The Constant of Change: Embracing the Skills Evolution

An award-winning Scottish business leader, Nora Senior joined us to share her view on the fears that often surround the implementation of technology and innovation, and the leadership skills required to ensure businesses are primed and ready for the economic environment of the future – whatever that may look like.

Your leadership experience in executive and non-executive work has spanned both the public and private sectors. What would you identify as certain qualities or skills that are essential in a leader of tomorrow?
I believe you need to act like a leader from day one. That means setting bold goals and trusting employees with the truth. Leaders need to give people space but at the same time articulate a distinct vision and ensure individuals are clear about their role and responsibilities as part of a team. If you employ talented individuals, they will offer their own solutions to challenges; they will find new ways to innovate and new ways of doing things. Leaders need to allow their teams to take risks and make mistakes. In my opinion, playing safe is never a good business rule. Leaders have to make sure that the business stays ahead and that means acting on new ideas and new innovations.

Leaders have to be good listeners – both to staff and customers – and they need to be good communicators to be able to convey the passion, enthusiasm, pride in and the vision for the company or organisation.

Intrinsically they have to be very self-aware, have an empathy for individuals, integrity and authenticity. These are the things that I believe are absolutely critical for leaders of tomorrow.

Given our political situation with Brexit I would also highlight resilience. The leader of tomorrow is more than likely going to be faced with a more chaotic business environment than has been prevalent to date.

“If you employ talented individuals, they will offer their own solutions to challenges.”

Are we evolving enough in Scotland (and the wider UK) in our approach to education, equipping current and future generations with the skills and attitudes needed in the changing work environment?

In my role as Chair of the Strategic Skills Board, one of the key areas we have looked at is future skills. With the inevitable displacement of some skills with technology, automation and AI, we have considered how best to prepare people of all ages for different types of work. New skills will be essential at all stages in careers – whether starting out or already in work, we are all going to have to embrace lifelong learning, continuous improvement, upskilling and reskilling to be best equipped for the new workplace.

Focussing on young people, we have to identify the meta-skills which will be needed in the future workplace – problem solving, team building, communication and resilience. Scottish primary schools are really good at embedding those qualities and particularly encouraging entrepreneurialism and innovation. This shifts at senior school because at present, the focus is so heavily weighted towards academic achievement. Research has shown that many students are inhibited from taking risks, being entrepreneurial or innovative, because they are being driven down an academic route with a focus on academic grades and achievements.

Going forward I believe we need to have more of an attitude towards life-long learning, which looks at the meta-skills required that can keep talent alive to the potential jobs of the future. And let’s face it – we don’t know what many of those jobs are going to be in the future.

How fundamental is digital innovation and out of the box thinking for Scottish business and the wider economy?

In my role both as a business leader, but also as Chair of the Strategic Skills Board I have a focus on boosting productivity and growth, whether that’s in my own business or Scotland as a whole. An increase in productivity brings sustained benefits not just for a business but more widely: productivity leads to better wages and better living standards. Productivity and economic growth depend on innovation, digital or not.

I think it is important to be clear about the types of innovation that matter most in an economy like Scotland’s. Our GDP is around 30 per cent lower than some of the world’s best performing economies. We are therefore some way distant to the frontier of other countries who are developing faster than us and using technologies that we aren’t using at all, or not using well enough.

“Let’s face it – we don’t know what many of those jobs are going to be in the future.”

One of the major opportunities for Scotland will be its ability to adopt and adapt to using innovative technologies currently being used elsewhere. Embedding those types of assets within companies requires perceptive management and smart leadership and it needs a workforce that is appropriately skilled for the task. There are some companies in Scotland that might make breakthrough inventions and while that is fantastic, the real gains and boosts to productivity are going to be made by taking what others have done and applying them in our own business circumstances.

For example, at Weber Shandwick – a global communications company – we don’t invent our own IT systems and we don’t develop all our own software packages. We buy the best we can afford, and we adapt processes and structures in light of our business.

There is a lot of confusion and consternation about what innovation is and how it will impact or drive growth. Innovation is the application and adaptation of technology that can make a difference to business, particularly in a country with a predominantly SME business base.

“Productivity and economic growth depend on innovation, digital or not.”

Renowned for its innovation and invention in the past, can we still say these characteristics are part of the DNA in Scottish business?

There are a lot of highly inventive and innovative businesses in Scotland, but I don’t think we can confidently say that it is a distinctive part of our DNA anymore. I don’t think it has been for some time.

It is difficult to measure, but when we look at the performance statistics of ourselves versus the top quartile of OECD countries in the area of invention, innovation or adoption of new technologies, we lag behind some of the very best. The level of R&D being delivered in Scotland as a percentage of national income is between a quarter and third lower than average EU countries. That has been the same for the last decade and surveys show that this has fallen again in recent years. I don’t think it is in the Scottish DNA at the moment, but it doesn’t mean to say that we can’t be innovative or inventive, however it does require leadership to help drive greater adoption of innovative practices.

What would you identify as barriers or enablers to having digital innovation at the heart of business in Scotland?

The quality of our management and leadership is crucial in creating a more innovative business environment. The amount of money invested in management and leadership training in Scotland and the UK compared to our leading competitors shows we are mid-table by international standards. Investing in leadership skills is critical in fostering innovation.

“Investing in leadership skills is critical in fostering innovation.”

To me the biggest obstacle is not having managers in place who will be alert to what innovations will benefit their business and embracing talented people to give them opportunities to look at new business models and workplace innovations. Good leaders will know how to apply those innovations. We don’t make the progress we want on innovation because we don’t make the investment in management and leadership that we should. The two are interlinked.

It is apparent that technology is fundamental to innovation across many sectors and in this area the world continues to move apace. How important is it that we develop a culture that embraces technology and removes the potential fear and risks that it can engender?

We make the assumption too widely today about technological process being faster than ever. That isn’t technically accurate when you delve into it. For example, economists have tracked that global productivity has been falling over the past ten years. When you strip out the peaks and troughs of economic cycles, we haven’t seen sustained economic growth which matches up with the development of technology in most countries. So, despite technology progressing, the adoption of the technology and appropriate processes has not progressed as well.

Many businesses fear the displacement that technology can bring to the workplace and it is really important that this is addressed. If change is going to happen, upskilling and reskilling of staff to promote understanding and alleviate any fear is vital.

Jobs are going to change, and some are going to disappear. We need to make the workplace more resilient to be able to flex, change and adapt to the types of jobs that automation will replace. But there are jobs that automation will not be able to replace such as those which are reliant on emotional intelligence.

Is there enough collaboration and integration between the public and private sectors in Scotland which is helping to further innovation and digitalisation for both the national and local communities?

There are lots of private and public sector collaborations and the more you search the more you find them. However, they don’t happen at scale and many businesses don’t know how and where to get assistance from the public sector, particularly when it comes to digitalisation and innovation. Making the system more cohesive and easier to navigate is part of the remit of the Strategic Skills Board, ensuring that the business user at the centre.

There needs to be greater collaboration in order to design the support services and skills system that enterprise and the country needs to make it resilient for the future. Our enterprise and skills system has traditionally been disjointed but definitely not broken. The agencies are working much more collaboratively – that has to be a positive in delivery of more effective delivery of business support.

Can you share an example of an innovative approach that has made a difference to the approach or culture of an organisation where you have worked?

At Weber Shandwick our traditional ‘products’ have been media and government relations and design. These areas are now much more complex as we look at the many different channels by which people gather their information. To ensure we were ready for the future we looked at the types of innovations we should be embracing. We acquired companies and upskilled our teams in the social media area – content, strategies, broadcasting, managing and social listening – and developed a new suite of products and services that we could commercialise to benefit our clients’ communications and marketing programmes companies.

We focussed on data and looked at how we could use data more cleverly, to get better insights and understanding of what makes people want to engage with a company, an issue or a cause. We created an insights process that is now embedded in how we develop and measure campaigns. We build campaigns that are more effective than those we have done before and we can track the quality and the volume of the results based on insights coming from data in different sources. We restructured our business to support this new approach to solving business and communications challenges. We now have a whole department dedicated to data analytics. It is utterly fascinating how we can monitor and understand how attitudes are shifting based on campaigns being delivered.

“We can monitor and understand how attitudes are shifting based on campaigns being delivered.”

You work across a range of multi-discipline organisations. How do you overcome the complexities of communication and drive partnership working?

There are various different ways but, ultimately, we use our technology as much as possible. We set up team places, video calls and embed technology so people have the next best thing to face to face. We create virtual teams but we do also move our people around to try and get them in more collective areas. We have restructured so that communication across different disciplines is much easier. Cross-agency teams are much more prevalent than they were, using more internal channels such as webinars and live casts to talk to management, submitting questions through Slideo so people can have their say and equally get a response.

Are there new or emerging areas or sectors where you consider Scotland is taking a strong global lead?

We have always been a leader in oil and gas and as that industry changes and adapts itself to new technologies particularly to manage the environmental footprint we will continue to be a global leader. There is potential around advanced manufacturing, aerospace and defence and of course, big data.

I believe there is huge potential in life sciences. Scotland is the perfect backdrop for developing new drugs and undertaking research at leading universities. We have a nation that is not in all respects terribly healthy and that becomes a good test bed for drug research and development. This is also supported by a legal system that can move drugs trial programmes forward more quickly and get product to market.

Finally, and I think very importantly, we can attract global business through inward investment but we need to then look at how our colleges and universities within that area can benefit the employment supply chain. We need to consider regional economic planning much more closely, working to develop skills in an area where a business or organisation is based to ensure that we can sustain the talent base. This is the model in Singapore and Sweden and they are growing much more quickly than our economy in Scotland. We need to think much more about how we can replicate this economic thinking here.

Nora Senior Biography

Nora Senior is Executive Chair UK Regions/Ireland of global corporate communications consultancy, Weber Shandwick, heading up business and international affairs, advising FTSE 100 and start-up companies across the UK, North America, Middle East and Pan-Asia. Previously she was Managing Director of Saatchi & Saatchi (North) and Managing Director of start-up company, PR Centre.

A former businesswoman of the year, she is Immediate Past President of British Chambers of Commerce and Scottish Chambers of Commerce and was the first person to hold these roles concurrently in the Chambers’ history. In 2017 Nora was asked to Chair the Scottish Government’s Strategic Board for Enterprise and Skills. She also holds the position of Regional Adviser to London Stock Exchange and was awarded the Queen’s Honour Commander of the British Empire in 2017 for services to UK business.

This article was featured in Saxton Bampfylde’s leadership insight publication CANVAS.


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