Agents of Change
’With great trust…’: the changing agenda of the CEO
with Stephen Kelly, Chairperson of Tech Nation
Our Agents of Change series with business leaders and pioneers talks of how to drive sustainable success in a changed world.
Join Agent3’s CEO, Clive Armitage, and Chairperson of Tech Nation, Stephen Kelly, as they discuss three major focal points within a CEO’s agenda for 2022, and the importance of a holistic outlook, compassion, and inclusivity when building, growing, and leading a company.
Clive Armitage (00:06):
So welcome everyone. I’m here today for another of our occasional ‘Agents of Change’ series, and I’m delighted to be welcoming Stephen Kelly with me today. For anybody who’s been in the tech industry for a number of years, Stephen is an absolute legend of tech execs. I’ve known Stephen for 25 years. He’s had an amazing career. He’s been a CEO at Sage, Micro Focus, Coridian. He’s been a CEO at the civil service, and currently, he’s chairperson at Tech Nation, where he’s spreading the message of diversity and inclusion and the push for the tech industry to make more and more of a positive impact on our lives. Now Stephen’s professional qualifications, personally, a great leader. Someone who’s always supportive of those around him, always willing to give his time like he is today and be supportive of people building their careers. And I’ve been absolutely honored to know him for the last 25 years. I said, so Stephen, welcome today. Thanks for making the time. Great to see you.
Stephen Kelly (01:07):
Great to see you Clive.
Clive Armitage (01:09):
Well, what we want to talk about is looking at 2022, you’ve sat in that CEO hot seat for a number of years. You’re thinking into the future of 2022. We’re hopefully coming out of the worst of COVID and starting to get back at some point to a sense of normality. What’s on a CEO agenda in 2022? What have you started to think about? What are your strategies that you’re going to start to deploy as you look to come out of that pandemic?
Stephen Kelly (01:36):
Yeah. I probably sat in the hot seat as CEO of public companies for almost 50 quarters, both in the US and here in the UK. And I think in terms of Agents of Change, I think it’s a really key thing. ‘Cause I do believe this is a moment in time and the CEO agenda before would’ve been about shareholder value creation, create revenues, looking after employees engagement, fantastic rave reviews with customers to create customers as your raving fans. And that’s measured through things like net promoter scores. But I think it’s more than that now, particularly with the pandemic and what we’re seeing with particularly gen Z in terms of their appetite, their ambition and their learnings, really, particularly from the pandemic and everybody talk about things like great resignation or all leaders will always look for a burning platform to create the catalyst, to drive at any significant positive program throughout their company and throughout their communities.
Stephen Kelly (02:45):
And I think we’ve got a, obviously a massive burning platform with the pandemic and it would be such a tragedy and a shame to waste that opportunity to think about what world do we want to create for the future as chief executives. And it’s far more, I think, and far more all embracing than has it been in the past. So I think in the past it’s been a bit myopic and now I think what would look to do is really encourage chief executives probably to do three things. One is all the things around business as usual in terms of growth, success, loving customers, customer session, but more within that, they need to put trust at the very heart of everything they do. I think this could be the year of trust. And I think coming through the pandemic, both in the US and the UK and probably in many countries, there’s just been a kind of exhaustion with politicians and some leaders who have been in self serving or broken promises and all stakeholders want much more than that.
Stephen Kelly (03:52):
So kind of point number one would be trust and how to embed that in everything you do within the company, the culture, and within your personas, chief executive with the board, with the employees, with suppliers, with partners, with customers, with shareholders. The second thing is I think this is a really unique opportunity to do things right by all. And I think previously, particularly, probably in the tech industry, we’ve kind of planted in the flag on top of the mountain when we declare victory, when we break through say a hundred million revenues or 500 million revenues or billion in revenues, and there’s these key milestones, but now I think it’s got more complicated and I think great chief executives in this era, we’ll be all embracing and develop a much more multi stakeholder strategy of inclusion. So obviously you have to look after your customers, you have to win new customers. You have to love them, have to serve them with the most powerful platforms and products and services. You have to love your employees and generally build an environment and the culture if it’s the best experience for them to work within.
Stephen Kelly (05:04):
And then all the other key attributes around stakeholders of supplies and partners, shareholders, the board, it’s a much broader stakeholder map than it used to be. And I’d even reach out to the communities. If you operate now at Warrenton or Newcastle, then what role can you play to connect your employers into that community as well? So this kind of phrase, or do the right thing by all, I think will become more important. And then the third thing, which is pretty related to that, because of the factors of what’s come out of the pandemic. This is a time where we need to embrace much more around. Trying out something called ESG: environmental, social and governance.
Stephen Kelly (05:51):
And I think it’s much more than that. Cause I think great companies now should be planting a flag around what they’re going to do around net zero, how they’re going to help their communities, how they’re going to really address some of the massive crisis around climate change. And you know, it’s amazing. I’ve seen brilliant chief executives during the pandemic who have stepped up who have taken salary sacrifices who have given massive donation to NHS charities, who’ve done the right thing. And in the face of a very short term, critical crisis, like a pandemic it’s easier to do, but what we’re facing now is a slow burden, extinction of the planet crisis.
Stephen Kelly (06:35):
And what we need to see is the same drive, ambition and action and execution to make sure that the chief executives of the companies being led today really take their responsibility towards the planet and the community and create a better future for our children and grandchildren. And I think that’s very important. So those three things trust, doing the right thing by all, and actually really making commitments that we have to, the responsibilities we serve on are very serious and meaningful.
Clive Armitage (07:10):
And do you think to make those three things happen, the leadership qualities as CEOs has to change as the result of that? Or is it just a redirection of focus?
Stephen Kelly (07:23):
Yeah, I think I’d say actually, if I look at the DNA of most tech companies, I’m going to make a massive generalization, which will be wrong. Many tech companies that the person at the very top, the chief executive is more likely to have come up a sales marketing background route. It’s quite rare that you get more the case in the valley, but it’s rarer that you get chief technology officer or the founder engineer and leader as the chief executive. And also it’s quite rare, someone comes up from the finance function. So it is very much probably people leading companies now today who have come from a sort of sales and marketing background. And again, I think that’s only one view of the world that we operate in and what we need to encourage our chief executives to do is have much more holistic, much more inclusive and much more embracing view.
Stephen Kelly (08:26):
Now how they can do that is obviously, educate themselves around some of these big issues and what they can do and drive their teams to have meaningful plans around customer engagement, around growth, around building trust, employee engagement, real bond of trust with employees to make sure not only you win the Sunday Times best company to work for, but you actually make it a really meaningful experience where people want to spend a big chunk of their career, basically on the bus with you. And then also I think key around shareholders and boards and all those sort of things. But I do think what it does present chief executives, if you come from a functional background and you haven’t seen the whole view of the world that I’m talking about, then that’s very understandable, but what you could do then is within your executive teams or within your board, make sure you appoint people who very much complement the vision that you have for the company.
Stephen Kelly (09:28):
There’s much more all embracing, all inclusive, that builds a company that is trusted by all its stakeholders and really respected and loved by its employees and cherished and by the customers where your customers become raving fans and your biggest advocates, your best salespeople like that. So I do think it’s a time where you got to come out the new year and look at yourself and think, am I the full ticket? The truth is Clive, you know this, I’d say I’m still learning. I’m still every day as a chair, as a board member, as an investor, I still learn from great people around me and we never stop learning. I think that’s beauty of life and great chief executives want to just take that next step. And I think they should look harder. Their executive teams, they should look hard at their board and say, are these the critical lieutenants I need? To go on the journey to deliver the vision that we have for all our stakeholders to deliver just the most fantastic experience.
Stephen Kelly (10:32):
And if not, then just have a very compassionate, supportive conversation. But over the next few months, bring the people in who can really take your company to the next level. It’s interesting – Tech Nation. When I joined, I was really proud of the board I inherited, but what we thought to do was have a really inclusive board representative board from around the regions of the UK, this very country. And also, I’m really proud now that the board is 50/50 in terms of gender mix. So half women, half men is got a fantastic representation of 30% people of color. And it’s got a really strong region of representation of folks from Scotland, Yorkshire, Manchester.
Stephen Kelly (11:17):
So we were very diligent and thoughtful about the sort of board we wanted to build. That was very representative for the community we were serving. And therefore, I think it gives us great comfort that the board will guide the company forward and I’d recommend to any chief executive out there, you do the same thing for your executive teams and you do it for your board. You build the band of sisters and brothers that you do representing all the communities you serve and all the customers you serve to make it a really great experience. And just a personal kind of anecdote.
Stephen Kelly (11:51):
When I’ve done that, probably when I kind of grew up in the 80s, it was a very dominated by a sort of white male tech industry. But since then, I think there’s been tremendous change. I’d be the first to say, there’s lots, lots, lots more change ahead that we need to embrace to make the world a better place. But I just think for me personally, working in that environment where it’s highly inclusive, it’s highly diverse. It’s much more invigorating. It’s much more fun and you just learn tons more. And I think it creates a much more high performance environment and that’s proven by all the statistics in terms of performance on any metrics.
Clive Armitage (12:29):
Yeah, totally agree. Just quick as we finish here, just look into 2022. I know you are a natural optimist, always high energy, contagious, but how do you feel about 2022? Optimistic or still got some concerns? How do you see the year panning out?
Stephen Kelly (12:47):
Yeah, I think I’m very optimistic.
Clive Armitage (12:50):
And I’m not talking about Chelsea winning the title by the way. I’m talking about in general.
Stephen Kelly (12:53):
That would be probably beyond my wildest ambitions, but it’s known to happen before. And at this time last year, we probably, I think with Thomas Tuchel just coming in on his one year anniversary, we were pleasantly surprised with a great day out in Portugal when the boys brought home the Champions League. So you never know, you wish for the stars and you might land on the moon, but in terms of optimism. Yeah, I’m very optimistic actually.
Stephen Kelly (13:28):
I do think I saw some chinks of light during the pandemic where I saw some amazing chief executives and I know many who did incredible things, where they showed compassion and care way beyond their brief of their chief executive role. And they were out in food banks, they were out helping elderly people. They were delivering groceries to elderly people. They were supporting NHS charities and they’re the sort of people we want to lead because they have the DNA of great leadership. And I think this element of trust particularly in the Western world is probably never been more important. I think the statistics suggests the most employees look at as number one persona to their chief executive as that’s the person they would like to trust most, even greater than political leaders.
Stephen Kelly (14:21):
So that means it comes with a huge responsibility, being a chief executive and to exercise that responsibility on behalf of all the key stakeholders that you serve is a great privilege. And I do see that bond of trust, expanding and being a real key thing. And in terms of, I guess, a different angle of marketing conversations, I don’t think there’s ever been a time where the best brands in the world want to be trusted more. And that’s about people walking the talk from the chief executives the board down throughout the company. And it builds trust where customers come back for repeat purchases, do recommendations and generally become raving fans of rock stars for the company, because it’s all embedded in a very authentic, very holistic and very congruent relationship with the chief executive, being really the talisman or talis-woman to take that company forward. But everything they do has to have that trust embedded within it. And that builds a great culture within a company.
Clive Armitage (15:33):
Brilliant. Well, it’s been fantastic to listen to you. Thank you for your time Stephen. May 2022 be a great year for you. I’m sure it will be. And look forward to catching up with you again shortly. Thanks a lot.
Stephen Kelly (15:44):
Great to join you Clive and I always love to listening to your Agents of Change, and it’s great to see you out there, pioneer as always.
Clive Armitage (15:53):