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7 Questions with Aarron Spinley
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7 Questions with Aarron Spinley
Name: Aarron Spinley
Current title: Senior Vice President, Asia Pacific
Current organisation: Thunderhead
Rated by Thinkers360 in the top 10 of global thought leaders in Customer Experience and Marketing, Aarron Spinley is a leading growth theorist and strategist. After executive tenures in global technology companies like Tigerspike and SAP, Aarron now leads the Thunderhead business in the Asia Pacific region.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Well, I think many organizations often forget that leaders don't lead businesses. They lead people. But the industrial era trained us in the opposite, and much of that period permeates business thinking today. Despite this, society has continued to change, and the expectations of people, both within and outside the organization continue to change with it. So I think one of the defining challenges for any leader today, and certainly what I found working in larger organizations in particular, is how to break free from the parts of their institution's operating model that is counter to fostering healthy human beings. A big part of this is learning when to be the loud agent of change in the room, and when to the quiet influencer. Both are forms of leadership. The other persistent challenge that I see is in strategy setting. It is said that less than 10% of corporate strategy is ever achieved. So I think there is a real strategy-literacy issue which again requires different ways of thinking. For instance, I am a big believer in the use of Practice of Foresight (futurism) to help vision alternative futures and then to establish a preferred future. Too many organizations don't know how to go about changing the paradigm and are stuck in iterations of the status quo. This is perhaps one of the toughest leadership challenges that there is in large enterprises especially.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I'm now part of a scale-up organization, and part of my value proposition to my current employer, I think, was my large enterprise experience. Ironically, many large organizations now value those with mid-market or start-up experience. They like the idea of executives who are "agile" or think a little differently. I suppose my journey to large enterprise reflects that. My first boss at SAP really liked my earlier work in the experience design and strategy consulting arena, gained in much smaller organizations. And so I entered in a functional role, helping SAP customers think about their customer programs using the company's CX and marketing products. But over time, working with stakeholders across the wider business, I was asked to take on other roles that leveraged my strategy background. Eventually, I was asked to join a global team managing the post-merger integration of a strategic acquisition, and senior opportunities flowed from there.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Well, the first thing I do every day is to walk our two miniature schnauzers with my partner in the local park or along the beach. From there, most of my work days start and end on calls with our head office in the UK, or with our North American colleagues in the Boston area. That often bookends my workday. In between, it depends very much on the current priorities. At the moment. I've just completed my first senior appointment in the region and we are working on the next key appointment now. Then there are all the customer programs, meeting the senior executives of other companies that we work with, be it customers, potential customers, or partners in the region. My role also has a remit to oversee the local marketing activity in collaboration with our global team. Naturally, reporting and pipeline health and all that good growth stuff comes with the territory too. And I like to maintain my own reading and research in the field, which provides content for the marketing-related publications that I write for. So it's a busy and diverse role that doesn't fit in 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. That means that structurally, I make sure I take frequent short breaks during the day to keep me mentally on point, and taking a good walk to ponder a big decision or a problem tends to help me find that space from the clutter of general busyness. When I'm behaving myself, I'll get to the gym a few times a week as well. I always try to eat with my family and watch some trash TV if time allows. Just to zone out. The day ends as it started, walking our dogs.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
This isn't a recent learning for me, but every now and again I am grateful for being reminded of the simple fact that the foundation of leadership is in fact, servanthood. There is a lot of ancient wisdom that the corporate world has forgotten in my view, and this is one of them. Another is that humility is the foundation of greatness. The more that leaders can park the ego, and be prepared to be vulnerable with their people, the more they foster respect and deeper connection. Leaders aren't appointed by simply having a role. Contrary to much of the corporate mindset, leadership is not given from above, irrespective of your position. It can only be given by those that we serve. They choose if we lead them, not the other way around.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I think the book that stuck with me the most when it comes to leadership is, "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance". It's the story of IBM's truly epic turnaround under the leadership of Lou Gerstner. From losing $16 billion and on the watch list for extinction, its resurrection and return to dominance is in essence, a story of cultural transformation.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
I think this is in 3 parts. First, I think you have to be very clear as to what leadership is. That's not to dictate matters of style or judgment, but it is absolutely about recapturing the basics: Servanthood. Humility. Respect. And demanding these as bedrock behaviors. The price of true leadership is always personal. The 2nd is shared values. By that, I mean areas like diversity, customer centricity, and accountability to one another. These provide a north star when the waters get a little choppy, which they tend to do, and ensures that all company leaders have that common values thread that people in the organization recognize. And the last piece is in the operating model. Most organizations don't realize that culture is an outcome of the operating model, not the mission statement. So many make big statements about their customers, or their vision, or their purpose, etc, but unless that is reflected in the day to day processes, business measurements, and language, then they will only ever be statements in the wind. So I think that leadership definition, shared values, and then operating model alignment drives an environment in which emerging leaders can find their voice and their feet. It's cultural, ultimately.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
There is a leader that I know, who came to recognize the presence of gender discrimination in their business and the toll it was taking on many female colleagues.
They were very concerned and started by addressing the issue with their senior team and wider staff alike, and meeting with affected individuals for their perspectives.
At the time, I recall thinking that I really liked the latter action in particular, because it gave voice to those who did not have it before. It is bad enough to ignore those who aren’t in the room, but the psychological damage done to those who are already there, and yet invisible, is far worse.
So there was a lot to like about the heart that was being shown by that leader, but it struck me that they faced a major problem. If a diversity and inclusion issue did exist, then it did not do so in isolation. It only has oxygen because an underlying culture provides for it.
And as the most senior leader in that organization, that was their responsibility. Yet even though they were authentic in their concern, they did not address the structural parts of the business that promoted inequality, and the type of people they were appointed to senior roles who set the tone for the business. In other words, they could not see their fingerprints on any of the problems. They were looking for the answers everywhere else.
It really struck me then, that as leaders, our biggest blind spot is ourselves.
Whether we are talking about diversity or any other subject in business and in life, it is easy to identify the weaknesses of others or the weakness in a structure or a plan that is not ours, but it is much harder to turn the mirror around.
And brings us back to that need for personal vulnerability, and to make sure that we have at least some people around us who can and will tell us like it really is. And most of all, we have to make it safe for them to do so.