Former chief executive of Sainsbury's, Justin King. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Justin King, Satya Nadella and Tim Cook, business needs leaders who will embrace risk, and welcome change

Whether through regulation, market consolidation or new technology, businesses are being forced into rapid change, in order to keep or grow their market position.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had news of a lot of changes within the leadership of some major brands. At the end of January, it was announced that Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s will be stepping down in July, after 10 years as head of the company. This month Microsoft announced Satya Nadella, a veteran insider and previous head of the company's cloud computing division and enterprise business, will take over from CEO Steve Ballmer. It isn’t unexpected that in a time when companies have to contend with a very real and immediate sense of market disruption, that these management changes receive intense scrutiny as businesses look to safeguard their future.

Even the leadership of the mighty Apple continues to be under the microscope. Tim Cook, despite presiding over some spectacularly successful sales since he took the reins from Steve Jobs, continues to be subject to criticism as the market expects more from the business and looks to the leadership to facilitate further innovation. So much so that Forbes published a column last month, asking if he would be the next "Steve Ballmer."

Whether through regulation, market consolidation and/or new technology, businesses are being forced to undergo substantial change in order to keep or grow their market position and often new leaders are pushed to the helm to help overcome these disruptions and deliver profitability and growth.

Leaders have a key role in enabling and informing the strategy of innovation. Unless a business can innovate then it risks becoming obsolete. Just look at BlackBerry’s swift decline, which was reportedly down to infighting at its executive level that ultimately prevented it from being competitive.

Microsoft has placed a bet on the cloud and mobile markets, explaining that conquering them remains critical to its future success. The company will now need to try and find its identity and manage wholesale change as the markets it dominated historically, such as the personal computing market, decline or vanish. Microsoft is only just beginning to tackle this challenge in its consumer business, with limited reports of its success.

Similarly, when his time comes, Mike Coupe, who is set to take over from Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King in July, has a tough market to battle in. In his 10 years, King has delivered unprecedented growth through a period of intensifying and aggressive competition in the retail sector. As one of the most vocal proponents of big data and analytics, King credits the Nectar programme with delivering much of Sainsbury’s competitive edge and in delivering sustained margins in an industry famous for discounting.

Although well placed to do so, Coupe will need to build on this in the years ahead as he takes the top job. As I outlined in my joint paper with Joe Peppard of the Cranfield School of Management, all CEOs need to harness the potential of data to drive their decision-making and spearhead a path for growth. And, in equal measure, Sainsbury’s will need to continue to invest in its customer experience online and in-store, drawing on the wealth of insight available to it via the Nectar programme and beyond.

Facing change in established markets can take significant courage: as technologies like smartphones start to redefine human behaviour around everyday things, from shopping to routefinding, businesses may find themselves needing to completely redefine their operating model. As part of a report I authored recently, called EMC Leader 2020, I commissioned research to explore the attitudes of UK business leaders to change, risk, technology and innovation. It found that some two thirds of CxOs at large companies in the UK say they are experiencing disruption in their markets right now. 85 per cent are ready to embrace change but, somewhat worryingly, over half of them find change difficult to handle. In the UK, we’ll need to get better at this if we are to maintain our global competitiveness.

So how can we discover these next great innovations? And how do you capitalise on it? Well, my first prescription would be decisiveness. Almost all of CxOs surveyed for my report said their teams were sometimes unable to take decisions due to information overload and a focus on consensus. Cutting through this syndrome, often referred to as analysis paralysis, is a crucial first step to delivering innovation.

Secondly, I believe the CEOs role should be that of a sponsor and champion of innovation, rather than necessarily being the innovator-in-chief. That means fostering an adaptive culture that is open to change, and persuading all staff that experimentation should be part of their role, then exercising good judgement when picking which ideas to develop. It’s an approach that requires driving, nurturing and encouraging innovation across all levels of the business.

In the UK, it’s crucial that we do everything we can to achieve this. PwC’s recent Breakthrough Innovation and Growth paper showed that British companies think innovation is much less important than most countries in the world, in particular China and Germany. The same paper showed that the most innovative 20 per cent of companies grow an average of 50 per cent faster that the least innovative – which does a lot to illustrate the impact that an innovative culture can have on the bottom line.

James Petter is vice president and managing director of  internet services company EMC UK&I.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.