Interview with Heather Jones

Heather Jones is CEO of the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre. Heather’s role involves developing the organisation’s strategic vision, leading the executive team, ensuring a focus on delivery and outcomes, representing the organisation at national and international level, and maintaining an extensive network of relationships in aquaculture around the globe.

Briefly describe your career

I’ve had quite a varied career that has taken me from working in the UK civil service, to dealing with the private sector in Texas. Each move I’ve made has been underpinned by the networks I’ve built throughout my career, which just goes to show how important they are.

I joined the civil service graduate programme after university, in which I learned how to deal with everything from urban renewal in deprived housing estates to the establishment of Scottish Natural Heritage. In 1992, I was also involved in preparing for devolution and a potential referendum – had Labour won the election – and then took a high-pressure role working for a Scottish Office Minister in London. Essentially, I was ‘Bernard’ from the 1980s TV series ‘Yes, Minister’!

Returning to work in what is now Marine Scotland, I studied part-time for an MBA, which was a great way to learn more about management accounting, business law and strategy. When I completed it, I knew I wanted a job that was commercial and as different as possible to what I’d done before. That took me to Houston, Texas – about as different to Scotland as you can get – as Vice President of Locate in Scotland. I ran a sales, marketing and business development office covering the south-eastern USA. It changed my thinking, especially around focusing on results, celebrating success, being passionate and adopting a ‘go-for-it’ and ‘can do’ approach.

I brought some of those learnings back to government when I returned to post-devolution Scotland in 2000. I was asked to take on a role supporting the first Scottish Cabinet – now, I was working for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. That was another fascinating ‘Yes, Ministers’ situation – plural, as there were always two ministers to keep happy. The experience helped me understand the workings of large organisations, and how power, influence and politics affect every decision that gets made.

I was promoted to Deputy Director in the Scottish Government, where I had four fascinating roles – in one, I was responsible for aquaculture, freshwater fisheries and marine licensing. This led me, in quite a roundabout way, to SAIC. By that stage in my life, I was eager for a different challenge and joining a completely new venture was too good an opportunity to let pass. It was a high-risk move, leaving the ‘gold-plated’ terms and conditions of government, but I haven’t regretted the decision for one second.

Are there any individuals or organisations in aquaculture, research, etc. who you’ve found particularly inspirational?

I won’t name names, for fear of embarrassing others, but I would like to put on record my thanks and appreciation to two particular leaders in the industry. They have a long-term vision and commitment to the sector – and to Scotland as a whole – that goes way beyond any prejudiced perceptions of narrow organisational self-interest in profit and competitive advantage. Without that vision, one I very much share, I doubt I would have taken the leap of faith to join a sector I had only encountered from the outside.

I’ve also been very encouraged by and privileged to know two Stirling sustainable aquaculture MSc students, whom I met in my first couple of years at SAIC. Both impressed me with their passion, commitment, integrity and drive to make a difference to global aquaculture. I really loved their self-confidence in making contact with me – sometimes it’s good to take the first step, and you don’t need to be in a senior role to have a really positive impact on those around you.

How important has networking been to your career?

I think I’ve already answered that! A different aspect to networking, which is as important to me now as having senior contacts when I was younger, is having a supportive set of relationships with peers throughout my career, across organisations and sectors. The ability to ‘phone a friend’, whom you know and trust, is great. That’s why SAIC instigated the leadership development programme, creating a cohort of people from right across industry who will be Scottish aquaculture’s leaders of the future.

In the last 10 years or so, I’ve really come to value having younger people in my network. They typically ask great questions, are wonderful role models for me in adapting to change, and give me so much hope and confidence for the future of Scottish aquaculture. I hope I can stay friends with them for the rest of my career, and beyond.

Many women trying to move up the career ladder can be met with inequality challenges. Can you give an example of a discriminatory situation and how you dealt with it or how to avoid it?

The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1975, yet a change in the law doesn’t automatically translate into a change in practice, which is a product of all of our attitudes and behaviours. Even in recent years, gender pay disparities have been sadly all too common. It takes a lot of bravery to stand up to inequality, but if no one does, nothing will change. At SAIC, our board members are 100% committed to equality and fair treatment and, within our own organisation, we have been on the front foot in ensuring equal pay for equal work.

In my early days, I definitely experienced boorish ‘Friday night’ behaviours in the workplace during the day, with male colleagues engaging in what would now be called out as sexually inappropriate behaviour. I remember being very upset, including afterwards when those who were also there acted as if nothing had happened. Like many others who have experienced harassment, there was a tendency to feel it was somehow ‘your fault’ and there was nothing you could do about it.

As I got older, I became less prepared to put up with that sort of thing, and more confident speaking out. Situations still arose – I can remember an after-dinner speech that was cringe-able for racist and sectarian jokes – but I felt empowered to speak up and object. I believe that doing something active is necessary to counter unconscious bias, and to address things that cross the line between what is and is not OK.

In one particular case at a previous employer, other women and I discovered that a newly appointed male colleague in our area was being paid significantly more to do exactly the same job. As he had much less relevant experience than us, we felt there were grounds under the Equal Pay Act to query this situation. The positive result for us was that we were awarded equal pay through a negotiated settlement. I hope there was some organisational learning too, about the importance of taking action to deliver equality, not just talking about it. This is why transparency about pay, and a willingness to stand up against unfairness and injustice, are helping to effect change for the benefit of those who come after.

I hope that society has moved on during the past 30 years of my career, although gender politics and other forms of discrimination and unconscious bias remain. That is why it’s important that we actively recognise movements like Black Lives Matter and do positive things to offer support to LGBTQIA+ colleagues, people of colour, and all other minority characteristics.

You are having a successful career; what’s your proudest achievement to date?

I feel incredibly fortunate in all the opportunities life has sent my way. As a Scot, it feels awkward to talk in terms of being proud of my achievements – it’s not really a part of British culture. Overall, I am grateful for having had such a varied set of experiences in my working life, and to have met so many wonderful people around the world. My ambition continues to be to try to make a positive difference by encouraging others to ‘go for it’, and to keep on asking why; making suggestions for improvement; and stimulating those around me to think big, stand tall, and be bold.

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