Interview with Sue Musson, female leadership expert and author

Read our interview with female leadership expert and author of Firecracker Leadership, Sue Musson.

Sue holds a BA from Columbia University and achieved her first board-level leadership role at the age of 27. She is keen to share what she has learned to help other leaders build their confidence and capability

What is your career background?

I started working life as a management consultant in the field of economic development and then moved into delivering business services, achieving my first board-level role at the age of 27. Initially, I worked in strategy, research and business development roles and then moved into operational leadership roles to broaden my skillset and prepare me for my first managing director role.

I had always been entrepreneurial and decided in 2001 that the time was right for me to set up Firecracker Projects, my own management consultancy business. This really took off, and I have gone on to establish two other businesses under the Firecracker brand in the property sector and a charitable foundation.

Following my son’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, my involvement with the NHS started. Over the last 15 years, I have held five non-executive director and chair roles in NHS trusts. Most recently, I was Chair of Liverpool University Hospitals, one of the UK’s largest trusts with 14,000 staff and a £1.2Bn turnover. I led the trust through a merger, the pandemic and the completion of a new hospital, opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

My ongoing role as a panel chair for the Judicial Appointments Commission started in 2012, and I have held voluntary roles in other health-related organisations.

My first book, Firecracker Leadership, is a practical guide for aspiring and experienced leaders, with case studies that share all I have learned in my 30 year career. I now focus on sharing my leadership expertise through consultancy, coaching, training and public speaking. 

In summary, my commercial background has given me a wealth of opportunities to acquire new skills and experience. I have applied all of these transferrable skills in establishing my own successful businesses and in fulfilling my deep commitment to public service.

 Where did the idea for your business come from?

I started my career in management consultancy and found I had a real aptitude for this work. Given my academic background, I have highly developed research and analytical skills and a knack for communicating effectively in writing and in person.

What I lacked was operational experience. When a client asked me to leave my consultancy role and work for him full-time, I moved with no hesitation. I then had the benefit of working for a fantastic boss who really nurtured my development, giving me opportunities and the odd push to take on new roles that stretched and challenged me to grow.

After several years, I had both the analytical skills and the operational experience to take the plunge and fulfil my dream of running my own show. I spotted a market opportunity that would use all my abilities. I had a strong network of potential clients and associates built over many years.

My initial idea was to focus on the sectors I knew best, offering my services as a management consultant to people who knew me well and had a need that matched my experience. Much to my delight, I was flooded with opportunities, and the business was very successful.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

By writing it all down! One of the most fundamental lessons I have learned in life is that committing something to paper unlocks the magic that transforms ideas into reality. Ideas and dreams never move beyond the wish stage until they are captured on paper.

I forced myself to write a business plan, setting out what I wanted to create and the specific goals I had. I did an audit of my skills and my associates’ strengths. I completed a market assessment of potential clients, their needs and the tendering opportunities that were available or could be generated.

I knew my numbers. I set long-term goals and worked backwards to set the milestones to make the business viable on the way to thriving. This became my task list and I got busy securing new business and establishing the necessary infrastructure to deliver on the contracts I won.

I would say moving from an idea to an actual business takes two things: a written business plan and a bit of courage to put yourself out there.

Who’s your target audience?

My target audience has changed significantly over time. I have always been flexible in adapting to changing needs and market opportunities as they emerge.

The clients when I set up my business 23 years ago have changed significantly. Since then, new opportunities have arisen to work within different sectors, addressing new challenges.

Today, I am focused on providing consultancy services in the technology, healthcare, legal and property sectors. I have particular expertise in strategy, board and leadership development.

My coaching and training services are focused on leaders at every stage: those who aspire to leadership, those who are new to leadership and those who are experienced in leadership roles and wish to continue expanding their skills.

HR professionals know the leadership development needs within their organisations, and I find it useful to connect with them to design and implement relevant and effective development programmes. On a personal level, I find it rewarding to see individuals overcome the effects of imposter syndrome and embrace a more confident, effective expression of their leadership.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

In the early days, I relied on traditional marketing methods. I would concentrate on delivering results for my clients and would ask for feedback, testimonials, referrals and repeat business. These methods are still fundamental to my business because providing good customer service is a timeless way to establish credibility and maintain a good reputation.

However, the advent of social media and accessible technologies has transformed the ability to reach a much wider audience with ease.

I am extremely fortunate that my daughter Annabel runs an international social media and digital marketing consultancy. With her expert guidance, I am now able to communicate regularly on social media and via my website These platforms enable me to provide updates on relevant events, articles and commissions that clients find of interest.

I am embracing the exciting world of posting content via videos and podcasts, and I find virtual platforms like Zoom and Teams indispensable in conducting webinars and virtual meetings.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

In terms of personal qualities, I would say overcoming my short attention span has proved challenging. Although I have high standards, I am not a classic completer-finisher by nature. I have had to work hard to knuckle down at times, to channel patience and to resist the temptation to move on to the next thing too quickly.

Over the 30 years of my career, I have faced numerous family and work crises. The biggest one by far would be chairing Liverpool University Hospitals throughout the pandemic. Keeping calm, curious and communicative throughout was so important. Taking this approach helped with building the teamwork necessary to navigate such a frightening time.

And your proudest moment so far?

I am immensely proud of both my children. They are wonderful, kind, caring people who have great values, and they have achieved outstanding academic and professional success in their respective fields.

From a personal perspective, becoming a number one bestselling author on Amazon was a recent proud moment. I did fear that it might just be me and my mum who read my book so it was truly thrilling to achieve this result.

Who inspires you?

I find Michelle Obama and Jacinda Ardern inspirational women leaders. They are both gifted with great intellect, strength, warmth and compassion. They exemplify all the head, hands and heart skills I describe in my book.

When I was nine years old, I made a poster of footprints painted in different colours to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. His message of humanity and unity at times of discord and division is timeless and uplifting.

Vishen Lakhiani is an inspirational business leader with an inclusive, compelling mission to help individuals achieve their full potential.

I have admired many colleagues who have been role models and my yoga teachers and fellow students who demonstrate the art of the possible.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Write it down!

I have met so many people who say they wish to have their own business but do not commit to defining what this would look like. If you want to start a successful business, articulate your purpose and goals on paper.

2) Never stop investing in your knowledge

Successful entrepreneurs and leaders never feel they are the finished article. They are hungry to adopt habits of continuous learning and growth. Embrace ways to keep your areas of expertise current and prioritise opportunities to expand your repertoire of skills.

3) Master your self-talk

Make sure the voice inside your head is saying positive, encouraging things about you. This will build your confidence and give you the courage to go for it!

In her new book, Firecracker Leadership, Sue draws on her extensive leadership experience to create a practical, “how to” toolkit to inform, reassure, amuse and challenge readers looking to supercharge their leadership skillset.

Delving into the real-life challenges faced by leaders, this guide offers compelling case studies that reinforce the importance of what Sue coins “The Firecracker Leadership Framework”