Spotlight on Roger Urwin, Co-Founder of the Thinking Ahead Institute

Tell me a little about yourself:
My North Star is my family. I am married to a wonderful woman – Gail. And we have four children – Katy, Grant, Anthony and Annie who fill me with immense pride. Gail and I are the baby boomers, our kids are the millennials, and the grandkids are the gen alphas. Two of our kids’ families live close to us in Surrey, Anthony’s family is in Quzhou China, Annie’s is in Singapore. We are all global citizens.  We are praying for a full house at Christmas.

My pin-code is 2448 – the 2 is Gail and I, then we have the 4 kids and 4 partners, 8 grandkids. That is quite a big family in a journey that has been so full and vibrant. Our lived experiences have been immense, with some setbacks and a tragedy stalking us, but overall it’s been really blessed. I give thanks every day for all our well-being.

I write this as we all ease out of lockdown in our local ways. Tough times for all and not easy for Annie who is expecting her first child. But it’s had its pluses and shows the importance of values. I think in our family we all believe in caring and kindness, truth and fairness, and the family sticking together.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Willis Towers Watson has been a North Star project too. Thirty years ago I started the investment business at Watsons and it has emerged today in close to a thousand people. For the first two decades I was the head of the business but stepped down ten years back to do more client work and creative work as global head of content. 

As a journey from ground zero it has been a real highlight to see the creation of an organisation that is extremely collectively intelligent and solutions oriented. I think there is no finer organisation to understand client problems, make the connections in thinking to frame the responses and execute the delivery.

The highlights for me have been shaping our organisation, but also influencing outside organisations. I have kept my consulting work going and have been very involved with many of the leading sovereign wealth funds and pension funds as a coach in their development.

What is your favourite thing about working for TAI? TAI is purpose driven, has strong culture, is a T-shaped team and is highly innovative. So there are four things there that I like. 

What is a T-shaped team? It has T-shaped people that ‘connect dots’ well. They reconcile deep-level knowledge and understanding in one field (the vertical), with a wide perspective across many fields, disciplines and organisations (the horizontal). Becoming T-shaped involves hunting down the people that can make you T-shaped – they know something that you don’t, they add cognitive diversity.

Tim and I often joke that while he’s trying to work for better tides (because in a rising tide all boats go up together), I’m more into better boats (because it’s all about adding up the 1 per cents).  I think we both have our spaces with those distinct focuses.

What motivates you? Motivation comes from intrinsic stuff for me. That is my values and they launch my attitudes and motivations. You are born with some values, but many are about family cascades and both my mum and dad were very hard workers serving others. That resonated and stuck. It means helping others and achievement of meaning and purpose are high up there.

Where is your favourite place to go to unwind? Travel has been a big unwinder and Whistler (mountains to die for), Martha’s Vineyard (chilled-outness to live for) and Hilton Head (lifestyle heaven to dream over) have all played starring roles. Gail and I have now reached a conclusion that we should unwind closer to home, and we are developing our ‘croft’ opposite the house here in the Surrey Hills to be our staycation place of the future.

What is the best advice you have ever been given? The Serenity Prayer has been my companion for many years. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. 

This was a powerful message to carry me through tragedy. It also kept me chilled with recognising the inviolable but forgotten truths in life: that work life balance is always a struggle; the train and plane will run late; your IT won’t always work; you will forget the seventh thing on your checklist; politicians will foul-up. 

And there is a footnote to that. I am big time into ‘soft power’. That is shaping people’s views through attraction to example, appeal to reason and co-option to values. It’s trying to make people see that what they want is what you can share with them. This is difficult. If you can achieve this, please let me know how you did it.

This challenge seems to be more and more important. The world seems to be going off the rails. I have anguish every day that the climate problem, inequality and justice, and the pandemic peril are creating far too much rough justice. The world is such a slow improver. Has it time to sort these things out?

It needs to build its resilience and acknowledge its issues. I worry my little army of gen alpha grandkids will hit a stream of horrible problems. But then they are so gifted, maybe just maybe, they will be in there working on the torrent of inspired solutions.

How would Gail describe you in three words?
Over-anxious. Over-worked. Under-practical. She’s a very good judge.

Describe yourself in three words: 
T-shaped. Values values. Likes leaving tracks. Yes, I know that was six words.