Time with Syed Kamall MEP (London), Leader of the European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) Group in the European Parliament

by Hawtrey Dene

We sat down with Syed as part of our Sowing the Seed series; providing insights into and from the lives of those at the forefront of their sectors and industries.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your career up this point?

I was born and grew up in London. My father came to London in the 1950s to work on the railways and then worked as a bus driver. My mother came in the 1960s.  She gave up work to bring up my brother, sister and me.  After studying engineering at university, and a Masters from the LSE, I worked in the IT department of a bank, left to do a PhD, taught and supervised research on trade and investment, worked in strategy consulting with telecoms, post and energy clients, was self-employed for a few years and was elected as a MEP for London in 2005. In 2013, I was elected leader of the Conservative MEPs and in 2014 was elected leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, the third largest of the eight political groups in the European Parliament.

Has the current role lived up to your expectations? What has surprised you about it?

Before I was elected leader of my pan-European group of 74 MEPs from 19 EU countries, I had been leader of the British Conservative MEPs, so I assumed it would be similar, but on a larger scale. However, there are many more issues and dimensions to this role, such as dealing with different cultural views on specific issues, having to meet with senior politicians such as EU Ministers, Presidents, monarchs as well dealing with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker  and Donal’s Tusk, President of the European Council.

Were there any unexpected challenges?

When I became leader in 2014, I did not expect there to be a referendum on the UK’s membership. I also assumed that given the machinery of the British government, the majority of the political class, large industry, big business and trade unions, that Remain would win the referendum.  As the most senior elected British MEP in Brussels, and as a group leader who speaks to people on both sides of the negotiations, I have been acting as an interlocutor, helping to address misunderstandings or explain the UK position to EU leaders and the EU position to UK audiences.

Can you describe a typical day in your role?

I will start off with a quick run through of my daily schedule and maybe, rearrange those that are not urgent, if appropriate. My usual day in Brussels consists of meetings with individual MEPs from my political group, others MEPs, EU commission staff, parliamentary staff, advisors, visiting politicians, ambassadors, diplomats, companies or other organisations wanting to see me about legislation or parliamentary reports I may be working on.

During committee weeks, I will attend meetings of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee or the International Trade Committee when a report or legislation I am working on is discussed or voted upon. Unless I have a working lunch, I usually eat lunch at my desk while catching up on news and emails. I do try to block out other time for writing or editing articles or discussing new ideas or initiatives. I usually have working dinners, but occasionally am able to escape for band practice.

Once or twice a month, I attend the Conference of Presidents, where the President of the European Parliament chairs a meeting of group leaders (known as Presidents) to discuss the business of the European Parliament. In Strasbourg, we have regular voting sessions of the whole Parliament. In London, I meet with companies or organisations or constituents who have requested meetings.  I am also passionate about local community projects tackling poverty in their local neighbourhood, so meet with local projects when I can. Most Thursday and Friday evenings, I am invited to be a speak at events.  On Saturdays, I am to be found campaigning somewhere.

Did/do you have a mentor in your career?

I have had one or two mentors, who kindly approached me when they saw me speak and offered me advice.  I think it is really important to bring new and younger people into politics and have been happy to help anyone who approaches me  for advice.

Were you clear on what you wanted to do as a career?

No. I had lots of ideas and changed jobs a few times before I was elected.

Your role involves a lot of travel, what’s your top tip for a business trip?

Just accept some things are simply out of your control. Flights will be cancelled of delayed.  If you are unable to change your travel plans, just accept it. Take the time to catch up on emails or phone calls or writing or thinking or chill out.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

The best piece of advice I have read, but was not given, was from Donald Trump, way before he became a politician.  He advised when making a decision, think about the worst case scenario. If you can live with that, then go for it.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone starting in their career? Does it differ?

Be yourself. Try to find something you are passionate about and make sure you believe in what you are doing.

How have things changed in your sector in the last 30 years? What’s been the hardest change to deal with personally?

Social media has had a huge impact on politics. While it makes it easier for politicians to communicate with our constituents and for constituents to communicate with us, it means that we have to be careful about almost every step we take and everything we say.  I hope it doesn’t stop people who may have done silly things or made mistakes in their past from becoming politicians.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you started in your first role? How do you think the roles of Leader and Manager differ?

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. It’s how we learn.

A leader has to be prepared to take responsibility, while this is not necessarily true for a manager.

How would you describe your management style?

I am very much a ‘hands off’ manager. I will set the goals and expect others to deliver.  I do become more hands-on if goals are not being met or when things go wrong.

How do you deal with change?

My PhD was about radical change in post-Communist economies, so I read almost the whole library on change 20 years ago.  I agree with the saying that “the only constant is change”, so believe we should try to embrace it.  The writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes that when there is disruption, you face three choices: You can be fragile, you can be robust and survive or you can take full advantage of the opportunities by being anti-fragile and thrive.

If you weren’t in the role you have now, which job or role would you love to apply for or to have, and why?

Last year, I organised The Global Poverty Summit which  brought together experts from across the world to discuss non-state grassroots approaches to addressing poverty.  One of the recommendations was to set up a “do tank’, not a think tank to link different grassroots projects and use their shared expertise and contacts as an incubator to grow them and create new ones.  We would be the network bringing together start-up community projects, philanthropists, foundations and those with much-needed skills.   I would love to run set up and run such a do-tank.

Working in leadership roles, have you found self-confidence and resilience has come naturally or is it something that you have had to nurture?

I am actually naturally shy, but have succeeded by being able to leave my comfort zone.  Being a leader gives me the confidence to walk into a room and be confident, since people tend to approach me, rather then me having to apologetically approach strangers.

What advice would you give someone in their first management position?

Listen to your team and take account of different views, explain your decision and be prepared to take responsibility.

Are you involved in any charity work? Can you tell us about some of the charities you’ve been involved with or with whom you are involved currently?

I try to work with many local grassroots charities in London, by publicising their work, especially those that do not have the marketing budgets or well paid CEOs or lobbyists of large NGOs.  I personally donate monthly to quite a few charities and am currently working on setting up a microfinance project to give loans to entrepreneurs from poorer communities in the UK, based on kiva.org which allows individuals around the world to crowdfund entrepreneurs in poorer countries or in the USA.

What do you do to relax outside work?

I play bass and occasionally sing in a blues band.  The lead guitarist is a Latvian MEP. Our drummer who is actually a pop star in Latvia, is our Latvian press officer.  Our second guitarist is our Czech press officer. I also try to cycle every week and love spending time with my family at weekends.

How would you describe yourself in one word?

Eclectic

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