Andy Lothian: What does it take to go global from Scotland?

Andy Lothian with words of wisdom from Robert M Pirsig. Picture: Alan Richardson
Andy Lothian with words of wisdom from Robert M Pirsig. Picture: Alan Richardson
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Running a global business from here in Scotland is about two things.

It’s a state of mind – clarity of purpose and a mind-set of possibility – and it’s about discipline – making discriminating choices and building robust processes

Neither of those concepts is particularly funky but they have stood us in good stead as we’ve built our business internationally from here in Dundee, to a point where we now have 400 people around the world – 160 of whom are based in the UK, and with 130 at our premises in Dundee.

Insights is a global learning and development business. We partner with leading organisations across the world. Our vision is a bold one; and I make no apologies for this. I believe it captures everything we try to achieve: “We want to create a world where people truly understand themselves and others and are inspired to make a positive difference in everything they do.”

We do that through a range of approaches and products that are designed to help people and teams in all types of organisations to increase their effectiveness, and to enhance their leadership skills and approach.

But how does a business based in Dundee work effectively around the world? I prefer to ask the question: “Why shouldn’t we run a global business from Dundee?”

READ MORE: Dundee training firm Insights expands into Asia

Scotland’s a great place to live and to base a business. Equidistant (more or less) between markets in Asia and the Far East and North America, and a place where having an entrepreneurial attitude is welcomed and even encouraged. Indeed, Entrepreneurial Scotland, of which I’m a member, has an ambition to make Scotland the most entrepreneurial society in the world – and why not? It’s this kind of big, hairy, audacious goal that shifts mindsets.

Working across different time zones and cultures brings its challenges of course. A willingness to adopt a long-haul lifestyle is a bit of a requirement! It’s important to recognise that you can’t impose every aspect of your culture on others. We need to adapt to the way our partners and customers in other parts of the world operate.

My exec team at Insights uses something we call our “Playbook”. Think of it as a set of guiding principles by which everyone on my exec team works. It outlines what we do and how we go about doing it and, of course, what we’re aiming to achieve. It goes something like this:

Strategy: we work hard to align and engage the organisation around our priorities and those of our partners – wherever we are in the world.

Leadership: as a learning and development business you’d expect us to focus sharply on this aspect of the business and on our people and our culture. The leadership in Insights is encouraged to be inspiring, authentic and visible; another reason for those long-haul flights.

People: we strive to ensure that our people are capable and that we have a healthy pipeline of future leaders, underpinned by a strong organisation design that ensures that they can give their best. We regularly ensure our people have an opportunity to work in other parts of the world, which encourages a deeper understanding of what’s important to their colleagues in other countries.

Culture: everything we do is designed to foster the culture that we’re trying to engender, and the leadership behaviours we know are important for us to succeed.

Performance: this is at the heart of everything that we are. In order to succeed, we need to deliver for our customers, while commercial success means we can go on doing that.

Process: in a global organisation like ours, effective processes are essential. It’s through having effective, efficient and scalable processes that we can ensure we can consistently unlock value.

Those are a few of the disciplines we deploy to try and ensure that wherever we operate in the world and whoever we’re working with – whether that’s major global corporations, local companies or third party training and development partners – the service they receive from Insights is consistent, relevant and provides value in our customers’ terms.

All around our office in Dundee we have quotations on the walls from a pretty eclectic bunch of people – from Carl Jung, on whose work much of our approach to learning and development is based, to Dolly Parton, who has said some pretty smart things too. But a favourite of mine, and one that’s inscribed on the wall above my desk, is from Robert M Pirsig, the American philosopher and writer probably best known for penning Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

He said: “We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people’s lives.” At Insights, we believe that wherever we are in the world, if we can influence people to understand themselves and others – even just a little bit – and that inspires them to make a positive difference, then we’re a successful, global business. Run from Dundee, of course.

• Andy Lothian is a member of the Institute of Directors Scotland committee and chief executive of Dundee-based learning and development company Insights