June 04, 2019

Curious Minds: An Interview with Jeremy King, CEO

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When people talk about innovation, they talk about smart innovation – making considered changes with universal buy-in, quality data to back up decisions, and a solid understanding of how these changes will play out in 1, 5, or 10 years time. But along with these considerations comes the right mindset; how can you make sure team members are set up for success when it comes to exploring different avenues for innovation? In other words, how can businesses foster curiosity in employees that leads to efficiency in innovation?

Opinions differ when it comes to curiosity in business. Among many other concerns, some business leaders worry that by allowing employees to explore their passions, they’ll end up with less focused, less productive team members.

We tend to disagree – in fact, we hire on curiosity. It’s a key component we look for in new team members because we’ve seen the rewards first-hand of an ever-curious exploratory mind. Curious people have brought us killer innovation ideas, a collaborative work environment, a culture of ambitious and driven powerhouses, and as a result, better performance across teams.

Our CEO Jeremy is a standout example of what curiosity and passion can spark in a business. So we talked to him about the stuff that gets his mind racing.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve read recently?

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. It’s a book about how maps and politics and culture and anthropology are consequences not of political phenomena but of natural realities. He talks about how in many cases, lines in maps were drawn by military generals based on… well, very little to do with reality, and how purely political divisions lead natural populations to behave in certain ways, with similar values and cultures. Therefore friendly and warring factions then and now often span simple lines in maps, which simultaneously explains the past and the present. Marshall shows how natural barriers and resource allocation drives our globe; not the lines we’ve recently drawn on that globe.

I loved the book because it takes a completely new perspective to explain centuries of political turmoil, where it comes from, and how it may or may not be reconcilable. It gave me new ways of thinking about old problems, and reminds us all of the importance of challenging the assumptions and predispositions that can easily be seen as ‘fact’.

What is the best thing about where Attest is at right now?

In short, we’re the masters of our own destiny. Some of the decisions we make and continue to make are quite unusual for any company. We like to move fast, break things, and take risks – it’s fun, liberating, adventurous, and at times risky! To see this happening at a team level, a company level, and also seeing how each individual builds with that freedom, that’s truly exciting.

That’s what things like responsible autonomy (one of our values) mean to me. It’s so important for our business that we remove fear of failure, and the downside of risk. If you don’t crash the race car every now and then, you never really learn how fast you can go, and where the edges are. By viewing the fallout of risk as something not just anticipated, but expected, we try to show everyone that failure is a real option and that we should embrace it. It’s quite liberating – we’re changing the ‘life or death’ feeling of decision-making into a different kind of progress.

How do you make sure that you’re hiring the right talent?

I don’t! The best way to learn is to do, and if I’m the bottleneck for each individual hire, it’d be the opposite of what we stand for as a company. Much like a coral reef, our composition and ecology is constantly changing. That’s a very good thing, so I try to empower others to continuously grow our team in new directions with new diversification.

What I do look for when hiring is an underlying real culture fit. It’s easy to look for overt alignment when you’re hiring, but I’m looking for evidence in the candidate’s past that they consistently act in-line with what they’re saying about themselves today. If they’ve acted in a certain way in the past, want to continue acting that way, and these actions are what we’re looking for at Attest, it’s a true fit.

What do you want to get better at?

All the way through my career I have expected and continue to expect to be challenged or opposed on decisions. I really welcome positive conflict and debate, particularly when ideas are in formation or deliciously half-baked. I’d like to be in a position to hear more questions than I actually receive because I always want more input, more ideas, more push-back, and I have yet to find a formula that lets that fully happen at scale and in the ways that I’d really like. Being more approachable with questions and challenges, that would be my new superpower.

What advice would you give to yourself for your first job?

My first job was McKinsey, working on unexpectedly high-profile things, in many exotic places and situations. Thinking back to my first two years at McKinsey, I wish I’d known how to say ‘I don’t know’ more often. I felt as though it was incumbent on me to attempt to know everything, and I often confused the responsibility of having a view or opinion on everything with the obligation of actually knowing where that opinion comes from. I’d yet to figure out how to say “this is an idea” vs “this is a fact”, or the other option – to say “I don’t know any of this yet, but here’s what I’m going to do/test to find the right answer”. I often thought that saying ‘I don’t know’ is the best answer, but was often reluctant to be that open. Now I know that the vulnerability of ‘I don’t know’ often leads teams to much better answers.

I think everyone could benefit from saying ‘I don’t know’ more often. I always try to create an environment at Attest where this is one of the best and first things you can say… inviting the ever-positive follow-up: “Great, what help do you need?”

Any advice on working at a startup?

I’ve found that many of the commonly understood assumptions about how startup world works are completely wrong.

Early founders assume that revenue growth is going to matter, and the exact opposite is true in many cases. Many assume they need to know how to code, when I’m a manifestation of the fact that that isn’t true… I’m clueless! Many assume you need to do what investors want and you need to blindly implement plans exactly as described. There’s no golden rule that works for every company. Each team has their own assets and characteristics to develop around. Copying or assimilating approaches used by others is unlikely to be your best operating model.

You need to do what feels right for you. You should challenge every assumption. By challenging the assumptions that matter to you most, that’s where your true business strategy and culture actually form. That’s where you’re creating new and unique value, by taking a new and unique approach.

Do you think the research industry is broken?

No, not at all broken, just far, far smaller than it should be.

For the business model of brief-to-project-to-delivery, there are many wonderful companies that do this very well, but it’s highly specialised and contained as it stands.

A good analogy for how things work in research today is a comparison to Savile Row tailors. Skilled people on Savile Row are crafting bespoke suits, many of whom have similar methodologies and all of whom have similar inputs, fabric, threads, materials, machines, skilled specialists. They bring in the client to measure them and there’s a near-constant client/tailor feedback loop. In the end, you get an extremely expensive, perfectly made outcome… using the best established styles, fabrics and methodologies. For the busiest businessman who needs a power suit, they commit a lot of time and money so that this suit is perfectly finished to their specifications and generates the outcome they desire.

Savile Row is a global institution – to have a perfectly tailored suit is (to many) the best thing you can buy… but sometimes you just want an off-the-shelf suit. Sometimes you want a suit you can wear for an entire business trip, where you’re having a lunch meeting or a drink…

…sometimes you don’t work in a business that requires you to wear a suit. Sometimes you’re running, swimming, parachuting, firefighting or venturing into outer space. All the Saville Row tailoring history and experience can’t build you the right suit.

Savile Row do a wonderful thing, but it’s for an extremely limited set of people and an extremely limited set of outputs. It’s for the 1%. Not to mention that over the course of making the suit, the fashion choices and costly first-impressions made might no longer be valid.

So, yes: the research industry isn’t broken, but it needs to be split open and expanded to fulfil a huge range of unfulfilled demand. There is a vast amount of value and certainty that is missing from the world, that incumbent research doesn’t yet provide.

What does it mean for a business to be agile?

In a few words, it’s the ability to change quickly.

Specifically what I mean is four steps: (1.) to detecting the need for change, (2.) debating the precise change that should occur, (3.) committing to a specific change, and (4.) enacting that change in the shortest time possible, with the most accurate success rate possible.

With this view on agility – analysing the bottlenecks in those four steps, plus the rate at which you iterate and evolve between four-step cycles – being more agile and responsive can help your business continuously improve at a faster pace.

Is there a framework you use when considering how to prioritise our business strategy?

When we set out our business strategy for the year we carefully select several pillars, and I try to hold everything we do up to the lens of these pillars. That being said, I’m also always looking at whether or not these are the right pillars or lenses.

So we always want to look at what we are doing, but also routinely look for signals that it might not be right. We have a framework, but we’re also constantly testing and trying to break the framework itself.

In all honesty, I don’t particularly like frameworks; they’re great to learn from, but if you’re not creating your own framework – then honing it an involving other individuals and teams – than you probably don’t really understand the problem.

Frameworks are useful… but only as a starting point.

Final question, and maybe the most important one: what would your last meal be?

Oh wow… can I only choose one? I’m immediately thinking of ways to justify including way more than the classical 3 courses.

So, now it’s a 12+ course tasting menu, basically it’s a highlight reel of the most exotic and memorable meals I’ve ever enjoyed. Chanko Nabe sumo wrestler stew from Japan. Crazy curried barracuda fishcakes from Mombasa. Brisket barbecue from Texas. Melbourne’s finest pseudo-Vietnamese super-stylised San Choy Bow. Machboos Laham from a wedding in Kuwait. Basically, a lifetime highlight reel of the unique and wonderful.

… but if I have to choose one, it’s back to basics. No two nachos are created equally. There’s so much value in the sheer heterogeneity and randomness of a pile of fully-loaded tortilla chips. No two shapes, textures or ratios are ever equal. For me, nachos are king.

This is the first of many interviews with the curious minds of Attest. We hope you enjoyed the read, another one will be with you in a month or so!