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Disrupt yourself, and take your career (and your company) to new heights

Debra Walton  Managing Director, Customer Proposition, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters

Debra Walton  Managing Director, Customer Proposition, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters

The current FinTech explosion is aimed fairly and squarely at disrupting the financial sector, the industry where I have spent the majority of my career. As chief product and content officer for the Financial and Risk business at Thomson Reuters — arguably the financial market’s oldest FinTech — I spend a lot of time thinking about how to foster our own disruption and grow our position in the market.

Disruption has long been a buzzword in Silicon Valley, where it refers to companies that radically alter existing businesses, often going against the perceived wisdom. Amazon is probably the best example, because it has never stopped disrupting — first books, then the entire retail landscape, later with a move into cloud services, where it has a commanding lead. It’s currently disrupting the grocery segment and is moving into artificial intelligence. Founder Jeff Bezos is fearless when it comes to thinking creatively about the future.

Nintendo recently demonstrated how a company can disrupt itself. It’s long been focused on console games in world that’s going mobile. The recent release of Pokémon Go was an instant hit with consumers and made headlines across the media spectrum. With one pivot, the company brought augmented reality to a mass audience and repositioned itself in the gaming sector through its stakes in the Pokemon Company and the game’s developer Niantic Inc.

Another way to think about this is that disruption is simply the outcome of innovation.

Innovative companies need innovative thinkers — and in order to be an innovative thinker you need to be ready willing and able to disrupt yourself.

The conferences I attend sometimes leave me with a concept that shakes me out of my complacency and changes the way I think. A talk recently given by Isabel Aguilera, former chief executive of Google in Spain and Portugal, is a perfect example. Her speech, delivered at the Thomson Reuters European sales conference in Barcelona, was wide-ranging and insightful, but it centered around one key idea: how important it is for people to disrupt themselves.

That was a big “Aha!” for me. When companies embark on the journey of innovation and transformation, a key question is whether they have talented people in crucial roles who are not only intellectually able to come up with big ideas but willing to disrupt themselves.

During the course of my career I’ve built many high performing teams and I’m proud to say I’ve coached and mentored many highly talented individuals. I’m a firm believer that the key to success for great leaders is their ability to hire top-notch people, build strong teams, then get out of their way and let them get on with it. I’ve thought (and spoken) a lot about talent, skills, and attitude. I’m a big believer that in sales, for instance, curiosity is an important factor in success; communications abilities are critical to being an influential leader; new enterprise business models demand collaboration; and the rapid pace of change requires top talent to have great learning agility. I also believe that courage is crucial — a person must have the ability to step outside her comfort zone and take risks.

My new thought is that if businesses are going to move from bricks and mortar to online, if processes are going to go from man to machine, then the talent that leads them or is critical to supporting the transition must be willing to disrupt themselves. I’ve observed many CEOs fail because they don’t know when it’s time to disrupt their command and control to grow business to a new level or even to get out of the way when the next phase of the journey requires a different skill set. And I’ve seen many new processes get stymied by middle-management blockers who fear for their jobs.

So what does disruption mean for us as individuals?

At the most basic level, disrupting yourself means not merely accepting challenges when they come your way, but actively seeking them out. Not waiting for your boss to hand something to you. It means rethinking the parameters of your job, and perhaps even of your department—maybe even your company. It means looking forward instead of staying mired in the present.

Successful disrupters aren’t bogged down by the day-to-day routine — they learn how to give a hundred percent to the job and still think outside the box. They’re ready for major changes in the landscape because they’re deeply engaged in their work, they know their industry inside and out, and they’re always looking for ways to improve and expand their knowledge base. They recognize the trends and the inevitable changes that come with them, and work out how to surf that wave instead of getting dumped by it.

Disrupters also know when to step aside and let other talented people take their place. This frees them up to keep pushing ahead with new ideas, and paves the way for more innovation at their company.

The goal should be to never become obsolete. You’ll be doing yourself and your company a major service by expanding your horizons and finding new ways to do things. Sometimes this means getting past some fear, stepping out of your comfort zone — as I like to say, getting out over your skis. Doing so is the hallmark of disruption and innovation.

Disruption is a mindset. Millennials seem to have it in spades, but it’s less about any specific age group than about an attitude and a desire to take your career to into uncharted waters. Disruption isn’t change for the sake of change — it’s understanding that change is inevitable if you are going to survive and flourish.


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