Intrapreneur Nicole Yershon works on the frontline of business disruption and transformation. The former founder of Ogilvy’s London digital innovation lab now consults, runs her own labs, and shares her Rough Diamond ethos through education including on www.42courses.com. She talks about helping businesses deal with change.
What is core to being a successful intrapreneur?
It’s about being honest and decent and kind, and having humility and empathy. But these are soft skills that many large organisations have forgotten. Corporations tend to work in service of balance sheets and reporting increases.
The Ogilvy labs worked because I had different success measurements. There are lots of things I have done that initially seemed to go against being business savvy, but that’s not because I didn’t understand business, it’s because I did and wanted to make it better.
How can we get past resistance to change in the workplace?
By accepting that change and disruption are going to happen. It’s called life. And remembering that people deal with change differently. Implementation always has to be about people. No one’s good at change but when you look back at what comes from it, it’s easier to embrace it.
That’s when the beautiful stories are made: what Steve Jobs talks about in his Stanford University talk on connecting the dots. He would never have got to Apple had he not dropped out of university and taken every course known to man; would never have become the person he was and created what he did.
What practical steps can we take in making changes at work?
Find the other people who are doers. It’s a tribe. I have a digital black book and it’s the same for most people who are doers. You know that you can call on your tribe of doers because it’s a values thing.
Then start proving by doing. Little things; you don’t need to change the world, just do what will be useful to people. Rather than asking for permission you take informed action and then you say, “See?” And whoever it is will say, “Oh, OK, I get it.” After that there’s a herd mentality: one person has done it so others will do it.
Do you think there’s a maverick element about this tribe?
Yes, and often I think it’s educated out of us! At Ogilvy I stood out like sore thumb. Everyone did things a certain way. But I found another way.
Children or teenagers in school who keep asking questions are sometimes seen as disruptive. It makes me think, “What about those kids that are asking questions in school? What will this do to them?”
Is that what led you to set up the Rough Diamond talent programme at Ogilvy?
People in hierarchical structures don’t realise that they’re being hierarchical and controlling, because the system has built them up from school age – to look at what you’re not good at, as opposed to what you are and making you even better at it. So I was going against that.
I set up the programme to find the mavericks and get them into a white middle-class Oxbridge-educated place fed with the same people over and over again. The business expected change and they weren’t going to get it. But through the programme, change came from different thinking: common sense, curiosity.
Aside from dealing with educational background and typical business mindset, do you think that because of digital there comes a tipping point where businesses just have to change?
Yes, previously you couldn’t question things but now technology means you can, over and over again. It allows us to see what everyone else is doing. Transparency shows people there is need for change, but some still talk the talk and don’t walk the walk. They’ll discuss ‘innovation’ or a ‘lab’ as a buzzword but they don’t know what it means to implement it.
However some businesses are changing: working with much smaller companies and in a way that’s more about human interaction than just a retainer. And I believe they can change working alongside the actual business, in a skunk-works or lab style that’s not measured along the same successes.
You’ve talk about practices that interfere with change, such as serving the balance sheet. Are there any that you would ban?
Yes: short-termism: everyone wanting an instant fix. Sometimes you have to go under the radar and do things – prove by doing – and that takes time. That’s why you’re not measuring on a financial model. – the parameters of ‘success’ are redefined.
So I would abolish the short-term thinking of bean counters. I understand the role they play, but there’s another role that’s equally important: someone having a long-term vision. It’s about balance!
How can middle management and senior leadership develop that long-term vision, instead of being risk averse?
There are two qualities in true leadership: humility and an iron will. If a company has that, the majority of staff will also be curious and excited about change.
I’ve worked with management who understood a maverick mentality was required and trusted me. There was humility: they knew changes were needed. Sometimes they just asked for help: “Move us from an analogue world to a digital world.” I was rarely given a detailed brief.
It was about them being able to see beyond monetary value to the inner workings. And in doing so they allowed me to help the company become more efficient: work stronger and faster.
Is there particular content on change and disruption that you draw on?
When I was going through a lot of difficult change in my life I did a course called I Discover. I also love Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability. And there’s a quote from Eric Hoffer: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”