Lessons from the C-suite: Ian Wilson, DHL Express UK

The UK CEO of DHL Express UK offers his leadership tips and his view of HR at the top.

I started out… My first jobs were during my gap year. I was a barman in Hong Kong, sold cuddly toys in Sydney, and many other roles as I travelled. It was an amazing experience, I learned to be adaptable and find my own way. After university I started a graduate scheme in hospitality management, but it wasn’t for me. My next job was with DHL Express and that’s where I’ve been ever since.   

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I knew this was the right career path for me when… I got my first role at DHL Express in the Middle East. I grew up in South Africa; we moved back to the UK when I was 14 and as soon as I was old enough, I began travelling again between study and work. Being part of a global business has given me opportunities to live and work all over the world and become immersed in different cultures. 

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way… The value of breadth and depth. A few years into my career I was encouraged to move from sales into an operational role. I was apprehensive about moving into a role I had no experience in, but I was well supported and learned quickly. It taught me that people are versatile and when given new opportunities they will excel. I really believe that’s one of the main reasons colleagues stay at DHL Express for so long, as we don’t apply constraints to ambition.   

My proudest achievement... The way we cared for our people during the pandemic. As an essential service provider our operational colleagues were on the frontline during the crisis, so my priority was their health and emotional wellbeing. Despite the huge challenges of the last year we were ranked fourth in the 'Great Place to Work' league table which is testament to the fact that we did right by our people. 

My biggest mistake… I took on a role in a market that was facing lots of challenges, and a change in business direction was needed. I was young and hungry to progress, I did a solid job, but I believe I would have done a better job if I had been 10 years further into my career.  

My biggest inspiration… Paralympic athletes. Every one of them. The grit, passion and talent of people who have likely been told they can’t, is awe-inspiring.

"Sometimes your gut knows best."

Keeping me awake at night right now… The future of work. The last 18 months has shown that it’s possible to give people a better work/life balance but we can’t live entirely online

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be… The battle for talent. Globally there is a huge talent shortage, businesses will need to ensure their employer brand is relevant to the next generation. Young people want to work for businesses that operate with integrity and nurture ambition. That’s one of the reasons we’re involved with apprenticeships and Street League, an organisation that supports young people who have had a tough start and helps them find employment. 

I need my HR director to… continue being the custodian of our culture. It’s what makes our business special, helps us retain such a talented team and keeps them motivated to go the extra mile for our customers. 

More HR directors would become CEO if… they took the risk to move cross functionality. HR is more qualified than many functions, as an engaged workforce leads to improved profitability and growth. But I believe people need to stray from their lane, get experience across other areas of the business, then have the confidence to go for the top spot. 

What I’m reading right now… Alive by Piers Paul Read. It’s the incredible true story of a group of people who survived an aeroplane crash in the Andes. 

My top leadership tip… Trust your instincts. You can be surrounded by data and opinions but sometimes your gut knows best. 


Ian Wilson is CEO of DHL Express UK


This piece appears in the November/December 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.