“You cannot solve the problems of the future with the tools from the past.” That’s the view of Jens Monsees, CEO and Managing Director WPP AUNZ. He is not talking about technology.

In an interview with Which-50, Monsees described how leadership requires an overhaul just as surely as business processes and software. “Teams aligned around a common vision and working in a culture that discourages siloed thinking are best placed to succeed,” he said.

Business transformation requires leadership teams to willingly foster environments where teams can experiment, grow and innovate, providing new solutions to today’s needs, he argued.

We asked Monsees, who is a year and a half into WPP’s huge transformation program, what he would do differently knowing what he knows now. His answer suggested that he has learned the same lesson of other leaders driving reform: not everyone in a senior leadership role can drive the change.

Discussing what he would do differently now, he conceded, “I would be more decisive exchanging some of the more siloed thinkers earlier in the process.”

These lessons were learned not just during his time recalibrating the ANZ operations of WPP — a media and marketing giant and increasingly a technology transformation business as well — but also from his time working for companies like BMW, where he led the electric vehicle initiative.

“We were just having an offsite with 180 of our key leaders across all businesses. The talent pool, the can-do approach, the ideas, the creativity, the willingness for change within these people was sometimes much stronger than in our senior leadership team.

“You just have to empower them and you give them that headspace to grow and to develop and to bring in their ideas. So that was really amazing and that was such an energetic move into breaking through some of the clutter.”

Complexity

According to Monsees, “The complexity of our business when I started was insane. It was very fragmented and everybody was out there alone.”

Reflecting on the key lessons he has learned in business, Monsees highlighted a range of issues.

He said, “You need to be able to describe a clear vision … But if you don’t put out that vision that everybody is orientating towards and have one direction where we are moving towards, then you don’t need to start. That’s very important.”

Next, he described the need to “overinvest in learning and development”. In an era of accelerating change where employees are expected to continuously learn and upskill, it is this investment in “people, culture and capabilities” that fosters a strong team.

Alignment

Aligning incentives to reflect the strategic goals of the whole business, rather than simply an individual vertical, is another important tool to deliver company-wide outcomes.

“It’s also about changing mindset and changing KPIs, because if you run all these different brands in siloed panels, then you will never change your whole approach. Only what is measured will be delivered? and only what is measured will get done.”

And finally, he stressed the need for a clear plan (but one that is sufficiently flexible). “You cannot change from a sailing ship to a steamboat in a day, so, what are the steps?”

North star

Monsees also stressed that executives must continually assess and evaluate their priorities in order to efficiently focus their attention.

In order to make these choices, there has to be a guiding principle that governs decision-making every day, helping them to stay aligned to their company and personal mission.

For Monsees, that principle is “Client first”.

“Not business first, not brands first, not a cost first. Clients first — what do they need, today and tomorrow. That’s what helps to prioritise everything if you look through that lens.

“Then second, people and skills. So if this is what our clients need, do we have the right talent pool, and how do we develop our talent pool to deliver on what the client needs?”

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