HR Summit & Expo Asia 2018 insider: Jason Jennings

The best companies today are “high-speed”, but also humble in their responsibilities to staff, customers, and investors. So says world-renowned management thinker Jason Jennings.

When US-based author and professional speaker Jason Jennings delivers his keynote address at HR Summit & Expo 2018 this month, he’ll have some very real first-hand examples and case studies from this region to draw on. The C-Suite Symposium audience for his presentation: The High-Speed Company – Making your Organisation Faster, More Nimble, and Open to Change, will hear his unique take on corporate agility within a specificially Asia-Pacific context.

Jennings says this is a key part of his promise to audiences all over the world, and he has an important routine in the weeks before any event.

“For every presentation, I will get the organisers to pick out a range of 10 people for me to speak with beforehand. It could be Heads of HR, entrepreneurs, or business leaders,” he tells HRM Magazine Asia.

Jennings then sets aside time to speak with each of the individually, to hear about their stories and ask “what’s keeping you up at night?“ This helps him to pick up on the specific trends and themes affecting each particular audience or group, but is also a discipline that Jennings says is simply about “doing your homework”.

It is also where he gets to connect with business leaders at the coalface, and really understand what is driving them, and what is holding them up.

“I love writing books, I love doing speeches, but still these phone calls are my favourite parts of the job,” Jennings says.

From radio networks to best-seller lists

Jason Jennings - Live Q&A with HRM Magazine Asia

May 10, 1.25pm @ HR Summit & Expo Asia 2018

Send us your questions!

Jennings does also have his own experiences to draw on. His business career started earlier than most, when he bought two radio stations in Michigan, where he had been attending college at age 22. He admits to not being the ideal student in the eyes of the university administrators – “when I was in college, my motto was ‘find a protest, and get in front of it’!” – and he dropped out to concentrate on his bold investments.

Two stations became three and then later four, and then a full network of radio and television broadcasters, to which Jennings added a management consultancy business where he offered industry colleagues advice

But – even with all that by the age of 41 – Jennings felt there was something missing.

“I had my mid-life crisis earlier than most people,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘is that all there is?’”

After considering a career change into the Catholic priesthood, Jennings eventually decided he wanted to write a book, and to identify the greatest companies and leaders in the world. 

“The next morning – the path was crystal clear. I set about getting a book contract.”

As we all know, that is much easier said than done. And Jennings remembers being rejected over, and over, and over again, but that each time only steeled his resolve. “With each rejection, I just decided that I would be successful,” he says.

It took around 18 months, but that determination, and some leverage from his broadcasting knowledge and some friends in high places, landed him a meeting with publisher Adrian Zackheim, then from Harper Collins. He left that with a tiny window of opportunity – and spent the night in a New York hotel putting together a more formal proposal.

The rest is, in fact, quite recent history. Jennings did indeed get a book deal, and his debut It’s not the Big that Eat the Small.., It’s the Fast that Eat the Slow rocketed to the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list – not just in the business category, but across all books at that time.

Since then, there have been seven more books, all of them based on extensive research and interviews with CEOs and business leaders from around the world. Jennings says his most recent book, The High Speed Company from 2015, was based on over 80,000 pages of interview transcripts.

Add to that between 60 and 80 professional speaking engagements per year, and some specialist consulting services, and Jennings has been a busy man for the last 18 years.

The need for speed

You will notice a similar theme between the first and most recent books, despite the 15 years between them. Indeed, Jennings says agility in both leaders and organisations is a proven must-have , not just in the current volatile business environment, but for every scenario.

“It’s not situational at all,” he says. “In fact, there are about 10 traits (and only 10) that we look for.”

Most important of these is a sense of purpose.

“There is not one leader featured in one of our best-selling books who has ever had a ‘mission statement’ or ‘vision statement’,” he says. “They understand that these words have been relegated to a game of ‘buzzword bingo’ years ago!”

“What they have is a purpose - built around doing well by doing something good.”

Servant leadership

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jennings is a fierce advocate for servant leadership and the concept of leaders being “stewards” of their organisations.

“Truly great leaders have five constituencies: employees, customers, vendors and suppliers, shareholders; and Mother Earth,” he says. ”Their job is to improve the lot of life in all of them.”

That’s a big ask, but Jennings is adamant that it provides a clear recipe for business success too.  Nail that, he says, and the other factors – the growth, the revenue, the innovation, and the influence – will take care of themselves.

“Great leaders at some point in their life have all looked in the mirror and asked themselves a question – because you can’t lie to yourself while looking in the mirror,” Jennings continues. “They’ve asked themselves: ‘Is my life going to be more about me or more about others?’”

He says that when they can answer “yes” to that question, they can claim to be true stewards of their organisations.

HR’s rapid rise

One could question this further. After all, it’s all very good to be a servant leader when you’re in the highest of seats within the organisation, from the CEO’s or President’s office, but what about those in lower ranks, including the vast majority of HR professionals?

But Jennings is confident it applies across the ranks, and says that HR professionals in particular are also gaining greater access to that coveted “seat at the table”.

He recalls two presentations he made to the US-based Society for HR Managements annual conference, some 21 years apart.

“At the end of my presentation in 1997, I asked the audience to let me know if they had a ‘seat at the table’,” he says today. “Out of 1,000 people in the auditorium, only 50 or 60 felt they truly had that level of influence with their organisation and CEO.”

Fast forward to a new presentation Jennings made at last year’s event, and he saw the chance to make a stark comparison. He asked the same question to the similarly-sized audience, and this time at least 900 hands went up.

“That’s how remarkably fast things have changed in business and for HR in particular,” he says, noting that all have the opportunity to practice stewardship and servant leadership through the HR function.

Always do your homework

For Jennings, this is where his books and presentations are able to add value to their audiences.

While the broad message is similar, the examples and stories that he uses are tailored to the specific audience for that event. With that in mind, audiences to his plenary session at HR Summit & Expo Asia 2018 can expect a fresh, relevant, and highly-adaptable presentation, filled with take-away concepts and ideas that can be quickly put into practice in the local Asia-Pacific context.

That’s because of the thorough and broad research involved with every presentation he commits to.

“It would be the height of arrogance and self-centeredness to speak to people without doing your homework,” he says.   

Up close with...Jason Jennings 

Author, consultant, and professional speakerBased in: Tiburon, California (a small city of 5,000 opposite San Francisco on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge).

Academic background: Took “many, many” years to complete a Bachelor’s Degree with Northern Michigan University. Was recently awarded an Honourary Doctorate from the same institution.

Professional mantra:   “Bad attitudes get bad results; good attitudes get good results; great attitudes get great results”.

Social media of choice:  Linked In (“I’m about to leave Facebook, which is now 80% fake news and negativity”).

Most supported sports team: The Northern Michigan University Wildcats, who compete in the Northern Collegiate Athletic Association in the US.

Your presentation is complete, and you’ve got 24 hours left in Singapore. What’s on the agenda? What could be better than rolling out of your hotel, and setting to walk Orchard Road from the top to the bottom, and back again? I’ve been to Singapore about 40 times over the years but it has been a year since my last visit. I know there be new things to see.


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