allowing them to pursue new opportunities in how and where they work. This has been reiterated by Catherine, she says: ‘I stepped into this role in what was and continues to be a really challenging time for our members. The word of 2022 was ‘permacrisis’ and a lot of IoD members can attest to that. The uncertainty that sits with business leaders just now is quite unlike anything that has come before and in Scotland, we are into almost a decade of change an uncertainty thanks to things like COVID, the energy cost crisis, and Brexit.’

As a result of the changes in COVID-19 over the previous eighteen months, many organisations have been forced to drastically alter their methods of operation or even rework their business models. According to the modern approach, organisations have been shaped by both internal and external influences. Changes in the workplace have had an impact on various aspects of interdependent management. Because of the pandemic’s impact, organisations have become mutually constitutive. Catherine has only been IoD Scotland’s director for less than a year and she this is what she wants to achieve. She says: ‘My ultimate aim in this role is to increase the visibility and awareness of the IoD in Scotland, growing our membership and positioning the organisation as the go-to membership organisation for Scotland’s leaders across the private, public and third sectors.’

Meanwhile, IoD Scotland has undergone change in the last three years internally. However, Catherine points out IoD nationally has changed over the last few years. She says: ‘The IoD across the UK has gone through a pretty transformative process and Scotland is no different. My plan is to be authentic, transparent and consistent. I feel that if I do that, it will help to build trust and relationships with our members and wider stakeholders’.

Organisational culture has shifted dramatically in the last 21 months, as well as how the future of work will influence how we operate. The culture of an organisation, as defined by its values and beliefs, can have a significant impact on how people behave and go about their jobs. With these changes, is that a good thing as IoD Scotland seems committed to improving equality, diversity and inclusion amongst it members. Catherine is absolute in resolute about the wave of diversity emerging in Scotland. She says ‘Scotland has such a rich and diverse landscape of leaders and its very important that the IoD’s membership reflects that. Time and time again it has been proven that diversity of thought and voice make organisations more profitable and more desirable to work with and for. The IoD’s membership is no exception. The more inclusive and equitable that we can make our membership, the better the quality of the connections, collaborations and partnerships that we can deliver.’

The society gradually moving forward into post COVID-19 era. Catherine indicates: ‘Some of the biggest challenges are in adapting to the ongoing geopolitical turbulence and doing business on the back of Brexit and 2022’s cost of doing business crisis. Many of Scotland’s SMEs are fighting hard to survive at the moment and the next 18-24 months will continue to be tough as we continue to adapt to another ‘new normal’. One of the biggest issues right now is access to talent and skills. Unemployment continues to be low and many of our members report that they are struggling to find people with the right skills to fill their vacant positions’.

Scotland has a unique opportunity to grow extraordinary leadership opportunities across all sectors and disciplinary field with Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman and longest serving First Minister of Scotland who recently stepped down. Even more so with Humza Yousef who became the first Muslim and youngest First Minister to do so. Even still, society still has a long way to encourage those from marginalised background to foster a leadership career. Scotland can play its role in nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurship, non-executive leadership positions and leadership across all sectors. Catherine says: ‘I feel that we need to create the conditions and opportunities for people to come together, connect and have these conversations. The more awareness and engagement that we can create, the bigger the network and community that we can cultivate. Our members have so much lived experience and insight that they are only too willing to share, so I want to, through our local branches, create and deliver those opportunities for that to happen and inspire the next generation of leaders.’

Nowadays, recognising cultural diversity within organisations is critical to cultural diversity management. Employers hire people within organisations to help them meet the needs of the clients or customers they serve. The people who bring a wealth of expertise to build resources in the organisation are the foundation of an organisation’s cultural diversity. Adopting a multicultural mindset allows a company to put its employees’ knowledge, skills, commitment, and energy to the test in order to achieve positive organisational outcomes. IoD Scotland are working hard to ensure organisations are working towards a fairer Scotland. Catherine says ‘We’re working hard to ensure that Equality Diversity Inclusion (EDI) principles are embedded in our thinking and therefore everything that we do as IoD Scotland. By doing so, we are creating spaces and places for our members and stakeholders to have those sometimes uncomfortable but necessary conversations to help us really shift the dial and take EDI, sustainability and fair work principles from tick box, siloed exercises to being embedded in the DNA of Scotland’s businesses and organisations.’

Scotland is a breeding ground for different leadership style to trailed in addressing the nation’s challenges. By working together to share a collective vision to foster innovation for Scotland’s prosperity in a new era of change, sustainability and diversity. It is clear that IoD Scotland wants to ensure that the organisation showcases a leadership that is cooperative, political neutral, and participative that provides direction, energy, and critical engagement on issues that are deemed important to its members and society.’


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