Lessons in Leadership
Q: What is the biggest lesson in leadership that you’ve gained in your 10-year global tenure?
One of the things about leadership that became clear quite early on is that, obviously, you’ve got to get people to go with you, not just to follow. In order to do that, you have to connect really well with the organization. Jack Welch summed up the challenge of being promoted from within when he talked about becoming CEO of GE: “You have to hold office and run for office at the same time.” Building relationships is key.
One of the things you read in all the business books is that it’s all about engaging leadership teams. You begin to understand over time that it is absolutely critical and I have been really lucky to work with extremely talented leaders all over the network. By having a highly effective leadership team, we’ve been able to get the company to move along together. I’ve seen so many instances where people have had great ideas, both inside and outside of an organization, yet they don’t necessarily succeed because the organization is not fully aligned around that idea. It is critical to be transparent with the entire organization, constantly communicating what we are trying to do and where we were going together. Everyone has to feel connected to the strategy, and be behind it, for it to succeed. If you can get people to actually want to do something, not just tell them, it’s far more powerful.
Q: When you took over this role, you went from managing a regional office in London to inheriting quite a large global footprint. What did such a significant shift teach you?
There’s the expression about “drinking from a fire hose”—and that’s exactly what it felt like. I’d been in the company for eight years at that point, I knew a lot of the people who ran our offices around the world, but we hadn’t really spent time talking about what we should be doing for the business together, so engaging them was key. It was getting to know them individually—and learning to trust one another. There was a lot of learning—all the offices and markets were in different stages of development, they had different offers, they varied greatly culturally—even their clients’ demands were different. I was learning about them, and they were learning about me.
Q: At Interbrand, we have the privilege of working with clients and partners who are successful business leaders themselves. What have you learned by working with them?
I’m a terrible thief—I’m constantly looking for inspiration from other people who have run successful businesses. In my first years, I thought I was just going to learn what all these other wonderful business leaders did, but I actually learned a lot about myself—about the importance of how other people interact with you, of vision and culture, and how everything fits together in people’s minds within a business.
I’ve had the benefit of working with some extremely talented CEOs, great business leaders, fantastic entrepreneurs, and you do pick up things from all of them, through observation and experience. There are a few individuals of note:
Alistair Cox, who runs Hays in the UK, used to be a client of mine. I appreciated his observations about how companies operate—particularly the central part of the business which he calls the “permafrost”—and the difficulty of creating change within businesses. He was a fantastic operator where that was concerned and I was fortunate to learn from him.
Tim, Jason, and John at Ocado were also very inspiring to work with. We wanted to change the world of grocery shopping – it sounds easy, but the challenge of managing a large scale start-up was significant. Doing something that’s never really been done before, and competing with some of the biggest brands in the world was a huge learning experience for all concerned.
The person with perhaps the biggest personal impact was Angela Ahrendts, who used to be CEO of Burberry, and is now at Apple. She’s a tremendously inspiring leader who did great things to change that organization, and I was lucky to be a fairly intimate part of that along the way. I learned a lot from her because actually Burberry is a strategic/creative organization, like Interbrand is, and they had some very difficult strategic business problems to solve.
Andy Palmer, the CEO of Aston Martin (previously my client at Nissan), brings an engineer’s brain to brands. I learned a lot from him, in terms of the way that he approached and thought about brands in the context of an organization, and his constant desire to have data. The realization was that, going forward, companies need to understand how their brands work in a very forensic fashion.
Q: What was your most humbling moment as global CEO?
There’s a great book by David Maister, who used to lecture at Omnicom University, called First Amongst Equals. I think any organization, especially one like Interbrand, is only as good as the people within it. My role is then not to dictate, but to be the first amongst equals, which is a constant exercise in humility.
But the most humbling experience in my ten years would have to be the credit crunch in 2009/2010—that was a very difficult time, not just for Interbrand, but for every company in the world. We had to make some significant changes to our team, and that’s extremely painful. I’ve always felt a tremendous responsibility for the people working at Interbrand. They come to work every day and put in 110 percent because they love what we do, but also because they have lives to lead, and their jobs allow them to do that. They have families, they have dreams, and they have real responsibilities—like paying the rent every month. It’s impossible to control such huge socio-economic events, but you can show responsibility for how that impacts people.
They always say you learn more about yourself in difficult times than in the good. As the person who ultimately has to lead, the only thing you can do is to seek as much information as possible, listen to as many different perspectives as you can, and then actually make the difficult decisions. The only worse thing than a bad decision is no decision at all.
Q: What advice do you have for up-and-coming leaders at Interbrand?
There’s an anecdote that I think sums up what leadership is about, to me: When I was CEO of London, Richard, who ran our internal brand engagement team, caught me walking through the office one day. He said, “You know whether it’s going to be a good day or not by the way you walk up that corridor.” I was completely taken aback—the sudden realization that, as a leader, people look at you not just for answers, but for the very tonality of the business.
That was a huge learning about self-awareness: the recognition that the way that I interact with people, even is everyday situations, can set the mood for the organization.
As a leader, you have to have a high degree of self-awareness—and you also have to be good at making decisions. You’re constantly faced with different agendas, different things that people want to do. They are all valid perspectives, and the job of the CEO is to try cut through and make decisions, and then get everyone to work together. Not everyone has or wants those skills—some people get much more out of solving client problems, or exploring breakthrough creativity. One of the things I would say is don’t do something you don’t like. The answer to everybody’s career isn’t to do my job!
Stay tuned for Jez’s deep insights on the future of the branding industry and his exploration of the forces of brand and business growth, as we continue to celebrate our CEO’s 10-year tenure throughout the coming weeks. Read the next installment here: https://www.interbrand.com/views/10-years-of-growth-our-global-ceo-on-the-future-of-branding/