Sharpen the saw or your business could wind up being blunt and ineffective

Employment & Skills | Events | Reports | South East

Written by Neil Davidson, managing director at behavioural communications agency HeyHuman

“The day you feel like an expert is the most dangerous day in your career.”

Jonathan Walbancke, marketing transformation director at Unilever, was one of the business leaders sharing his insights at HeyHuman’s recent Transformative Growth breakfast briefing. The event gave the stage to leaders who have navigated the business challenges facing their industries, including Centaur Media’s CEO Andria Vidler, and Debora Koyama, who is chief marketing officer at Mondelez.

During the event, which was chaired by business journalist and former Financial Times columnist Stefan Stern, Jonathan extolled the value of being candid about your ignorance.  He drew upon his recent experience of becoming the UK and Ireland marketing transformation director at Unilever, and discussed how he has gone about trying to understand and introduce change within an 89 year old holding company that has such a vast network of household brands.

“First of all, you need to make sure you’re visiting the front line – spending time with the practitioners and not the consultants. Then, you need to ask them all the stupid questions and be up front with your ignorance” he said. “But at the same time you need to shield others from the complexity of it all.”

Jonathan cites this ‘Learn-it-All’ approach as key to understanding what needs to be done to change a business. He also thinks larger companies often lose out to challenger brands, because they aren’t doing enough to put the consumer first.

Want to change the world? It’s done through business

Debora, meanwhile, was the champion of brand purpose. She recalled how, as a young girl growing up in Brazil, she wanted to “have an impact on the world”, and imagined herself working for the UN or an NGO to do this. However, it soon became clear that the path to having this sort of impact also lay in business.

The Edelman Trust Barometer shows how in today’s landscape, people trust businesses more than they trust governments (shocker), and, surprisingly, they now also trust them at the same level that they trust NGOs. Businesses are clearly more powerful than ever, and the research has showed that they are in the strongest position to drive meaningful change in the world.

More importantly than that, Debora believes that a brand’s purpose can play a pivotal role when it comes to business growth.

“Humans need it, employees thrive on it – I truly believe that the path to growth lies in unlocking your brand’s purpose,” she said. Debora pointed to the presence which Mondelez brands have to prove her point: “All these brands are part of people’s lives: we are literally in their homes.”

The burden of leadership

For Andria Vidler, the business problems she faced at Centaur Media were more monetary. She recalled what it was like to take over as CEO in 2013.

“It was the perfect case study of the publishing model, and just how screwed it was at the time. Alongside brands like Marketing Week, Econsultancy, and Oystercatchers, there were over 50 small niche businesses in engineering, business travel, law, clean energy, aid, law, retail financial services and so on.

“It was a mixture of a lot of different things – the only thing they had in common was their reliance on advertising, and that was falling – fast.”

Andria detailed how Centaur is reacting to the decline of the traditional advertising model. In particular, she referenced the launch of two products (the launch of The Festival of Marketing, and the digitalisation of The Red Pages), as examples of how the publishing industry can remain profitable in a world which is increasingly reliant on free content.

But how do you bring the team along with you? And how do you avoid spreading fear when you are overseeing dramatic changes to a business?

“The responsibility of being a leader means that you set the tone of a business when you walk through the door every day, and if you show you’re worried and you’re stressed – you send that tremor right the way down through the business…That’s what we get paid for – to take that responsibility, and protect everybody from some of those problems” said Andria.

And why you need to sharpen the saw

Although the speakers came from different backgrounds, and faced various different challenges along their business transformation journeys, there was one common thread.

All three of them were focused on the business, but not so immersed in it that they are unable to spot trends and innovations which were going to affect their sectors. They are all evolving their offerings to keep pace with the evolving business landscape.

It hammered home the importance of sharpening the saw. As business leaders, we need to make time to focus on one of our most important assets – ourselves.

We need to look beyond the short-term pressures that drive many of our day-to-day decisions. Self-awareness, clarity and foresight are crucial in both anticipating and planning beyond the rough patches that every business will face.

After all, if we can’t take care of ourselves – how can we be trusted to lead other people?

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