Spotlight on - Paul Walker
At Spotlight, we got the opportunity to talk to the UK & Ireland Managing Director of Nielsen, a world leader in Marketing information across the retail, shopper and Media industry. We chatted about finding your niche and doing what you enjoy, as well as handling business during a global pandemic.
After a career spanning 26 years, living and working in six countries, in roles ranging from Managing Director of Turkey to Global Client Leader out of Switzerland, I'm leaving the company I joined as a 21-year-old! Nielsen is the world’s largest Marketing Information company, working across over 100 countries.
I see this as the third act of my working life. My first was very much strength building, getting world-class at B2B client relationships, people management at an individual level, selling & negotiating.
My second act, spanning from 2009 to today, has been applying those strengths to delivering results whilst leading big organisational change across many countries and cultures, across Eastern Europe, Turkey, UK or at a regional and global level. This third act is in my future which I am designing as we speak, even with this story.
I originally wanted to be a journalist and made this my definitive choice of study up to being 21 years old. However, journalism changed in that period from the late 1980s to early 90s and I’d had the wisdom (luck) to study business in my degree alongside - this covered marketing, law, quantitative analysis and IT so gave me a wide canvas. I took my curiosity and genuine interest in the individual into research and management with Nielsen.
Overcoming challenges and setbacks
Setbacks are gifts - I am not disappointed with any of the things that didn't quite work out so far for me as I have definitely learned so much. One personal setback was in my first year in Russia. I had been given the challenge to accelerate growth and so embarked on a change programme in the core product and senior team that would deliver multiples for years after my assignment. In the performance review at the end of year 1, I was rated low as I missed the EBITDA number in order to invest in the future...I was furious….this meant a potential risk to my track record and a dip in earning. It took me too long to get over this, I took it personally, but in the end, I did recover and delivered record earnings in Y2 and in the years after I moved on. Despite feeling ‘justified’ in my decisions, it hurt that the company was "short termist" and I was angry at the time. I now look back on this with a lot of learning, I did the right thing and have learnt not to let ratings and other people's judgments impact as much.
I had just got into Stoicism and started reading about Marcus Aurelius, something that has stayed with me since then. The main tenet is to ‘control the controllables’ so I used that to move on, to care a little bit less about the material elements and progress through my own ‘change curve’. I won’t lie, I was motivated to prove people they’d made a mistake but, looking back, that was wasted energy...
Passion and drive
I’m passionate about the individual - developing meaningful relationships - that seem to be slipping away in big business these days. The process of helping a person be the best version of themself is a thrill, every time. This has led a clear path to Inclusion, one that goes beyond my job. I believe in inclusion for all, diversity at every level is good for business and for mental health. I am an active ally in Black Leaders UK where our mission is to positively impact the lives of black people in every aspect of society and I actively mentor a number of female executives to be their best in a world still tilted in favour of the white male.
I’d argue that success can be overrated. My drive comes from a desire to learn and contribute to others. I read a lot to ensure I can tap the wisdom of those smarter than me, and I have always been motivated by leaving something in a far better place than the position I found it. I love to hear success stories from past roles and people I have worked with.
I am much more motivated by purpose today than I was 15 or 20 years ago when I was extremely competitive! The career path can get exhausting when all you’re doing is hunting the next big challenge or promotion, there’s much more to life and business than this and I want to be the right role model for others, especially my three daughters.
My three top tips for people starting their careers would be:
#1 Take risks
#2 Ask questions
#3 Rinse and repeat #1 and #2
For anyone looking at leadership roles I would say hire the best people you can, set clear and simple expectations and then get out of their way. Also, get to know your team - really know them, know who their family is, their hopes, fears, how they like to be treated. Talk about performance openly, give feedback, make it positive 99 times out of 100.
Formula for success
I am more stoic in my approach to life and believe that successful entrepreneurs have to have an elevated tolerance for risk which I have more now than I had at 21 - I have got it kind of the wrong way around!
Business during a pandemic
Well-being for all individuals is the priority. We moved about 1000 people to work from home in 48 hours and we did it before the guidelines. I blogged daily to the business, to ensure we stay connected and to make sure we all saw the humans behind the challenge. I wrote about my challenges, my dog, my daughters, my makeshift desk, the weather, alongside sharing what was going on in the business. It was welcomed by our business.
Stay in touch - communicate, communicate, communicate. When it comes to messaging - I like the saying, if you (as the lead owner of the message) are bored of the message, you’re halfway there…
Provide forums for people to connect and to feedback. Ensure the lines of communication are wide open to the most senior leaders (not just HR) and understand that all experiences are unique. Accept the situation, accept the cat on the keyboard, the dodgy wifi or the flexible hours... trust your team 100%.
A large proportion of our commercial team spent their time at our client's offices - so this had to change - the teams did it well with the value delivered through our analytics actually increasing in that first few months. We had to close some services due to the social distancing which was hard as it meant people being furloughed - we enhanced the benefit provided by the Government to match people’s salaries to demonstrate that it was not their fault.
The key was not to provide certainty but to provide a culture that the uncertainty was OK, so everyone could do their best. I think the team did a great job.