Principles Of Leading Change In The Digital Age

Interview with Justin Sargent, CEO of Nielsen Pacific


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Last updated: March 21st, 2024

Change management

Last updated: March 21st, 2024

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Meet Justin Sargent. Effective at leading change in global organisations, Justin joined Nielsen in 1993. His tenure at Nielsen has included key roles such as Managing Director of Nielsen India, Group Managing Director of Nielsen UK and Ireland, and Retail Executive Director in Sydney.

In 2016, Justin took over the Nielsen Pacific business after relocating from Geneva where, for two and a half years, he was the Global Client Business Partner for Nestlé — one of Nielsen’s biggest global clients.

You can connect with Justin on LinkedIn.

Arielle: Justin, thanks for joining us. We’re thrilled to speak with you today about change management principles and learn more about how you lead change.

JS: Thanks for inviting me. Glad to be here.

Arielle: Here’s what is so interesting about your career relative to change strategies.

It occurs to me that you lead through three layers of change.

The first is how Nielsen approaches market changes; the second is how you advise your clients to meet those changes. And the third is how your clients adapt (or don’t).

This gives you a unique perspective on change leadership, especially as a CEO.

We’ll begin with some key change management principles, and then get more specific about your role. How does that sound?

JS: Great. I’m ready.

Arielle: To set context for our readers, what would you say is the biggest distinction between leading change and managing it?

JS: My take is that leading is about anticipating and acting whereas managing is about reacting to a changing circumstance.

The old adage “if it ain’t broken then don’t fix it” doesn’t work in today’s dynamic environment.

The mentality needs to be about constantly scanning the horizon, sensing what’s going to change and then building and implementing your own plan to get ahead of the change.

As product lifecycles get shorter and shorter then “we need to fix it before it breaks” seems a much more suitable mantra.

(Related Article: Dirty Leadership Truths About VW Emissions Scandal).

Arielle: So, an active versus passive approach to leading change, grounded in market intelligence.

JS: Exactly.

Arielle: In your opinion, is change leadership a discipline, or a mindset?

Is there a methodology that you’ve found to be effective in your own career?

JS: Clearly both are important, but personally I think mindset is absolutely critical.

If you don’t passionately believe as a leader that the change you’re driving will put your organisation in a better place at the end then you shouldn’t waste your time.

The first thing employees consider when a change initiative is underway is whether the leader looks like they believe in what they’re doing.

You can’t fake it – you must be convinced yourself.

Only then can you talk with true conviction about why change is necessary, what we’re going to do and how we’re going to get there.

In terms of change management methodology, I don’t have a unique playbook. Being compelling up front on the reason for change is very important. Ticking off milestones to show progress builds momentum.

And recognising that different people will go through the change curve at different paces is also critical.

The earlier you can identify stakeholder resistance and work with those individuals to make them ambassadors, the better.

(Related Article: Transformational Leadership: The Ultimate Guide).

Arielle: Tell me about a specific example in your career where there was a large amount of resistance to change.

JS: Happy to. When I was running the Nielsen business in UK we had a market-leading liquor service that was being threatened by a new competitor.

Our team thought our heritage and history would see us through but this was 2009.

The global financial crisis was hitting and all the Brits stopped going to the pub. This put pressure on our clients’ budgets.

The startup competitor began winning business with a different proposition and more attractive price point.

After a strategic review of the options, I made the decision to acquire a stake in the new entrant’s business and combine forces with a new service.  

There was a lot of initial resistance as our team passionately thought we could win alone and having to now work alongside people who they used to compete with was too much for some.

It played out very well and dramatically strengthened our client offering, but it took a lot of time working with the team to help them see the bigger picture.

(Related Article: How To Facilitate Employee Engagement).

Arielle: That’s a great example, thank you. Let’s dive deeper into your experiences of leading change.

Much of your work has focused on the trends of the Australian consumer in the food and beverage space.

Most notably, you’ve been writing and speaking about how much that demographic has changed in the last 20 years, with Asian-born Australians representing over 10 per cent of the population, and potentially doubling in the next 20 years.

What changes does this growth opportunity present to your business, and to your customers’ businesses?

JS: For an information services company like Nielsen, the market change is invariably good as companies need to research and understand the change.

The changing ethnicity in Australia is one such example – we have about 30% of the population now that were born overseas and the majority were born in Asia and not Europe.

Companies are missing out on opportunities because they aren’t catering for this ethnicity.

For example, most growth for our Fast-Moving Consumer Goods clients is now coming through e-commerce channels. So, showing them how to win with a disruptive channel is a big opportunity for our business.

Likewise, on the media side of our business, the massive shift to digital and personalisation presents a significant opportunity.

It’s easy to shrink away from leading change because it’s hard and complicated – but for our business, change is our friend.

(Related: How To Showcase Leadership Skills On Your Resume).

Arielle: On that topic, this May you wrote an article called “Think Small: Unlocking Grocery Growth”.

Your main point was that, with consumer market growth down, the profits and opportunities in the FCMG space are to be found in the smaller, less familiar channels.

I suspect this approach is a pretty big shift for many of your clients in Australia.

Not all corporate environments can flex their cultures to suit this entrepreneurial stance.

What specific role do you see the CEO / C-Suite of these businesses playing?

JS: Clearly, you have to lead by example, if you’re not embracing change then your teams won’t.

A small example is that we have just moved our business to agile working, moving away from the idea of a fixed desk and towards a collaborative set-up where you sit with different people every day according to what you are looking to achieve that day.

If my senior team and I didn’t walk the talk on this change then nobody would.

(Related: Why Is Leadership Important?)

Arielle: Building on that, how does trust factor into leading through change?

And by trust, I mean both having trust in yourself as well as the trust others have in you. Share a specific example from your career, if you can.

JS: Trust helps, but you don’t always have that luxury if you are a new leader who is not known by the team. You can’t always wait for that trust to build before you drive a change.

A few years ago, I was asked to move to Mumbai and lead the India business and felt that I needed to drive some organisational change right from Day One.

The combination of being an unknown quantity as a leader, plus the cultural differences in style, made that a potentially difficult change.

But if you have conviction, trust in yourself, and a clear rationale then that goes a long way to off-setting any trust gap that may exist.

(Related: How To Provide Effective Feedback To Your Employees).

Arielle: Speaking of trust gaps, let’s talk about the Daigous. Just recently, at Food and Grocery Australia 2018, you were quoted as saying:

“Growth is becoming increasingly difficult to find for a lot of companies, particularly the large ones, because the environment has changed dramatically in five to 10 years – you’ve had the discounters come in and e-commerce grow, you’ve had input costs and energy prices rise and you have a more price-conscious consumer.”

You go on to speak of the opportunities that the Daigous present to Australian businesses.

And yet, you admit that the exact numbers supporting this recommendation are elusive. How are apps and technology changing the equation?

For example, a consumer in China (via a webcam) can choose a lobster straight off a boat in Australia. That’s amazing!

And a radical shift from Chinese consumers loading up carts in an Australian Woolworths to ship products back home.

JS: Yes, this is huge. There are 300 million middle-class Chinese consumers, many of whom are ready and willing to pay a premium to get their hands on safe, high-quality Australian products.

The Daigous are playing the connecting role and many brands are capitalising.

But again, it’s a different route to market from the norm and some brand owners are embracing it and reaping the benefits, others are more wary and observing rather than leading the change.

Observing different retailer strategies is also fascinating. Some are putting their infant formula behind locked, glass cases and limiting quantities that can be purchased.

Others are welcoming Daigous with open arms as further fuel for their business.

In relation to technology, undoubtedly this is a dramatic enabler for our clients as well as us. Apps, big data processing power, artificial intelligence, visualisation, voice activation … you name it, it’s changing the game fast.

Technology and data science skills will be the most sought-after skills in the years to come.

(Related: Australia’s Top Outplacement Services).

Arielle: How are your clients reacting to change of this magnitude? How has this pace of change affected how you do business?

JS: One of the biggest mindset shifts at Nielsen in response to dramatic market-place change has been our approach to product development.

We used to wait until everything was perfect before rolling products out to clients, meaning there might be a major launch every couple of years or so.

Nowadays two years is a lifetime and we have had to, therefore, become much more agile, iterating, prototyping. We are continually introducing enhancements and working collaboratively with clients.

This has also meant a different way of thinking for our clients where we have seen very different levels of willingness to change and work in a more agile way.

A prime example is our digital measurement in Australia.

We’re innovating rapidly and bringing out frequent enhancements to capture the new ways in which people are consuming digital content.

Some clients love the iterative and dynamic nature of this; others prefer stability even if the measurement is not as comprehensive as it could be.

Managing different client appetites for change is one of the most challenging but interesting aspects of life at Nielsen.

(Related: Interest Rate Outlook: Will RBA Cut Rates Again?)

Arielle: In your experience, what is the relationship between swift change and business opportunity? How do you find the sweet spot?

JS: My time in India changed my perspective on this. It’s not possible to change swiftly enough. If you’re thinking about whether the pace of change is right, then you’re going too slowly!

As technology increasingly eliminates global barriers, expectations around that sweet spot will have to evolve.

Australian industry will have to take more risks to compete effectively. It’s less about talent and creativity. Instead it comes back to mindset and how strong your desire is to be the first mover.

Arielle: Recently, Elon Musk announced that Tesla was laying off 9% of its workforce. The announcement surprised many, despite the company’s lack of profitability.

In your opinion, when is it time for a reorganisation? What should CEOs be sure to try first?

JS: Layoffs are, of course, the toughest kind of change and most CEOs, myself included, would view this as a last resort.

When you have to do it, it’s all about transparency, communicating why it’s necessary, providing clarity on why roles are selected and showing empathy throughout.

I’ve unfortunately had to do this a few times in my career – and it never gets easier.

You do have to get to a point though where you remind yourself that your responsibility is to create a stronger business that preserves the employment prospects of the majority and that the tough actions being taken are doing exactly that.

(Related Article: Top 10 Resume Writing Tips For Senior Managers & Executives).

Arielle: Are there any other change management principles that you feel can help leaders lead change in the digital age?

JS: Don’t think of leading change as an unusual activity; it is today’s norm. Pick your direction, run as fast as you can and make sure you stay authentic on the journey.

Arielle: Justin, thanks again for sharing your key change management principles for leading change as a CEO. We look forward to catching up again in the future.

JS: My pleasure.

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