Profile: Russell Grossman, Director of communications, BERR then BIS

As comms head of the Government's new business department, Russell Grossman has had to hone his leadership skills, finds Matt Cartmell.

Russell Grossman
Russell Grossman

Every now and again, abrupt and seismic changes hit government departments, as Russell Grossman found out six months ago when he boarded a plane to San Francisco.

When the plane took off, Grossman was director of communications at the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR). By the time it landed, he worked for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

'We hadn't anticipated quite how quickly the change would happen,' reveals Grossman as he proffers BIS biscuits in a nondescript meeting room. 'I turned around and got on a flight straight back. That's the shortest transatlantic trip I have ever taken, and ever will, hopefully.'

With regards to the newly formed business department, he is unsurprisingly evangelical, raising his voice when it is suggested the merging of BERR and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills might not have been one of Gordon Brown's best ideas.

'It does work! That's one of the things that is obvious to me, how much sense it makes to put skills and education in together with work.'

Grossman, 48, is genial to the point of seeming more like an eccentric uncle than the man in charge of comms at the department that hopes to spearhead the nation's route out of recession.

On the way to our meeting, he points out how much of BIS' specially-built complex of meeting rooms remains largely unused. PRWeek suggests this could be a scandal waiting to happen. 'I think it already has,' he answers thoughtfully.

Former BBC director of comms Sally Osman worked with Grossman back when he was heading up internal comms at the broadcaster. She says he has a quirky charm that belies his lofty position.

'He's very funny, he's got a very dry sense of humour,' says Osman, who is now a senior consultant for Make Believe UK. 'A lot of people follow him wherever he goes. He's also pretty unflappable - he's got a very calm and measured approach.'

Good leadership is clearly important to Grossman - he returns frequently to the subject. He admires it in his current boss, Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, and former BBC director general Greg Dyke. Both, he says, have an innate understanding of communications.

'Leaders like Peter and Greg who climb to the top of organisations by and large will have got to that point because they are good communicators. The comms practitioner who works with them should be able to both advise and listen.'

Grossman's own formula for being a good boss is to spend 40 per cent of his time on leadership-related work, while being prepared to trust in his own people. So does he switch off completely when he goes on holiday? Not entirely - the phone stays by his side but 'the BlackBerry goes in the icebox'.

'I'm hardworking but I try to have a life. I try not to work more than seven days a week,' he adds with a wry smile.

He also likes to sit his employees down and ask where they want to be in five years. Too many people, he says, do not think about it before it is too late. He admits that he wants his employees to think of him as caring.

'When people leave any organisation, if all they've got to show is that they made money for that organisation, what was the point in them being there?'

However, Grossman says his main priority is keeping his ministers happy. With ten ministers across BIS, surely that is difficult? He laughs knowingly: 'That is a challenge. I think I can say we keep most of them happy most of the time.'

But he admits Mandelson's requirements are his main focus. He clearly admires him, speaking warmly of a video Mandelson recorded for internal comms use that very morning.

Grossman has previously described himself as a 'bit of a maverick' and 'slightly off the wall'. He now admits he would no longer use those terms.

'I'm required to be the "grit in the oyster" these days - someone who has to ask some difficult questions. You've got to become the conscience of your organisation.'

But when it is suggested that Grossman has had to temper some of his more creative instincts to make his way successfully through the worlds of BERR and BIS, he looks momentarily indignant.

'Certainly not! The business bit of it is very interesting. Everything interests me - it's a fascinating department.'

Despite his enthusiasm for the task in hand, PRWeek senses there is a wilder being behind the grey-suited exterior.

 

RUSSELL GROSSMAN'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

I'm not sure I had a single one. Ending up at the BBC with Greg Dyke was one. I was hired as head of internal comms, but the job became much bigger. That was a real eye-opener. The only reason I took the job was because it was the BBC - you don't turn it down. I learned more about internal comms and how to practise it from Greg than I ever learned from a book. It was a great opportunity.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Sunny Crouch, who was director of marketing at London Docklands Development Corporation. She gave me one piece of advice: If you think you can do something you probably can. If you don't, you never will. I'd never have dreamed of being a comms director here, but it underlines that it's true.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Never let an opportunity pass. You can see people regretting it, when they've had an opportunity and they didn't go for it.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Most of all, attitude. And flexibility makes such a difference.

 

CV

- 2008 Director of communications, BERR then BIS

- 2006 Head of change and internal communications, HMRC

- 1999 Head of internal communications, BBC

- 1997 Director of communications, Royal Mail London

- 1994 PR manager, Jubilee Line Extension

- 1993 Marketing manager, Riverbus

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