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Unf*cking Work With Grant Duncan

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

With a career spanning both executive search and consumer media industries, Grant brings significant experience from these worlds of consumer media and content where he has worked with some of the world's biggest companies to build their senior teams. These are sectors that were disrupted early on by digital, so he has also developed expertise in advising organisations across all sectors on how to navigate the leadership challenges and opportunities of digital transformation. Before joining Korn Ferry, Grant worked at a global search and leadership advisory firm where he led the U.K. TMT (Technology, Media and Telecommunications) and EMEA Digital Transformation Practices. Prior to working in executive search, he spent 25 years in the advertising industry, latterly as CEO of Publicis Groupe's U.K. operation. Grant is the author of Looking Beyond the Car in Front, which guides both senior and mid-career business executives in taking a more assertive and strategic longer-term approach to career choices. Grant is a Patron of the Royal Television Society and Fellow of both the Marketing Society and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Grant holds an MA from St Andrew's University and is a graduate of the INSEAD Advanced Management Programme.

What is the one thing you would do to unilaterally unfuck work?

A consistent picture I see in my job as a headhunter is people who've got trapped in a job or career and have become paralysed.

Sometimes it's because, ironically, things have gone so well up to that point - they're being promoted, getting pay rises. Or maybe it's what I call ‘midlife caution’ - avoiding taking risks that might lose them the leadership role they've worked so hard to achieve. At the same time people get married, have children and take on mortgages so there’s the disabler of fear of losing everything for which they've worked so hard.

So, my biggest piece of advice would be to follow the words of Karl Jung – “I'm not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become”.

The professional journey we all go on is typically a mixture of hard work, good luck, and brain power. To avoid having to rely a little too much on the luck part, it helps to have a strategy, and to be proactive with your choices and decisions. Because taking control of your career can increase your chances of being happier and more fulfilled, both in your work life and elsewhere.

As one of the contributors to my book, Looking Beyond the Car in Front said “in order to keep yourself happy in a career and make good career choices, you need to get comfortable with risk. More risk is the safe choice.”

What is the best example of unfucking work you’ve seen in the wild?

For my book, I had the privilege of interviewing 40 UK business leaders, many of them chief executives of significant public companies.

I interviewed them about their career journeys and a consistent picture emerged of success coming from the sheer diversity of their experiences. They all had what I would call “mosaic careers”. They rarely advanced along a linear path but exhibited an ability to operate outside their comfort zone, constantly course-adjusting - be that geographically, functionally or sectorally - and along the way proving their agility and resilience which are hallmarks of great senior executives.

At the heart of this was taking risks and therefore embracing failure (Elizabeth Day, novelist and journalist, put it very well “learning how to fail in life actually means learning how to succeed better”.

Because taking a risk, even if you fail, helps develop emotional, intellectual and commercial fitness - all attributes of great leaders.

Who is your unfucking work icon? The ultimate Work Pirate?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Why? As a lifetime Microsoft employee, doesn't he contradict what I've just been saying about the importance of a mosaic career?

He's a work icon because he's an exceptional exception.

One of the most difficult things is to become the leader of a business where you have worked either the whole or the majority of your career. How can you bring fresh perspectives and different experiences from another company? External shareholders question how an insider can turn around the business when they are part of the problem.

Satya joined Microsoft as a young engineer in 1992 and 22 years later found himself as the company's third CEO. When he became CEO, Microsoft’s star was waning under the Alpha bravado of Steve Ballmer.

What made Satya so successful? Primarily it was a cultural transformation characterised by a leadership approach which was all about the idea of a more vulnerable and open leadership style. Satya recognised that without empathy, Microsoft would never succeed in understanding customer needs and delivering solutions to meet those needs. Alongside this came a number of big bets - exiting Microsoft’s failed acquisition of Nokia mobile phones, moving into social media with the acquisition of LinkedIn, broadening into games with Minecraft and Activision Blizzard, and expanding its cloud business Azure.

And the results? Microsoft revenue for the twelve months ending December 31, 2022 was $204.094B, a 10.38% increase year-over-year.

You can't argue with that.

Recommend a book, podcast or article to our Work Pirates crew that made you think differently about work.

Jim Collins’ classic business book - From Good to Great. This was a must-read in my days as an advertising executive, informing how great businesses and brands are built as well as great leadership teams and cultures.

The book examines what it takes for ordinary companies to become great and outperform their competitors by analysing 28 companies over 30 years who managed to make the transition or fell prey to their bad habits.

At the heart of his thinking was achieving what Collins called “Level 5 leadership” - understanding the importance of putting people first and strategy second. This means finding the right people for the organisation, getting rid of the wrong ones, and putting employees in the appropriate positions, all before addressing business tactics.

He then set out some great guiding principles:

  1. Create a vision. Without a crystal clear vision of what you are going to accomplish, you won't know where to start. ...

  2. Turn adversity into advantage. ...

  3. Cultivate a champion mindset. ...

  4. Develop hustle. ...

  5. Master your body. ...

  6. Practice positive habits. ...

  7. Build a winning team. ...

  8. Be of service to others

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