Tuesday, 26 September 2023 IMS HomepageHome

Preparing for International Challenges & Opportunities:

What Business Leaders, Entrepreneurs and Employers Look For

Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas

President of the Institute of Management Services


Are you seeking a job, thinking about your future, considering a change of direction, looking to have more impact, or reviewing what you would like to do with your life? In this talk I will share some lessons from experience, raise certain questions you can ask and suggest ten tasks that you can undertake to help your thought processes. 

I will conclude by briefly introducing the Institute of Management Services and mentioning how our accessible initial qualification might complement your academic and other attainments, and how institute membership might provide you with a way of remaining current and relevant. 

Initial Questions 

Let's start with some basic questions. How many of you are looking for someone to give you a job?

How many of you want to become entrepreneurs and create jobs for other people? There is often an imbalance in the response to these questions. We need new activities to replace redundant jobs. 

There is much work to be done. We face various threats from drug resistant viruses to terrorism. There are daunting issues such as cyber security, rogue states, global warming, climate change and sustainability to address. 

When you look at certain external trends and developments, do you instinctively see them as threats and worry about how they will impact upon you, or do you think about how they will affect others and whether helping them to cope might represent a business opportunity? 

There are many people, organisations and communities we can help. There are “outsiders” we can reach, engage and embrace. For example, could you help people to change their priorities and adopt simpler, healthier and more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyles? 

Are you assessing potential jobs in terms of what they will do for you, or are you thinking about what the organisations concerned are seeking to do and how you might contribute? Today there are probably more opportunities to have an impact and make a difference than at any time in history. 

There are also challenges. Advances in automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, the sharing economy and disruptive technologies from drones and driver-less cars to 3D printing threaten employment and job prospects. They raise questions about what it is to be human and about who or what you may be competing or collaborating with in your lifetimes. 

We need to understand the scale of the economic, social and environmental challenges we face and the extent of the opportunities they create to realise how precious, special and needed all of you are. 

The View from the Top 

In my IOD India role most of the people I meet are business leaders operating in uncertain market environments and encountering disruptive technologies and new business models that provide both challenges and areas of opportunity. Most of their organisations have global reach and many of them have international activities. 

These business leaders often have a relatively lonely existence. They sometimes find there are few people they can trust. Aware of the insecurity of current situations they usually find more people wanting to take advantage of them than are willing to help create a more sustainable future. 

Business leaders encounter vested interests and self-interested people who try to sell them things. They are approached by people who lie on their CVs, are slick and smooth, and who exaggerate their contributions and tell them what they think they would like to hear. People seek favours from them and their patronage and support. 

Many business leaders have a similar experience. They encounter fewer people who are aware of what is happening in the external market environment and who really care about their companies. They sometimes struggle to find people of integrity who stand out and can think for themselves and provide independent and objective advice. 

Differentiation and Standing Out 

Standing out is difficult for those who are quite good at most things rather than outstanding in a particular area. How many of you excel at something? 

Think about how you can differentiate yourself. What's different, special or unique about you? Where people have a choice why should they have any interest in you? If you didn't exist what would the world loose? 

You should ask the same questions about any organisations you join or set up? If they were closed down would anyone notice or care? Could people get something similar from somewhere else? 

[Task one is to identify your actual or potential differentiators] 

Rather than worry about remedial training and development in areas that you are not interested in or good at, pay more attention to building upon your strengths and excelling at something. Do not worry about what you do not have. In our connected world you can always collaborate with people who bring to the table what you lack. 

Board appointments are often made to fill a particular slot. People with huge deficiencies can make excellent directors if they are outstanding at what is needed to plug a gap, are aware of their weaknesses and there are others who contribute compensating and complementary qualities. 

People are unlikely to approach you if they do not know what you are especially good at. 

[Task two is to think about how best to communicate your differentiators] 

Understanding Realities and Possibilities 

CEOs write in Annual Reports that people are their most important asset. Some people can be important, for example the designers of the algorithms that underpin a new business model, or the robots in an automated factory or warehouse that are more productive, reliable and consistent than the humans they replaced, or the AI environments that can handle far more data and learn more quickly than many knowledge workers and professionals. 

Today it is possible to build a global business with relatively few people. Greater connectivity and the spread of affordable mobile devices means that any one of you has the potential to quickly reach more people alive today than have died in most of human history. 

In my 1992 book Creating the Global Company I concluded that an international perspective was the key to successful internationalisation. In the same year, my book Transforming the Company argued that companies need to become flexible networks of relationships that can grow organically. 

It is now easier than ever to pull together international teams, networks and communities with shared interests. Corporate social networks can enable connected, interested and relevant people to quickly explore possibilities and develop new options. In some cases, solutions can be rolled out worldwide within hours to problems that people did not know existed earlier in the day. 

One could argue this is the best time in human history to be alive. Disruptive technologies, digital developments and greater connectivity break down barriers and open up new possibilities. You have more choice in terms of how, where, when and with whom to work, learn, share, acquire and consume than any previous generation. You are spoiled for choice, so select the right options according to your aspirations and requirements and the activities, tasks and projects concerned. 

Organisations and People to Avoid 

If you are looking for a job do your due diligence. Some large and well-known companies have an uncertain future. They are vulnerable and could be quickly taken out. Their activities and business models are not sustainable. They are bureaucratic and defensive. Their structures and practices stifle creativity, inhibit innovation and deter entrepreneurship. 

The people of these threatened organisations are often their largest cost. They still have layers of managers who are walking overheads. Many of their employees are dependents, drawing from the well of corporate knowledge rather than adding to it. A proportion of their people are dishonest. 

Within such endangered companies people rush about trying to look busy. They are doing rather than thinking. They mouth corporate slogans and try to milk situations while they still can. Consultants sell costly restructuring and cultural change programmes to companies that have a questionable future while the directors keep their fingers crossed and hope for the best. 

Think carefully about applying for a job in such organisations. Think about the poor role models you might encounter, the bad lessons you may learn and the precious time you could waste. 

[Task three is to address a fundamental question: Do you want to be a piece on someone else's chess board, or would you rather create and play your own game?] 

Learning from Experience 

There is untapped and often hidden talent in many organisations. Try to meet the people you may be working with. Will you be able to learn from and with them? 

Try to learn from all the situations that you are in. Observe decisions being made around you. What would you have done in the same situation? When you take decisions yourself on behalf of an employer, think about what you would do if you were spending your own money. 

[Task four is to create a learning log or diary. Record and periodically review what you learn from particular decisions, developments, events and situations] 

Identifying a Passion or Cause 

Think about what is important to you and what you would like to do with your life. Do you want to accumulate trappings and possessions or make a difference? Is there a hobby, interest or passion you could turn into a business? 

My books Individuals and Enterprise and Shaping Things to Come are all about changing direction and building a business around what you enjoy doing and/or challenging assumptions and creating new options and choices. 

[Task five is to produce a proposal for a business based upon something you really enjoy or would like to do] 

Could you turn an existing business into a cause? Is there a cause that you support? Remember that a career in business is not the only option. There are the public and voluntary sectors and social entrepreneurship options. Don't forget the sharing and barter economies. 

It is not easy to achieve more than you set out to do, or to become more than what you aspire to be. What do you need to do now to get to where you would like to be? What skills, competences and experiences would be useful to you? 

How would you like to be remembered? What would you like to see written about you in your obituary? 

[Task six is to write the obituary you would like to have] 

Qualities Being Sought 

I meet business leaders and entrepreneurs who are still driven to confront challenges, seize opportunities and create a better tomorrow. In many areas from the utilities, healthcare, dealing with an aging population, waste disposal, cleaning up the environment and increasing inclusion to sustainability, transforming public services and dealing with climate change there are unprecedented opportunities for creativity, innovation and business and social entrepreneurship. 

To seize these opportunities more business leaders and entrepreneurs are looking for people who are potential business partners and co-creators rather than dependent employees. They seek people who are open minded, curious and flexible - people who are capable of independent thought while at the same time able to collaborate with others who have complementary capabilities. 

Those who have a choice tend to favour associates, partners and suppliers who understand their aspirations and are competent, honest and can be depended upon. Legitimacy and trust are particularly important today. Evidence of immoral or irresponsible conduct can be quickly captured on a mobile device and uploaded with the potential to go viral. 

[Task seven is to look at your social network profile from the perspective of a potential employer or business partner. If it is not too late, consider what needs to be deleted or changed] 

Openness, Flexibility and Balance 

The unexpected can and often does arise. Be prepared for novel situations, new challenges and unanticipated events. Traditional, learned and approved responses may not be sufficient, appropriate or effective. Be open-minded. Entrepreneurs and innovators require the ability to assess, imagine and invent. They need the courage to discover, explore and pioneer. 

Don't be wedded to particular approaches, tools, operating models, structures, technologies and ways of working. Where possible, select and bring together whatever people, approaches and support is relevant to addressing issues and problems as and when they arise. 

A willingness to challenge, think and be a creative problem solver, using whatever means and disciplines are felt to be relevant, has become a sought after requirement. The confidence to have a go can be more important than evidence that in the past you mastered a particular knowledge set. 

Keep a sense of proportion. As Charles Handy said to us when we started at the London Business School, don't trip over the daises. He also advised against looking over your shoulders at others. Comparisons may not be relevant and can be misleading. 

You don't have to be first at everything. The sum total of who and what you are, your aspirations and motivations, who you associate with, and how you live your life will determine your impact in and upon this world. Look for opportunities to contribute and add value. 

Be aware of changes in the world of work. Inter-organisational, multi-location and virtual team working continues to spread. Increasingly, the challenge is how people, machines and digital technologies can best work together in new contexts and as business models change. 

Many people are anxious, insecure and experience stress. Some burn out. Remain grounded and try to maintain a mutually supporting work-life balance. 

[Task eight is to identify sustainable activities that you can undertake outside of the world of work or lifestyle changes that could increase your quality of life] 

Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship 

Network across different communities. Look beyond labels and symbols of race, religion and nationality at individual motivation, conduct and contribution. Openness and a diversity of complementary talents and personalities within a group can stimulate creativity. Encourage it and enable innovation and entrepreneurship 

Becoming more effective and productive at current activities will not necessarily give us the degree of change we need to cope with many of the challenges we face. We need to transform or replace many practices, operations and organisations rather than reform or improve them. 

Try to turn threats and challenges into inclusive opportunities. There are opportunities to ameliorate negative consequences and opportunities to develop alternatives and substitutes. Do not pass up opportunities to contribute and innovate or to lead, manage, help and support others. Try to live your life today so that you will have few regrets in the future. 

A business can become a cause. Dreams can become realistic goals. Celebrate success, but also enjoy the journey. Don't be impatient or in too much of a hurry. At the same time don't procrastinate. Use your time and that of others wisely. Use it to create outcomes, offerings and solutions that are better, unique, special or different. 

Whether now or in the future many of you will probably become self-employed and entrepreneurs. Leadership and entrepreneurship are about thinking as well as doing. Going with the flow and following the crowd can sometimes be fatal. Avoid groupthink and exercise independent judgement.  

Think for yourself, but - where appropriate - listen to informed counsel. Take objective, honest, balanced and relevant advice. Encourage people to discuss, critique and refine. Aims and outcomes are often improved by questioning and challenge. 

Focus and concentrate. Less can be more. Avoid distractions and cherish your freedom. Being dependent upon others or under obligation to them can limit independence of thought. It can prejudice the giving of objective and honest advice. Being forced by necessity to keep in with others can breed accommodation, flattery and groupthink. 

Try to be inner directed and self-motivated. You should not flatter or deceive others or be distracted by their attention. Whatever recognition others give or do not give you should not affect your opinion of yourself, if you have done your best to do what you believe to be right. If you avoid self-deception, you will know your motives, what you have done and what you have achieved. 

Joining a Profession 

Having a place you associate with or call home can give you an anchor and a foundation, somewhere to return to and recharge your batteries. For some people their anchor is their profession. Your graduation is just the beginning. Smart employers look for people who can adapt, challenge and change in order to remain current and relevant. Membership of a profession provides a framework for keeping up to date and continuing professional development. 

[Task nine is to think about what steps you should take to ensure that you remain current and relevant in relation to your aspirations and the contribution you would like to make] 

Think about whether you should complement your academic degree with a professional qualification. I am here today as President of the Institute of Management Services. The management services profession has had a long involvement with work study, efficiency, the improvement of productivity, performance and quality, change management and transformation. Its members are actively involved in internal and external consultancy and project management. 

Our knowledge base embraces transformation, information and people management. Our initial and accessible formal qualification, the IMS Certificate, addresses core competences and analytical skills of particular value to consultants and others who want to bring about significant change. It is a four week programme that is offered in a flexible format of four modules. An affiliate grade of membership is available to those seeking this qualification. You can use to register to receive complementary copies of our e-newsletter. A quarterly journal is also available for our members.  

[Task ten is to consider whether the IMS Certificate and membership would complement your degree and enable you to demonstrate professional competence as well as academic attainment]. 

Transforming Working and Learning Practices  

Compared with expensive and time consuming traditional practices there are now quicker, more affordable and less disruptive ways of transforming performance and simultaneously achieving multiple objectives for people, organisations and the environment. Personalised performance support can capture and share what high performers do differently and facilitate collaboration and social networking, It can be available 24/7, wherever and whenever needed, including on the move. 

I show in three book length research reports Talent Management 2, Transforming Public Services and Transforming Knowledge Management that performance support tools can quickly deliver large multiple returns on the cost of developing them. They can also address traditional trade-offs such as that between risk and return by both reducing risk and increasing return. At the same time, because checks and balances can be built into them, support tools can set people free to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial. 

Don't be too focused upon yourself. Relationships need to be mutually beneficial to last. Remember that it is other people, our clients, customers and users, who decide whether or not what we produce represents value. Without customers businesses produce wasted effort and unsold stock.  

We cannot claim credit for being born smart. You will all deserve credit for equipping yourself with the competences you need to contribute and add value and making the best use of whatever capabilities you have inherited and/or develop. Use them to benefit yourself, your families, your communities, your country and the wider world. 

Good luck to all of you in your search for opportunities to have an impact and make a difference. 

Further Information

For information on the Institute of Management Services, its professional qualifications and body of knowledge, the benefits of membership and its journal Management Services please contact: Tel: +44 (0)1543 266909; Email: admin@ims-productivity.com; www.ims-productivity.com


*Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas' talk in a series on employability at the University of Greenwich was given on Wednesday 7th March in the King William Building of the Old Royal Naval College, Park Row, Greenwich, London SE10 


Prof. (Dr) Colin Coulson-Thomas is President of the Institute of Management Services. He has helped directors in over 40 countries to improve director, board and corporate performance. In addition to directorships he leads the International Governance Initiative of the Order of St Lazarus, is Director-General, IOD India, UK and Europe, chair of United Learning's Risk and Audit Committee, Chancellor and a Professorial Fellow at the School for the Creative Arts, Honorary Professor at the Aston India Foundation for Applied Research, a Distinguished Professor at the Sri Sharada Institute of Indian Management-Research, Visiting Professor of Direction and Leadership at the University of Lincoln, and a member of the advisory boards of Bridges of Sports and the Arvind Foundation, and ACCA's Governance, Risk and Performance Global Forum. An experienced chairman of award winning companies and vision holder of successful transformation programmes, he is the author of over 60 books and reports. Colin has held public appointments at local, regional and national level and professorial appointments in Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and China. He was educated at the London School of Economics, London Business School, UNISA and the Universities of Aston, Chicago and Southern California. He is a fellow of seven chartered bodies and obtained first place prizes in the final exams of three professions.

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