Sean Pillot de Chenecey chats with Allyson Stewart-Allen, renowned advisor, author, educator and Non-Executive Director.

Included in the chat:

  • The problem of how to replicate the human touch when you’re working virtually
  • The impact of the internet in international relations and how leaders need to adapt to this
  • How to market yourself effectively
  • What makes a great event
  • How embracing diversity can strengthen your business through different perspectives and ideas

Episode #115

Replicating the human touch when you’re working virtually

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (00:04): Hello. This podcast is care of Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau representing a select group of the world’s finest thinkers and thought leaders. Founded in 1999, today Speakers Associates operate out of nine offices across seven countries covering the UK, Europe and Middle East. I’m Sean Pillot de Chenecey, author of the Post-Truth Business and Influencers and Revolutionaries. In this series, I interview a range of fascinating individuals, proudly represented by the bureau. These change agents and industry experts give an update on their specialist areas of knowledge, and also on their motivations and viewpoints regarding the future of business. So now I’m really pleased to be joined by Allison Stewart-Allen, the international branding and marketing expert. She’s a renowned advisor, author, speaker, educator, and non-executive director, whose expertise in brand internationalization is sought by leading businesses globally through her consultancy, publications, appearances, and corporate education. A Californian based in Europe for over 25 years, Alison applies her extensive international consulting experience, MBA education with Dr.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (01:21): Peter Drucker and languages, French and German to the company she founded International Marketing Partners. Besides helping leaders successfully and profitably span international boundaries, she’s a regular commentator for BBC, CNN, the FT, Sky News, where she spent four years as the weekly muse of marketing. The wall street journal, and soon to be appearing for her fourth season on BBC’s The Apprentice You’re Fired! Allison is author of bestselling book Working with Americans: The First Ever Business Manual, exclusively about the US business culture and the first business book to appear at the Hay on Wye Festival. In addition to her frequent keynote appearances at international conferences, Allison is a member of the board of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, an advisory board member and judge for the National Business Awards, a mentor for the Mayor of London’s International Business Program and presenter at the Drucker Forum in Vienna. So Allison welcome.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (02:22): Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (02:23): Glittering biography I have to say, that there’s more there. Just absolutely extraordinary. So, tell me, so to start somewhere on this, let’s go right back to the beginning then. So, where did you get going? And did you have a lucky break that really sort of launched you into your sort of stratospheric? Correct.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (02:42): That’s very kind of you. No, I think it was about persistence really. I think most people’s careers, well from the people I know anyway are about sticking with it. And maybe it’s about incrementalism. That day by day you get a little further, a little further and that over time you actually get somewhere and it is baby steps, you know, there are those overnight wonders. But there’s a famous saying from Harrison Ford that, along the lines of it took me 20 years to become an overnight success. You know, so I think there’s an element of sticking with it in persistence. There’s also an element of, you know, recognizing as I do that every day, there’s an opportunity that comes up every single day in an email with a prospective client or a conversation with someone and it’s choosing which of those opportunities you’re gonna pursue, but I think everybody gets them every day. The question is, which do you actually choose that you bank on or bet on are gonna actually deliver more learning or happiness or fulfillment professionally and maybe even money. So I think, I think that’s how this has come about, frankly.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (04:10): And then what about, I know you’re a Californian originally, so what was the motivation for leaving a sunny California?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (04:16): So I guess it’s my interest in all things international sort of started when as a kid I lived in Munich, so between the ages of eight and 12, I was put into a German school. I learned the language pretty quickly. We were then back in Los Angeles, when I was 12, and my school then offered either Spanish or French. And I loved the sound of the French language. So French, it was, and I really just stuck with it and knew that I was a bit of an unusual person, as a young girl who had lived overseas. I mean, I, there was no one else in my school class that had ever lived overseas before, and that just kept coming up again as a theme throughout my MBA program. But especially at work.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (05:07): So my first job after the MBA was with Pricewaterhouse before the Coopers was even an idea and basically thought, well, I’m gonna get an international opportunity if I let them know of my interest and on learning that, you know, you need a 10 years before you get to be added to a long list. And then a few more years you might be on a short list. And I thought, no, I’m 24, 10 years, I’ll probably, you know, have dimension be in a care home. At least when you’re 24, this is why I truly believed and thought, well, I’m just not waiting. And frankly, having two degrees in marketing means that if I can’t even market myself, I’m really in trouble. So I made myself my own project and sent out in those days. So we’re talking about 1985, 86, a mail merged with word perfect. Before windows ever existed.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (06:03): Yes.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (06:04): Yes. And cranked out a bunch of mail merge letters to different companies in Europe. And when enough of them said, okay, we’ll meet you, no guarantees about the work permit, but we’ll meet you. I then thought, well, this warrants a trip. So I came over the summer of 86, took a couple of months leave of absence from the Pricewaterhouse job and left Europe with two offers under my belt, one in Paris and one here in London with PA consulting group. So I took the London opportunity and arrived here in early 88. So yeah, I’ve been here now, what, 31 years? And didn’t regret a minute of it. I absolutely love it. I, you know, I feel I’m a dual national and I feel truly trans-Atlantic and global because of the work I do. I’m very lucky to have some wonderful organizations that teach me a lot. I teach them too, but I also do a lot of learning. And, I’m incredibly lucky to kind of have mass feel like I’ve, I’m mastering my own destiny in some ways.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (07:08): Fantastic. What about in terms of having been here for that amount of time? Obviously, a, a lot has changed B a lot hasn’t changed. So in terms of the issues that are impacting your clients at the moment, the issues that are impacting business at the moment, what sort of things really intrigue you in 2020?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (07:28): I think, we’re increasingly seeing more global and virtual working. So companies don’t have the budgets to keep flying people all over the world for, you know, half day meetings, and increasingly the environment and flight shaming and the fact that you don’t necessarily need to pump out lots of CO2 emissions just for a meeting on the other side of the world. When we now have virtual, you know, Skype and Zoom and other video conferencing applications from your PC. So the challenge therefore for the clients I’m working with is how do we try to replicate the human touch, the high touch in a global team that’s virtual, where you’re separated by cultures, countries, time zones and expectations. And it’s very challenging because you have to align people in some way or other around the project that’s before the team or the mandate that’s before the team. And it’s very, it’s made much more difficult when it’s virtual. You know, you can’t feel the firmness of the handshake. You can’t smell the perfume or the cologne. You can’t see the fabric of the suits or this silk scarf that your counterpart is wearing. And I think that’s really difficult. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that companies are facing now, and will only continue as we become more virtual and a bit more atomized and disconnected, which is another side of the coin, frankly, to this.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (09:14): And so what about the issues of, are there specific sectors that you’re particularly interested in?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (09:24): Well, intentionally, no. So, and it isn’t me ducking the question, but it’s because when I was in these large consulting firms, I’ve been in three. Before I set up my business in 91. And, one of the challenges of big management consulting firms is that you are expected and asked to specialize in three domains, specialized by geography, specialized by functional discipline and specialized by industry sector. And the challenge with that model is that if you are, let’s say, working with a bank, you end up often saying, well, here’s what your competing bank is doing. So try a version of that, instead of saying, I know you’re a bank, but you know what, there’s a lingerie retailer, and they’re doing some really innovative stuff. And I think there’s some lessons from them that you could apply in your sector. And diversifying the gene pool of ideas for my clients is part of what I think I’m here to do.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (10:24): And are there again, are there particular sectors that you find are particularly dynamic at the moment or indeed ones that are frankly need to really up their game?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (10:35): So dynamic, gosh, I think the probably financial services would fit that category for me, pharmaceutical companies would fit that, utility businesses would fit that, in a way, any business that can be profoundly disintermediated by the web because consumers and customers. So your trade customer as well, can arbitrage and the fact that we’re now empowered and being able to arbitrage means that these companies all have these challenges of having their value stripped out or laid out and in such a way as the consumer or client customer can cherry pick which bit of the value chain they want, and they know where they can get it from. So I think these businesses I’ve just mentioned, for example, all face this challenge of the, a more sophisticated, consumer and customer who’s able to just choose and specialize in getting just the bit of value outta the chain that they want.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (11:47): And then on that again, taking that point forward, when you are giving your talks or doing your consulting, do you have your sort of pet case histories? Are there particular brands or organizations that you’ll talk about because you just know that they are leading from the front, or you can say, look, here’s an example of just an outfit that have really got it.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (12:07): Interestingly, I generally talk about the ones that haven’t got it. I think you learn quite a lot from failure. Maybe even more than from success because success, you psychologically, I think you expect the success, the failure is painful. And I think that’s when people are prepared to listen because they’re in pain. And I hate to say that, you know, but carrots and sticks do work. However, in my experience, I think company leaders are more interested in let’s understand why we got in pain. And let’s do what we can to make sure we don’t have pain again. So I generally do talk about companies that cross geographical boundaries, cross cultures and fail or definitely have wobbles when they go to international destinations, much like a tourist who doesn’t know the basic phrases of hello, how are you? Thank you. You know, goodbye. Similarly, companies need to also have the body language and the phrase, basic phraseology and understand that the world is not necessarily like their home market.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (13:22): And in terms of the angle of leading those organizations or businesses, and what about the sort of skills now that leaders need, have leadership skills changed?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (13:34): I think leadership skills have changed. I think now you cannot be a leader without having more awareness of the world. This idea of a global mindset is critically important. Even if you are only in one geography you may well be only in one geography, but your customers are not. And again, the internet has made sure that as soon as you have a website, you are instantly global. It’s like global in a box. You know, you unpack it, you plug it in, you turn it on and the world can access your website. So defacto, you are global, even though you mentally might not think you are because you only trade currently, maybe in one market. And so, because of that, I think leaders in companies of all sizes need to be much more aware of the international implications, the cultural implications on them, how there might be another way to do things in other parts of the world, you know, fish don’t know they’re in water.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (14:41): I use that phrase a lot. And until you put the fish out of the water, take it outta the water and have it breathing air. It’s not gonna really appreciate just how different error is to water. Similarly, I think executives and corporate leaders need to be put out of the water once in a while to recognize that the world is, you know, not like them, that the assumptions they make about people from different geographies, customs, ways of doing business, there is not one size fits all. And the more understanding they have, the more innovative they’ll be in developing business models that will serve different parts of the world. You can run several business models simultaneously. And I think that’s the challenge. It’s the complexity and it’s the global mindset and global awareness

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (15:35): And can ask and moving should say almost on the other side of the fence from the brand ownership side, looking back to your, if you say your past history on the sort of management consultancy side, what about the disruption that people like that are facing? So, you know, if you’re advising someone now who’s going to that sector or someone who’s gonna set up a new agency or consultancy, are there any, are there particular elements of that that you’d be thinking, oh, you know, cherry pick a bit of that and that’s a nice, juicy bit to be into, or, but don’t do that bit, you know, so, you know, are there, yeah, what’s going on there?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (16:04): Well, that’s a really great question. You know, the management consultancy world is so broad, and there are so many opportunities to be a super specialist. The challenge isn’t being the super specialist, it’s telling the world that you’re a super specialist so if nobody knows that you are a geek on a topic like mine, you know, the American business culture is one of my favorite topics and it’s not the only topic, but it is a topic, you know, how do you let the world know that this is something that you have as a capability? So I think it’s not so much the specialization it’s how do you make people aware that your specialization even exists?

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (16:50): And so on that side, in terms of yourself, so literally in terms of, you know, the old sort of Michael Peters, the old sort of the brand called me, you know, that angle of, so how you market yourself and how you push yourself out there. What sort of things are you up to that you could nice people on?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (17:06): Well, yeah, so I think there’s a number of things they can do. One is obviously speaking and you know, being a speaker with a great agency like Speakers Associates would be a wise thing to do because you get to get your ideas articulated, and it gives you practice packaging and crystallizing your ideas much like doing media appearances. You know, unless you have that opportunity, why would you necessarily package what you know? And in a way, those are great prompts to be able to make, be concise, and articulate, you know, here are the top things that people in sector X need to know. But if you’re not asked the question, you probably won’t package it, if that makes sense. So putting yourself in, you know, in front of other audiences is definitely a great kind of not proud to be able to think about how you package it.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (18:09): So speaking’s one. I think writing articles is another great way to package what you know. Again, almost having someone else ask you the questions that you can’t ask yourself, cause you’re just too close to the topic and the content. So, you know, it’s much better sometimes to just have a colleague ask you questions give them the sheet or have them write some out because that gets you thinking, ’cause you wouldn’t know, you should ask yourself certain questions. That could be interesting for an article or a TV interview or radio interview. So I think finding those opportunities and seizing them is a really good way to let the world know about a specialization that an expertise area that you might have.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (18:58): Okay. And then in terms of letting the world know, or let’s say in this instance, letting delegates know at events, I mean, there are many style of events and all the rest of it. I mean, you’ve spoken many, many events around the world on that side are any sort of pointers there that you would give to clients because you’re saying who are looking to put on an event, are there any, again, do you have any sort anecdotes in terms of now there is something I went to that was absolutely superb. It was run in a brilliant way. The topics were great. It really gelled as opposed to lots of the others, which tend to be quite similar. And be honest. So what really works from your point of view?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (19:33): Yeah. From my perspective, what really works is giving the audience time to connect with each other and problem solve. So I think one of the things you often find is the kind of chalk and talk, which is, you know, the speaker gets up, they’re the respected expert. They spend 35, 40 minutes of their one hour slot telling you broadcasting one way their expertise. And you’re meant to sit there nodding politely and either taking notes, if you’re engaged or getting shot, you know, getting your emails cleared if you’re really bored and then you’ve got 20 minutes of Q and A, and that’s when people wake up. It’s the Q and A, it’s the engagement. It’s the, oh, that was a great question. I love that answer. Good question. Oh, I’ve got one and that’s one, you know, you wake people up.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (20:26): So I think the best stuff I’ve ever been to, regardless of how big that audience is, is something that’s much more interactive. So you do a little bit of a provocation. Then you hand it over to the audience and say, okay, you’re sitting in rows usually rather than cabaret style around a table, which I prefer the cabaret style. Cause you get to talk to the other people sitting around you, but you know, sometimes that’s not feasible. So even in a big auditorium, you can say with the, you know, people, either side of you in groups of three, here’s what you’ve just heard me talk about for the last 10 minutes. Here’s a big question over to you. I’ll come back to you in 10 minutes time. I’d like to hear your thoughts and you let them problem solve and they think, oh yeah, that’s good. And guess what? I’m meeting two more people here at the event who I may not have otherwise got talking to. I think organizers should place a higher value on the networking benefits that people get. And that’s another motive for why they go to events. It isn’t purely to learn from the speakers. It’s also to network with the other people in the audience. So I think more of that would people would leave thinking, oh, that was really fantastic and engaging ’cause you’re involved, you know, as an audience member.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (21:44): And then in terms of, cause obviously a very inspiring speaker, but so where do you get your inspiration from? Are you a great reader or a, or what what’s

Allyson Stewart-Allen (21:53): That’s a great question. I think I get my inspiration from talking to other people. From talking to my clients who are experiencing challenges from reading the business press, which I do regularly daily, both online and offline. I think, it’s about practicality rather than theory. And it’s ironic, I’m saying that given that some of the work I do is creating custom leadership programs for some of the most known business schools in the world. But actually the inspiration for me comes from what’s the problem my clients or companies are trying to solve today. And what are some ways to think about how you tackle those? So I think they come from conversations for me, but that plays to my extrovert.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (22:44): Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (22:46): Personality anyway. So that’s easy for me to do.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (22:49): And again, in terms of sort of business schools, because I think again, 20 years ago, the term business school feel a lot of people with dread and it had a very, very stayed conservative with a small C sort of awe about them, but now they appear to be a lot more dynamic. So, what’s happened?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (23:06): I think business schools are increasingly using a mixture of elements. So they’re using their faculty and the research from their faculty. They’re using practitioners like myself for executive education and they’re using online, so blended learning a mixture of classroom and you know, web-based solutions. So I think they’re getting more creative and more innovative. I think the range of talent, if you like that they’re plugging in, for a client’s challenge, is more diverse than it’s ever been before. So I think that’s helped them a lot.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (23:46): And then just on that exact point about diversity and just how important an issue this is, perhaps just give us sort of viewpoints on that because that’s something, and again, quite frankly, if you were to read the annual trend reports from 10 years ago, that wasn’t on there, you know, no, or maybe sort of, you know, buried deep in the document and now, you know, thankfully obviously it’s written up, but where are we now on the diversity curve should we?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (24:11): Say, I think we’re still we’re maybe near the end of the beginning is where I put us right now. Us being Europe, US, because, these companies are increasingly under pressure from their investor community and lots of the other stakeholder groups that are watching what companies are doing to make sure that they aren’t all cookie cutter employees who all parrot the party line for, of the leadership team of the business. And we also now have some statistics that show that the more diverse thinking that goes into decision making the better, the outcomes, in term better in terms of bottom line impact. So you actually make more money, the more diverse ideas that you bring into a decision than if you just have the usual suspects making decisions. And I think that’s the commercial benefit now that is starting to get some attention that we now are including people not like us, because we know that that will improve the business.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (25:17): It’s sort of like, you know, back to the DNA analogy. If we diversify the gene pool of ideas, we ultimately get stronger, better ideas in a Darwinian sense than if we keep in breeding, we’re not gonna strengthen the DNA. So I think that is absolutely also true when it comes to executive teams and corporations that now recognize that in a way, you know, if I back to what I said a few minutes ago about consultancies. The best service that a consultancy can give its client is to cross pollinate, one sector with a completely different sector and force some analogies. Force some similarities and that’s how you learn. And I think that’s the same way with diversity and inclusion. You learn a lot more from people that aren’t like you, and while psychologically humans tend to look for people like them, because there’s safety in that we are now beyond living in caves. We don’t need that sort of safety anymore. Now we can actually outperform our competition by intentionally designing in diversity. So I think we’re starting to wake up to the quantitative payoff for doing it.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (26:35): Absolutely. Superb. So tell me, just, so here we are in 2020, so for you sort of personally, professionally, what’s coming up on the horizon, tell us yeah. Exciting plans.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (26:46): Yes. So, there’s a few conferences where I will be appearing, one called Future Fest. That’s later on, in March, then I am speaking at the World Retail Congress in Rome, in April, leading a panel of a well known international retail brands, talking about localization. How do you do global and local well? Which is one of my favorite topics because it’s very challenging for companies. Then I’m speaking near the end of the year for the Chartered Institute of Marketing as they’re giving the annual lecture. And again, I’m debating what my topic will be, but it may well be something about doing global and local. A few international trips with clients coming up this year. A couple of Leadership Programs I’m designing. But I think what’s keeping me going is the fact I’m still learning.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (27:49): I’m learning about different sectors. I’m learning about the challenges that they face as they grow internationally, as they try to lead global teams that are virtual, the challenges they face in changing regulatory environments, and increasingly more scrutiny from every stakeholder made that much easier. Thank you to the internet so we can now watch everything a company does under the microscope that we really couldn’t do before. And now that’s getting ever more precise. So, you know, I think transparency now is not an optional choice that of a company it’s actually thrust upon them. It’s how they cope with transparency and the expectation of transparency. That’s the real clincher, I think rather than thinking you are in charge, ’cause you’re, so you’re not in charge, your stakeholders are in charge.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (28:47): Okay. So that, I’m actually fascinating. So last question that’s gonna be, so, you know, for the Speakers Associates audience, so whoever people listening in, wherever in Asia, US, Middle East, Europe, if you were to have your ideal client out there, who’s gonna be putting on an absolute first class event at the moment, what is it that you would like to be, you know, exactly talking about that you think would be the killer speech for that fantastic event?

Allyson Stewart-Allen (29:15): Yeah, I think the killer speech is how do you get the, your people to be at their best in the international context that you are providing them, which is, sounds like a very vague and, you know, what is she talking about? What I’m talking about is how do you get high performance in your international business, even if your business is only located in one country, but increasingly that’s very unusual, but how do you get high performance against that international backdrop? Because that front end teeing up of teams international teams specifically for success does not often happen. And there are some rules and some contracting, and some values agreements that need to take place for an international team, especially when virtual to be high performing. So I think it’s about navigating the cultures navigating the team’s mandate and making sure that a team is set up for success and here’s how you go about doing it.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (30:28): And here’s how in the process, you make sure that you have and build a more global mindset. I think that would be the ideal, speaking opportunity, otherwise it may well be something about how do we figure out and fix an overseas market where we went in and maybe we didn’t do so well. Maybe we didn’t listen as well as we could have. Maybe we didn’t do our homework to, in a sufficient depth, how do we now get that right? So it’s localization, it’s global teams and you know, my work, trying to help my client solve those problems, blends itself to also sharing that knowledge more widely. So yeah, those would be fantastic, opportunities and subjects for me.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (31:20): Oh, sounds actually fantastic. And so, I hope our listeners will be getting in touch with Speakers Associates at haste we say, in order to talk about precisely that. Well, thank you so much, Alison, it’s been really, really interesting talking with you. So Alison Stewart-Allen, international branding and marketing expert. Thank you.

Allyson Stewart-Allen (31:37): Thank you.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (31:41): Thank you for listening to The Speakers Show Podcast. Please leave a rating on iTunes. We’d really appreciate it. And also it’d be great if you could subscribe to the podcast itself. You’ll find it also on Google podcasts, SoundCloud, or your favorite podcast app. Thank you.

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Podcast host

Sean Pillot de Chenecey speaker

Sean Pillot de Chenecey

Foresight strategist, author and podcast host Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an inspirational speaker, who’s also consulted for some of the world’s biggest brands.

Sean has a very deep level of knowledge regarding the genuine issues impacting brands from a cultural, social and business perspective.

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