In our latest episode of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses, we chat with Duncan Painter about the importance of mentorship and what needs to happen as you scale to make sure your business doesn’t drown in process.
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Fiona: In our second episode talking to Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential plc, we go back to when he initially founded ECI portfolio alumni, ClarityBlue, over 20 years ago. I asked him, did he have a deliberate approach to leadership strategy at that time?
Duncan: I think the core to that, I would say, is how I’ve always been, which is I’m just myself. That style either works or it doesn’t for people. But in terms of, you know, I’m not trying to be an actor when I’m thinking about how I run the business.
I was very, very lucky to be in some phenomenally good companies in the early phase of my career and companies that really invested in young people, in teaching them how to run businesses well. There were two that were the most, for me, definitive and certainly shaped the way I would look at management. The first one of that was a UK company called Dixons Stores Group, which was at the time was being run by the founder, Stanley Kalms, which obviously people in the UK would know as PC World and Currys. But at the time, the Dixons brand was very prominent, and I joined it when it was only 100 or 120 stores, so much earlier in its success story. But they really taught you, you know, how to empower young people, how to put the right frameworks around them, how to be very clear in what you want and then let people deliver against that, so real clarity of what was the environment.
And then secondly to that, I was then very lucky to go to Electronic Data Systems or a joint venture of it called Hitachi Data Systems. I met there some phenomenally experienced leaders including a gentleman by the name of Steve Jakes, who was the MD of that business. So, those two environments taught me an awful lot about what are the frameworks you need, how do you make sure people are very clear in the objectives. That includes how they start from a very simple set of long-term plans into annual plans, down to each individual understanding how their individual objectives add up to that, and therefore, more importantly, if they don’t deliver on their objectives, how they let the team down. He was an unbelievably strong mentor for me to see what was a really professional but strong way was to run a business, where you empowered and trusted.
Fiona: And it sounds like that learning from others, you’ve had some key mentors there. How has that network of mentorship and partners changed since you first founded a business? And is it something you still think about and curate now?
Duncan: So, I would say with mentors, I’ve been very lucky. They have come by people I’ve met on the journey that I’ve kept relationships with. So the gentleman that I just mentioned, Steve Jakes, has been retired for some years, but I still see him twice a year to talk about business and to talk about what we’re doing and to get his perspective. He was someone I still consider to be one of the best business leaders I work with now. I’ve also then obviously gone on to meet other people. Sean Whelan, I think I was one of his very early investment director roles at ECI, just to show how long ago it was with ClarityBlue. So, he wasn’t a managing partner, maybe a glint in his eye for that, but he was a long way off at that time. I’ve maintained that relationship with Sean, for instance, because he’s clearly a very, very good leader of businesses and understands the economics of them very strongly. So, I think, for me, mentorship is really around when you work for people you have a lot of respect for, can you create a relationship with those people, which is, I think, what Dixons taught me. That classic adage is absolutely true: make your boss your partner. That has served me brilliantly.
Fiona: You mentioned your leadership style is just being yourself, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Have you got any examples where it hasn’t worked and you’ve had to change tack or where it’s informed something that happened at a business?
Duncan: What people would say is that I have a lot of empathy but not a lot of sympathy. With empathy and good people-understanding, the style has to change to get the best out of that person. I played a lot of team sport when I was young, particularly rugby, and that teaches you…I think that particular sport teaches you a lot about how to build a really strong relationship with the other 14 players that you’re playing that sport with. Because if you don’t, you get really badly hurt. You have to adapt to work with the individuals because everyone is different. So, yes, there is adaption to it. But what I would say is, when you’re leading high-growth businesses and they aspire to be high-growth companies, high performance, then normally that issue will work itself out.
Fiona: You attract the right people, I suppose, once you have a particular culture?
Duncan: Yeah. In every technology company I’ve worked in, the one thing I would say is absolutely consistent in the 27 years now I’ve worked around large data or tech businesses of scale, change is a constant. So, if people really don’t like change, then they should not work for technology companies. And, in fact, what I would say is, in the last 5 to 10 years, the pace of that change is only getting quicker. Working with some phenomenal founders in the U.S. of a company called Flywheel and Perpetua, we’ve created the modern-day ClarityBlue. It now serves big brands to optimize their businesses in the marketplaces. I would say the significant biggest difference between today’s version and the one 22 years ago is, stuff that worked yesterday in Amazon may not work today. Literally, you start every day knowing you may well be adapting what was very successful yesterday to make it work today. Twenty-two years ago, we were not on that cycle.
Fiona: On that ability to adapt and stay innovative. You’ve worked at some very large companies, you mentioned IBM there but also Experian and Sky. It’s often difficult, as you scale, to keep that innovative mindset and that agility, and very easily, it can get drowned in bureaucracy. Is that something you’ve seen, and is it something you’ve had to try and tackle?
Duncan: Look, I think it’s human nature to create environments where, effectively, if you’re not careful, it can become more about the process of the work and not the work. I think that’s the kind of key ethos I’ve always tried to instill in organizations that I’ve run. The best example I can give you of that, and people certainly know that here, are meetings, which are usually the biggest cause of that problem. And so, meetings aren’t work. Meetings are there for good communication, and that’s all the purpose they really serve, right, is to get a group of individuals on a single page – hopefully. But let’s all be honest, we’ve been in enough meetings to know that’s not where they end up, but that should be the goal of them. So, I’ve never been a great fan of meetings. I would much rather see a small number of focussed meetings and then people get in amongst the key activities that the business does to really understand on a kind of day-to-day basis what are the challenges that the company is facing. So then you can adapt change to that very quickly.
BSkyB, because that’s what it was called when I was there, it’s now Sky obviously, but, certainly, I think about the culture that James Murdoch implemented there and then was taken on to great success by Jeremy Darroch. I have to say, it’s probably the biggest company I’ve worked in terms of size and revenues, particularly when it was part of News Corp. But the innovative culture that they sustained in that business and its ability to move at pace when it had 30,000 employees was really impressive, Fiona. So, it does demonstrate that actually innovation, speed, reaction to the market, etc., doesn’t actually have any relation…has no correlation to the size of the company. It’s the culture of how the company is run.
The second thing I would say is be really, really careful, and this happens over time, of bringing in roles that then just by nature end up expanding. Then there becomes an organisation where work is created for work’s sake. Those are the two things that I try to balance as much as possible. So, for example, I lead our businesses here. We’ve created our digital commerce business through acquisition and through mainly organic growth. And we’ve gone from 2016, where we had £8 million of revenue, to this year, where we’re targeting in excess of £300 million. So, very fast growth. But, actually, we have a monthly executive management meeting, and then I do 30-minute one-to-ones every other week with my executives. That’s the meeting culture of the business.
Fiona: Do you think that’s something that has to be set from the top? Because I suppose people seem to somehow be addicted to meetings, they kind of become reassuring, but often that works up and down.
Duncan: It’s a nice place to go into, isn’t it a meeting? Particularly if you’ve not got to be a major contributor to it as well. It’s amazing how quickly lists of attendees grow if you’re not careful as well. So, my preference is a small number of attendees, very focussed meetings, no more than 45 minutes max, half an hour preferable. And where, again, there’s no easy ride in those meetings. If you’re not a contributor, then you shouldn’t be coming to it in the future, right?
Fiona: Yeah, I think I saw a company that had started putting automatically the cost of each meeting by people time, and they started seeing number of meetings unsurprisingly massively reduced, number of people invited massively down. I think people forget about that time cost of each meeting.
Duncan: Yeah, agreed. And as the companies get bigger, it is the more dangerous element of what can happen. I mean, Stanley Kalms, when you think Dixons got to being a very, very big company when I was still there, it was a bit direct, but it worked. His view was bureaucracy is the cancer of every company, and it was his job as chief surgeon to keep removing it. And he would openly say that. I think probably in today’s world, it’s a bit too direct, in the message. But the message, I think, is still as valid.
Fiona: That was Duncan Painter discussing why mentorship is so valuable to leadership teams and why meetings might not be. In our next episode, Duncan shares his views on the future of data and data services businesses, why dashboards might be irrelevant to your business, and the importance of client sponsorship from the top.
Listen to the next episode here: