Stop being right. I used to be a leader who needed to be right on every single debate, dialogue, or discussion. In my mind there was always a winner and a loser. As with many senior leaders, this was amplified during turbulent times. This is the worst type of egocentric leadership as it restricts input, challenge and fresh perspective from others — all invaluable when times are tough.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Leadership author and former corporate CEO, Hamish Thomson.
Hamish Thomson, author of It’s Not Always Right to be Right (Wiley 29.99 dollars), is a former CEO/Regional President and global brand head for Mars Incorporated (UK, Australia, Chicago), a senior sales and marketing lead for Reebok International (England and the Netherlands) and an account exec in the London advertising scene. Based in Sydney, he is a strategic consultant, key-note speaker, start-up investor and non-executive director of OzHelp Foundation. Visit www.hamishrthomson.com
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in New Zealand and attended Massey University, graduating with a business degree majoring in marketing and commercial law. Most Kiwis are inherently curious, so I ventured to England for a supposed 12-month experience and ended up doing a 10-year European working stint. I started life in London advertising as a very junior copywriter and shortly moved into client management. For a young and naïve bloke, the UK advertising scene was certainly an eye opener. I loved the creativity, pace and energy (and inevitable daily hangovers) of the industry. I then joined Reebok who at the time was the leading sports and fitness brand in the region. I did various brand and sales roles before moving to the Netherlands to head up European marketing. A cool job, vibrant entrepreneurial sector and one heck of a fun country. Following the birth of our first son, my wife and I moved back to this side of the world where I joined the amazing team at Mars Incorporated. I was there for almost 20 years, with the last dozen doing various CEO/Regional President and Global brand head roles in Australia, UK and Chicago. Approximately 18 months ago, I ventured into the world of start-up’s, boards, leadership writing and consulting. It’s been different and energising to say the least.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I love the notion of mistakes — particularly your ‘best’ mistakes. All are invaluable as long as you seek out insight (content and context) and turn specific learning into tangible action. Insight without action is an all-too-common phenomena within the corporate world. Probably my funniest pertained to my advertising days. During a new client pitch to Toyota, I was half-way through my presentation when I cut to the hero image of a massive outdoor billboard campaign. Unfortunately, instead of a shiny new Toyota, I had forgotten to replace the “positional image” of a Ford Sierra Cosworth! Needless to say, we lost the pitch. Learning was two-fold: you become very thick skinned (I still get annual ribbings from former colleagues), and secondly, double-down on your diligence. Detail is now a reluctant but necessary competency of mine.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Exceptional companies have exceptional leaders. I have been very fortunate in this sense. One mentor that comes to mind was the former President of Reebok International. Roger mentored me to believe that the best leaders are modest and humble. They promote others ahead of themselves and are not concerned about being right or wrong. They are concerned with mutually beneficial outcomes and that relationships matter above everything else. He had a strength in inspiring others to be their very best and provided significant freedom and autonomy to do so. He also instilled a belief that the best leaders are those that are both ‘respected and liked’. I have dedicated an entire chapter within my book to this topic. Many exec coaches disagree with the necessity to be liked (respect is a given) but I know from experience, that I walk over coals to support a leader that I both respect and like.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I am a firm believer that “performance without purpose is meaningless and purpose without performance is impossible’. Organizations have a responsibility to be purposeful, yet in order to do so, they must perform successfully. A few examples that come to mind (in each case, motivating me to be at my best and making me a better leader of others); Mars Petcare — driven by a desire to “make the world a better place for pets’, and Mars Food — ‘better food today for a better world tomorrow’. In both cases, driving meaningful behavioral change. On a personal front, I am a board member of one of Australia’s leading mental health and suicide prevention organisations, OzHelp Foundation. The concept of creating a ‘world without suicide’ is both inspiring and purposeful.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The first thing I would say is that I believe we have always lived in unprecedented times. The idea of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), has been talked about for ages. I believe change, uncertainty and difficulties have always existed. It is a reality of both corporate and personal life and the earlier we embrace it, the better we will be. Like many, I have faced instances of turmoil — from factory closures, product recalls, team redundancies, to safety and crisis management issues. Probably my most interesting, was when I was brought in to lead the UK division for confectionery. The business had been in a period of decline for almost 5 years and the team was almost “apologetic to grow’. Despite being an incredibly talented team, limited mindsets and beliefs relating to share and category growth were commonplace. In turnaround situations, people need conviction leadership. A clear and purposeful vision, defined focus areas and key enablers and aligned cultural behaviors to execute. Teams need assurance, direction and answers — not endless discussion, and it is a leader’s responsibility to provide this. I love turnaround situations. When you achieve them, it is a magical feeling for all involved.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There is a big difference between giving up and refining direction. The latter is reality. The former, a sign of average leadership. In the above example, my biggest learning was around creating a catalyst for change. Ideally this is ignited through vision and opportunity. In this case, the burning platform for change was created by the harsh reality of a headwind category and concerning P&L. Additionally, I discovered the importance of getting key sponsors within the organisation to be early sponsors of change. Earlier in my career, I used to try to ignite change alone. Whilst it was often quick to do so, seldom was it enduring.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Outstanding leaders do three things; they honour the past, they respect the present and they provide hope for the future. In challenging times, ‘hope’ is paramount. If I was to add one more — empathy. Compassion relates to both the past and the present and during tough times, it matters considerably.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
A collective purpose and a shared team agenda. I am a massive believer in the power of ‘radiators and can do’ people within business and in life. They breathe possibility, are infectious with action, and people stand that much taller when they are next to them. The concept of “drains and radiators” is probably my favourite leadership philosophy (chapter 2 of my book!)
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Do it early (no-one likes surprises), do it honestly (do not sugarcoat or divest blame), and do it authentically (with high fact and high emotion as to why it matters). Ahead of this, organisations must create exceptional relationships with relevant stakeholders — based on mutual trust, understanding and support. I have a working model that talks about how relationships will always be more important than law and logic. Mistakes and learnings make me confident this is 100% right.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Interesting question. I concur that detailed long term planning (5+ years) can often be redundant, distracting and non-value add. However, all leaders must provide crystal clear clarity on long term purpose, organisational vision and goals. Strategic choices (what we play with, where we play and how we play) will always change when macro and micro conditions dictate. This is totally ok, so long as leaders effectively communicate why changes and refinements are taking place. Always talk through your assumptions (known and forecast) behind your strategic choices. Teams accept change when leaders are consistently transparent.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay true to your north star — your purpose. It is the reason you exist and whilst conditions, strategies and activities may change, your overarching purpose should be enduring.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first is panic and unnecessary distraction for your teams (away from core priorities and profitable revenue segments). Time in motion analysis will ensure resource focus — painful to do, but it works. Next, businesses and leaders can start to become insular. Narrow perspective and an internal mindset usually result in declining stakeholder relationships. Always start with an ‘outside-in’ and ‘servicing others first’ mentality. Finally, increased pressure valves often lead to leaders not being authentic and transparent to those around them. Increase your visible presence during tough times and always do so with honest and open communication.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I dedicate two chapters of my book to this very topic. The first is about the importance of never being content with current levels of performance in both good and bad times (Chapter 16, ‘Constant Dissatisfaction’). Outstanding leaders look outside for new perspective, revenue opportunities and operating procedures. I term this as having an insatiable curiosity for doing things better. One model that I use is called the 30% rule. Leaders set stretch objectives that can only be achieved by doing something completely different from current ways of working. It is amazing how much dormant potential and untapped thought leadership this creates. Chapter 18, ‘Who is Writing your Agenda’, talks about staying ahead of the curve and leading change versus simply managing change. It is difficult to achieve and requires a mindset committed to transformational agendas versus simply operational ones.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stop being right. I used to be a leader who needed to be right on every single debate, dialogue, or discussion. In my mind there was always a winner and a loser. As with many senior leaders, this was amplified during turbulent times. This is the worst type of egocentric leadership as it restricts input, challenge and fresh perspective from others — all invaluable when times are tough.
- Hire radiators and remove drains. Do whatever you can to have optimistic and results driven, passionate people in your team during difficult times. Equally, be bold and fast on removing negative people. It not only adversely impacts a leader, but worse, it lowers the culture within an organisation.
- Deliver performance and purpose. This matters more than ever for internal and external motivation. Make communications compelling, motivating and importantly, regular.
- Lead versus manage. Ensure leadership agendas focus on getting ahead of the curve and setting a new agenda. Do not get distracted with operational matters as that can be handled by exceptionally talented people below you.
- Value relationships ahead of both law and logic. Enough said.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you are not in control, you are not driving fast enough”, IndyCar racing legend, Mario Andretti. Push the boundaries and see how tall you can be in all that you do. One of the reasons I even attempted to take on writing again, after starting corporate life as a very average London agency copywriter!
How can our readers further follow your work?
Book — “It’s not always right to be right — and other hard-won leadership lessons”https://booktopia.kh4ffx.net/YgqRyO
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!