As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Damian Burleigh, Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer at Acuity Knowledge Partners, leading all sales, account management and marketing activities of the global organization. He joined the business in 2015 and is based in London.
Damian has more than 25 years of financial services experience in sales, marketing and commercial product development, and experience in leading large international teams. Prior to joining Acuity Knowledge Partners, he was a Managing Director at Moody’s Analytics, leading sales teams in Europe and Africa, and was instrumental in the integration of Copal Amba with Moody’s Analytics.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I wouldn’t say a career in financial services was my intention, although my parents would say that money was of interest to me from a very young age. Some great films came out in the 80s, sparking an interest in financial markets and an aspiration to be like the main characters I watched on screen. As I matured, I settled on more concrete ambitions, starting out in banking and then switching gears to assisting what is now called software and data organization at companies such as Pearson, Thomson Financial, Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s. After spending a few years really understanding the processes and products, I got into a sales role, followed by sales management, and finally sales and marketing leadership.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The story that springs to mind really reflects the irony of being a sales and marketing leader. Back when I worked in product management roles, I distinctly remember my first experience of learning about the intricate relationship between a product and sales. I had been lucky enough to participate in a client meeting with a brilliant saleswoman, when a very minor moment turned into a pivotal point of my career. She was selling this new product to a client, and suddenly left a huge pause after a question in her process. It led to a very uncomfortable silence.
So, I filled the silence with some other things about this product, its capabilities and its benefits. I left the meeting thinking it had gone very well. To my surprise, when I came out, I was lambasted in the debriefing by this sales professional, who said, “Damian, don’t ever do that to me again. I’d left that silence there on purpose. It was to get the client to speak more, to get them to share their thoughts, and instead you filled that space.”
It taught me a lot about the juxtaposition between sales professionals, marketing professionals and product marketing professionals. Each one has their own skillset and often underestimates the others’. Since that moment, I’ve done my best to understand the difficulties of each person’s role and see the ways their professional skills complement my own.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
As I get further into my career, I feel more and more privileged thinking about this question. So many images of managers and leaders I’ve worked with, and for, come to mind. I’m particularly grateful to have worked for many women in leadership, each of whom has taught me different styles and approaches to finding solutions. One of these mentors taught me a seemingly simple mantra that has shaped the way I interact with all of my colleagues, particularly when I’m joining a new team, forming new project teams or meeting someone for the first time.
Scar tissue builds quickly and never heals well.
I think this goes further than the idea of making a good first impression. It’s a very visual, graphic image, and shows how important self-awareness is. The early days of getting to know a new colleague or team matter so much, and as scar tissue never heals well, early misunderstandings can permanently sour a relationship. It’s important to invest your full time and attention on laying the groundwork for solid connections with colleagues and asking for feedback.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our company, Acuity Knowledge Partners, started out almost 20 years ago, and has grown to 3,200 people strong. Its purpose was originally to support financial services organizations in areas that would lower the total cost of ownership. We’ve evolved our purpose as we’ve grown, aiming to become true partners to our clients, an extension of their onshore offices. We formulate best practices, automate processes and eliminate data silos that ultimately free up employees’ talent. We help companies recognize their core functions and transform to better serve their stakeholders. We drive change and ensure success by managing the nuts and bolts of the transformative process. Of course, this has taken a great deal of time and effort.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
We’re very proud that at Acuity Knowledge Partners we help organizations not just increase their return on investment or improve their bottom line, but also improve their operational efficiency. We’re privileged to help organizations in true partnership fashion. We ideate with them how to improve their business in all areas, not just operations or workflow. We help clients either innovate or launch a product faster, and work together to differentiate them from some of their core competitors.
Furthermore, Acuity Knowledge Partners’ best assets are its employees and domain experts in the financial services industry. We believe that to be a great company, we have to be a great employer. So, we also help people by providing professional development opportunities and a collaborative work environment. We put a lot of time into mentoring and guiding to ensure employees work as teams, across countries, cultures and multi-disciplinary lines. We make sure our employees are dedicated and fully supported in order to serve our clients. This is probably the most customer-focused, excellence-driven organization that I’ve worked for, and I’ve worked for some pretty brilliant brands in my career. I think it comes down to our collective dedication to customer service excellence and teamwork.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
The financial services industry is always evolving, but its most profound disruption would have to be the internet. It forced us to stop and evaluate ourselves as companies, and as an industry. Professionals around the globe had to reexamine the ways we connect with our clients. The internet rapidly increased the speed of communication, but on a low-cost basis, without the leased lines, without the expensive infrastructures that previously existed. It revolutionized business models and, I would argue, increased the importance of knowledge service providers.
At Acuity Knowledge Partners, we, therefore, saw the internet as an enabler, just as much as it was a disrupter. It paved the way for a much more hands-on experience in our work with clients. It has enabled us not only to survive, but thrive, in the face of a global pandemic this past year. While it’s something we normally take for granted, I think the internet will be the biggest disrupter in my lifetime, and it continues to disrupt industries as it evolves itself. Delivering our services over the cloud, again, is possible only with telecommunications infrastructure and it being low-cost.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
At Acuity Knowledge Partners, the internet led to the recognition that we wanted to help all of our clients do more with less. With such a broad goal, we knew we would have to prioritize the problems we wanted to address for our clients. We dedicated time to understanding how the internet would impact each client individually, recognizing that their own prowess may be in certain technology or knowledge sectors.
We then began to apply our research and technological expertise to offer more robust and holistic services to our clients. We reimagined the way we thought about bringing business excellence and automation together into toolkits for our clients, and reimagined the way we invested in our staff. We invested in our employees’ professional development, as well as the technology available to them.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
I think the whole world made technology a buzzword, and the emphasis on it came from the top. From the CEO down, there was an understanding that we must do things faster and cheaper, and we must leverage technology. This was reinforced in various client discussions around technology and our plans to innovate.
I can remember being invigorated after one particular client meeting, seeing the potential of what we could do with technology. But soon after, I realized it would have to be a more gradual process in order to be successful. It’s almost a bit like the tale of the frog being boiled. You perhaps don’t realize you’re completely enthralled with new technology before it’s too late. Luckily for Acuity Knowledge Partners, we recognized the transformational aspects of the internet early on, particularly the importance of the user experience. We planned out how we could grow our client offerings in specific areas and mapped out the investments necessary to make it happen. One result from that “aha moment” was the creation of our BEAT platform and our user-experience page, connecting clients with all the resources we offer them. As we planned, it’s still growing and evolving as we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible with the advancing technology we have access to.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
In all honesty, innovation never goes as fast as you want it to. The great thing about technology and investing in new programs is that you start to see the benefits and you want everything to go so much faster, but you have to be patient and often don’t see the payoff immediately. I can’t tell you how many times in my career leaders have put out a new product and have said they want a return in year one. That isn’t how change occurs with customers. In reality, it’s more an evolution with your client base, with your sales group, with your marketing groups. You have to push that change agenda forward, which takes time, and repetition is important as is patience.
Luckily at Acuity Knowledge Partners, we’re dedicated to seeing the long-term results of our new direction. We’re not looking at one-year returns, but instead at our business trajectory. We know we have to continue making investments, both of time and money, in adapting technology to meet our clients’ ever-changing needs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
When I first took on my position at this organization, I was asked, “What would you like this organization to be?” We were a relatively small organization, very proud of what we were. But I answered that I wanted it to be a half-a-billion-dollar organization, which was a long way from where we were. No one asked me how long it would take, thankfully, but I definitely had an ambitious timeline in mind!
Now, I feel confident about where we are on that journey to be the half-a-billion-dollar organization that I imagined. So, there’s an immense sense of pride and comradery. I had an ambition, our whole team was united on it, and now it’s almost within our grasp. There’s nothing like it.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
I think a leader has to be an empathetic, patient and strong advocate during a disruptive period. There’s no clear roadmap to navigate disruption, so it’s important to be patient enough to allow any new business endeavor the time it needs to bear fruit. While this process is unfolding, a leader needs to be sympathetic to their colleagues’ and clients’ fears and feedback. Truly listening to criticism during a period of transformation often makes the difference between failure and success.
While a leader should do everything in their power not to fail, they also have to believe failure is inevitable, at some point. Even in the face of failure, a leader needs to project confidence, be patient, and advocate for their colleagues. Learn from mistakes and keep moving forward, all the while making sure your colleagues have the support they need to continue the journey with you.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think the past year has been crucial for leaders, highlighting the way effective leaders were able to navigate their colleagues through a global pandemic and boost morale in a period of unprecedented challenge. The entire workplace had to transform to a remote setup and, honestly, no one had the answers to how to do it. We are a service-based organization, with 3,200 employees in seven locations in different corners of the globe. We had to facilitate a smooth transition on such a large scale.
At Acuity Knowledge Partners, my fellow leaders and I decided to project calmness, as we have in the face of other obstacles. While we may not have had all the answers, we knew we had the tools to keep everyone safe and get them the resources they needed. It was just a matter of putting the puzzle pieces together. Our confidence and calmness gave our employees the ability to figure out their own needs and solve the problem along with us. Confident leaders pave the way for their employees to have their own self-belief. We also changed none of our targets or goals and are pleased to say we actually exceeded them and delivered record results.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Sometimes, it’s hard to maintain calm and confident leadership, but that’s when I remind myself that all markets are cyclical. There will always be good times, brilliant times and recovery times. Being ready for all parts of the business cycle and thinking ahead in anticipation help me ground myself and find the confidence to lead. Being proactive can be stressful in itself, but being prepared for the future always pays off and makes for more effective leadership.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One mistake is that businesses lose touch with their clients’ needs in the face of disruptive technology. They get wrapped up in all of the possibilities and end up offering their clients things that don’t serve them. In times of technological adoption and innovation, leaders have to ask themselves core questions: Why would someone pay for the solution? Are you truly giving value? I think it’s sometimes very hard for businesses to be self-critical and self-honest.
Second, businesses underestimate the importance of having a strong, integrated marketing team. Especially at Acuity Knowledge Partners, digital marketing almost acts as another sales channel. Leaders have to invest in marketing professionals, because it’s no longer just your direct sales team driving sales in this digitalized world.
Lastly, companies make the mistake of maintaining the same business model. Oftentimes in the face of technological disruption, the organizational structure expands. Businesses need to re-evaluate their models to ensure they aren’t duplicating efforts or creating silos.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, leaders need to listen to their customers. A great example would be the creation of Acuity Knowledge Partners’ BEAT technology suite, which centralizes resources and offers a seamless user experience for our clients. It came as a result of client feedback. However, leaders have to strategically toe the line because you can’t be overly reliant on the client, expecting them to give you the solution to a problem verbatim.
Second, leaders have to create a strategic focus on anything they deem important. I joined Acuity to bring a different level of acceleration, to really drive the business forward in the context of technological advancements. In order to achieve that, I had to nail the basics, align with my team and create strong lines of communication. I need my team to be on my wavelength so we can efficiently target our goals. I always clearly define what it is I’m focused on for the quarter or year ahead.
Third, businesses often have too many top priorities. There is a lot of pressure from various stakeholders to achieve results. By trying to satisfy them all at once, a lot of businesses fail. In my own experience, I’ve worked closely with board members to set priorities for their companies. Sometimes, the board’s requests can be counterintuitive to the existing number of top priorities. Rather than trying to achieve all of the conflicting goals at once, leaders have to incorporate feedback and reassess their plans.
Fourth, leaders have to challenge the status quo. This is particularly important at Acuity Knowledge Partners, as we’re a heritage brand, with a long record of providing clients with top-notch service. It was almost inconceivable five years ago that our organization could have standalone subscription products, without any service capability attached. Our leadership really had to morph and experiment in order to maintain our legacy but push the boundaries into new areas of growth.
Lastly, leaders need to prepare for the future. I still see too many businesses focused on the moment or current year, rather than three years ahead. When you run a sales and marketing group, you’re forced to grapple with the future every day. You have to consider what new products you may have for your customers next year. You have to spend time sowing the seeds for even further out than that. So, leaders need to constantly scan the horizon for changes ahead and proactively invest in them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A few quotes come to mind, especially by figures like Churchill and Muhammad Ali, who were known for their work ethic. If I had to select one, it would be the famous line commonly attributed to Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
I think it’s important to understand that the only way to grow, particularly in the face of technological disruption, is to be unafraid of failure. You have to be dedicated to your craft, passionate about it every day, and you have to keep moving forward. It’s easy to be paralyzed by fear, particularly when embarking on a new business venture. But putting in the hard work every day and fighting to overcome obstacles will undoubtedly lead to success.
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