Parting Shot: Sir Martin Davidson of the British Council

The outgoing chief executive has learnt to celebrate failure and continue working relationships in the face of political difficulties

Martin Davidson
Martin Davidson

When a chief executive leaves, a phased approach is important. At 59 I'm saying I'm stepping down, not retiring. But it is the right time to go: I've been chief executive for almost eight years, with two as deputy. The chairman has a fixed term that ends in 2016 – we can now have a coherent handover.

In 30 years at the British Council, I've learnt that relationships between people carry on through political difficulties. I returned to China in 1995 and had tea with an old friend. He said the Chinese government would like to build an education relationship with Britain; now the country sends the largest number of students to the UK.

If you are managing a charity with 7,000 staff across 100 countries, the emphasis has to be on every individual understanding the core ethos - and every decision has to be tested against this. I enjoy thinking in the long term, building consensus and putting in plans. There is an assumption that leaders have to be omnipotent and always right, but we all know they are fallible. Celebrating failure means you are not afraid to take risks, make difficult decisions and learn from mistakes, rather than repeat them.

A big issue for organisations like this is government money. I'm proud we have found other sources of money and have gone from being reliant on government for 60 to 65 per cent of income to just under 20 per cent. Just because we are providing a public service does not mean we have to depend on the public purse. Jobs like this also have massive pressures. I'm enjoying letting myself decompress.

The British Council is the UK's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations

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