On Wednesday 25 April, I had the pleasure of attending the Institute of Directors Annual Convention with my Diageo client. Upon arrival we received news that the UK economy had fallen into a double dip recession with growth falling at 0.2% in the first quarter of this financial year. Inevitably, the news cast a feeling of doubt over what was to be an inspiring, forward-looking business conference. However, the speaker line-up, deliberately planned out to juxtapose the serious against the creative, cleverly (and very quickly) adapted their speeches to reflect this news – whether it be accepting and rationalising what was to come, or being so light-hearted you questioned whether they even cared or realised the impact.
Not surprisingly, the light-hearted edition caught my eye. Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi gave quite possibly the most outrageous, theatrical, yet inspiring keynote address I’ve ever watched. Maybe it’s because I have a secret love for the purely right brained, or that I wish I was born a creative prodigy – but undeniably, his address provoked some ‘out-of-the-box’ thoughts on how to succeed in the business world.
Each speaker, brilliant and insightful in their own way, spoke about what successful business was to them, their companies, and what they predicted for the future. Nick Clegg spoke proudly about the current UK economy and business financing, Paul Walsh (who as the head of Diageo was the focus of my visit)discussed expanding business into high growth markets, Ariel Eckstein enlightened us with his views on the social media revolution, and how to recruit great talent online. We also heard from Steve Backley and Roger Black who claimed the secret to successful business begins with the strength of your team. All 100% legitimate.
Roberts’ content, unconventional in nature, highlighted a different approach on how to get ahead. To be a successful leader, he claimed, companies must live in a “VUCA world”. He transformed VUCA, the acronym for “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” which is commonly known to describe general global or work related situations into “vibrant, unreal, crazy and astounding.” All companies should operate in the latter, he proclaimed. A CEO should not be a Chief Executive Officer but Chief Excitement Officer, and Return on Investment should actually be Return on Involvement. Obviously, that ain’t gonna fly in the corporate world. And to most of the suits in the audience, his strategy must have sounded quite ludicrous.
However, as he went on to preach about the idea of applying creative leadership to all companies, emotional versus rational thinking, participation platforms within the workplace and personifying a company with feelings, smells and sounds, he did make me think. And the raucous reaction he got from a traditionally corporate audience in comparison to the other presentations said enough – is that the way we all wish we could operate? Do leaders of large corporations get so caught up in the rational, process driven way of working that they lose all sight of thinking freely and beyond the margins of what is considered appropriate?
Entertaining? Yes. Relevant? Not completely. Let’s be frank – Roberts’ VUCA strategy isn’t going to work for a traditional FTSE 100 company that makes a profit off of stock and bond earnings. But his overarching theme begs the question – maybe it’s the small, humanistic elements of his suggested business strategy that could enable leaders in large organisations to succeed with a little more creative flair. Perhaps it’s the corporate culture that saps the entrepreneurial spirit out of all of us. After all, most of us probably have a little bit of VUCA hiding within.
Near the end of Roberts’ presentation he left us with some food for thought – “the further up a company you go, the stupider you become” …. perhaps to some he is right, but I would disagree. I’ll leave you to decide.