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The Intersection of Big Data and Leadership: Lessons from Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco’s Former CEO

By December 10, 2013 February 23rd, 2016 No Comments

Big Data is not a buzzword or a fad. It’s a movement and a business growth strategy. And it’s not going away. In fact, if we heed the wisdom of Sir Terry Leahy, Big Data – and particularly its role in bolstering customer relationships – will continue to be one of the most impactful business drivers over the next decade. But, as the former Tesco CEO warns, organizations must transform both their structures and their leadership approach to reap the rewards.

Some may see Leahy – a marketer who has run one of the world’s largest companies with 530,000 employees and 75 million retail shoppers each week – as an unlikely authority on information and technology issues. But perhaps he is exactly the expert needed to guide companies and their leaders through today’s increasingly tough task of harnessing data. Leahy “grew up in data.” Renowned for turning Tesco, the once small, British grocer, into one of the world’s largest retailers, he credits large-scale data – garnered through the store’s Clubcard – as instrumental to his success. The Clubcard, a customer loyalty and reward program introduced in 1995, is “probably the first example of Big Data,” he says.

Interestingly, Leahy doesn’t believe that a whole lot has changed in the nearly 20 years since Clubcard launched. “Companies aren’t necessarily doing anything more, or more interesting, or more innovative” today; yet, most are not equipped to effectively manage and leverage the limitless and infinitely powerful data available to them.

This new world of business in the era of Big Data requires radically different thinking, new organizational structures and processes, and new leadership skill sets to interpret and connect data in more creative and meaningful ways. The goal, Leahy says, is to find the right combination of data and technology to change customer relationships and the business trajectory. “More than ever, data needs direction to manage the profitability of customers.” And leaders need to be the compass.

But Leahy also cautions that Big Data on its own is not enough. Values, culture and purpose matter just as much, if not more. “They speak to the heart in the same way data and technology speak to the mind.”