As part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Blain.
Blain is the Chief Executive of PerformanceWorks International (PWI). He is a specialist in helping organizations, executive boards, leaders and teams succeed in the digital climate and to embed the required skills for successful modernization. Jeremy combines leadership know-how as an international CEO and executive board officer in the UK and Asia with his experience as a learning and human capital professional of over 20 years. For seven years Jeremy was CEO for an international consultancy company based in Singapore, operating from India to the Pacific.
Jeremy was named International GameChanger© of the year for 2019, 2020 and 2021 in the ACQ5 Global Awards for his work on digital transformation, HR transformation and workforce transformation. He is a regular keynote speaker, the author of over 30 industry white papers and the author of The Inner CEO — Unleashing leaders at all levels’.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born in Manchester, though I ended up working for a French company for most of my career, of which I spent 7 years based in Singapore, prior to my UK return in 2019; and have worked in most major markets of the world. I am a global citizen for sure with Lancashire routes! I’ve been in sales, marketing, HR, operations and have become a recognised corporate learning expert.
What led to the path was part luck and part a guiding need. The luck bit: Applying for and being accepted by Procter and Gamble to attend their vacation retreat for students, which led to my first job in sales (selling frying oil and toilet cleaner in Yorkshire — the glamour!). This came about only because a friend at the time was applying too and I thought I should show willingness!
The guiding need was always to work internationally. I love the cultural side of it, the steep learning curve and latterly the fabulous personal development of developing Eastern leadership and management practices as much as Western.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Practicing what I preach and it paying dividends. I advocate new ways of working and structuring business, so I set up my own company on a 100% contingent worker basis, sourcing globally rather than locally and investing in technologies that supercharged communication, collaboration and customer interactions. This has been the single biggest success factor of being profitable from day 1, as I don’t carry the usual set up, infrastructure and other costs associated with more traditional business thinking. Even growing I have moved some of my collaborators to retainers, rather than ad hoc remuneration / on demand work and this gives me even more flex and a big pool from which to source. My finance and legal professional is based in Singapore; my marketing and web expert based in Indonesia, and my projects and communications lead is based in Brighton, UK. A small business can do this better than any in my view and it is about being courageous and stepping out the traditional and embracing what the modern workplace can offer.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes — buying a new suit and then trying to sell cooking oil to customers in busy kitchens and even rendering plants. Within hours I have covered in oil spots and my suit took on all the lovely odors you can imagine. Nightmare and this was my first week! I was gutted and devastated. It’s when I learned that I didn’t need to conform to a ‘corporate type’ to do my job well. Wearing different clothes, an overall, or something was fine in the environment I was working in. I was more empowered than I first thought to make my own decisions and find better ways of working. This has stayed with me all my career, and is something I have encouraged any team I have led or managed to do. Step up and go beyond your job description and find better ways we can all learn from.
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 about that?
Greg McKibbin ex Kodak Entertainment Imaging GM for the Greater Asia Region. I won an early project to train his team in sales and negotiation skills. Greg has been a well-respected leader most of his career. He is demanding, exacting, and clear of purpose. To cut a long story short, over many years Kodak was highly satisfied with what I was doing and our working relationship. I had by then also become good friends with Greg, and worked with him until his retirement a few years ago. Since then he has been a highly valued personal mentor for me and helped me when I set up a brand new business in Singapore in 2011. Advising, consulting with me and being a great sounding board. He also has been pivotal in helping me shape my new book ‘The Inner CEO — Unleashing leaders at all levels’ — we are both passionate about empowering leaders and over many beers, meals and frank conversations (He is a straight talking Aussie!) He helped me get to the heart of the matter and create the book it is today. I give Greg a long mention in the book, up front, and continue to appreciate Greg’s counsel. A shrewd, brilliant leader.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
This is indeed a need to do and not a nice to do. Considering the journey to a more equitable, diverse and inclusive organization has been top of the agenda for some time, it is disappointing that we still have a low percentage of women in board and senior exec positions; and continue to struggle with racial and cultural representation at the same levels.
This is increasingly important as it reflects the reality of the modern workplace. It is distributed, geography-free, digitally enabled and globalized in many cases — even at the small business level, like my own. So whether our people or collaborators are permanent, independent contractors or freelancers, it’s a much bigger, more spread out pool and we need to treat everyone with respect, on a level playing field. We are seeing this played out in today’s more remote workplaces. Zoom etc has broken down some of the diversity issues and barriers we might see more readily in bricks and mortar offices and it’s something we need to keep focus on.
As far as gender diversity goes, as an example; the traditional domination of men in senior leadership positions is being challenged as female leaders continue to break down old barriers, prejudices and gender diversity issues. We have seen at the very senior levels, female leaders make the difference when tackling the pandemic. In Iceland, Finland, Germany and, of course, Jacinda Ahern from New Zealand; who is widely regarded as the best demonstration of strong leadership balanced with strong empathy — a trait key within human-centered leadership being demanded in business, globally. Another strong reason why we need diversity, inclusion and equity at Board and senior exec levels. Because the human-centered skills will become THE competitive advantage as far as Talent for the future goes. Whether attracting employees, retaining and growing existing personnel or embracing the increasing number of independent workers who are doing more and more.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I have created a slightly different language which has been helpful when speaking at conferences on this topic. This is the first step, because it is all about mindset first. And words can shape mindset!
Instead of Diversity and Inclusion…Let’s start talking about REPRESENTATION AND BELONGING.
Let’s move away from an inequality to true EQUITY whereby those being represented are not just numbers and we are not just paying lip-service to diversity…but actually putting everyone on a level playing field. This is about WALKING THE WALK as much as talking the talk.
We talk about bias, both conscious and unconscious, and it’s about time we recognized we are all human and hold biased positions. Particularly unconscious bias is hard to tackle. So let’s start talking instead about TOLERANCE over bias. This recognizes our biases but provides a more positive orientation for us to be tolerant of others, of difference, of change etc etc.
So for me it is this ONE BIG step that changes the game. A new language to guide mindset, then discussion and meaningful, measurable actions that finally help us become a more inclusive, representative and equitable society — inside and outside of our corporate walls.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO / Senior Executive is about two things. Firstly, internally, it is about building a solid foundation for the business through robust governance, together with appropriate advisors who sit on the Executive Board that can ask the tough questions and provide insights from elsewhere. So an Executive Board that can act as the gatekeeper of long term business health.This links to the second, external point. A senior executive is responsible for navigating an increasingly competitive, uncertain, dispersed business landscape and must be clear of direction while being agile to adapt and change tactics based on opportunities and challenges on the journey.
The leadership team must have a different lens. They must be more focused on execution and steering success operationally as much as having an eye on the strategic prize. Implementation of the strategy is the biggest reason why many companies are failing right now, so we need our broader leadership team focused squarely on this area. It then allows the senior executive to navigate the future, rather than managing ‘the now’.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Myth 1 — Old dogs can’t learn new tricks. Nonsense! Some traditional executives who are anchored in 20th century ways of working have a fixed mindset and perhaps these old dogs will find themselves in the pound. But many traditional and emerging executives are embracing a growth mindset and applying that to their business AND themselves. This reflects a more enlightened leadership understanding that in the modern workplace, executive leaders may need to unlearn and relearn the leadership traits and skills that are of most critical importance for the decade ahead. Those that don’t will simply fail. As is being evidenced everyday.
Myth 2 — I’m the boss and I know best! The modern workplace demands a more empowered workforce, which is capable of contributing to business health and growth, beyond a job description. We have been talking about leadership at all levels for too long and we need to make a more collective and collaborative approach to make leadership a reality. But we are often up against ‘mindset’ again. The traditional, more hierarchical leadership traits and styles that reflect command and control rather than a more enlightened approach to leadership. A leadership that understands the power in people and the potential that can be unleashed, if only the top team created the conditions for a bold new age of empowerment in our organizations.
My book, ‘The Inner CEO — Unleashing leaders at all levels’ is the only business book out there to focus on this directly, as a how-to manual for getting it done in reality. It’s a need to do, no longer a nice to do and it can pay dividends.
Those organizations who are truly empowering are the ones enjoying great successes at the moment — for example Spotify, Gucci, Essilor, JLL, NIke, HPE, Agoda, DBS Bank and more.
Myth 3 — living in an ivory tower, removed from reality. I am sure this is the case in some organizations. But for many more enlightened executives having the ‘eye to the sky while having feet firmly on the ground’ is the balance that benefits everyone; The business, the leader and the people within the organization.
The pace of change is so fast that a leader cannot be removed from the operational reality of the business, as they also look ahead to navigate the future. It’s a balancing act and something that also supports the idea that more people can contribute to business health, more broadly through an empowering culture and an enlightened leadership. The more that happens the more engaged the leader will be (as much as the people) and the more time they will find they have to keep an eye to the sky.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I was not sure how my more ‘modern’ business structure would work in reality but I needn’t have worried. It has paid dividends as the traditional preoccupations around business ops, human capital management and business unit management have been removed. It is a flat structure, with no boundaries or silos, with 100% contingent workforce. That is not to say it won’t change but it has provided one enormous initial benefit. That is speed. Speed is today’s competitive advantage, not size; and I feel I have a fluid, agile business which is able to adapt far better to changes, challenges and new opportunities. It has also meant I have been able to ‘go global’ from day one. So it is now a borderless business serving the world, not just my local country or region.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
This is changing in fact. The modern workplace is more demanding of executives to be adaptable, to be more digitally savvy and to be better prepared in crises, as we have seen with this pandemic.
In fact, the capability gap between employees and their executive’s leaders in some areas has narrowed dramatically. Particularly when we consider new skill sets like digital, remote management, virtual collaboration, digitally fueled communication, data-based decision making, agile working and data visualization techniques
I did a piece of research this year (The Enlightened Leader research and free ebook: https://www.performanceworks.global/the-enlightened-leader/ ) and the most important traits for senior executives and leaders emerging are:
- Human-centred leadership skills — For example we uncovered Empathy, Personality, Compassion and Social Intelligence know-how are of high importance to employees.
- Community-centred leadership skills — Having a mindset that we are looking after the business health, alongside society and looking after our planet. This is all about being profit and purpose balanced.
- Business-cenetred upgraded skills suite — Alongside those i mention above (digital etc) we need courageous and resilient leaders who are comfortable navigating uncertainty — both externally from a customer / competitor environment perspective and internally, from the point of view of the changing workforce (greater numbers of independent workers, the rise of the gig economy, distributed working, hybrid working and the need to reconsider our need for multiple ‘bricks and mortar’ sites.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
The first is to recognize the importance culture has to play. And not culture of the past, but an evolved, modern workplace relevant culture that reflects both the digital and human components of the 21st Century workplace. This is why we are speaking (still!) so much about digital and workforce transformation.The conditions for the modern workplace to thrive have to be set at the top and flow through the business. Senior executives have to be committed to it and do more than pay lip service. They need to walk the walk and role-model the new behaviors and traits that enable an evolved, modern culture.
To start the journey, there perhaps needs to be self reflection and the understanding that we all (including senior execs) need to unlearn old habits and ways of working and relearn or upgrade them for now. This is an important mindset shifter…and where most things start (or end before they get going)
As an example, the best bank in the world for three years running has been DBS, based in Singapore. Their enlightened CEO, Mr. Piyush Gupta knows all too well the things that need to be in place to drive transformational change, underpinned by an evolved culture. It is clear from his interview with Quarterly Magazine that if you want to compete you must embrace the digital and the human touch together and build the new culture around that, including at the very top, and recognize the 8 key components that drive success:
It’s a technological voyage,It’s a culture change,Take risk,Being willing to experiment,Be nimble,Be focused on the customer,Be data driven,Be obsessed with continuous changeArticle reference: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/the-digital-reinvention-of-an-asian-bank
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Yes absolutely. I practice what I preach.
My business is balanced between purpose and profit and I have found that combining attributes such as business health, the human touch and community commitment provides a very different lens for me as a CEO versus how I might have seen things in the past.
I now consistently work towards maintaining a balance between purpose and profit, which has led me to take an active interest and commitment to society and the specific communities within which my business operates. This gives me the opportunity to be in the position to financially support global and local causes. For example, I donate 5% of my annual profits as a minimum to causes around the world, including schools in South East Asia, a community website in Greater Manchester, UK; supporting the communities impacted by the bushfires of 2019/20 in Australia and more.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Fail fast, fail early, learn from it and build better as a result.
- Say ‘No’ more.
- You don’t always need to be ‘liked’ or ‘be all things to all people’ to get on. It’s how you operate, what you deliver and how you contribute that count.
- Make decisions backed by data, so you focus on what is right, rather than what is popular.
- Be a continuous learner and evolve your management and leadership style.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It would be the ‘Compassionate and enlightened leadership’ which blends much of what I mention above, bringing together a more human, community and modern-day business centred approach to leadership and what we expect from our senior-most executives and boards.
By definition, it is also a more enlightened approach that brings the balance between purpose and profit, for the leaders committing to it. Providing a dual focus to be both forces for good and forces for business success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I don’t really go in for quotes, but I do like this one: ‘Calm seas never made a seasoned sailor’.It’s so apt for the business world. You absolutely must experience the good, the bad, and the ugly to truly learn, grow and evolve as a person or as a leader of the business. There have been many instances in my life and work that this applies to:
In life, when I was divorced early in my first marriage, it was the toughest period of my life. It was an experience that also gave me huge learnings and has informed my second marriage of nearly 20 years to date. I wouldn’t want to go through it again but it most certainly has been a big part of how I live my life now and why my second marriage has been so successful.
In business, it was the navigation of the choppy waters, like starting a brand new business in Asia from scratch in 2011. I was failing, learning, failing again and then, eventually, accelerating, succeeding and growing in a more robust, sustainable way. These tough times, in fact, have been those I refer to the most as I take my new business forward, globally.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I’d love to meet, talk to and learn from Stacey Abrams. What an inspiration and shining light in Georgia. Even though I am not an American, I was watching in awe as the 2020 election unfolded (and then the subsequent early 2021 senate election following). This woman. This leader. This inspiration. Truly amazing. For all I feel I have achieved, it is nothing when compared to Ms.Abrams and community leaders like her.
And, if we have room for one more around the table, I’d love to learn from Jacinda Ahern — Prime Minister of New Zealand — as mentioned earlier. Her leadership through the pandemic was a lesson to us all on how the combination of tough decision-making and courage, linked to high levels of empathy and compassion, are central to success for modern-day leaders. Be it at the political level or in business.