AS I SEE IT
Scotland’s biggest development agency could have a new leader in waiting, writes TERRY MURDEN
As it approaches its 30th birthday Scottish Enterprise is looking for its sixth chief executive and, probably, another iteration of its role in driving the economy.
There had been no indication that Steve Dunlop was about to depart, even though he dropped some strong hints during a business dinner last year that the job was proving a personal challenge.
Not only did he share a “fear of failure” but he suffered from imposter syndrome – a feeling of not being up to the task.
In a brutally-honest self-deprecation of his experiences he explained how he had been a PE teacher and head of Scottish Canals, suggesting that these were not the normal routes to heading the country’s biggest economic development agency.
“I have imposter syndrome. Canal man. School teacher. But I am going to give this is a good go,” he told a room full of high-growth candidates who represented his target market. “Giving it a good go” didn’t instil a great deal of confidence among those who shared my table at that Converge Challenge dinner.
He’s been in post for two and a half years, but only a year since speaking publicly for the first time about the agency’s latest strategy. “Tomorrow is day one of being brave,” he told guests at that dinner in Edinburgh. Given this week’s bombshell, his courage seems to have quickly evaporated.
There was no suggestion in his resignation of anything controversial, certainly nothing like the headlines which accompanied the departures of some of Mr Dunlop’s predecessors, such as the state aid dispute that caught out Robert Crawford, or the outrage over Lena Wilson’s four-figure US taxi bills that preceded her leaving a job for which she was paid more than £200,000 a year.
The statement on Wednesday announcing Mr Dunlop’s exit said he had “led a major shift in the organisation’s strategy, putting a stronger focus on economic growth that empowers communities and on investing in the entrepreneurs and enterprising businesses upon which the Scottish economy is built”. But he’s not hung around long enough to see any of it come to fruition.
His exit was greeted without a great deal of reaction from the political establishment beyond the obligatory “thanks for the memories” comment from Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop.
Cynics may point to the timing of his resignation, just 50 minutes before the First Minister was about to announce a big headline-grabbing statement on the latest lockdown measures. There was no briefing for the media, and it didn’t even merit a mention on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio show the following day, though its regular business slots have not featured this week (yet to be explained).
‘Critics say the government is expecting SE to perform too much of a role in social engineering rather than building strong positions in new industries’
It came just six weeks after Daily Business was told of some disquiet around Scottish Enterprise with reports that its budget was uncertain, that companies were struggling to access grants and that some organisations – including Business Gateway – were finding difficulties accessing the usual range of services. I put these points to the First Minister during one of her daily briefings but, as is typical when it comes to economic matters, she gave a curt reply, saying only that no public sector department was working normally at this time.
That may be so, but SE needs to be spearheading the recovery and should therefore be expected to up its game, not hide behind its role in delivering rescue packages to struggling businesses.
It will need to get a successor in post quickly in order to renew the agency’s momentum. It is also another opportunity to redefine its role at a time of national emergency. The current strategy is doused with lashings of social inclusion and sustainability, eminently justifiable aims, if not lacking in how they help focus the government’s energy on building growth. Critics say the government is expecting SE to perform too much of a role in social engineering rather than picking up the challenge of building strong positions in new industries such as digital transformation and hydrogen energy.
A year ago, following one of the few briefings Mr Dunlop gave to the media, I said in this column that the strategy was aimed at making sure everyone gets a look in, laudable in its ambition, but stretching current resources. “If he can pull it off we’ll all be cheering. But it is a gamble,” I said. It looks like he’s already thrown in his chips.
The search is now under way for the next leader, though perhaps there is one already in waiting. Also announcing a change of role this week was Stephen Ingledew who will step down as CEO of FinTech Scotland to become its chairman and take up a yet-to-be clarified role… with Scottish Enterprise.
Is he being groomed for the top job? He would have to leapfrog a few other likely candidates, but he has led Scotland’s emergence as a big winner in one of the economy’s growth sectors. He has also done so on tiny resources over much the same period as Mr Dunlop has developed and now walked away from SE’s latest strategy.