Meet Miles Young, the new Chair of the ESU
Miles Young likes a challenge, it’s fair to say. Asked what he loves about Tibet, a place he’s visited three times and is keen to go back to, whether to trek to the main religious centres or to participate in a nomadic horse fair, the reply comes back: ‘the sparseness, the difficulty, the isolation. And the sheer emptiness. Of course, it’s not without its dangers, which always makes things more interesting.’
On a different scale of adrenaline, but ‘terrifying’ nonetheless, was Miles’s first interaction with the ESU nearly 50 years ago, when he took part in the Bedfordshire round of the Public Speaking Competition for Schools. ‘I’d never really spoken in public before and I remember the feeling of fear and terror,’ he says, ‘but also the realisation that, if you prepared, you were safe.’ He went on to win a prize – a Roget’s Thesaurus he still uses today – and the experience instilled in him a confidence which spurred him on to join the debating club. It also sparked a lifelong fascination with words and communication evidenced in over 30 years at international creative agency Ogilvy & Mather where he rose to be worldwide Chair and CEO and, since 2016, in his current position as Warden of New College, Oxford, his alma mater. And it is this ongoing fascination, as well as a curiosity about what had become of the ESU in the interim, which led Miles to voice an interest in the role as Chair of the Board of Trustees.
‘Spoken communication is such a fundamental issue in the world today – much more so than it was when I was doing the PSC – because the digital revolution has made it a less and less practised skill,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen that as an employer, where people perform poorly in interviews simply because they’d never had any basic training, and I see it very much in the Oxford context with some students who are quite unable to express who they are, what they stand for and what they want to do in life.’ Add in the explosion of content, the growth of fake news and ill-substantiated arguments, and the never-ending onslaught of superficial and spurious comment, and Miles believes we’re at a crisis point. ‘Young people today are exposed to a tide of incivility – it’s a battle that needs to be fought on their behalf and they need to be equipped with the skills to cope with it,’ he says. ‘It appeals to me to be working in an organisation which seeks to remedy some of those issues at their core.’
Miles brings with him not just a long experience in the field, but practical lessons too, not least in how universities deal with the task of widening access into areas of social deprivation, a programme he has been intimately involved in as Chair of the Oxford Conference of Colleges. He also offers a truly international perspective gained from having spent over half his working life abroad – in India, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the US and China (where his most vivid memory is watching, as a guest of the government, a display of ballistic missiles roll by in Tiananmen Square on the 50th anniversary of the liberation). As such, he is acutely aware of cultural differences and, above all, the need to listen before you speak. ‘You can never become a good speaker unless you’re a good listener first,’ he says. ‘We in the West tend naturally to talk; in meetings our default position tends to be quite assertive,’ he says. ‘If you live in China or Confucian-influenced culture you do learn listening skills. You realise after one meeting when you don’t conform culturally you’re never going to be successful, and you start to change your own way of behaving.’
Before opining on any priorities, he’s keen to put these listening skills to good use – there has not even been time for a board meeting when we speak – but he is clear that his first step will be to agree a short, medium and long term plan. ‘We’ve been through a period of exceptional change in the last 20 years in society,’ he says. ‘We’ve been through a sudden, rude shock in the form of the pandemic, and the ESU has had a significant anniversary, so we need to ask ourselves what is the next 100 years going to look like? As we come out of the pandemic the question is, how can we emerge stronger, with a greater sense of coherence and with a sense of the whole organisation being mobilised behind a common purpose.’
That of course includes the members, whom he sees as being at the heart of the charity. ‘There’s a famous phrase in marketing – ‘member get member’– and I’ve always believed that that is the best way to grow a membership,’ he says. ‘We need to ask people whether they accept that this is a necessary objective and then, if they do, we need to define what the membership proposition is and what the benefits are.’ Doing so will surely involve many conversations with the members themselves, something Miles welcomes: ‘Members are our greatest asset,’ he says. ‘Meeting them is without doubt the thing I’m looking forward to most as Chair.’
Miles Young at a glance
What’s the first information you consume in the morning?
The BBC website at about 5.30am.
Tell us your guilty pleasure.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Taking a large advertising agency which had lost its creative heart into a position of being recognised as the best creative agency in the world.
What’s your biggest regret?
That I used my three-month sabbatical to go travelling in Kashmir rather than to learn Mandarin Chinese, which would have been much more useful.
Tell us something surprising about you
I’m a cinnamon farmer. We have rehabilitated a derelict cinnamon estate in Sri Lanka.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Talent is not everything. Persistence and endurance need to be part of the equation too.