Sir John Parker

Book review: ‘The View from the Bridge: An Industrial Journey’

Image credit: Wikimedia/Mike Abrahams

Sir John Parker reflects on the challenges of a career at the top, in the hope of inspiring UK engineering’s next generation of business leaders.

“There are many textbooks on management and leadership. This is not intended to be another one.”

Sir John Parker is perhaps a little disingenuous when he prefaces his autobiography with a caveat that almost risks underselling what follows. In fact, ‘The View from the Bridge: An Industrial Journey’ (Endeavour Quill, £20, ISBN 9781911445791) delivers much more than just another guide to leadership, by illustrating first-hand what life is really like at the most senior levels of global industry, including the lessons learned in a long and varied career. It’s a great example of why the advice so often given to aspiring authors to ‘show, not tell’, often works just as well in non-fiction as it does in a novel.

Publicity makes the claim that Sir John is Britain’s “most senior industrialist”. An ambitious boast, but one that his wealth of experience in leading businesses – both in terms of the diversity of the companies he has run and the range of issues he has had to address – makes it hard to dispute.

The story starts on his father’s farm in the Slievenaman Valley in County Down, Northern Ireland, where, as he admits, many of the values that were to serve him so well in his career were embedded. “As I grew up, I learned the importance of hard work, integrity, respect for others, managing your time and focusing on priorities.”

Few would argue with the virtue of any of those qualities in any area of work. What’s interesting here though is how they’ve proved particularly useful in the engineering sector.

Far from being pitched as a rags-to-riches tale, this is a straightforward story that illustrates how the current enthusiasm for alternatives to the familiar school then university route into the profession is far from new. Having attended the then Belfast College of Technology in 1958, 17-year-old Parker joined Harland and Wolff as an apprentice naval architect, later progressing to Queen's University Belfast where he was awarded an honorary DSc degree in mechanical engineering and naval architecture.

It was the beginning of a career that saw him chair five FTSE 100 companies, including National Grid plc, and hold senior board positions in leading global businesses.

As a consequence, Parker has lived through some of the most interesting times in British industrial history, having dealt at the highest level with every British government since the late 1970s, not to mention chairing the Court of the Bank of England during the financial crisis. A past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, he was a member of the first UK Prime Minister’s Business Council and has led several inquiries for the government, most recently into the wide-ranging topics of boardroom diversity and naval shipbuilding.

Distilled in ‘The View from the Bridge’ is a lifetime’s experience of corporate turnarounds, takeover battles, mergers and acquisitions. As well as laying out the principles and practices covering the highly topical issues of corporate governance and boardroom management, it provides deep insight into Britain’s manufacturing and energy industries.

Parker has said that the aim of writing this book is to inform and inspire both those who currently hold positions of leadership in business and the many thousands more who will be the leaders of tomorrow. “My hope is that aspiring business leaders may find some inspiration and value from the experiences on this particular journey,” he tells readers.

So not just another management textbook, but an account of a working lifetime that is, at the same time, an overview of how the British industrial landscape has changed and a supremely informed and authoritative handbook of business leadership.

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