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"IT is spawned from Beelzebub&rsquo;s ballsack" &ndash; Ellis Watson talks process management

Contributor: Sam Miranda
Posted: 05/01/2013
"IT is spawned from Beelzebub&rsquo;s ballsack" &ndash; Ellis Watson talks process management
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He’s held leadership positions at Syco, John Menzies and the Trinity Mirror Group. He counts Rupert Murdoch, Simon Cowell, and phone-hacking villains Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks as former colleagues. Sam Miranda reports as Ellis Watson ruffles feathers at Process Excellence Week Europe.

As a former Rupert Murdoch protêgê and current CEO of Scottish media group DC Thomson, Ellis Watson will appreciate a sensationalist headline.

Watson – highly coveted as a transformational leader – joined a Westminster Central Hall packed with process professionals to share his two cents on corporate culture and business improvement. Wobbling on with crutches he delivered his first punch, likening the audience’s polite shock to his unconventional entrance as "the kind of look you’d give me if you caught me molesting a family pet."

Don’t let Watson’s chutzpah distract you from his steely business acumen – during his time at Celador Entertainment Watson milked the Who Wants to be a Millionaire cash cow for all its worth, selling rights in 106 countries. It’s in the cutthroat turmoil of the tabloid industry that he sharpened his corporate claws. Stripping down the workforce by 35% as part of his role in revitalising the fortunes of Menzies Distribution is indicative of a man with an iron plan. His reputation as a game-changer saw him recruited by transport giant FirstGroup, before he was poached by Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment after just seven months.

Such was Watson’s magisterial brilliance on stage, he wouldn’t have sounded out of place next door in the Houses of Parliament. Although provocative and unabashedly sardonic at times – Americans were amongst those who felt the brunt of his colourful invective - Watson’s sparkling insight and self-deprecating humour endeared him to PEX partisans.

He defied his status as a "McDonalds manifestation" to dust the cobwebs off his Woolworths trainers and Sergio Tacchini tracksuit, before labouring to the finish of the London Marathon in 6 hours 4 minutes. "Pathetic," declared Watson, with the frank admission that his slog had left him with dysentery, chronic chafing of the nipple and proud vindication that fat people can run marathons. God loves a trier.

It wasn’t all hyperbole and rib-tickling anecdotes, as Watson outlined the key tenets of his business philosophy. Given his infectious charisma, it’s easy to see why Watson views process change and management through a cultural lens. His role as a transformational leader is not to bury into the metrics and methodologies, but rather provide the process engineers, Six Sigma statisticians and Lean gurus with the right platform to flourish. This means exuding passion to break down the trench mentality in the boardroom and make stakeholders receptive to new ideas: "We can’t carry any negative passengers – apathy spreads."

It’s this exuberant dogma that shapes Watson’s view on the recession. He castigates the naysayers; encouraging business leaders to embrace adversity as a call for ingenuity: "Deal with it...and see it as a chance of unlocking human potential."

Explaining his shift from the media into more conventional business environments at Menzies and FirstGroup, Watson argued that you don’t need industry experience to engineer positive change. Citing the example of the beleaguered banking sector, a progressive thinker free from the unsavoury cultural idiosyncrasies can inject fresh impetus into an organisation. A valid point, but in keeping with the slightly disjointed nature of the talk, this acted as a springboard into a rant about technology– something Watson blames for "not giving or caring about what the customer wants." He documented his latest trip to the Apple store where he was coerced into upgrading from an iPhone 4s to the iPhone 5: "The 4s provides me with everything I need. I don’t want to be told it’s raining in Guatemala." His analogy of taking a sick dog to the vet and having it upgraded to a rabid wolf against the will of its owner drew raucous guffaws.

Watson’s corporate career isn’t a fairytale- his time at Syco coincided with a discernible slump in fortunes for flagship show the X Factor. Ratings dwindled in the UK, and the US incarnation was given a tepid reception. Watson – who cited family reasons and a yearning to return to his native Scotland as the reason for his resignation - took a thinly veiled jibe at his former employer, noting how Sony had failed to match tablet rivals Samsung in the innovation stakes.

Failure, however, isn’t the cardinal sin for Watson. It’s the failure to try that rankles with him. It’s here that he paid tribute to an equally combustible character – Simon Cowell - for his, "outrageous requests and self-confidence….the ability to turn an idea or request into a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It’s his "do or die trying" attitude that makes Watson so inspiring. Even if it comes with the cost of dysentery and a sore nipple.


Thank you, for your interest in "IT is spawned from Beelzebub’s ballsack" – Ellis Watson talks process management.
Sam Miranda
Contributor: Sam Miranda