From one transformation to the next: 9 lessons from 15 years

From one transformation to the next: 9 lessons from 15 years

Back in 2001 I was working for a start-up business near Exmouth Market in London’s Islington. It was one of those high profile, high stake, ‘dotcom’ era start-ups whose unproven business model rested on the belief that customers would quickly embrace the internet to do all kinds of things that they previously did offline.

Well, the assumption proved to be true, but the timing was a bit out and unfortunately the VC backers weren’t prepared to wait that long, and decided to use that money to invest in something else. The impact on me and my 55 colleagues was that we were suddenly jobless.

It was exactly at this time that RBI was hunting for a Group Marketing Director for their Technology Group, which included the flagship brand Computer Weekly. When it comes to recruitment, timing is everything and to cut a very long story short, the role had my name on it and I joined RBI in April 2001.

To be honest, I thought I’d be there for a year or two, but that year turned into 15, and the very last day of 2016, also happened to be my final day as an RBI employee.

Looking back, It has been an amazing and very engaging journey. RBI has transformed beyond recognition, and I have learnt so much. Here are 9 lessons gleaned from my 15 RBI years:

Be willing to pivot. When you’re happily running a very good and successful business, it is very upsetting when a new invention comes along and disrupts everything. Joining Computer Weekly in 2001, I got to see and experience that feeling. Back in 2001, recruitment advertising from the technology market was a big contributor to RBI’s profits. Over the following years, that situation would change. However, we didn’t just wait for the tide to go out: we invested in the creation of other innovative propositions and revenue sources. Having a presence in the technology sector also gave us a window to the future as the technology sector will always see the start of trends that will cascade to other sectors. Lesson 1: monitor and benefit from future trends
Get to know your customers really well. RBI is a portfolio business, a collection of businesses that collectively make up the RBI family. The businesses are all different sizes, face different competitors and have different market challenges. However, one thing they all have in common is the desire to service their customers well. How did they do that in practice? Well they had a regular dialogue with their customers, investing in mechanisms to track, visualise and analyse as part of a core customer-centric philosophy which lead to new ideas, confident decision-making, cost avoidance and better commercial results. Lesson 2. Checking and validating your assumptions leads to confident execution
Look after your people and they will look after you. Much has been written about the importance of culture, ‘the way things happen around here’, and the RBI culture has evolved considerably over the years as people have come and gone. However, the people-focused ethos has remained the same, manifesting itself through the investment in regular feedback mechanisms, training and wellbeing programmes as well as an environment of recognition and gratitude. Creating environments to enable people to come together will create a community environment that will lead to new relationships, ideas and opportunities Lesson 3. People who play together, stay together
Take a strategic approach to talent Leading a very large and growing team meant that HR became one of my key partners, helping me leverage good practice and future thinking to enable a more strategic approach to developing our people and managing our talent. One thing I have learnt about HR is that they love frameworks and processes, and one that worked well for me was the talent mapping process, a simple mechanism that enabled the senior leaders to literally map out the talent and openly discuss risks and opportunities which led to win/win for both employees and the business. Lesson 3: good people make great companies
Invest in back-office tools, technology and processes. As the business model flipped from advertising to subscription, investment in back office systems became a priority. Within the context of marketing, a big focus and pressure on the marketing teams was and still is to create a pipeline of engaged prospective customers, which required different frameworks, strategies, processes and tools. Over the last 9 years, the number of marketing technology tools available has grown exponentially and will continue to do so, so regular investment in tools and skills and processes to use them effectively has paid off. Lesson 4: Keep up-to-date and invest in tools and processes to support future and existing requirements
Leverage external expertise. When you’re in the thick of change, it can be hard to always have perspective and see things objectively. One way to help you spot your own blind spots is to invest in independent advisers to tell you perhaps what you already know, but to also challenge and validate your ideas and help you move forward with confidence as a team. I worked with peers, mentors, coaches, consultants, technology partners and other experts who collectively made a huge difference. Lesson 6. Actively seek out and act upon external perspectives
Don’t do everything yourself. Publishing tends to be a very DIY industry and I grew up with a natural bias towards doing everything in-house as that’s what i knew. Whilst this approach has many advantages, the big limitation is that it doesn’t scale particularly well. In 2010, we started to explore the prospect of delegating back-office data management and production tasks to external delivery partners in a bigger and deeper way than we had done previously. This worked well and is now a blended part of the overall go-to-market approach. Lesson 7. Find the right partners to free up internal resources.
Invest in great marketing skill. I guess you’d expect me to say this given my role, but marketing is such an important tool in the modern business toolkit as it touches every part of both the internal organisation and the external customer experience. Many b2b organisations in particular can limit their potential by seeing it as a tactical tool designed only to churn out promotions and organise presence at events. Why this is an important and very visible outcome of the marketing function, marketing as a philosophy is so much more than that, helping brands differentiate themselves, understand the customer experience and spot problems and opportunities for future value creation. When marketing operates well at both the strategic and execution level, it becomes a true and equal partner of both sales and product, and magic happens. Lesson 8. Bring the marketing philosophy to the top table
Look after yourself. When you’re moving fast, driving change, travelling globally, starting early and finishing late, it can be very easy to deprioritise your health, eating poor quality foods, and getting into other bad habits that expose you to future physical and mental health risks. Driving relentless, successful and sustainable change requires leaders to be super resilient and adopt healthy habits that can be implemented consistently and efficiently. Over the years, I’ve invested a lot of time in this area and the positive impact of my own healthy habits has led to a big passion in creating healthier workplaces and communities. It’s a topic I write about a lot on my Raw Energy blog and in my newsletter, ‘Healthy Habits’. Lesson 9. Don’t sacrifice your long-term health for short-term gain.
So there we have it. 9 lessons from 15 years. What a journey, what an experience. When I joined in 2001, RBI was a successful business media company at the very start of a major transmutation that transformed the people, the culture, the offerings, the technology and the business on so many levels. Each year has been a roller-coaster ride, with highs and lows, twists and turns, disappointments and celebrations. The overall business is stronger now than it has ever been, and the future looks bright and exciting, and I look forward to watching it continue to evolve from the outside.

As for me? 2016 saw us move to Sydney, Australia where i’ll be focusing more of my personal resources on creating healthier workplace cultures and communities, one person at a time.