Andrew Grill: the practical futurist
Andrew Grill is a practical futurist who is determined to lead businesses and individuals to stay one step ahead of others. He is also a professional public speaker and presenter, a calling he discovered after taking part in a public speaking competition in Adelaide more than 25 years ago.
Originally from Australia, Andrew is a leader in understanding the power of digital transformation – not just in principle but practically harnessing it to create possibilities and disrupt ideas. Back in 2001, he launched Australia’s largest commercial property website, PropertyLook – a successful business which was sold to realestate.com.au in 2006. Before joining IBM in 2015 as Global Managing Partner, he had taken the helm of various organisations and corporates, setting the tone for them to grow.
Andrew is now the “Practical Futurist”, inspiring people from all over the world through his keynotes with topics related to digital disruption, artificial intelligence, and the workplace of the future.
Andrew relocated to London in 2006, and he spoke to Advance on how we need to be digital in order to get digital.
Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance
Why did you choose to move to London to live and work?
Back in 2005, I was working for an innovative start-up in Sydney that had developed some world-leading mobile location technology. It allowed mobiles to be located without the need for GPS, which was not that common in smartphones back then - and this was well before the iPhone existed.
I had previously worked for both Telstra and Optus so knew the telecommunications industry well. As a result of my activities, I managed to secure the interest of Vodafone Group – based in London, and started to travel from Sydney to London and back again every three weeks.
We decided it would make sense for me to relocate to London and start up our European office which I did in 2006 and I’ve been here ever since in a variety of roles, both for start-ups and large companies, such as IBM.
I have always wanted to live and work overseas, so this was a perfect opportunity and I love the fact that I can be in Europe in just over an hour, or in the US in just 7 hours. London does feel like the centre of the business world in the northern hemisphere in many ways.
What is a futurist?
A better question might be what is a Practical Futurist which is how I style myself. My favourite Futurist is Arthur C. Clarke who famously co-wrote the film screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey 50 years ago.
In 1974, an Australian journalist from the ABC asked Arthur what life would be like in 2001. His response accurately described the modern-day internet, that we would have a computer terminal in our own home, and that we could live anywhere and would be permanently connected and “get all the information we need for our everyday life, like bank statements, and theatre reservations ...”
The problem though is that Arthur was looking 30 years in the distance. My clients don’t have 30 years to wait, they may not even have 30 months, 30 weeks or even 30 days. They want to know right now what they have to do in order to prepare for the impact of digital disruption on their business.
As The Practical Futurist, I provide near-term advice on what they should do, advice that can be put in place the next day, or the next week. Feedback from my presentations has confirmed that many people have put into place my advice, with very positive and repeatable results in the following days after my talk.
You are an expert on the digital world and public speaking which are two different areas: behind the screen and face-to-face communications. What's your advice for us to strike a balance between digital and real world, and possibly get the best of both worlds?
I really like the intersection of digital and face-to-face communications. It has enabled me to cultivate business and personal relationships well before people see me in person. My website at andrew.london contains many replays of my public talks and often people come up to me after they have heard me speak in person and mention to me that they had watched me online prior to the talk. I actually had this happened to me again on a recent speaking trip to the United Arab Emirates.
My writing on various subjects over the last 18 years is listed online, and often I am engaged to speak in-person by clients as a direct result of something they have read that I have written previously – so the two for me go hand in hand.
I teach C-suite leaders about how to use business networking sites such as LinkedIn. I speak about how you can give a “digital tap on the shoulder” simply by looking at someone’s profile before a meeting which can telegraph two things:
Firstly, they can see that you have looked at their profile, and so know you are doing your research on them, and secondly, you will already know something about them as a result of reading their career history or even better, find out what they are really interested in by looking at their activity.
Understanding what posts they have liked or shared, or what have they posted themselves can be a very useful indication of their personality or leadership style.
What you can glean here may also be crucial in making that good first impression. I have said often that in this increasingly digital-first world, people can generate a digital first impression of you before you even meet. The first 90 seconds of this digital first impression is now therefore critical to get right, and executives that work on curating what is found about them in a google search can increase their value to their market, and their own personal brand value.
How did you realise that you had an interest in being a speaker and presenter? What's the most rewarding aspect of the job?
I recall that I overcame my fear of public speaking around 1993 when I was living in Adelaide, and I had entered a public speaking competition run by a community group I was involved with.
The rules were that you had to prepare and deliver a 6-minute talk on a chosen topic. In addition, on the night you would be given an envelope with a topic written on it and when it was your turn to speak, you had to open the envelope and present a 4-minute talk on the topic contained inside the envelope. No preparation time was allowed.
The topic contained in the envelope at this event was “That your heroes have let you down”.
I instantly composed an engaging story about how the Muppets were not real and they had let me down. It was a nonsense talk on a nonsense topic, but it allowed me to instantly overcome my fear of public speaking.
After just 30 seconds of this 4-minute talk, I realised that I wanted to become a public speaker.
My first “real” speaking gig was back in 1999. My boss at the time was invited to speak
at the “Ballarat Australia Online Field Day” where I presented on behalf of Telstra with the topic of “Doing Business Online”, presenting on the latest applications to help communities get online.
The most rewarding part of the job is seeing clients inspired into action as a result of one of my talks. Often when I come off-stage, I am bombarded with people complimenting me on my talk which is very flattering, to which I always respond: “Thank you, but what will you do differently?”
The almost unanimous response to this is “That’s a good question…”. I see my job as disrupting their thinking and providing them with the tools to do something different.
Which occasion was your most memorable experience as a speaker?
There are a couple of very memorable speaking experiences that spring to mind. The first was when I was invited by a company in Central America to speak at an event in Nicaragua. While I was initially apprehensive, the more I learned about the organisation and the event, the more comfortable I was. Just as I was about to hit the stage, I was told that the room of 50 people had a collective worth of 90 Billion dollars – no pressure!
The second was while I was delivering a keynote in the small Swedish town of Strömstad. I was on a very high stage about 1 metre off the ground, and as I was walking backwards pointing to the screen, I literally fell off the stage. Such was the adrenaline racing through my body after falling, in one move I jumped back onto stage and kept going. Afterwards, one of the delegates from Dell spoke to me and ended up becoming a client of mine.
How should a business future-proof itself through digital disruption?
The ability to detect that you are vulnerable to digital disruption is the first step. A willingness by senior management to embrace digital technologies and embark on a digital transformation project is the first step. A study by PWC concluded that doing nothing and waiting could be more damaging than the impacts of disruption. You can’t just ignore the transformation that is happening and hope it goes away. The most difficult part of any transformation project is changing internal culture. You can deploy the best, most appropriate technology available, but if it is not adopted by the people that work in the business, then the project is destined to fail.
Companies that realise they need to transform need to embrace something I call digital diversity. This is all about structuring your board, your senior management team to either have digitally-savvy board members, or digital coaches on hand to help them navigate a digital transformation, or a senior management team that is completely fluent with digital language.
Only then in my opinion do you have true digital diversity in your senior ranks and you can respond to any challenge thrown at you because they understand the language of digital and can take advantage of all the opportunities that a digitally-literate business can absorb.
As some writers suggest,it's hard to attest to the challenge of brevity. Do you have the same experience when you present? Is it harder to give a short speech than a long one?
Yes! I like telling stories and if there is less time, and the talk is only 10 or 18 minutes long as a TED talk is, then I have to be very economical in my storytelling, as I have been with this response.
The shorter the talk, the harder it is in terms of storytelling.
If you were to explore a topic outside digital world and social media, what would it be?
I would look at how the different generations have evolved – Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and now Gen Z and beyond. I would look at how these generations have changed due to the different experiences they have had.
I’d also examine why Australians leave our wonderful country and set up life overseas as I did 12 years ago – what the motivation is to leave, and the corresponding motivation to stay abroad.