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[Congress Q&A] Inside view: the battle for top talent across media, tech and other sectors

Kathleen Saxton ()

With a battle for top talent between media and other sectors there are still a number of factors making media companies a magnet for talent. However, at the same time, a worrying aspect is that some skills often most desired in leaders are regularly also cited as most lacking in the industry’s collective leadership.

We are speaking to Kathleen Saxton, founder of executive search firm The Lighthouse Company and of transformational leadership development company Psyched Global. She gives us an inside view on the battle for talent, talks about talent requirements and trends and shares ideas of how the media industry should think about and position themselves to get top people on board, and then retain them.

Kathleen will be a speaker at the 41st FIPP World Congress, taking place from 9-11 October 2017 in London, where she will discuss transformational leadership requirements for media. Find out more at fippcongress.com, including how to register at our discounted early bird rate, ending 31 July.

The battle for talent

“Top talent in media companies are increasingly sought after by other sectors facing greater growth prospects,” says Kathleen. In fact, our own research has shown 39 per cent of leadership talent in media companies are considering leaving the sector.” 

Therefore, “media companies need to be spending as much time thinking about how they retain their existing leaders as they spend time thinking about how they attract new talent.”

The main competition for talent is “unsurprisingly from the major digital growth innovators, i.e. the likes of Facebook, Snap Inc. and Google. They attract a huge amount of candidate interest as they continue to grow, develop and drive change across the broader media landscape,” according to Kathleen.

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“Yet, those media companies with standout heritage still remain very attractive; whether [in the UK, as example] that’s the disruptive reputation of Channel 4, value-driven organisations such as BBC and Guardian, successful publishers such as Hearst Magazines, to name one, or new breed challenger organisations such as Shortlist Media Group.”

All of that said, the three most common companies the Lighthouse “is routinely asked about are Amazon, Apple and Airbnb. While all are top class organisations in their own right, we find that those citing these as attractive are as much referring to the journey the businesses have been on, as opposed to the role they themselves might be able to play in the company’s future.”

What media companies should focus on to attract top talent

According to Kathleen, “many of the factors that made the media industry a great magnet for leaders still exist and these should be accentuated to retain desirability. 

“For example, many media companies continue to heavily invest in future growth and have the capacity to transform at considerable speed thus remaining attractive to those leaders seeking a brave and autonomous journey. 

“Many of the heritage strengths of our leading media brands can also prove incredibly persuasive to the right leader looking for a career home with a higher purpose. 

“We will all have heard in the past that working in the media is not about saving lives or rocket science. However, as data and analytics science climb the ladder of importance and many media brands have a clearer world purpose than many other organisations, we are beginning to see greater influence and impact of our sector in broader world issues – something of even greater appeal to the more altruistic leader. 

FIPP World Congress 2017 | Meet the speaker: Kathleen Saxton, The Lighthouse Company


What media companies want

In their experience, says Kathleen, media companies “are increasingly looking for the transformational leader – that individual who can drive their business through future growth. 

“Our survey [more on this below] identified a number of clear characteristics as most desirable to lead transforming businesses. 

1. Vision and courage: “The combination of vision (chosen by 77 per cent) and courage (34 per cent) highlights the importance of forward thinking and gumption to be brave enough to make the right decisions for now and for the future. 

2. Capacity to connect: “This was counter-balanced by the human capacity to connect with those around us; 47% claimed authenticity was a hugely desirable trait, with another 44 per cent citing the capacity to engage with all employees as critical. Perhaps rather worryingly, these very same skills were the ones deemed to be most absent in our industry’s collective leadership.

3. Hybrid skillsets: “There is no doubt that increasingly media companies are looking for leaders with a hybrid skillset. In most leadership hires it is clear that the individual’s character and curiosity will trump craft skills. Those that are most adept at transforming organisations can easily and quickly learn the practical knowledge required to steer the ship.”

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How top talent think about opportunities

While many may think that financial packages are the critical motivator, “our own research highlights other factors that are more or equally as persuasive as this”, says Kathleen. It includes:

• “The single most influencing factor we’ve observed over the years is the reputation of the organisation’s leader – the vast majority of candidates we see are categorically swayed by the person at the helm.”

• “In many circumstances the bench strength of the broader leadership team also comes into play; particularly strong examples of this are the calibre of talent at the Guardian’s executive team or the breadth of talent running Dentsu Aegis Network.”

• “Growth prospects are also a potent persuader – candidates often want to see clear evidence of a pioneering vision” and want to know an organisation’s value and purpose. “The ability to broaden experience (be it by discipline or geography) and establish better work/life balance are significant traits that leaders look for in their next move.”

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What about middle management

Succession management appears to be a particular problem when it comes to middle managers. “The middle management is often called the ‘messy middle’ for good reason. It’s usually at this level where employees are established and know what they’re good at yet find themselves pulled in many different professional and personal directions,” says Kathleen.

“Whether that’s the joys of parenthood, the chase of title/position or even the fact that they’ve become indispensable at a certain role, organisations need to truly understand the individual and the path that they want to follow.”

“Companies need to consider all aspects of attraction, retention and promotion of employees at middle management. The vast majority of respondents in our annual survey say that their companies are poor/average at succession management – and at a time when much of your nurtured talent may be considering other directions. If you want to retain them, you need to be attentive to their changing needs.”

For those who are looking to “position up” there are a number of “key hygiene factors” to consider, says Kathleen.

• Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, dress and behave for that job. 

• Secondly, try and elegantly assume the role that is required, or indeed you believe may be required. 

• Thirdly, ask to be championed by key influencers within the organisation.

“For the individual, it is really important to know exactly where your strengths lie. While we can always learn afresh, every one of us will have accumulated skills that become almost second nature in the roles that we do – it may not always be what we want to be doing, but arguably it is what we do best. 

“The flip side of this is not to be too myopic or short-sighted in your thinking – think laterally about how you might be able to ‘repurpose’ what you’re great at for your next move.”

Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers – how different are they, really?

While “it may be a little dangerous to stereotype entire generations, there are a number of broad differences that we observe – not that there is a right or wrong way to behave in your own career,” says Kathleen.

1. “Firstly, many millennials are starting off their working lives with portfolio careers, doing multiple jobs in various organisations while for Baby Boomers we often see this happen as they wrap up their career. For Generation X, there is a greater tendency for ‘extra jobs’ to be more of a hobby or altruistic position.

2. “There are also real disparities between what people have experienced within their workplace regarding diversity. Take for example gender equality; many women in the late Gen X/Baby Boomers will have fought hard for their equal place in the workplace, whereas for many of the millennial generation, there is less of a barrier – literally or psychologically – to success it in the workplace.

3. “Thirdly, we often notice distinct differences in loyalty and work ethic. We tend to find that while millennials are incredibly focused on what they want, they can be very single-minded in how they get there. Contrast this with the older generations who are often more conscious and respectful of organisational workings and hierarchy.

4. “Finally, we see significant differences in health and wellbeing attitudes. Generally speaking, the younger generations are more willing to ‘drop the mask’ in the workplace and show more of how they are truly feeling, be that physically, mentally or emotionally.”

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Some results from Lighthouse’s annual New World Talent Survey

The survey gathers more than 600 C-suite responses in the advertising, media and technology sectors, explains Kathleen, “specifically to quantify many of the trends we see with regards to candidates and clients in both the boardroom and interview room.” Here are some of the main trends.

1. Equity Epidemic: “Over the years we have seen the rise of the Equity Epidemic – and the startling fact that almost 40 per cent of leaders think there are people in their business who are less motivated than they have been in the past, but who are staying in order to retain company equity.” 

2. Horizontal Hybrid and Heartlights: “Other major trends to have been ratified include the growing prevalence of the Horizontal Hybrid - with leaders demonstrating burgeoning knowledge across a whole spectrum of skills rather than a distinct, specialist expertise in one – and what we call Heartlights; that is the willingness of leaders to share their personal time with clients and colleagues.” 

3. Estranged Encounters and Tempting Talent: “Our trend of Estranged Encounters acknowledged the need for more transparent interplay between media owners, agencies and clients while Tempting Talent has shown those companies acquiring the best leadership talent often trump craft skills and knowledge with great human relational traits.”

Most recently, according to Kathleen, their 2017 results identified a number of characteristics that are increasingly at danger at being “Lost At C-suite”. 

1. Business impact: “These include the transformational leader who has the ability, confidence or remit to make significant business impact.”

2. Organisational purpose and values: There is also “a notable absence in organisational purpose and values – despite it being ranked as one of the most powerful persuaders of media leadership moves.”

3. Ageism and ongoing learning: “The 2017 results also highlighted the impact of ageism within the media industry and the fact that while legacy wisdom is of huge value to our industry, every individual has the responsibility to ensure that their accumulated knowledge remains relevant for a new working future.”

4. Looking after the ‘whole self’: “Finally, and perhaps one of the biggest drivers of the launch of the Lighthouse’s sister company Psyched, is the increased desire for our leaders to look after their ‘whole self’. For many years, organisations have rightly paid corporate attention to the physical health of their employees. However, there is a growing desire and need for organisations to extend this duty of care to the mental and emotional needs of their employees – employees want it and research conclusively points to the fact that peak performance (both in and out the workplace) is enhanced when all elements of employee health are taken care of.”

About The Lighthouse Company

Specialising in leadership and executive hires, The Lighthouse Company has observed many market-wide trends over the past few years that affect in particular the acquisition of senior talent within the media industry. 

From the perspective of headhunters, there is a growing trend for media owners to use headhunters to identify and persuade top leadership to switch roles – arguably one result of competition for top talent in the marketplace.

“While many organisations have rightly invested in internal talent acquisition teams for management roles and below, our own research has shown us that executive search firms are an essential part of the hiring armoury when these teams don’t know leadership candidates or their reputation personally,” Kathleen explains.

They develop one-on-one, high touch relationships with candidates in order to find matches. “At leadership levels, this is a match that you need to get right first time,” according to Kathleen.

*** Meet Kathleen at the 41st FIPP World Congress, in London, 9-11 October 2017. Learn more at fippcongress.com. Our discounted early bird rate is available until 31 July – click here to save!

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