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#44 A leadership story you wouldn’t believe – Suzanne Steele, Vice President & Managing Director United Kingdom and Ireland, Adobe (s02ep20)

Nov 10, 2022

Suzanne (Suz) Steele, was the VP and MD for Adobe's ANZ operations before moving back to the UK to take up the same role for the UK and Ireland operations, which is one of Adobe's largest markets globally. She has risen to this position from humble working class beginnings in Northern Ireland, in which attending university was not an option in her family. In fact, she left school at 16. This worked against her in her early days until she landed a role in a start-up with a manager who saw her "street fighter" and "make it happen" qualities.
"Care in the workplace, to me means knowing your people, and understanding them as a whole person, not just in in terms of what you see in them doing their job."


  • How being a relentless learner and being exposed to all parts of the business allowed her to succeed early on.
  • How setting bold targets is integral for growth.
  • How being an advocate of having and sharing a compelling vision is central to having a robust executive team.
  • The importance of psychological safety in the workplace
  • How having great mentors has been essential to her success.


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Transcript from the interview

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Graeme Cowan, Suzanne Steele

Graeme Cowan 1:13 

It’s a real pleasure to welcome Suze Steele to The Caring CEO. Welcome, Suze.

Suzanne Steele 1:22 

Thank you, Graeme. And thank you for having me.

Graeme Cowan 1:25 

It’s lovely to have you from the United Kingdom speaking with us today. And as we mentioned in the lead in, there’s been a lot of challenge in the six months, since you’ve been back there. But I’ll start with the first question, which is, what does care in the workplace mean to you?

Suzanne Steele 1:44 

Care in the workplace, to me means knowing your people, and understanding them as a whole person, not just in in terms of what you see in them doing their job.

Graeme Cowan 2:00 

What do you do to sort of find out those, you know, the whole person, do you just observe or do ask certain questions? How do you do that? 

Suzanne Steele 2:10 

Well, two things. I think you never find out about the whole person unless you’re prepared to be your own authentic self, right? And, and show your true self. Right? So how I do that, and certainly having, you know, recently moved back from Australia and had to get to know a whole new team of people, and a much bigger team of people, how I’ve, how I do that is by, you know, sharing about me and what my values are, and what’s important to me. And really spending you have to invest time, right? You have to get to know people. And it’s a big investment of time that you can’t shortcut it.

Graeme Cowan 2:51 

And how does care apply to your customers?

Suzanne Steele 2:55 

How does care apply to our customers? Do you mean, how did they see care in the workplace? Or how does care apply? And how do we care about our customers?

Graeme Cowan 3:04 

How do you care about your customers?

Suzanne Steele 3:07 

Yeah, I mean, we are a business that is focused on customer experience and helping our customers deliver exceptional customer experiences. So, what we try to do is to ensure that they’re our customers experience of Adobe, and dealing with Adobe, is authentic, and that we really spend some time again, getting to know our customers and the challenges that they face, within their business. How are they measured? You know, what are they up against? And obviously, as you can imagine, certainly having recently, as I say, come back to the UK, there’s a lot of change in the United Kingdom, started with Brexit. And you know, it just recently, it sorts of, we’ve had three prime ministers in three months, the inflation is through the roof. And we are seeing our customers facing some really difficult times. We need to be in lockstep with those customers, understanding what they’re going through, and helping them make the most of, you know, their investment in Adobe, but being side by side, and sharing, you know, how they’re measured, and what’s important to them, and holding that voice of the customer in all of our interactions internally as well as externally. It’s something that we actually take great pride in.

Graeme Cowan 4:35 

That social change that you’ve experienced very, very quickly, you know, three prime ministers, the Queen passes away, Brexit not so long ago. How is that impacting businesses that you deal with?

Suzanne Steele 4:47 

In a number of ways, really, I think that’s– I think this all started really the change pendulum really hit us didn’t it in 2020 You know, when businesses that had, you know, solid trajectories, there wasn’t a lot of change, you know, all of a sudden, the world turned upside down, didn’t it? Really. And I think what we’re seeing now, it’s just a continuation of the change, the change pendulum swinging from one side of, of, you know, of things to another. And it really is impacting our customers. And what we’re seeing is that in the main, changes constant, and our customers need to be prepared for that, you know, you don’t, you can’t see round corners right now, you know, it’s really very, very difficult. And many of our customers, you know, want to deliver exceptional customer experiences to their customers, and help them in the moments that matter. And we need to help our customers do exactly that.

Graeme Cowan 5:55 

And one of the biggest things humans struggle with is uncertainty, isn’t it? And, you know, in the programs that are out there online, and in person, for the last couple of years, I’ve always asked people what’s been most stressful, including, you know, fear of illness to family and friends, fear of losing job, but the one, the one that has always been number one is uncertainty. And I’ve seen you quoted is in terms of your approach to job as being a experiential. What do you mean by that?

Suzanne Steele 6:34 

Being experiential, I think– Well, I would come, let me come back to the beginning of that question. Now, uncertainty, is an unpredictability causes great stress in, in life, right? So, things that happen, that are unexpected causes great stress in life. And I think, you know, for me, being experiential is really about sharing how I feel in the moment, right, and being, I guess, being open to conversations about, you know, your own mental health and your own mental well-being, and how you’re dealing with that uncertainty. And how your experience it, experience in that uncertainty. And I think, you know, for, for me, I’ve always been, I’ve always been a very transparent, sort of authentic leader, because I think it’s too complicated to try and have a facade to be perfectly honest, I think, you know, it’s, it’s much less stressful to be who you are. And I’ve, I’m very grateful that in my role at Adobe, and when I landed at Adobe, I really felt able to be my authentic self. And I think that played out really through COVID. When, you know, we went from a business that were a real people business, you know, we’re in with our customers and in with our people, all of our meetings were face to face, yet we’re a digital business that enables digital experiences. And suddenly, the world turned on his head. And this was the only interaction over a video that we could have with other human beings. And, you know, certainly for me, I, I was very open about what I was experiencing.

Graeme Cowan 8:20 

Yeah, I’ve also just, you know, it was a real struggle just being totally– depends on so it was, it was certainly better than nothing, but it just isn’t the same. And I’ve, I’ve lost two or three months I’ve spoken about. But I conference and you get to see how excited people are to be together. And often they haven’t seen each other for three or four years. And my wife is a cancer epidemiologist. And she recently went to Zurich for a conference. He said it was like, a homecoming everyone was so I’m excited to catch up in person. And yeah, I think we solely knew that.

Suzanne Steele 8:59 

Well, and I think the truth is, we took that very for granted. I think it was just how we did things, wasn’t it? You know, we were always face to face. I mean, I know that I personally was on a plane, doing long haul flights every four to six weeks. And I will never go back to that. Because I now realize I was permanently jet lagged. And, you know, you have to, you have to think about when you do come together, what are those moments really for? Because if it’s, if you’re coming together to sit behind a screen, I mean, then you need to ask yourself, you know, why couldn’t you have done that, you know, without getting on a flight for 15 hours. But yeah, we took that for I think we took that very for granted. I know when I first landed here, within the first five weeks, I brought the entire team together for an event which was all about us getting to know each other and, you know, setting out our goals and objectives. And they were so excited. People were so excited, and it was the first time in many cases that some of them they haven’t even met their colleagues before, you know we’ve had, we’ve had a lot of growth in our business and a lot of people have joined, you know, since COVID. So, yeah. And I really feel that we do need to be thoughtful about those, those moments when we bring people together because it needs to be, it needs to be frequent, but it also needs to be extremely purposeful.

Graeme Cowan 10:21 

Yeah. And what was the size of the– What was the size of the team you brought together?

Suzanne Steele 10:27 

In that, so that was really our Field Sales Team. It’s about 350 people. So about 500 people in the Adobe, UK and I business that I’m lucky enough to run, but we bought, we brought the field together really. And customers, we had customers come and talk and we did panels, and we did a little bit of, you know, social impact work and team building. And it was, it was hugely successful. And people even today, you know, something, were a few more months in, or had stopped me. And so that was an amazing event. And it’s just, it taught us what being back together means. And since then, we’ve seen increasingly week on week, we’re seeing more and more people coming back into the office. So yeah, it’s good.

Graeme Cowan 11:15 

Great. How do you go about leading your team? What are the important elements that all foundations you’d like to see in place?

Suzanne Steele 11:23 

I think the key thing is setting a goal. And being very clear about what do you want to achieve with the business. And articulating that so that people understand what it is you’re trying to drive to? So that’s the first thing very much so, you know, set that what’s that North Star for the team? You know what I mean? Yes, you know, Adobe is a hugely innovative and successful business. And, you know, I feel very, as I say, I feel very lucky to, as I say, wear the team jersey, as the leader of the business, and I really need everybody to feel like that, that, you know, this is a great place to be, and that they can be hugely successful, whatever success means for them, right? So, success is not always, in fact, infrequently is it about getting to the top of the tree in a business, right, it’s about feeling fulfilled as a human being, and knowing that you’re making an impact, you know, in your, in your life, fit in with your job, you know, in your communities. And so, setting that North Star, and helping people understand the part they play is really, really important. And then the second thing is, as I said, at the top of the call, it’s really about getting to know people and knowing what makes people tick, and what does success look like for them, and be able to ensure that, you know, what you’re putting around them is going to allow them to be successful. However, they may deem success to be for them. It’s a very personal thing.

Graeme Cowan 13:08 

Yeah, and I love a saying from Maya Angelou on that topic. And she said, Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it. It’s short and pithy. But it’s great, isn’t it?

Suzanne Steele 13:21 

Yeah, it is. It absolutely is. And it’s very true. And there is a moment, you know, that no, I’ve had some of these moments in my career where you know, you’re in the wrong place, you know, that something isn’t right. And in most cases, you’re not really meant to be there. Yeah. And it’s a very horrible feeling. If you end up in that situation, and you can’t, you know, for whatever reasons, make a, make a choice, you know, you’re a bit trapped. But that, that sort of, yeah, I feel that finding your purpose in, uh, in life. And that perfect Venn diagram, as you just described, you know, it does take, it takes a few missteps to sometimes get there, but, but when you do, it’s very, very satisfying.

Graeme Cowan 14:09 

Yes, very much so. Have you prepared your people for the future? What are the, what are the things that you say? And do you mentioned having a goal? How do you go about achieving that shared clarity, so people understand how that goal flows down to them?

Suzanne Steele 14:30 

Yeah, I mean, I think again, it’s by being articular about what is the goal. And then, you know, I’ve got an, I’ve got a great leadership team, here in the business, and it’s how you cascade it, you know, you go from 1200 people down to teams of seven. And it’s how you sort of the momentum that you build through that cascade, through bringing people together, through you know, all hands and town halls, through celebrate Writing success but also celebrating, you know, some of the failures, you know, where I will say a failure just means you’re one step closer to the next success, right? And so, celebrating what went well, even when things don’t completely go to plan. So that’s the first thing is actually the communication is, is king and queen in my book, you know, people knowing what we stand for, knowing what we’re trying to achieve, and feeling that they can, you know, they can see where they fit in, right, you know, we’re gonna get everybody to the top of the mountain. And when we get to the top of the mountain, you know, we want everybody still tethered on, right? We don’t want to leave, leave people behind. And I’m very much, I cascade the message that way, I describe the leadership team, as the advanced party, our job is to go up the mountain and remove the mines, and the obstacles so that everybody else can make up to the top. And I think so first of all, communication. Secondly, I think understanding people’s development needs, right? So, you know, obviously, we, we hire great people into our business, our job is to, for them to stay great and to become exceptional. And the best, the best in town, right? So, if you work for Adobe, and you know, we want you to be the best at your craft, whatever your craft is. And so, we do spend a lot of time and investment on developing our people understanding their development needs. And that’s not just you know, skills, so skills for the future, which is really, really important. But it’s also helping people embrace diversity and inclusion, we have a fantastic program called ‘Adobe for All’, which is all about, you know, everybody has a place in Adobe, we want that diversity of opinion, and we want to be hugely inclusive. But, you know, we need to show people how to, how to do that, right? So. So I think it’s not just the skill, the skills piece, it’s also this broader developmental piece around, you know, things like diversity and inclusion, right the way across to, you know, negotiation skills and presentation skills and everything else. But we spend a lot of time on personal development plans for our people.

Graeme Cowan 17:34 

And I understand that you and also Adobe have been very successful at elevating women in the business. And I read somewhere, that this is true that there’s pay parity in Adobe with women. Is it true? 

Suzanne Steele 17:49 

Globally? Yes, we first choose which gender pay parity was something that Adobe leadership made a pledge that by 2018, they would achieve gender pay parity, and they did, we did. Thereafter, we’ve maintained it every year. Because it’s not, it’s not something that you can just do as a moment in time, you know, you have to keep on top of it. And, you know, we’ve achieved that globally across the world. And I don’t know of any, I don’t know of any other company that’s managed to do that. Right? And that gives me great hope, you know, I’m, I’m a big ambassador for, you know, women. And, you know, we’re a long way off equal rights and equal opportunity. We are making great strides. And every, every little bit helps, and getting gender pay parity was really important for us, you know, we need as many women as men in the workplace. And we also have a great and I think it’s one of the best leadership programs that I’ve ever seen in my quite long career, which is called Leadership Circles, which is for our high potential women who are below sort of Director, Senior Director level, and it’s a yearlong program we put about is with its we’re just into our 10th year, because we’ve just had our 10th year celebration. And we put around 200 women a year through a very structured program. Obviously, clearly, previously, we used to do it all face to face, they’d come together several times a year now we do it. Now we do it in a hybrid way. And as I say, we’ve just celebrated our 10th anniversary and I’m actually one of the executive champions on Leadership Circles. And it’s, it’s just a fantastic program. I have to say that. I feel like I’ve gatecrashed it a little bit because I wasn’t eligible, I wasn’t eligible to be on it. But by being an executive champion, I get to sit through, you know, all of the different modules. And it’s fantastic. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s really great. And we’ve seen a very high percentage of the women that have completed leadership circles go on to be promoted within Adobe, so it’s, yeah, but you, again, come back to a previous point, as an organization, and as a leader, you have to be very deliberate about these things. You have to, you know, pursue them relentlessly, if you’re going to make a–

Graeme Cowan 19:01 

I just wanted to jump back to you saying that Adobe has become one of the few companies in the world where there is gender parity with pay, what were the steps that helped to get you there?

Suzanne Steele 20:50 

Well, I think the first step was our then head of employee experience lady called Donna Morris, who actually left Adobe, but Donna, and the executive team made a decision that this was going to happen, and they were going to achieve it. And they then rolled out a program of its a you– it took quite some time, for us to, first of all understand, you know, where we are, what was the benchmark in terms of pay parity, and then actually, to write it, you have to make some big decisions, right? So, through a process over it took, I want to say it took two to three years to go through a process with it. So, you’ve got two things, you’ve got the existing team, right, we’ve got the existing employees within Adobe, and you have to get to parity. And you can only do that over a few years. But then you’ve also got to set some steps in place to make sure that as you’re recruiting, you know, and if I think about, I’m pretty sure the stat is that since COVID, we’ve recruited something like 8000 people in Adobe globally. So, we’ve gone from sort of 20,000 to 28,000 people, you’ve also got to put measures in place that ensure that as you’re increasing your workforce, your parity checks and your ranges are maintained. So that, you know, the role pay grade in any certain location is that’s the pay grade and the range for the role. And the role that is graded, and gender doesn’t come into it.

Graeme Cowan 22:42 

It’s obviously achieved a great, great results. And surely there’s lots of organizations that could learn do they knock on your doors? Other companies knock on your doors?

Suzanne Steele 22:52 

They do. Some of our bigger customers and our partners. We’ve shared our story around gender parity, and it was quite a data driven, data driven exercise to get to it. So, you know, it’s, yeah, we’re very proud of it. But we don’t take it for granted. And we know that we have to maintain it.

Graeme Cowan 23:12 

I saw something intriguing in your early career, Suzanne, that was that you had trained to be a magistrate to get the training to be a magistrate. What was behind that? And why did you go the–

Suzanne Steele 23:30 

So well, actually, so probably give you a bit of context. So, to be a magistrate in the UK, you are not a qualified, you do not have to be a qualified lawyer. Right? So, magistrate in the UK, and 94% of all criminal cases are tried at magistrates’ court and in a magistrate’s court, you have two magistrates and a chair. And then you have legal counsel who are with you. Where it really started was in when I was 18, I applied to join the police force, I’ve always had an interest, healthy or unhealthy. Take it as you will, in the law. I’ve always been interested in law. I grew up in Northern Ireland. We left Northern Ireland during the troubles. And I think that’s always sort of given me an interest in justice, and law and order. So long story short, I applied to join the police force in the UK and got all the way through and was accepted as a police officer, but in doing some research, database research at that point, I established that there was not one female Senior Detective Inspector, you know, top brass. There was not one female in the whole of the police force in the United States, but it made it to the absolute top-ranking officer And I kind of decided that it wasn’t going to be the place for me. Yeah, with that, you know, went back into doing, you know, admin and secretarial work, which is how I started out. And because I didn’t go to university, that was never an option for me. But I’ve always had this interest in the law, you know, I used to go to the, because you can go into the public galleries at the courts and, and found out that you didn’t need to be a lawyer, to be a magistrate and actually a magistrate as a part time job in the UK, and got very excited by that, when I realized that you could do it from, you know, a position, you know, even though I was an MD at the time in the UK, I could do it. And I only have to do 26 full days a year. But the training that they put you through is fantastic. Because as a leader who’s always lead with my gut, and my intuition, it teaches you something called structured decision making, because at the end of the day, when you’re in a court, you’re only there to try on the facts and the evidence, you know, no gut feel that comes into deciding on somebody’s future when they’re in front of you for a criminal conviction. And so, yeah, I went through, I applied, I got accepted, I went through the training, and I served on her majesty’s courts for a few years, before I then got the opportunity to go and work and live in Singapore. And now I’m back. I’ve literally just applied I’m gonna go back and do it once I’ve got this job under control. I mean, obviously, you know, it’s gonna probably take me another year, but I’m going to go, I’m going to go back and do it again, because it was really satisfying for me. And I, it sort of helps my intellectual curiosity, I guess.

Graeme Cowan 27:01 

Fantastic. And how does structured decision making work? Are you able to explain that in layman’s terms?

Suzanne Steele 27:10 

I’ll give it my best shot, Graeme. Structured decision making is basically following a tree. It’s like a decision tree. Right? So structured decision making presents an opportunity where you’re presented with a fact. Right? And you need to challenge whether it’s evidenced or not, right? So, is it evidenced or not? If it is, then you move on to the next fact, and then the next fact, and then the next fact, until you get to a final decision around you know, and it can be around anything. So, it’s much more evidence-based decision than I’ve ever really applied prior to training as a magistrate, which was probably about 14 years ago now. But it has changed. It’s changed how, it’s changed how I make decisions in business, right? So, as you get further up the tree, you know, you can’t be close enough to, you know, all of the facts. So, it really does make me much more thoughtful about, you know, get into a decision. And it makes me follow a step backed up with good intuition. I have to say, I mean, I don’t think you shouldn’t throw your intuition out the window. Because, you know, that comes with years, years of experience, doesn’t it, right? But no, I think it’s, yeah, I’d urge anybody who gets the opportunity to learn that, to double down on it, because it’s great.

Graeme Cowan 28:40 

I can see how it’d be very helpful in your role, or any leadership role be able to sort through the evidence and reach a good solution. And I guess the other thing that has happened very much in the COVID period, is that we can never be 100% Sure, we will make a decision. You know, I saw that Jeff Bezos has the 70% rule, the 70% that’s close to that. Have a shot, and then self-correct if that doesn’t work out. How do you approach whether to go for something or not? You mentioned guts is an important thing. Is there any other any other things that you’re like?

Suzanne Steele 29:15 

Yeah, I mean look, I think you can get decision paralysis, right? If you’re, if you’re too purist, and you wait for all of the, all of the evidence, you’ll probably end up never doing anything. And sometimes, and particularly in leadership, your team needs you to make a call. You know, I’m with Jeff Bezos. I think, generally speaking, I will go with 80%. Right. So, if I’ve got 80% of the facts, and I’ll throw in 20% of intuition, then I will make a decision because, you know, certainly throughout my career working for leaders who will not make a decision who want collaboration and consultation until the 100% of the team agree with the move is extremely frustrating. And I think where that really played out was when COVID hit, you know, I saw in my interactions with our customers, I saw many customers who had been deliberating on projects, digital projects, for 12, 18 months, stand up projects within 12, 18 weeks. Because guess what they had to write they, they were not going to survive, or indeed thrive if they didn’t get their projects stood up. And then what comes? What worries me is I hope we don’t go back to that, you know, situation where you’ve got to have all of the facts, because sometimes you’ve just got to make a move.

Graeme Cowan 30:55 

Yeah. Creativity is obviously very important to Adobe; how do you foster a culture that encourages creativity?

Suzanne Steele 31:06 

Well, I think it starts with the team diversity, and bring in different mindsets, different skill sets, different you know, experiences into the room, and giving them an opportunity to problem solve. We’ve had some of our biggest successes, actually, when I think about some of the problems, you know, solving business problems. I’ve seen teams that don’t work together, solve generally, solve problems quicker than teams who are very experienced together. Because you’ve put diverse, diverse groups into the room to problem solve. So, the first thing is, it starts with the people around the table, but also helping them find their voice. You know, I mean, we have, you know, we have people at all stages of their career. In Adobe, you know, if I look at some of our young interns, and our graduates, who actually at the event that I talked about, were up on stage presenting in front of 350 people, and there were serious people who, who, you know, that will put the fear of God into them. I’m just always bowled over by I guess, bringing people together who you would not necessarily, and you have to remove your own bias, right, you would not necessarily expect to be able to solve problems, but bringing that diversity together, those diverse groups together and giving them an opportunity to find their voice. I think that’s how you, how you ignite creativity, within an organization.

Graeme Cowan 32:54 

I’ve always loved reading about the Project Aristotle for Google, where they found out that there were five team norms, but by far the most important was psychological safety. And that’s where people could be their authentic selves, they felt safe to be vulnerable, safe to take intelligent risks and know that they wouldn’t be sacrificed or went wrong, the team would learn and move forward. And psychological safety is also really important in those diverse teams, isn’t it? It just, people feel heard. And I read something else about you just being very commonly the exact words, something on don’t tell me that it’s been tried before, or it hasn’t worked before. Tell me more. Let’s explore this further. And that’s a very, very important approach, isn’t it?

Suzanne Steele 33:46 

Yeah. Yeah. And look, you know, I think, I guess, the way I look at it is when people come to me with problems, I asked them, you know, are you the patient? Or are you the doctor, right? Are you reporting the symptoms? Or you going to tell me how we’re going to cure it? And I want to encourage more of that dialogue. Right? So, all businesses have problems, right? Otherwise, they wouldn’t need any of us. Right? So all businesses have problems, but I think given, you know, teams and opportunity, where it’s safe to speak up, first of all, where you know, you’re not going to be shot down in flames or marginalized because you’re saying something different to the rest of the troops, safe to, safe to step, you know, speak up, and then also safe to lean in to solve problems, right, where your voice is encouraged, irrespective of where you are in the organization. Right? So, we’re very lucky in Adobe, we have a fairly flat structure to be perfectly honest, and I do think that really helps. But I think our job as leaders is to, is to really hear those voices We may otherwise not hear, look for the silent voice because they haven’t people have an opinion. And we need them to be able to share their opinions. But you’re right, you know, psychological safety. You know, I’ve been in environments where I have not been psychologically safe. And it’s a– it’s soul destroying. And it generates a lot of stress in individuals if you know, they aren’t, they don’t feel psychologically safe. So yeah, it’s something you know, we’ve had to focus on very much.

Graeme Cowan 35:33 

Yeah, I love the TED Talk by the hedge fund owner, Ray Dalio, which how to have a culture where the best ideas win. And, and he talks, and he’s recently come out with a book called Principles. But, you know, his approach is you want to have a culture where it’s okay to make intelligent mistakes, but it’s unacceptable not to learn from them. Like–

Suzanne Steele 36:02 

Like that. Yeah, I mean, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Right. You know, I mean, definitely, you know, that, I find that really frustrating if something happens, where it’s happened to us before, and we haven’t learned from it, you know, but yeah, I think you do have to have an environment though, where people do feel able to speak up, and, and you know, that there’ll be heard, it’s not just speaking up, but somebody who’s gonna listen.

Graeme Cowan 36:33 

Not having a university degree hasn’t affected your ultimate career trajectory at all. Didn’t the role in the early stages of your career?

Suzanne Steele 36:43 

Absolutely. I mean, you know, when I, I left school at 16, so I didn’t even go on further education. I came from, I think it’s probably fair to say humble beginnings is probably a polite way to say it, but I came from humble beginnings, I was the eldest of four children, and going to university was not an option. And my, my mother needed me to go and earn money and help, you know, help pay my way. So, but it did hold me back. You know, I mean, I remember going for some roles in well, I’ll tell you, I went for a role in one of the big four banks in the UK. And they knew I didn’t have a degree, but they put me through this really rigorous selection program, only to tell me after this rigorous selection program that I wasn’t going to get the job because I didn’t have a degree, which– it was bizarre, but there was a lot of bias back then, there was a lot of bias, that people like me, I came from a very working class background. We’re not going to work in in a bank. Right? So, and I think I, I thank goodness that, you know, that is less the case now. I mean, a lot of organizations are not, are not insisting on university degrees, and are actually running apprenticeships, like we used to have back in the day, you know, and I think, I think that’s fantastic. You know, so it did hold me back. I was very, very fortunate Graeme, I landed at the ripe old age of 21, I landed in what we would now call a Startup, right? With a gentleman whose name is Mike Linus, who saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed in myself, right? And he became what I now know is a mentor and a coach. But I was employee number two, in his, in his insurance business, and we took that business and grow it together to 3, 400 people. And I was, I went in as his, you know, his EA, I was hopeless as an EA to– My mind, my current EA just looks at me in disbelief when I tell her I was an EA. And he mentored me and coached me through basically most of my career, he gave me opportunity to fail and fail fast. He, he took me under his wing, he was an entrepreneur. And, yeah, he just gave me, gave me the opportunity to become, you know, successful under his, under his watch. And I went from EA, I did everything from operations, management, marketing, sales, a bit of HR thrown in for good measure. And I worked with him for a few years, and then the business was sold, and he created in me some resilience, I think, and the fact that, you know, I became very confident that I could do anything if I put my hand to it. If somebody would just give me an opportunity. So that was my university education, I think was working for nightline, I set countrywide before it even to this day.

Graeme Cowan 40:04 

Did he ever tell you why he originally employed you what it was that he saw that you didn’t see in yourself?

Suzanne Steele 40:11 

It’s really interesting, you should ask that. So, upon my return to the UK, I actually sought out Mike who is now he’s in his 80s. And I went a few weeks ago and had a cup of coffee with him, and his wife, and, and I actually thanked him for the opportunity that he had given me. And, you know, I would not be where I am today, without what he did for me, you know, and I told him that I am going to write a book at some point, when I get around to it, I’ve got a lot of material, a lot. And, and I asked him, you know, in that, in that sort of coffee catch up, I said, you know, what was it? And he sort of pondered, and he said, you just were so hungry, right? You wanted to prove, you know, that I had this apparently, this prove people wrong, because, you know, I came from, you know, I didn’t have the best start in life. And, you know, there were a lot of people who, you know, didn’t give me jobs, like the job in the bank, right? I didn’t take the police job, because, you know, I was little did I know, I was an ambassador for equality, even at the age of 18. And he said, he saw something in me that knew that he needed somebody who was going to really get into the trenches and do anything that we needed to do in this startup. And he said, I knew you would do it. And, in fact, he wrote me, he’s recently written me a synopsis of the interview and what he saw. And so, yeah, that was so yeah, I think it was my streetfighter style, I would say. And, and he knew that I would work really, really hard. I had very strong work ethic is what he referred to. But yeah, I’m very grateful. And humbled, actually.

Graeme Cowan 42:12 

You’ve also mentioned, you know, the help of other mentors in your career. How did you How do you find the right mentor? Has– How’s that work for you?

Suzanne Steele 42:21 

Yeah, I mean, in many cases, for me, they’ve, they’ve sort of found me, I mean, Mike was my boss, right? And, you know, I was this, you know, raw talent that didn’t really have a clue. And so, you know, we sort of found each other then, the other one that I would call out, the other person who was a great mentor to me as lady called Joy Griffiths, who was at Experian, and she gave me the opportunity to go and work in Singapore. I developed a relationship with her, she was a big ambassador, for women in leadership, a New Zealand woman. And we all know that, you know, the Maori philosophy is that the women are the matriarchs and actually are the warriors. And, and she lived that and reached out to me, persuaded me when my youngest went to university that moving to Singapore was a really good idea. And that, you know, they would create this role, which they did, and I moved to Singapore, left our three children behind, which was quite, you know, it was quite a big shift, right, my husband sold his business. And his view was, this was my turn, you know, I’d kept my career in, in the background a little bit. He had his own businesses. And now it was my turn. And so, she gave me the opportunity to take on a regional role for Experian Asia Pacific in Singapore. And but she didn’t just do that. So, she then coached me through those few years, because she had noticed things like I would not contribute on a subject that I didn’t feel I was an expert in. And that two weeks into my role in Singapore, she took me to one side and said, what’s going on? You know, you’re very quiet in that particular meeting. And I said, well, you know, these guys, they’re the experts. You know, I’ve just arrived here, you know, who wants to hear from me, and she was very, very straightforward and said, we want to hear from you. I need your opinion in the room. I actually like the fact that you don’t have the expertise, which going back to that creativity and problem solving. She helped me find my voice. And was a big sponsor, you know, more than a mentor and a coach. She was a sponsor, you know, she sponsored me into the role she then sponsored me to find my brand and my purpose with that role.

Graeme Cowan 44:56 

When someone that reports to you doesn’t live up to your expectations or doesn’t deliver something you’re hoping they will deliver well, how do you approach that?

Suzanne Steele 45:12 

I’m very, I’m very considered in how I approach that. Because there’s always a reason why something doesn’t quite go to plan, which I think goes back to this structured decision making. Right? So how I would approach it is having a one-on-one conversation around this was the brief, right, this was the brief. Do we, do we both agree that that was the brief, because there’s always a possibility. And particularly, you know, I mean, I run at 100 miles an hour, there’s always a possibility that what you’ve said to someone is not what they’ve received, and there’s been a communication breakdown. So, the first check is, did I, did– has this gone wrong because I didn’t communicate properly, right? And didn’t set the brief or set the KPIs or– So that’s the first check. And then the second check is, well, what’s going on that’s cause this to miss, you know, what’s the real– What’s the real variable that hasn’t happened here? You know, have you not put enough time into it? You know, if the brief was clear, you know, what’s happened? And where did we, where did this break down? And try to understand it, because I do always believe that people do come to work every day with positive intent. Nobody turns up intentionally wanting to do a crap job, right? They just don’t. Who wants to? Who wants to do that? You’ve got to try and get to know what’s going on? And why not? And then you reset the bummer. And you reset the expectations. And, you know, hopefully, by doing that, and analyzing it, you get to a good place. But if you don’t, then, you know, at some point, somebody has to make a decision about whether this is the right place for somebody to be.

Graeme Cowan 47:13 

What are the main themes that you will include in your book when you write it?

Suzanne Steele 47:20 

Well, so I think it’s going to be called ‘You couldn’t make it up’. Because you absolutely couldn’t, right? You just couldn’t. This could never be a fictional story. I think the main, the main themes are going to be around resilience, and mentorship, and sponsorship, and building your own personal Board of Directors through life, but also not taking yourself too seriously. You know, unlike your wife, I’m not curing cancer, right? Okay, I’m not curing cancer, I’m running a business. And the job of a leader is to get the most out of the people that you are humbled enough to lead. And everybody has a role to play, even some of those who maybe don’t think they do. Maybe they come from humble beginnings and don’t think they’ll ever be the CEO of a business or a leader of a business. And, you know, my view is, I think I’m, my story is, I think anybody can do anything they want to do, right? We all have it within ourselves to be as successful as we want to be. And that’s, again, I, I caveat that with success is not about money, or power, or, or rank, it’s about having a fulfilled life. But you do need sponsorship, and you do need opportunity. And you know, some who come from very challenged environments never get that opportunity. And so, it’s about opportunity, spotting opportunity, having sponsorship, and then working hard to deliver on it.

Graeme Cowan 49:02 

And I guess it’s also backing yourself and I saw an article about you in Australia 2021, where you told the world that Adobe was going to double their business in the next two years. Did you have any second thoughts about you know, shouting that the world?

Suzanne Steele 49:20 

No, no, none whatsoever. And, and unfortunately, I’ve now told the Adobe UK and AI business that it’s going to triple its business. So, yeah, it’s their bold claims. My view on that is, if you don’t see big, hairy, audacious goals, you’re always, you’re always going to wonder what could you have done? Right? What could you have done? And you know, we may not triple the business in the next three to five years. But by having that goal out there, we’ll get much further than if we said we’re just double it. Right? And global CEO says, you know, as leaders, we should set unreasonable expectations. Because you never know just where you’ll get to. And so, no, I, you know, I really believe that we are, we have an amazing brand, we have amazing products. We empower creativity, we help businesses digitally transform, there’s never been a better time to be in a business like this. And our customers really need us. They really, really need us. And so, you know, I think we can do all of that and have some fun along the way, doesn’t all have to be hard work and grit, you got to have a bit of fun.

Graeme Cowan 50:45 

It’s been a real pleasure catching up today, since it’s been really fascinating going through your life and what you’ve been up to, and what was the title of the book, you wouldn’t believe it?

Suzanne Steele 50:56 

You couldn’t make it up.

Graeme Cowan 51:00 

It’s great. It’s really fantastic. But, you know, reflecting back, if you could speak to your 18-year-old self in Northern Ireland, knowing what you know, now, what, what advice would you give that person?

Suzanne Steele 51:17 

I would, I would, the advice I would give is, every failure is a step closer to success, whatever success looks like, and work out what success looks like for you as early as you can, because I didn’t really work that out until probably 14 or 15 years ago. And since I’ve worked that out, I’ve had so much more balance, as well. And then the third bit would be don’t take yourself so seriously.

Graeme Cowan 51:47 

That’s great advice. Thank you so much for being part of The Caring CEO. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

Suzanne Steele 51:54 

Thank you so much. Lovely to meet you.

Graeme Cowan 51:58 

Thanks for joining us today. I hope you’ve learned something new and heard some practical tips you can try with your team. If you enjoyed this interview today. Please rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. When you rate us It helps other people to find us. We also welcome any comments. If you’re interested in seeing details about our scalable WeCARE Mental Health Training Programs, please visit us at Our goal for these programs is to make them accessible, practical, and ongoing. If you’ve been impressed by a CEO that you would like us to interview please email details to Please subscribe by clicking the button below. We really would love to have you as part of the care movement. Thanks for joining us.

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