Hi-touch leadership in a hi-tech world: Adrian Simpson
At heart, Adrian is a connector and gatherer of stories and is never happier than when scouring the world for examples of companies at the frontiers of service excellence, innovation, employee engagement, service excellence and dealing with digital disruption.
For over 25 years, Adrian has taken top leaders into the boardrooms and onto the shop floors of some of the world’s most successful, innovative and admired companies in the world.
In the last few years he has arranged study tours to: Netflix, Apple, Tesla, LEGO, Google, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Southwest Airlines, Four Seasons, Zappos and met with Silicon Valley leading VC’s and thought leaders on topics such as AI, Machine Learning, IoT, Big Data, Security and the Future of Work.
Most recently, he has been to China and India – the latter with a select group of leaders to visit the Aravind Eye Care System. He regularly shares insights on the organizations he has visited and has recently given speeches to top leaders at Emirates NBD in Dubai, Allianz, RBS, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Belron, and the London Stock Exchange Group. He is an Innovation Adviser to The Prince’s Trust, a charity that helps disadvantaged young people to succeed in education and employment.
Here are the excerpts from the interview.
What is the primary challenge or industry-wide problem that you are addressing with Wavelength?
There are two challenges or problems that we try to solve.
First is the challenge about insularity.
Many senior leaders spend their entire career in one industry, or in one company and they don’t have the opportunity to really see what a great job actually looks like in another sphere of business.
You take them to Netflix and they have a light-bulb moment - now they really understand what these organizations are all about. Another challenge is changing the mindset that you can outsource change. In so many cases transformation solutions are sought from external consultancy firms. The major concern in doing this is that external suppliers – with the best will in the world - don’t really understand your vision or culture and end up suggesting a solution for which you have no ownership.
I believe you are far better off improving the top leadership with exposure to other leaders - because leaders are top level learners.
Through experiential learning we provide leaders with a world class education, inspiration and help them create their own solutions for their challenges. For example, if you take them to Silicon Valley, you expose them to the best practices around innovation and they inevitably take those influences and ideals back home with them.
Would you take me through how you created Wavelength and how you work?
It started through the fundamental belief in the power of experiential learning.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Tom Peters, the American management guru who wrote In Search of Excellence in the 1980s, very early on in my career.
It was a completely inspirational experience for me, actually walking through the corridors and the shop floors of Southwest Airlines, one of the world’s most admired companies, seeing how the leaders spoke to each other, experiencing the incredible power in the physical environment. They use forty thousand pictures on the walls in the headquarters to throw light on every celebration that has taken place in the history of the organization.
At Wavelength, we now run a tight portfolio of programs and three of them are experiential.
In January 2019, we took 25 leaders on a tour to India, to visit the remarkable Aravind Eye Care System in Tamil Nadu and in May and June we took leaders from around the globe – including the board of the world’s 3rd largest retailer into the heart of Silicon Valley to visit the likes of Airbnb, Netflix and meet the leading VCs, startups and thought leaders.
In October, this year, we are taking 18 leaders to China. We know when leaders go through the Aravind program, the American programs, the China program, it brings about profound change.
In the UK, we run a program called the “Connect” which brings together leaders for a 12-day curriculum that takes place over several months.
Part of the Connect program is held in the middle of the countryside, on an organic farm with amazing wooden buildings. It’s a beautiful and inspirational place. We totally believe in the power of the magic space! This is mirrored when taking people inside the boardrooms of the great companies in Europe. Our leaders find it is powerful and inspirational having access to that space (in the same way I did when I first walked the halls of Southwest Airlines all those years ago).
Around 30 percent of the people on the program come from social enterprises, charities, public sector, and they pay one-third of the price for exactly the same program as in the private sector. This means we can fulfill our purpose as an organization, which is to change the world through business - by inspiring and educating leaders, not just in the private sector, but also in the charity and social enterprise sectors. We’re often tackling big social issues and we think that makes the world a better place. It also makes our programs very interesting because you are sitting as the leaders from the private sector organizations alongside somebody raising funds for children, and it fundamentally changes the conversation.
Considering the current pace of things that are impacting the world of work, what are the three key qualities that leaders should have?
#1 Having a diverse network and being attuned to it.
The diversity of a leader’s network and where it comes from is very important. As a leader, you constantly use your own radar to see where the change in your organization may come from and this is increasingly important as the speed of disruption continues to accelerate. The best leaders are highly attuned to how they are spending their time and with whom.
Good leaders will not spend their time entirely focused within their own company. They build great relationships with leaders outside of their sector or industry so that they can identify new paths and develop a broader perspective.
#2 Being resourceful and resilient.
#3 Being an authentic leader.
Having face-to-face conversations and providing honest and constructive coaching is an essential skill that leaders must possess. In the world of high-tech, high-touch culture becomes more important. Hand-written notes of encouragement and recognition might sound like a relic; however, it shows that your boss or leader cares about you and your success. Timely recognition of teammates is the leaders’ responsibility.
Becoming an authentic leader means taking time out for your team members and ensuring that they feel valued and appreciated. A major part of the leaders’ skill is in providing a clear vision and direction. If you are authentic, open, and embrace differences then you can pass along the message to the rest of your team. Once you are in a position of authority in an organisation, you can no longer complain in public. That does not mean that you can’t have a different point of view from the rest of leadership, but it is crucial to have those conversations in a closed boardroom. As a leader, the onus is on you to refrain from getting rattled and spreading cultural negativity in the organization. Effective communication is a key skill set that a leader must possess.
What are the challenges that leaders are facing at the present juncture of digital transformation?
The number one challenge is to know where the next big competition is coming from. The spread of Luckin Coffee in China vs. Starbucks’ apparent failure in the country is a good example of tapping into the customers’ needs and modifying your business models accordingly.
When you are facing a startup like Luckin or a digital platform like Amazon, they just have different operating models built into their DNA. That’s why you have to look very hard and decide how to structure your innovation response. Innovating at scale is another major challenge faced by many leaders, often due to a lack of technical prowess. Another aspect is talent retention and attraction. The rightful talent, which is digitally innovative, understands big data. The most desirable candidates prefer companies that are digitized, have an interesting culture and a great physical environment. More than the salary package, they want to be surrounded by other smart people. As the competition moves faster than ever, it is time that organizations ask themselves serious questions such as, ‘do we have the culture to attract these individuals?’ If not, what are the ways in which we can change the culture by the way we lead.
How important is it for leaders to upskill or reskill themselves and to have that mindset of learning. How difficult is it for leaders to learn?
Continuous learning is crucial. The truth is that it’s hard to notice. We are in an incredibly fast, AI-driven digital world. You just don’t know what the future of the organization holds for you individually! Giving continuous exposure to the people at different sides of the business is critical. If you don’t know AI, blockchain or big data, which is talked about so much in business, then you must invest time in learning. The key thing is to understand how individuals in your organisation learn. Then, as a leader, you must enable them to learn in a way that suits them. External perspective has become invaluable. Whether it is a classroom setting or online learning models, it is important to figure out what works best for your employees.
What are the key skills that every aspiring CXO must hold in today’s tech-savvy world?
Having your radar on and being aware of what is happening outside of your industrial sector is crucial. When working globally, it’s worth bearing in mind that every country has its own set of rules and regulations when it comes to using AI and big data. Taking inspiration from companies such as Alibaba (that has capitalized on AI in every aspect of its business operation) can go a long way to helping leaders across a variety of different industries.
As leaders, there are two important characteristics to foster: a willingness to give up what made you successful so far, because who knows what the future of business holds. The second characteristic is the ability to become more agile, to learn other jobs and skills, spend an hour here and there just sitting in another department, see how it works, and it will help you to build your own skill set.
Another important aspect of becoming a leader in the digital age is getting attuned to the resourcefulness, resilience and mental health of self and of the team. You are expected to bring the best people into the business to accelerate the disruption. Paying attention to where you get positive energy is really important. Leaders must be self-aware, be attuned to where they get their energy from and take care of their own energy levels, health and any other factor that might impact their well-being. Things don’t happen by chance, so you need to be structured about your life and carve time out for those aspects of life that are important to you. It could be your hobbies, your family, children - anything. Striking a balance between your work and professional life is essential to your personal and corporate well-being. Resourcefulness and resilience are two instrumental characteristics that a leader must possess, and I honestly believe that taking this approach is the way forward.