Inspiring female leaders: Noreena Hertz

Wolff Olins’ global COO, Sairah Ashman, interviews Noreena Hertz.


Noreena Hertz is an English author, economist and campaigning academic. Noreena played an influential role in the development of (RED), an innovative commercial model to raise money for people with AIDS in Africa, having inspired Bono (co-founder of the project) with her writings. She is a Non Executive Director of Warner Music Group and is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty at University College London. In 2013, Fast Company magazine named her “one of the most influential economists on the international stage” noting that “for more than two decades (her) economic predictions have been accurate and ahead of the curve”.

What are the most significant shifts that you see right now?
Two things are having an enormous impact on business at this time. The first is technology which is a game changer in industry after industry.  Whilst the shift to a largely tech-enabled world brings many opportunities – the data dividend is of course just one – it also presents new challenges and not just for traditional bricks and mortar, or old media type businesses. How to benefit from big data and not drown in it? How to manage the transition towards increasingly robotized jobs (white collar as well as blue)? How to plan effectively when where we are heading is very hard to discern? These are just a few critical questions that companies need to be trying to figure out answers for.

The second area that business leaders need to think about is how global challenges might effect their business so that they can make the right strategic decisions. In our era of globalization, problems in one place fast become all of ours. With Ebola, Russia, ISIL, all the Middle East all increasingly problematic and a slowdown in Continental Europe to be expected, monitoring global geopolitical, social and economic trends, and working out how to hedge and adapt decisions accordingly is essential.

What do you see as the key growth accelerators over the next 12 months?
One area I’ve been looking at for some time now is the sharing economy which is becoming a huge growth accelerator in its own right.  It’s one way of doing business that has the potential to catalyse and effect lots of industries. There’s been a renegade force of disruption from companies like Zipcar and Airbnb that more traditional businesses are now beginning to react to. Kingfisher, for example, has been piloting schemes that allow you to rent power tools rather than own them.  They’re in the process of redefining their business – moving from being exclusively a seller of tools to becoming an enabler – helping you to have tools when you need them and also to learn how to use them most effectively. Our attitudes to ownership are changing and smart CEOs are thinking about how to provide a better service, not just a product. Another trend to think about is the rise of the Concerned Consumer – we’re seeing a generation hugely motivated by purpose, ethics and a more co-operative form of capitalism. This will impact  how we behave as consumers and what we expect of businesses.

What role do you see brand playing in these changing circumstances?
Brands serve primarily as a shorthand for consumers to understand the purpose, politics and social assumptions around any ‘purchase’ they might make. We want to know what we’re buying into, not just what we’re buying. It makes sense for a brand to be clearly integrated and aligned with what the company believes and stands for –  Tom’s Shoes is a great example. Tokenistic, ad-hoc cause related marketing efforts will need to give way to something much more authentic and holistic.

What or who inspired you in the early years of your career?
My late mother inspired me growing up. She was an arch feminist and one key message was “no daughter of mine will ever wash a man’s socks”. I was encouraged to shoot for the stars and never see gender as a barrier. It gave me the inspiration and the confidence to enter a male-dominated world very early on. She taught me not to be afraid of being ambitious and to make sure I was treated the same as my peers.

What advice would you pass on to others just starting out?
Always work really hard early on in your career, it’s not really the optimal time to think about work-life balance.  Leave an incredibly good impression with the people you work with, you never know where you might see them again and where they might take you. Have adventures!   Your early years are a good time to try things out – you’re not committing forever.  Build a good support network around you – think about who can serve as your mentor, and who in your personal life can serve as your cheerleader and Challenger-in-Chief. You want both.

Noreena’s new book ‘Eyes Wide Open: How to make smart decisions in a confusing world’ is now available on Amazon.

This post was originally published on the Wolff Olins blog. Published here with kind permission from the author. 


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