Building Successful Businesses podcast: Duncan Painter, Ep1

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In the first of our episodes of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses, with Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential plc, and part of the ECI family, we chat about how to create an aligned global team and how to make empowerment work in practice.

Listen to Episode 3.1: 

Available on Apple Podcasts:


Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we chat to business leaders about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. I’m Fiona Moore, and today I’m joined by Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential PLC and part of the ECI family, having founded ClarityBlue and partnered with ECI back in 2003, one of our most successful investments, delivering a very impressive eight times return. Duncan, lovely to have you on the podcast.

Duncan: Yeah, pleasure to be here, Fiona, and looking forward to it.

Fiona: So, if we start off with your current role, Ascential delivers information and analytics to leading brands all over the world. And that means operating at scale, with 4,500 people across 5 continents all working together. I know at Ascential you talk about having what you describe as an enlightened employment environment. What does that actually mean and how do you make it happen?

Duncan: I think the most important thing, our people are very passionate about the work that they do. It’s one of the…I suppose one of the great elements we found in the industry we’re in, that people get very passionate about analytics, and data, and their expertise around it. What usually comes with that passion is long working hours. For us, creating working environments, and obviously, in a post-COVID world, that also means flexible working environments, has always been very important to ensure that people feel, wherever they work for us around the world, that it’s no different. I think that’s the kind of criticality that we’ve tried to instill in our business, is that we are a global business. We think as a global company, and everyone who works for us, no matter where they work for us in the globe, it should feel like the same working environment, the same benefits and flexibility, structure, and the same culture.

We do that by empowering very heavily into the regions. It’s not a central thing. That’s something that’s just got to live and breathe itself around the world. It’s guided with elements of how we most would like that to be consistent. Then we empower the local organizations to really own that and bring that to life locally. Then the other key factor is a lot of us are very flexible in working in different parts of the world, for different clients, on different activities at any time.

So, there’s a real practical reason for it. We work with many global organizations, some of the biggest global companies, consumer-facing companies in the world. Their people are very mobile and flexible, and we want to make sure that no matter how we engage with them anywhere in the world, it feels the same.

Fiona: Is that something that you saw change during the pandemic? Because it feels like lots of companies and leaders still haven’t quite landed on pre- versus post-pandemic what the right strategy is around flexible working. Did that change during the pandemic, or did it just cement what you’re already doing?

Duncan: Well, we were already a very flexible working organization. We measure people on their output. We’re not measuring people on their inputs, if you see what I mean. For us, it’s much more about the quality of the work they create and the difference that that makes and the way that customers really value that. I think that’s probably the most important thing that we guide most things by.

If you take that sort of approach, then going into COVID, because we’d got that culture, it was very easy for us to trust our people and just say, “Look, we completely trust you to carry on doing what you do in a more remote world.” We are a technology company, so we’re very technology-enabled, so we weren’t concerned in that transition around could people carry on operating because they were operating that way anyway. I think that helped us a lot. But I think what we would say, Fiona, is coming out of COVID, you know, we’ve set the same guidelines back to our people that we did going in, which is we trust you to figure out what’s right for you. I think, in that environment, ironically, we find more people back in the offices than I think most companies do, mainly because they’re probably not rebelling against what we’ve said.

Fiona: And you mentioned about empowering teams. What’s the role of the CEO there? Because I suppose, in empowering local teams, you almost need to step back slightly, you and the leadership team.

Duncan: It’s about accountability. Empowerment is really about accountability. The two things go hand in glove. So, if you feel confident you’ve got the right people accountable for the organization to deliver those outcomes, results, promises, then you can empower them. A key element of that anywhere in the world, I would say, is to just have a business that has good instrumentation.

If you have good instrumentation, you know, where you don’t have to make inquiries of your team as to whether things are working, you should be able to see whether things are working yourself, then you can sort of guide and engage.At the end of the day, empowerment is about trusting people to deliver what you need, but it doesn’t mean abdication.

So, the other key element that our teams really enjoy is the fact that you lean in and are engaged in the production of that work. It’s not an assessment of the work, it’s actually contributing and being part of how that work is produced or what is being produced and how you can help them bring out a greater result, just through some experience or you happen to have seen it 15 times in other clients or whatever the benefit you’re bringing. But I think that’s the way we’ve always viewed empowerment.

There was an interesting thing that I learned very early on, actually, from ECI, which is when we first set up the business, what was obvious to me was they always came to us. We never went to them. And that wasn’t lost on me. So one of the things that, although it now causes me to travel an awful lot, one of the rules I have, for instance, is I never bring teams to us. So, although we’re a big global business, if I need to review what’s happening in their business, I go to them, because I don’t want to bring people who are working with clients, or in the field, or in the product, I don’t want to bring them out of their environment just to come and tell me something.

Fiona: That was Duncan Painter discussing the importance of focusing on output, not input, and empowering local teams to create a global success story. In the next episode, we discuss the importance of mentorship in defining your own leadership strategy and how companies should avoid getting lost in meetings.

Listen to the next episode here:

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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