You don’t often see an engineer or technical-minded academic in the halls of power. Often, a technical approach doesn’t translate well to politics, but there have been exceptions that have graced the world of leadership. In this episode, we talk to one of these exceptional people as Anne Pratt interviews engineer, scholar and former Chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Lord Alec Broers. Lord Broers discusses his career as an engineer, academic and as Vice Chancellor of The University of Cambridge. He also talks about the need for the development of more technical-minded people in leadership, and reminisces working with The Duke of Edinburgh and meeting Nelson Mandela. Tune in to hear more insightful discussions on leadership.
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A Journey In Technical Leadership with Lord Alec Broers
A Bold Leader on Climate Change, Who Walked The Corridors Of Power and Danced with Mandela
A bold leader joins us from the beautiful ocean State of Rhode Island in the United States of America. He spent twenty years in the private sector in research and development, working for IBM before transitioning into academia initially as a Professor of Engineering and later becoming Vice-Chancellor of the prestigious University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
He has served since 2004 in the House of Lords in the UK Parliament and as the Former President of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom and a member of multiple academies of engineering in China, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Stay with us as we explore his remarkable journey of how he helped the University of Cambridge transition from a focus of pure academic excellence to one that blended with building bridges into the private sector and working with technology companies worldwide.
He has his own transformational leadership experience learning to relate in a different and new way with women in the workplace. He has many special moments with Nelson Mandela and the late Duke of Edinburgh. We warm you welcome, Professor Lord Alec Broers, who has humbly suggested and requested. Welcome to the show.
Alec, it’s such an honor and privilege to be with you. Thank you so much for coming on to this conversation and being with us.
It’s a great pleasure.
You have had such an exciting and diverse career. You spent nineteen years with IBM and spent quite a lot of time in research and development. You became a Professor and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and have served in the House of Lords since 2004. Apart from that, you have many global positions in the world of engineering, serving as a member of various engineering academies in China and Australia and being President of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom. Given these very diverse careers that have converged in many ways, what stands out in terms of leadership in the world for you? What are the biggest challenges facing leaders given this multifaceted background and career that you have had?
As an engineer, the biggest challenge is to harness engineering to tackle the complexity. These problems that we face, like climate change, being the leading candidate, are highly complex matters. They can’t be solved by hand waving and dreaming. It will be a lot of hard graphs, technical stuff, and a bunch of compromises. We are going to have to compromise our way to success. No silver bullets are lying around. We’ve got to harness the brightest in the world to this problem.
In many countries in the world, you don’t have to worry about that because in China, for example, there is politics, but so many of their leaders are engineers. I was a member of their academy. I went and spoke on behalf of the world’s universities during the celebration in the Great Hall of the People for the New Millennium. The people who always lead off when it comes to technical matters are the engineers, then the scientists, and the rest. We need that focus and a cause for the political circus.
One of the issues we have in many places in the world is we’ve got to persuade more people with the knowledge and the training of engineers, more than anybody else, to also become effective politicians. We are not naturally good politicians. We are too impatient. We give up too soon trying to explain the complexities of problems, go off on our own and try to solve them. We have to bring everybody along in these problems because many social issues are technical matters.
You have done that so deftly serving in the House of Lords. You are very astute in taking these complex technical engineering issues, scientific issues, or a combination of topics but being able to lobby and motivate. To those up-and-coming engineers, scientists, and multiple stakeholders, what would you say to those people about the different aspects of leadership they need to harness to have this bigger global conversation?
I have been ridiculed by the Daily Mail amongst others for this. Once, there was a headline when I was Head of Engineering in Cambridge that said, “Professor Broers wants his students to go dancing,” which wasn’t what I said. I told them, “If you are going to be of influence in the world, you’ve got to learn how other people think and what they do.” The easiest way to do that is to get a variety of interests away from your technical engineering interests. If you are a theater and acting society member, be Juliet or one of the heroes of a play. Don’t just do the lights and get yourself a score.If you're going to be of influence in the world, you need to learn how other people think and what they do. The easiest way to do that is to get a variety of interests that are away from your interests. Click To Tweet
Play a musical instrument or do something on the other side because that will broaden your view and make yourself a little more interesting to people. Therefore, have a bit more influence. You have to make some sacrifices to be effective, and I’m not. In the Lords, one thing I have done as the Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee and some other stuff like that was I’m not good at getting in there having lunch and beer with everybody, talking football or whatever you have to do to influence a broad spectrum of people, which politicians have to do.
It’s difficult to train yourself when you have been trying to discipline yourself. You concentrate on a specific issue to resolve a very difficult issue and turn yourself into a more gregarious broad-minded person. You can’t say, “We want more engineers in parliament,” which is almost antithetical to what everybody says. They would say, “I’m so glad that there’s Alec and Robert with two others on the parliament who are research engineers.” We need people who are broad and specifically understand more on the technical side.
People cite that example all the time because, in Britain, you tend to be ridiculed if you can’t remember the key characters in the Shakespeare play. If you don’t understand how a car operates, you almost boast about it. You say, “I’ve got a clue what’s under the car.” That’s the clever thing to say. If you have no idea who Juliet was, “We better take him off to the side and put him with the mildly insane.” It’s an unsolved issue in an awful lot of countries. In France, it’s a little bit clever because they ground that call primarily in engineering schools.
The Chinese are naturally that way. The Germans are quite that way. The Germans solve another problem because they are not purely universities. They have technical colleges. We always regard the apprentice route to being an engineer as the lower route; perhaps it can catch up with professional engineers. In Germany, that’s not the case. They start at the same level and proceed in a slightly different way. If you look on the board of Bosch, Siemens, or someone, you find them all in equal numbers, whereas we tend to say, “We better have some of the technical staff to talk to them in the fundamental era.”
In terms of the current big issues in the world, which can become a change as a substantive one, in these different cultural approaches, which approach do you think is most relevant in dealing with our current challenges around climate change? Is it German, British, or Chinese?
You’ve got a try to take the best and bring them all together. The UK is very good at media issues and presenting things. That can be combined. You need that from the UK, the enthusiasm and drive of the Americans that are unequaled almost anywhere. You need the style of French engineers who are always very interesting people and good leaders. Look around the world’s countries, and you could select those characteristics.
Try to encourage young people. My mission is to encourage young people to see engineering as a creative people-orientated activity, which is not how most people see it. Engineers are famous. One of our oldest jokes is, “Where do you find engineering in the telephone book?” The answer is, “It’s for the boring.”
I dated an engineer at university for many years of my life. He had a wonderful personality, but that sense of adventure wasn’t one of them. He had many fun qualities but tended to be more technical and introspective. To your point, how do you then accomplish that in shaping future leaders with these incredibly important engineering and technical capabilities and galvanizing people to influence?
There is no single best way to lead. You’ve got to adapt your leadership to the environment you are in. You need to be completely different in different environments. It’s like giving lectures. If you are lecturing outside your subject, recognize when you are preaching to your choir and trying to convert people. Look at your audience all the time. Count the number of people walking out the back door, sitting with their arms firmly and forward in their chairs, looking happy. Increase the number.
Could you share with us a practical, concrete example from your earned career background where you have faced a big challenge either in your time at Cambridge University or the House of Lords but perhaps at Cambridge? Was there a concrete, practical example where there was a very difficult challenge you had to manage, diagnose and figure out? What was it? How did you feel at the time? What was the context?
One I would choose is when I became Vice-Chancellor. I didn’t go back to Cambridge to be Vice-Chancellor. I was in America working for IBM for twenty years. I moved back to Cambridge because I was quite senior at IBM. I didn’t want to spend all my time managing, which is what I was doing. I wanted to go back to my research. I felt better at that than I would have been at managing. I was back at Cambridge for about ten years, and I had been having a good time. I went back in 1984. However, by the mid-‘90s, they reviewed the university’s administration and decided to change it.
The Region House governs the university. The Region House is the governing body of the university. It’s the most democratic system you will find. It comprises most academic and academic-related staff in the universities, departments, and colleges. It has 3,000 members. The day-to-day administration is carried out by the university council, which is elected by the Vice-Chancellor and Chairs of that council. In my day, if I received a letter with the signature of 10 out of the 3,000 members disagreeing with a decision that the elected counselor tried to put before the university, we had to hold a referendum of the university with the 3,000 members. It was not very practical. It had to be changed.
Often they had a similar system, but they had changed their number from a very low number, like 10 up, to about 40 or 50 years before. That was my best weapon for trying to change this. Many members of the Region House did not think that was a good idea. They liked this because how would you like to be an electorate in the 3,000 but be given the power of only being 1 of 10 people? If you look at the university or any group of 3,000 people, let alone ones that are brilliant and very high intellect, you will find a few who have come off the rails.
There were always about five disputes with the university about that position and voting against anything the university wanted to do. You only had to have another five, but we had a problem. That was one thing that needed to be changed. Being Vice-Chancellor is not like almost any other position. Nominally, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge boosting in some people’s minds is formally known as the Right Worship for the Vice-Chancellor.
The duke once turned to me when he was the Chancellor of the Duke of Edinburgh and said, “You are not worshipful.” Little I’m a Right Worshipful. He was disputing the technical terms. The Vice-Chancellor is the main administrative office of the university and is elected by the Region House for a period of up to seven years. The Region House has the ultimate authority. The chancellor carries out the day-to-day administration.
For over 500 years up until 1992, the term of Office of the Vice-Chancellor was limited to 1 or 2 years, and the position was part-time. This ensured the person would never grasp the job as a minister could always come and go. The position only became full-time in ‘92 as a result of a committee’s recommendation to review the university’s administration. That committee has recommended a full-time Vice-Chancellor. However, it took a long time.
At the time, David Williams, who was my predecessor as Vice-Chancellor, was coming to the end of a two-year part-time term. Because they didn’t manage to set up the procedure for the international search for a Vice-Chancellor, it was decided as he was doing a good job that, he should continue for another five years and do the position. I’m explaining this because I explained how I ended up accepting this position I didn’t visit myself ever taking. He came to the end of his seven years in ’96.
A committee had been formed to go out and search, but they never found anybody who had applied for the job they seemed to want to appoint. They came to me. I had not applied for that position because I had gone back to Cambridge to do research. The last thing I wanted to do was step into another administrative job level that was huge in breath and very small in authority. I used to say to some of my predecessors as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, “I have the power to smile and frown. The only thing I don’t have any power over is whether anybody was looking at me while I was doing that.”
It’s not like the president of the United States, who has a whole of the big executive authorities that the vice-chancellor has no executive authorities. At the same time, because you are around for quite a long time, you will be a person of influence. They approached me, and the Chairman of that committee was called David Harris, who was a very good friend of mine. He had been Head of the Vice-Chancellors and Principals in the UK and the university’s Vice-Chancellor. He asked me to go and talk to him.
I went to talk to him, and he said, “I’m afraid we haven’t found anybody.” I said, “What are you going to do then?” He said, “I have been asked to talk to you to see if you would consider taking the position.” I said, “I came back to Cambridge to do research. Besides that, I was fundamentally an industrial researcher. I’m not an academic. I don’t think I’m the person for the job.” He said, “The committee seems to think your combination of experiences might be useful to the university.” I said, “The only thing I could do perhaps would be to try and advocate for the university in a more outward-looking position, embracing more in the technical subject industry.”
It was a big transformation for the university. It’s being very academically more inward-focused around academia. That would have been a major transformation strategy for Cambridge.
It was a mixture because Cambridge was famous for its cluster of businesses around and the science parts. They had been doing a lot of this. They were already on the way, but a core of people or the more traditional academics and subjects would look around and say, “Why should we change? We seem to be leading in most of our subjects. We have won more Nobel prizes than anywhere else in the world. Therefore, if it is not broke, don’t change it.”
How did you help them pivot in that mindset? What was the a-ha moment for you that enabled you to help the university make that turn?
This is where we get to the key leadership. I knew I couldn’t be bombastic about this thing. I didn’t have a lot of power to operate. I had to go very slowly, but at the same time, I felt, “I would better make my position known. Otherwise, other people won’t know where I’m coming from.” Officially, this has been done in the Senate House in a short ceremony that’s conducted entirely in Latin, and the vice-chancellor has about 20 or 30 words to say in Latin. I was notorious for failing my Latin exams at school, but I could pronounce the word.You have to make your position known. Otherwise, other people won't know where you’re coming from. Click To Tweet
I organized, with the suggestion of a few of my senior staff and others, a lunch afterward. I invited all the industrial leaders and media people we can find in Britain to Cambridge. I gave a speech that I call Building Bridges. I’ve got up there and laid out my position. I ran for the first and last time to show that I was a person of, if not a considerable breadth, at least some breadth because I was a senior.
The opera imposed by Sandy Goldie, a Professor of Music in Cambridge, was a performance of his opera in the Senate House. After that, the town and everybody decided that there were too many people in the Senate House, which was far too risky. It should never have been done before, but it was an outstanding success.
How did that shift the conversation?
Nobody knew what they were getting, but I was very well aware that there were enough who considerably loved us about having this person. I was seeking a lot of activities but wanted to ensure that I was broad. The engineers might be somewhat disappointed because engineering was the last thing I would start pushing. I wanted to work with the arts and humanities, especially since there was a need for them to raise money. They did that to university buildings, which was interesting. The English faculty and others didn’t have their building. Most of them sat in their college, so we had to go out and help raise money there.
I was also very enthusiastic about a proposal that came along for an institute called CRASSH, which was the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. I helped them find a place to set that thing up and help the enthusiasts get going. That was a huge success. I did almost nothing except show some enthusiasm.
We then had some other things happen that we changed fundraising because I was enthusiastic about the United States. We have to change our United States Group of friends in Cambridge, who are more like a dining society who enjoyed dining with the vice-chancellor after he visited America and went down to a fundraiser. We changed that and formed something called Cambridge in America. In a fundraising effort, we expanded the number of people in the United States. We decided to look for a scholarship scheme because we were jealous of Oxford Rhodes Scholarship.
That was when we got lucky through some of the talented fundraisers, and we found our way into the Gates Foundation. I met Bill Gates in my field. At least he’s a software person, and I’m an electronic person. In the end, after a difficult negotiation, we came up with the Gates Cambridge Scholarship scheme, for which their foundation gave a magnificently generous $220 million. Initially, the foundation in America wanted it only to be American students in Science, Math, and Library Studies. That was a risk on my part. We can’t do that. I said, “That’s not Cambridge. We are all subjects in all countries.”
What enabled you to persuade them to make that transition?
We compromised. I had been asked to be a member of their fundraising group because, to a lot of dont’s, this was an awful idea. The idea of asking people for money in a begging way was apparent to them inherently in the heart. I had also relied on people to request money from them. That’s what they expected that it would be sufficient. We changed that in many people in Cambridge, not myself. Another thing we did was I worked with Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely, who are two entrepreneurs. We formed something called the Cambridge Network.
We were determined that when we came to America, people would always assume when we were talking about Cambridge, we were talking about Massachusetts. One man’s reaction, when he was about to learn the deal for a company and where he was, said, “I’m in Cambridge. We don’t mind working with the East Coast.” He then said, “This is the old Cambridge.”
The potential investor sat back in his chair and said, “That was terrible. What happened to it?” Their vision of the UK was not cutting edge. Knowledgeable people knew Cambridge was very strong in that thing. We want broader, so we formed the Cambridge Network, which embraced all of the companies outside Cambridge and companies all over the world.
That was part of the transformation strategy.
It’s part of a gradual transformation. Gordon Brown wanted MIT to come to Britain and set up a university. We knew people at MIT, so I got involved in that. We came up with something called Cambridge MIT Program, and the executive in the UK gave us another $200 million to do that. Here was the broadening of the outlook. There was still a lot of resistance inside.
One silly little anecdote I tell you is that it would be a bit like a bummer being given the Nobel Peace Prize. To a certain extent, it’s a difficult thing. Cambridge News, which was the local newspaper, named me Businessman of The Year. I said, “That’s not necessarily helpful in this bit of leadership I’m trying to do.” It cemented in some people’s minds that Boris Johnson isn’t a real academic. He’s a businessman. I don’t think anything else I did reflects that.
Did that particular branding work for you or against you in trying to move to the university?
It worked for me for those who are setting up small companies in the university and wanted to expand and do all the rest of it. The PR academics who didn’t agree with all its external stuff thought it was all a matter of intellect and talent, and we have done fine without any of this stuff in the past. It confirmed in their minds that I was going in the wrong direction.
What was the outcome at the end of that transition?
It was a mixed bag because we put proposals. I presume CRASSH was a success. We came with the MIT Program, but it was difficult. It went on and produced a lot of very good research output. We exchanged students getting two universities to work on an equal basis together with difficulty, but it expanded the horizon. It was very useful to me as a transatlantic spirit level, with the good faculties and world-class at Cambridge and MIT.
It was amazing because some of the faculty thought they were top of the world, but MIT didn’t want to work with them, and others were not so highly regarded, but MIT wanted to work. All of this was very useful to the President of MIT. It was Chuck Vest and me, so that was a mixed one. Fundraising in America was not reasonably popular because the people might have worried a little bit about it that you have been bringing resources into the university. Gordon Moore of Moore’s Law gave us another large chunk of money to build a Mathematics library.
When we tried to change the organization of the university to increase the number of people required to call into question and a referendum, it grew. We proposed that there will be five pro-vice-chancellors rather than 2 to assist the vice-chancellor and therefore make the leadership more effective. We wanted external membership on the council and not just members of the university.
Was that approved?
It was in the end, but we did two that go at it. First off, a lot of the things were voted down, and got some of them through. We put it to the region house, and in the end, we got all the ones we wanted. We didn’t get the maximum number. We’ve got 25 up from 10 to 25, but it was not easy. I didn’t want to be too prominent.
All of the reorganizations were under the chairmanship of somebody else, one of the senior academics. All of these major things reform all in with other academics. That’s one of the key things in leadership. If you think you’ve got to do everything because you are better than other people that are going to do things for you, if you want to pull up something significant, you can’t do it.If you want to build up something significant, you can't do it by yourself. All of these major things reform all in with other academics. That's one of the key things in leadership. Click To Tweet
You made some pretty significant changes. Part of the leadership lesson is that sometimes, one has to take this through in bits and pieces. If you don’t succeed the first time, you go back again. During your wonderful life, you have had the great privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela on 2 or 3 occasions. Could you take us back to a moment in time when that stands out? What was the situation? What impact did he make?
He was always a role model for so many people, especially with him. I met him in several completely different contexts. I met him in person twice. I was in and around him at other times. They came at about the same time. I first met him in the context of the Peace Parks Project he was doing with Anton Rupert Group. I had been on the board of Vodafone, and I chaired the charity that Vodafone had set up. It was the academic on the board. We made that an international charity. One of the things we chose to give quite a lot of money was this Peace Park Project. We had contacts in South Africa as well.
Can you briefly tell us what that project of Vodafone is?
This project was something that Nelson Mandela and Anton Group got together to build a Kruger National Park where you could go and look at animals in their natural environment but do it on the borders between two countries. The first one that was quite a success was on the border between Mozambique and South Africa. We set up those parks with many small hostels or hotels so the local people could work in them. You’ve got quite a lot of employment generated.
You would have those perhaps with twelve rooms or something for guests and have a number of those over the park. You employed the locals and the whole buildup of business. Tourists would come in. You look after them and take them around in a very carefully considered way to look at the animals in their natural environment, and the animals would be trying not to be troubled. It was amazing. Mary and I were invited out and spent 2 or 3 days on this one between South Africa and Mozambique. When you were in a Land Rover, the animals took no notice of you. I had to go for a walk with one of the rangers, who had to be a marksman. We took a big run and ran into the wrong animal at the wrong time.
Mandela was very keen to take the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. That was one of his aims. I don’t know whether that has ever been done. This project was quite difficult. There’s a beautiful idea that I have not followed. There were problems because the lions in Madison Peak had tuberculosis. That’s the problem you didn’t want too many coming across the board.
We went and stayed at Anton Rupert’s house and had dinner in Cape Town. Nelson came and was called by them to that dinner. There was a mistake made at the dinner because, at that stage, he was getting quite frail and was not prepared to climb the 2 or 3 sets of stairs to get up to the upper level where they were going to have the dinner.
He declined and said, “I can’t do that.” He spoke to everybody downstairs. The thing I saw then was charisma and the immense dignity that he carried. The thing that impressed me was the human in the low-key way in which he did something. He didn’t give great bombastic speeches. The voice was filled with authority, but it was not a loud voice. Many politicians worldwide have to shout out to you all the time, but that was not his way of doing things.
Initially, many universities gave him a series of honorary degrees at Buckingham Palace. That was a huge event, and a lot of people were there. It was an excellent way. As you pointed out when we talked, it showed the Queen’s special liking and relationship with Mandela. It was a way of how he was going to go around Britain and collect all the honorary degrees. It was eight universities that gave him an honorary degree at Buckingham palace.
After that, he came to Cambridge in a slightly different light and was given an honorary fellowship by a friend of mine, John Gurdon, a physiologist who won the Nobel Prize. He was the first person in the world that clone animals, stem cells, and everything. He was one of these other fundamental biologists who looked at how everything was created.
We were seated on either side of Mandela at a college lunch. Unlike many colleges in Cambridge, they had a very good choir. The choir rehearsed and learned many lilting, rhythmic South African songs and music. They started singing the songs, and Nelson Mandela was sitting then. He could not resist it. He got up and started dancing.
He’s dancing around, looking very happy, and singing along. He’s very human and likable. We were there slipping and clapping with him, and he wouldn’t let us do that. He grabbed us by the arm, stood us up, and made us dance as well. I don’t think we did this as naturally as well as he did. We were wearing formal gowns and silk because it was a formal occasion.
There was somebody there who it got him into CNN’s hands and went around the world for a few minutes on the news that was spotted by several of my friends around the world, who had one of the best laughs they have ever had that the contrast between ours and other stick in the set. It was another example of his humanity. Underneath that was steely strength that came through somehow.
It influenced me by taking obligations where I had to go around making loud, inspiring speeches all the time. I wanted people to know what I thought would be the right thing to do, but I never went off because it was an academic environment. While there were difficulties, they were ten times less than the difficulties that Nelson Mandela had dealt with effectively without being the pushy bombastic politician.
That shaped how you exercise your leadership.
To the extent, yes. I was in a different environment.
What did you change as a result of that?
I didn’t want to try and lead in a strident way, which wouldn’t have been appropriate anyway. I suppose it reinforced. If Mandela could get the huge changes accomplished of why he did it, then it was an appropriate way to learn a lot from even to do much easier things like social persuasion, which I wasn’t trained to do as a child.
Your opera was another wonderful example of changing the game’s rules and bringing in more social engagement where people can relax and relate differently.
The only thing about my career was that I was ill-prepared for the position. I always look back and think if I have observed some of these a bit earlier, I could have accomplished much more than I did. That’s another lesson to that. If you are going to take on, you can train people to believe.
A lot of people say, “You can’t. You are either a natural or not.” I don’t agree with that at all. The worst thing to do is to think you have great leadership. That’s probably a flaw when you start. The English system and academic systems were pretty ruthless on that. If you wanted to do a job in the UK, you would likely not get it. That was one of the balances between America because you had to change your attitude. In America, people behave that way. You’ve got to say, “I have to have this job. I’m the best person in the world. I can do it better than anybody else can.”
It’s a different cultural approach. The point you are making is such an important point. How we need to adapt to these different cultures in terms of how we present and engage ourselves depends on our audience, which takes me to another question. You had such an interesting multicultural young life.
You were born in Calcutta in India, then your family moved to Australia, then across to the UK, and came back to Australia. You have lived in these different parts of the world. Can you think of a defining moment in your own life, perhaps a crucible or something that was difficult along that journey? When and what was that?
I had a successful career as a research engineer and became an IBM Fellow. At the time, there were 40 fellows at IBM. There were 400,000 employees at IBM and about 50,000 research and development engineers. That was a rather special position. When I was made an IBM Fellow, I knew my life had changed. IBM was quite an astringent place like Cambridge. It’s not an easy place.
An anecdote I would tell is we had a Nobel Laureate, Leo Esaki, in the IBM research lab. I remember 3 or 4 years after he got his Nobel Prize, he was standing by the coffee cart when one of the senior technicians came up to him and said, “How are you?” He said, “I’m fine.” The technician said, “What have you done lately that’s good?” When you made an IBM Fellow that was only 1 or 2 made a year with a big ceremony in the world, see it was there and all the rest.
Your responsibility was only to write to the company’s chairman once a year and tell him what you did and had done during the year. That’s all he wanted to know. You didn’t have to report to anybody. You had the right to do whatever you wanted. It was the best job in the world in many ways for a creative engineer. Somehow in the IBM environment, I could relax into that pure research mode I did for five years, but then I saw what was happening up in the semiconductor factory, and I thought they should change a few things.
I was baited by the person in charge of it and said, “Why don’t you put in actions where your mouth is, come and work up here, and help do some of these things?” That’s how it got me into more senior management. I didn’t find that I wanted to do that. Somebody who had been given every privilege in the company, I could do anything I wanted. It was for five years, but it could have extended beyond that.
I decided that it wasn’t what I wanted to do because I wanted to get away from the business pressures, financial pressures, and the rest of it. I wanted to be a researcher again, so I returned to Cambridge. IBM didn’t understand that. The senior manager in the company interviewed me before I went and explained why I was going back, taking an eight-time cut in salary.
I said, “I don’t know. I want the freedom to do research. I also liked the idea of trying to teach young people some of the things I have learned.” After I returned, IBM tried to say, “You are an IBM Fellow. Go back to Cambridge on your full salary. Get this midlife crisis over, and then you can return to IBM again.” I said, “I have loved IBM. It was a marvelous and well-managed company. I enjoyed every minute of it, but I wanted that freedom.”
My father had said, “If you travel somewhere and you want to get the true benefit of another country, we’ve got to pretend you get to live in that country for the rest of your life. You can’t be going there for two years and coming back. Your actions have to be that of a resident of that country.” That’s what we have done and why I’ve got on pretty well in America: we didn’t save money and built with the idea of going back to England. We led a pretty full life and had a good American-style life.
When I returned to England, I said, “I can’t go back on this massive salary to England. I won’t be like any of the other people in Cambridge. I can’t do it.” That was a difficult decision. I began to wonder because I did cheat in some ways. I did have a letter from the CEO of IBM saying, “If for any reason in the next three years you feel you would like to return to IBM, you can return and have all the jobs that you had.”
What helped you come to terms with that decision?
We’ve got a machine making slightly smaller structures than anybody had ever made. We were doing a few things. What’s high in my creative engineer is when you slave away building a huge new bit of equipment, you turn it on, and it doesn’t work because it never does. You start to look and find out why it doesn’t work. You make it work, and then you make it work better than anybody else. When I was building these microscopes, I suddenly saw things in a way that nobody else had ever seen before. That’s going into space. That’s high and what got me through it.
I would love to ask for a couple of more fun and personal things. What was your favorite childhood memory?
When I was in Sydney, having left India at the age of three, my father gave me a little torch battery, a bulb out of charge, and a bit of wire. He said, “If you held one end of the wire on the bottom of the battery and put the bottom of the bulb on the top, the light goes on.” I went to the bottom of my bag. It was my first circuit. I knew precisely how a torch worked at the age of three. By the time I was ten, I had trouble at boarding school because I inevitably made the crystal set. Dad helped me go out and buy an electronic valve and amplify the output of that crystal sets. That’s why I loved that stuff so much.
What is your most memorable moment in the House of Lords?
The House of Lords is quite a boring place to be in. I’m not a good politician. On a couple of occasions, we have managed to be a big influence in keeping the nation’s interest and operating nuclear power. Without nuclear power, we are never going to be carbon-free in 2050. I don’t care what the dreamers say. Nuclear power is carbon-free.Without nuclear power, we're never going to be carbon-free in 2050. It doesn't matter what the dreamers say. Click To Tweet
Some people say, “There’s all that carbon emitted when you build a plant.” There’s carbon when you build a wind turbine; a nuclear plant is equivalent to about 10,000 you could get from the largest wind turbines. We’ve got to balance these things. A few things where we persuaded the country to keep going on things like that.
You can speak in a few debates you never know, but I have never taken a great big thing through parliament. I have introduced a few amendments and got them through. There are a lot of people in the Lords. It’s a powerful place. To be a real star in the Lords, you’ve got to be a good politician and an expert. Lawyers tend to rule over. My mother always said, “You should be a lawyer.” I used to say, “Why?” It’s argumentative. I like building things rather than arguing with people.
You had a very close friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh, the late Prince Phillip. What is least known about him that you truly admired?
I liked the duke because he was very straightforward. What you see is what you get. He was a lot of fun and had a fantastic sense of humor. I’ve got many pictures of him, and we always laugh at something. The thing I liked was he was never dull. He understood things and listened very interestingly. He would challenge, but he would listen. Not everybody is a good listener. Mandela was a good listener, too. The duke would stop and listen. That was bad for him because if he decided you were talking to a bunch of rubbish, he would take a big pin and stick it right in you.
He got fed up with the Chinese and the young people in Beijing. There are some things he shouldn’t tell them, I’m not going to repeat what he said, but on several occasions, he says things that make you want to pass out. Some things were semi-inappropriate, but they were always on target in many ways. He was a man of his generation. It’s difficult for the modern generation. He modernized himself pretty well, in my mind. I was a great admirer of the way he kept up with things. He was still coming to meetings of what called us Smeatonians, which is the oldest dining society for engineers named after Smeaton, who built all the lighthouses around and founded in 1775.
The Duke of Edinburgh was the oldest member of the Smeatonians for sixteen years. He came to these meetings, and we used to debate entrepreneurship issues or whether it was different technologies. He was right in front of his chair, arguing and discussing these things. He’s occasionally saying things that were of his generation. We said, “You can’t say that anymore.” He would understand that, but we are all like that. The House of Lords was forced into taking a course on interactions. Some of my noble colleagues were very indignant about this whole thing.
I thought, “It was a load of rubbish. Why should they be taught these things?” One of the things they highlighted was that many of us had to learn, and I learned it up in Cambridge because my successor, Alison Richard, did not think it was a good idea but because I recognized that I was bad at it. I’ve got these 6 or 7 of the most senior women academics to form a little group that would come and tell me things when I was doing it wrong or what I should do because I recognized that I was not good at understanding their point of view.
Allison Richard immediately dismissed that committee, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate for her to have had a committee of men. One thing we were taught in this course that I felt rather useful was that you do not refer to women over the age of fourteen as girls. I have taken that onboard because it had been told to me in earlier days that you did not refer to the girls in the office. The duke was remarkable that he didn’t fall into that trap very often. He was still coming through our discussions at ‘96.
Do you miss him?
I do. I used to try things out on him when he used to try things out on me and be very frank about things. When he came to Cambridge, he came to see the university, but when the royal visited a county, normally, the official people had to see him. He didn’t like these officials when it came to Cambridge. On one occasion, I remember him looking at the most senior Cambridge official and saying, “Tell them that I come to the university.”
I said, “You better not say that because it’s not going down well. This person is very helpful to the university.” The duke and the queen were quite remarkable and different. That’s why they were complimentary. She was all well in tech and everything, and he was all bright intelligence. They relied on each other.
They had a wonderful partnership for many years, and that’s remarkable. They have a legacy that they co-created and created independently. Any final thoughts about the future of leadership? Do you have any ideas about what Nelson Mandela would say to the up-and-coming leaders?
I would say to the trainers of leaders to find people who are good technical minds more than historically traditional ways looking for leaders. If you are a Harvard, Cambridge, Wharton, or something, be proactive in finding young people with obvious technical brilliance and teaching them leadership because that’s what the world needs.
Lord Alec Broers, it’s so wonderful to spend time with you. It’s a great privilege and honor to have a wonderful dinner with you and your wife, Mary. We wish you well as you travel across the Atlantic and have a safe journey back to the United Kingdom. Thank you so much for being with us and having this conversation. I look forward to our ongoing discussions.
Thank you for pulling me into these things. I’m a bit reluctant. It has been a conversation I have enjoyed a lot. I like what you are doing in trying to use Mandela as an example of leadership.
Thank you so much. We will talk again.
As we reflect upon our conversation with Sir Alec Broers today, I’m energized and inspired by his remarkable vulnerability, teachability, and adaptability. How many of us have the same boldness and courage to invite a group of critics of people who don’t necessarily like what we do or how we do it? Invite inner circle and ask them for honest, candid, authentic feedback like he did with the woman at Cambridge when he was Vice Chancellor of the university.
I’m also struck by his connection between the arts and sciences, and how different this world may be if we develop our young engineers and scientists to understand more of the arts. For the rest of us who are not scientists, and for the artists, how much better would this world be if we too immerse ourselves and learn more about the sciences?
Climate change is such an overwhelming challenge for all of us. This presents a whole new different opportunity. It was Albert Einstein who once said that the arts and science are branches on the same tree, and all great scientists are all great artists too. We know that bold leadership is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Leading boldly is about taking bold action just one small step at a time. One small step for you, but together, one giant step for humanity. Until next time, take care and take bold action.
About Lord Alec Broers
Alec Broers played a significant role in the University of Cambridge’s rise as a major economic force and center of excellence for high technology and was vice-chancellor between 1996 and 2003. He has always expressed strong views about the role of engineers in society, considering that any artificial barrier between engineering and the rest of science is just as damaging as the perceived division between the arts and sciences. He sees engineering and science as two sides of the same coin and believes the Royal Academy of Engineering is ideally placed to drive home this message.
Lord Broers spent nearly 20 years of his career in research with IBM in the USA, working at the Thomas J Watson Research Centre in New York, the East Fishkill Development Laboratory, and at Corporate Headquarters. When he arrived back in Cambridge, Lord Broers set up a nanofabrication laboratory to extend the miniaturization technology to the atomic scale. He also developed his research on using electrons, X-rays, and ultraviolet light in microscopy and on making microelectronic components.
Lord Broers has served on numerous national and international committees, including the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Foresight Panel on Information Technology, and the NATO Special Panel on Nanoscience, and was a member of the government’s Council for Science and Technology. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1986, to the Academy in 1985, and became a Foreign Member of the US National Academy of Engineering in 1994. He is on the Board of Directors of Vodafone and RJ Mears LLC. In March 2004, he joined the Board of Plastic Logic as Non-executive Chairman and became Chairman of the Uk Parliament House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in December of the same year.
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