“I am the eldest of four. There was a constant reliability with me. You take on these expectations as the first born. I had a pleasant small-town Swedish upbringing. My father was the first in his family to go to university, graduating from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). My mother came from a family of farmers and worked as a pediatric nurse. They moved to Linköping where my father was a senior executive in the space program at SAAB. I’ve always been told I have my father’s intellect. I would like to believe I also have my mother’s pragmatism, common sense, and instinctive ability to connect with people.”
Kerstin was an introvert who wanted to see the world. She thanks her parents for encouraging her to spread her wings.
“Early on I thought about a career in journalism. I chose the Stockholm School of Economics instead because I felt the broad education would serve me well wherever I went.”
When Kerstin arrived at SSE in 1981, she was very shy.
“It took me some time to feel at home. Everyone looked so accomplished and sophisticated, while I had been out on the farmlands. I felt very much on the outside at first, but I met a lot of people who became friends. In the second year, I went on an exchange to École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) in Paris. And that changed my life.”
SSE’s international aspect gave Kerstin the chance to study abroad. Paris, in all its glory, created her appetite for travel, which has defined her life.
“I really loved the atmosphere at HEC. Paris, of course, had a real ‘joie de vivre’ and I grew in confidence there.”
“Moving from one culture to another is much more than just meeting new people or learning another language; it opens your mind and creates a whole new perspective and frame of reference.”
Next stop: America.
The year was 1985 and Kerstin enrolled in the MBA program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University outside of Chicago, focusing on strategy and marketing.
“I liked the program, but Chicago felt like the world’s biggest small town. The news coverage was rather inward-looking and left me feeling very isolated. I was losing connectedness with the rest of the world, and I really missed Europe.”
The program emphasized teamwork. Kerstin’s group was very international: one student from Germany, some from Mexico; there were several from France. One American, in particular, made a mark on Kerstin.
“He was a New Yorker and was in one of my case study groups. Marc and I worked long evenings together, developed a close friendship and a strong mutual respect. In time, the friendship developed into something more.”
“I was actually headed back to Europe to work at McKinsey when Marc proposed. Marc had never travelled beyond America and didn’t even have a passport, so we initially stayed in Chicago.”
“I worked in strategy for United Airlines but realized early on that I didn’t want to make a life there. Marc agreed to look for an opportunity in Europe; and London seemed like a natural destination.”
Kerstin and Marc left for the UK with the possibility of moving back to America the following year. That was thirty years ago; now they can’t imagine moving back.
“I joined American Airlines in London, focusing on international growth strategies. Apartheid was coming to an end and the company wanted to expand to South Africa. This involved traveling to Johannesburg to assess the market to understand the political, economic, and commercial environments.”
Eastern Europe also opened up around the same time, which offered similarly interesting opportunities.
A different challenge arose with the arrival of Kerstin and Marc’s three sons. Kerstin first continued at American Airlines; however, after the birth of their second child, she wanted greater autonomy than the corporate culture allowed.
“Balancing three small children with a demanding career was challenging, so I established a boutique consultancy practice that tapped into my contacts with several large firms. This was the only way I could spend more time with my boys when they were small. I did what was right for me and my family at the time.”
When her sons were school age, Kerstin returned to her career. She could let go a little now that they were in good schools.
“I knew that I could pursue what I loved to do. The truth is that to be a good mother, you have to be satisfied yourself. I knew I would be a better mother if I did what made me happy.”
The resilience of a mother becomes the strength of the leader. Kerstin spent years learning how to simplify things in two languages for her young sons. She became an expert in communication, process management, and breaking down tasks into manageable pieces.
“I took up a strategy and marketing role in the commercial wing of the BBC. Over the next decade I moved through a variety of positions, including several years as the BBC’s senior strategy executive, managing a team of 30. When I was promoted to Chief Operating Officer of BBC Future Media & Technology, that number grew to 100.”
Kerstin still sees herself as an introvert, even if a socially competent one. It’s not that she doesn’t love people; she simply needs to balance this with time by herself. After an event, she often needs to go for a run or have a long bath.
“A highlight of my time at the BBC was leading the planning and launch for the first on demand streaming service: the groundbreaking iPlayer. This was a very high-profile and successful project; but these achievements are never just down to one person. A lot of people claim credit, but it is always a team effort. My skillset was assembling and leading that team: gathering talented programmers, technologists, communicators, and marketers. It was my job to motivate the team, deliver clear objectives, gain buy-in, and remove obstacles.”
Following her leadership role in the development of iPlayer, Kerstin was named one of the UK’s Top 10 Women in Technology. She jokes that her sons now laugh as she runs around trying to figure out how to use the smart TV. She points out that technology products can sometimes be complicated and believes the project’s success was her mantra: For a product to be successful, you have to make it easy to use.
“Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t immersed in the technology that iPlayer became so successful. I recruited the right people to understand it, test it on me, and then make it easy to explain how to use. It was quite fun to say Make it simple – for me. And for everyone.”
Kerstin is that sort of level-headed rational person who breathes reason into every move she makes. The fact that she is a Swede coupled with her innate calm made her the neutral force that brought everyone together.
“I was often called upon to drive consensus on sensitive projects that cut across different parts of the BBC. I think the Director General thought of me as the UN! If the Television department was at war with the Future Media division, he would ask me to sort things out. I seemed to have a knack for delivering results in the face of internal political conflicts.”
When the 2012 Olympic Games were held in London, Kerstin led the transformation of the digital services from web to apps to digital interactive TV services.
“Then came the political decision to spread BBC’s functions across the country, and my division was headed to Manchester.”
“This wasn’t realistic for me and my family. The Olympics was a high that would not soon be repeated, so I said goodbye to my colleagues and left the BBC.”
Kerstin then led strategy and revenue generation for a company called Clear Channel.
Although she enjoyed her work, everyone came from an MBA background and spoke “slightly the same language.”
“I missed the diverse mix of personalities, backgrounds, and situations at the BBC ... and knowing that if you’re meeting with the Head of Comedy and you say the wrong thing, it may wind up in a sitcom! I missed that craziness!”
A headhunter asked Kerstin if she knew anyone who would make a good Managing Director of the Tate Museum, the largest art museum group in the world. Since she doesn’t have a background in the arts, Kerstin never even considered herself. But she didn’t have a technology background either and directed some of the most successful digital projects in the BBC’s history.
“I love art, but it never occurred to me that I might be the person they were looking for. Finally, they asked if I would consider applying and I ended up becoming Managing Director of the Tate group: Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. I loved being back in an environment where I was a businessperson trying to drive a creative organization.”
Not-for-profits have different metrics. With strictly commercial businesses, it’s all about the bottom line. When you’re in a cultural organization, such as the BBC or Tate, there are multiple stakeholder interests and things are much less straightforward. Some aspects of the challenge cannot be measured by a number.
“I’ve always been interested in organizations with broader goals: What’s the value of culture to society? With Tate: How does art contribute to enjoyment in life?”
“Or the publicly funded BBC: What is the value of independent media for democracy? The bottom line still matters, but you’re into a more complex scorecard than simply net profit.”
Tate turned out to be Kerstin’s biggest leadership challenge yet. With over a thousand staff from diverse backgrounds, her focus was again on creating a culture of effective teamwork, building those teams, as well as overseeing daily challenges and a host of significant projects.
The most prominent of these was the £260 million expansion of Tate Modern.
“Art is definitely a source of joy, history, reflection, and therapy. The impact is intangible but so valuable. In cities that have artistic communities, these become the vanguard of development: people move in, businesses open up, and neighborhoods begin to thrive.”
“Before Tate Modern was built on London’s South Bank, the area was very derelict. Now, billions of pounds of development have been generated. Art not only brings joy; it creates substantial economic development. This benefits all of humanity.”
Kerstin came into these organizations from the outside, bringing fresh ideas to the table with a tremendous amount of reason, empathy, and common sense.
“In senior roles, it’s all about managing people: how one gets the best out of people with different personalities to create the most effective teams. I loved the variety of styles, personalities and approaches, which can create serendipitous collisions. Leadership is challenging; it can be especially enjoyable and fulfilling when you throw the creative people and the more corporate types into the same mix!”
Kerstin’s brand of effective leadership considers the different cultural sensibilities of each member of her team. She leads, she empowers, then she steps back and trusts the people she has brought together.
“I’ve never been particularly interested in promoting myself and have always been comfortable leading by stepping back, saying: ‘In this project, you may work for me and when it succeeds, I will let you take the spotlight.’”
“I think I get a lot more out of people by helping them believe in their own abilities. I enjoy encouraging others and letting them have the glory.”
By early 2020, after 30 years of very long hours, Kerstin wanted more control over her time to do the things she really enjoys.
“I had started board work whilst at Tate, and have since served on several: Bonnier, Colart, the Media Development Investment Fund, and also the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in London. Recently, I joined the board of The New European: a weekly newspaper promoting collaboration between Great Britain and the EU. These are the things that interest me now: building an exciting portfolio of non-executive roles.”
In order to get people to perform at their best, you must be in a good place yourself because you cannot inspire people if you, yourself, do not feel inspired. So, what inspires Kerstin?
“Sports is the foundation upon which I’ve built my life; it was my very first love: the joy of movement and what it does to your soul, how it manages stress and stimulates creativity. There is a direct connection between challenging the body and strengthening the mind. This
is incredibly important when you’re in a demanding job.”
Kerstin is up at 6:00, in the pool by 7:00, home for breakfast, then ready to start work at 8:30. She sometimes bookends the day by training at night as well. On weekends, it’s long bike rides ‘to find the best café for brownies’. Her favorite activity is going for long runs in the forest with her four boys. Kerstin quietly says there was just an Ironman triathlon competition in Estonia the day before: a 1.9 km swim, 90 km on the bike, then running a half marathon.
“You wake up and it’s dark. You eat breakfast at 4 a.m. and, as you stand on the beach at 6:30 a.m. ready to jump into 16-degree water, you ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this?’ But once you get going, it’s really enjoyable and you meet people from all walks of life, from all over the world. People want to win, but it’s definitely a friendly competition. I love that.”
A member of Team Great Britain for Triathlon, Kerstin has won multiple medals in European and World championships.
“With sports, you learn to lose with maturity and to win gracefully. The winning, the losing, the camaraderie: it’s all about being honest about being competitive without letting the competition consume you. Sports teaches you this. A favorite expression of mine is ‘You win or you learn’. Sports also gives you an appreciation for commitment and consistency; it instills a work ethic. One learns how to take care of oneself, so the difficult times don’t become unbearable. Living off coffee and chocolate bars will never work. When you fall off your bike, the most important thing is to get back on it again.”
The time it took this woman to complete the Ironman was well under five hours. This is one of the fastest times in the world on record for her age group (55–59). Kerstin Mogull shines as one of the top triathletes in the world. And she doesn’t like the name, by the way: Why don’t they just call it Ironathlete?
“Resilience is something that develops over time; you are born with certain fundamental characteristics, which you learn to accept and nurture. I developed techniques to help myself reenergize through sports, which I brought to my career. For others, I would say to do whatever helps you relax: dance, art, music ... Just build that resilience to take care of yourself and motivate others.”
She loads her bicycle into the taxi and heads to the Stockholm airport to fly home to London. Kerstin Mogull’s humility is striking, and her generosity of spirit is the inspiration she leaves behind. This is enough to get everyone out into the open air: To move their bodies, challenge themselves, feed their souls, and free their minds.
Text: Karyn McGettigan