The Lighthouse Company

Future favours the brave

The founder of executive search and talent management business The Lighthouse Company reveals the three things business leaders can do to navigate the stormy year ahead

Future favours the brave

After a particularly torrid flight to Amsterdam in 2013, when the oxygen masks made an unnerving appearance from above as we attempted to land for a third time, my son Ned (then aged 17) turned to me and eagerly declared he wanted to become an airline pilot.

Some months later, as we moved through the milk rounds of airline recruiters persuading Ned to sign up to £100,000 investment to train with them, it was a hot competition.

The pitches were slick. BA discussed its impeccable safety record, BMI promoted its work-life balance culture, Cathay Pacific offered super long haul adventures and Qantas showed pride in the newness of its fleet. Yet it was Alitalia who provided the unsuspecting game changer: it simply talked about…the weather.

Alitalia explained that, given where it sits on the equator and its distinctive seasons, its pilots often experience the greatest weather extremes within the two hours between take-off and landing, offering both surprise and challenge. Becoming a pilot who can fly with bravery and agility was the promise; someone able to meet more unpredictable and unforeseen conditions than anyone flying for another airline – making Alitalia's pilots the most agile and, by inference, the best.  

As leaders and pilots looking out of the cockpit window onto 2019, I believe the philosophy of Alitalia might never be more pertinent.

Rather than relying on old credentials and formulas, hygiene and antiquated performance reports, we must instead accept that we are venturing into unknown and unpredictable territories and facing a necessary and impending cyclone of change. This will require skilled, brave and resilient leadership.

Our clients’ focus is on brand safety, trust, fraud, data breaches and GDPR, while the death of the high street is being led by consumers increasingly comfortable with the convenience of online offers. Is it any wonder that the marketing and communications industry has become keenly aware of an apocalyptic change on the horizon?

If you feel 2018 was tough, there is a universal sense that 2019 is looking likely to start a 36-month period of transformation which may see every corner of our sector undergo fundamental change.  

There is a US recession predicted for late 2019 and our very own Brexit drama offers little comfort and no known flight path. Add to that the slowing of the Chinese economy and the rise of its public and private-sector debt and, globally, we are all somewhat at sea.  

This imminent storm will elicit differing reactions depending on the type of leader at the helm.

Some will wish to seek shelter and protect the legacy of past achievements hard fought, while others will face the squall with alacrity. For it is those who are willing to bravely embrace the unknown and harness the power of the storm who will now be rewarded.

At the Lighthouse, we spend our waking hours seeking and representing the finest leadership talent and underpinning that work with our annual, published Shipping Forecast research.

In 2017, the study looked at the leadership traits most required in transformational times and in 2018, we exposed the emerging categories of leadership, ultimately identifying The Exotic, The Extinct and The Evolved (the "elite forces"). 

The insights of the past two years show we will require truly evolved leaders in 2019 who are willing to embrace principles that require bravery and a pioneering spirit. The three guiding principles are these:

1. Evolve and adapt your critical vision 

  • Stop holding so tight to your three-year plans. You need to be prepared and able to recognise a change in the weather and brave enough to  change course or ride out the difficulties.You need to be agile to cope with hyper growth but also to bring to an end a course that no longer serves the purpose of the vision.

  • The need to adapt is evident today in businesses which have grown fast by developing software that pulls Personally Identifiable Information (PII) data to allow brands to better target individuals. The arrival of GDPR last year means many of these businesses are now having to change rapidly to create probabilistic data sets to inform targeting instead. Oh, the irony.

2. Break networks; seek collaboration with new partners and old competitors

  • Collaboration "across borders" is already apparent. It is demonstrated in the stunning creation of Wunderman Thompson under the decisive leadership of Mel Edwards, which offers the dynamic marriage of  investment in better and deeper individual customer data understanding with the ability to remain creatively invested in brand. We have seen this potential too in the impact of Merkle within the Dentsu network – brave, fast, ambitious collaborations that leave the past ego protectionism behind.

  • We see in the hard fought creation of The Ozone Project (the digital display ad sales and audience data platform), the need for collaboration between intense competitors in order to navigate the commercial future of the content publishing world. These fierce and independent operators we know so well - David Pemsel, Nick Hugh, David Dinsmore and Simon Fox - have shown a willingness to fly in formation, sending a message to us all that there can be power in the collective.

3. Bring a personal vulnerability to the future

  • Change and growth can be painful. Building a global P&L within a complex group, integrating a highly specialised acquisition, changing out the legacy guard across the world – all of these read well on a strategy document and a spreadsheet but the truth is it will be painful, disruptive and messy. Admitting you don’t understand it all, accepting you will be a novice in some areas, and reaching for support and guidance will allow the potential for true change and progress within you and those you lead. 

The world climate is evolving, the weather is on the turn and we need evolved leaders to steer us to new and dynamic shores.

As pilots, captains and leaders in this transforming sector we have a duty of care to the clients we serve, to those we lead and to ourselves. We are all precious cargo. So get ready –  take a firm grip on the controls and be ready for a turbulent but adventurous ride.

Join us at Digital Media Strategies, the event that shows you exactly how to navigate the future of digital publishing. Click here to see the agenda and speaker line-up