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Leaders need to step forward in time to be successful today, says Centrica chairman Rick Haythornthwaite

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Written by: Ian Mean | Posted 13 October 2015 9:00

Leaders need to step forward in time to be successful today, says Centrica chairman Rick Haythornthwaite
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Rick Haythornthwaite is chairman of the energy giant Centrica and a man whose philosophies and direction have been called upon by many companies to steady the ship.

In short, he is possibly one of the best business leaders in the UK and he captivated the audience at the University of the West of England’s Bristol Distinguished Address Series.

He combines a hard edged business drive with a searching mind that has made him a target for major companies looking for dynamic and thoughtful leadership but based on the most important tool in a firm’s box - its top people.

This is a visionary leader who has chaired Network Rail, during which time his team delivered major rail projects. He has also been a non-executive director of Cookson, Lafarge and Land Securities.

His lecture at UWE was titled: Disruption and the future of leadership. How do we stop the digital revolution becoming too disruptive?

“The impact of the digital revolution is far greater than leaders allow themselves to believe”, he said.” It is very tempting to think about this digital revolution like all the other revolutions which have gone before.

“We have been having revolutions for the last millennium, each one about a third shorter than the one before and it’s disruptive for a couple of reasons.

“The first is that it’s moving ever faster and actually that allows us to tackle one of the big issues of our time which is productivity.

“So, a really big opportunity there. But at the same time, it is actually changing society – our relationship to each other, our relationship to power, our relationship to ideas in a greater way than we have seen since the 15th century.

“That is posing questions for leaders which were at one time exciting but also quite disorientating. That makes it a threat unless leaders embrace it and find new ways of leading in this different digital world.”

So how do they do that?

“The nature of the opportunity is very clear. In the UK we have a big productivity gap – 25-35 per cent.

“People look at this and say: This is really weird we have this digital revolution but productivity is lagging. Well, the good news is that it has always lagged in history.”

He believes we are now waiting for a series of technologies to come through , including the Cloud and Big Data, which will then make a profound difference to our areas of weakness like manufacturing.

“Leaders need to relax and do everything they can to bring in these new technologies and deploy them.”

He cites the revolution when the printing press was invented by Guttenberg, giving society huge amounts of information and data.

“Then, suddenly, society wanted freedom of the press and human rights – it was all pretty chaotic. Leaders were struggling with how to make sense of it. That’s what’s happening today in my view,” he says.

“Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Berners-Lee (World Wide web) have done that in this day and age – just what Guttenberg did with the printed word. They have democratised society putting huge power in the hands of individuals.”

Against this background, it is no coincidence, he says, that we are going through a period of trust in business: “Good service is not enough in this society – the slightest stumble on this high wire and you fall.

“Things are moving too fast. To embrace strategy you have to really step forward in time – what might the future look like? It is a different world for leaders today and leaders who come to terms with having a very exciting set of tools at their disposal.

“Those who don’t and fight are in for a hell of a bad time. We are in an extraordinary time of history – just recognise it and ride it.”

In your position as chairman of Centrica, do you see energy as one of the key issues of today?

“As chairman it certainly feels like it – it is clearly rarely out of the news and rightly so. People’s energy bills make up a lot of their disposable spend,” he says.

“Inevitably, customers are worried about their bills. Right now, climate change is a peripheral issue but somehow we have got to find a way of communicating that. In the end, an energy supply company must serve the customer and you are absolutely right – they want lower bills. We have to crack that one.”

Rick was speaking as part of the Bristol Distinguished Address series hosted by UWE Bristol and supported by the Bristol Post and others. Find out more about future speakers here.

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