C-suite career advice: William Cowell de Gruchy, Infogrid

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “The main thing is unrelenting self belief; if you believe you will make it happen, it is far, far more likely to happen.”

Headshot of William Cowell de Gruchy, CEO at Infogrid
Infogrid

Name: William Cowell de Gruchy

Company: Infogrid

Job Title: CEO

Location: London, United Kingdom

Will Cowell de Gruchy is the Founder and CEO of Infogrid, the global leader in building intelligence committed to making the built environment more efficient, sustainable and healthier through smart technologies. Infogrid’s AI-powered SaaS platform collects, combines and analyses millions of data points from buildings through best-in-class IoT sensors, delivering real-time intelligence for the commercial real estate and property sector. Prior to founding Infogrid, Gruchy attended Oxford University and had a varied career – from finance, to cage fighting in Thailand to Tank Commander in the British Army. 

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? As Baz Luhrman put it in “Everybody’s free to wear sunscreen” - a song that still inspires me to this day (and yes, I wear at least SPF 30 on my face all the time even in winter!) - “don’t waste your time on jealousy, sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind… the race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself.”

It’s easy to get caught up in what other people are doing, but comparing yourself to others wastes emotional energy that would be better used for your own journey, and can leave you feeling dispirited. Focus on building a great company and having a great impact on the world; what others do is their business. The song also says “Don’t read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly”. I sometimes think about this when reading funding announcements. If a company raises and you look at it and think “I raised more” that’s an ugly thought, and if you think “They raised more than me” that belittles your own great achievement. Anyone building a company and raising funding of any size has already taken a huge step and should be proud of it. Focus on that, and keep going; in this journey you’ll need all the determination you can muster.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I don’t think I can condense it down to one sentence, but generally the worst - and yet sadly, very prevalent - advice I’ve heard is to do what other successful people have done, because that is the ‘right’ route. Every journey is unique. Sure, you can draw advice and inspiration from those that have gone before, but don’t feel pressured to go against your own principles just because it’s the ‘done’ thing. In a glossy world of social media you never truly know what’s behind that super polished public image. And that’s as true for companies and senior leaders as it is for influencers on social media.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? One of the biggest hurdles you'll face is right at the start. Often, it’s not the best ideas that succeed but those that are best executed. No matter how junior or new you are to a company, remember that your ideas matter. The most common cause of failure is not trying in the first place - because of self-doubt.

Also, whether this is a first, second or tenth career, find a role you love. The more you go on the more you realise that loving what you do every day makes you far happier than a higher salary or fancier title ever could. Don’t feel pressured by received wisdom of what ‘good’ looks like. Some of our most successful team members made bold sideways moves to totally new areas only to advance 5x faster as a result because they were happy and motivated, and thus thrived.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No, it’s safe to say I have a varied career history! I began my career in Finance, because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. I quickly realised this didn’t feed my soul and, per my advice above, because I wasn’t happy I couldn’t thrive. 

After that, I actively sought some of the things I was missing, like teamwork, leadership, camaraderie, variety. This led me to join the British Army as an Officer for five years (via a 6 month stint cage fighting in Thailand - a story for another day!). I left in 2016 and worked as a consultant in Commercial Due Diligence, which is where I spotted the problem Infogrid now solves. 

My story validates two things: the first, is that there is no ‘set path’ or single skillset that leads to being an entrepreneur or working in tech - you can chart your own path there if you back yourself. Follow your passion. For me, that’s preserving the natural world, and we use technology to do it. And the second is that Baz Lurhman (yup, back to that song again) was right when he said “Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do with your life; most thirty year olds didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to be when they grew up, and some of the MOST interesting forty year olds I know still don’t”.

What was your first job in IT/tech? In the purest sense, Infogrid! There, you rumbled me as an amateur. Shows what you can do if you care and stick at it.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? A lot of people still think you need a technical background to get into the market. A technical background is a great advantage no matter which industry you go into but it's certainly not a prerequisite for the tech industry. There are lots of great roles in tech, such as those in product management, where having a non technical background can mean that you are more likely to focus on the customer problem.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? There are so many practical guides out there and books purporting to show the successful habits of senior leaders and so forth. It’s noise. The main thing is unrelenting self belief; if you believe you will make it happen, it is far far more likely to happen. 

The journey is a personal one and there is no right answer. You need to accumulate experience so that you can best serve the people you manage, and you need to truly care about them. However, there are myriad ways you can do that and no defined path you need to follow.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? For me, there’s no distinction between career and personal ambition. My goal in life is the preservation of the natural world; stopping and reversing deforestation, halting and rewinding the extinction of species, regenerating our oceans, rewilding land - and of course sitting over all of them, fighting climate change. Infogrid’s internal North Star metrics, the rallying points for our company and people, are measured in tonnes of CO2 prevented from hitting the atmosphere and healthy hours created for our clients. Buildings account for 39% of global emissions and we as humans spend 90% of time in them, so if we make buildings healthier and more sustainable we go a long way towards making the planet healthier and more sustainable too.

That means that for me coming to work is an extension of my personal ambitions, and I leap out of bed every day to do it. One day, that work might also yield a level of influence or personal resources that I can then put to work directly towards solving those goals too. So it’s all interlinked, a double win and certainly not finished. It will never be finished, but I’ll keep trying.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I personally don’t have an issue with ‘flipping the switch’ and turning off when I need to, but the fact that I love what I do is the most important thing to being in balance. One person’s work is another’s passion; for me they are one and the same and that sustains me. That said, as Infogrid grows larger and now operates on a 24-7 basis across all time zones, I have applied more rigour to switching off (both literally and metaphorically) and keeping focused on fitness, diet and sleep. The most regenerative thing for me is being in nature. I recently took the decision that in a world where most meetings are digital (Infogrid is a remote-positive company), I don’t need to be in the big city and so I am moving to the countryside. That was a conscious decision to make sure I am operating sustainably, as I’ll be at this for decades!

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I studied History as my major at university and we were always taught to avoid indulging in ‘counterfactuals’ or what would have been true under different circumstances (basically, ‘what if XYZ had/hadn’t happened’). I think that’s a good lesson for life too. Back to Baz, paraphrasing ‘Whatever you achieve, don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else's’.

Looking back and longing for something different solves nothing, and you have no idea which amazing aspects of you today were born out of the adversity of yesterday - focus on tomorrow instead. The thing with half-chance is that you are half in control; go and make your own luck!

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? At Infogrid we focus on people’s skills, what they can do and the experience they have putting that to real-world use. We test your actual abilities, and we compensate you based on them too. So qualifications are only important to the extent that they give you skills that you can use; we’ll judge you on what you can do with those skills, not what piece of paper you have saying you’re good at something.

Pick the course that gives you the best actual experience, rather than the most ‘prestigious’ qualification.

How important are specific certifications? There are times where these are essential, especially if it pertains to safety or regulations. However, for the most part as I say above it’s much more about what you can do than the paper you hold.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Our culture is one of trust and grown up rules. We trust our team to deliver the outcome required without micromanagement, but to be grown up enough to say if they are given a task that’s impossible, or ask for help if they need it. So we want people who are collaborative, trustworthy and who have a bias for action.

What would put you off a candidate? Generally I am concerned if someone cares about nothing but themselves. In every interview I ask people what they are passionate about. I don’t have any ‘right’ answer in mind, I am just looking to see that they think about the world through a wider lens than just their own needs. That’s not to say that those needs aren’t important nor that in certain roles people who think like that can’t thrive, but experience has taught me that they don’t thrive at Infogrid.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not being themselves! If you say what you think is the right answer, rather than what you truly believe it to be, you’re going to let yourself down. It will be quite obvious to the interviewer too. Be honest; and if that means the role isn’t a fit for you then you’ve just spared yourself a bad experience in a job that wasn’t right for you.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? I don’t think ‘better’ is the right phrase when it comes to skills. Everyone has their own set, and those skills have utility in some places and less in others. It’s vastly dependent not only on your business area, but even the specific team or role you have within it. Generally in life though I think it’s positive to be well rounded where possible; if you’re technical you still have a grasp of how your work is being used in the physical world, and if you’re more commercially minded you have at least a basic understanding of how the thing you’re selling works and why.