Elliot Antrobus-Holder, is Vice President Global Head of Digital Channels and Analytics at GSK and he’s just taken on a NED and Trustee role at the University of Surrey. His previous job titles include: Global Head of Digital Product at TUI, Group Digital Director at Barclays and Head of Digital at HSBC. Elliot hasn’t yet hit 40, but he has his eyes on the C-suite and here he explains why his carefully chosen new NED role should help propel him there.
The corporate pharmaceutical sector is a world away from education what attracted you to this university NED position?
My experience and background is in helping large, traditional businesses transform and get benefits from technology. What attracted me to the University of Surrey was the fact that the education sector is going through massive change at the moment. It is being disrupted by digital and technology – how you use technology to consume information; how you use technology to deliver education – be it in the classroom or remotely – and also the types of education being offered by the University of Surrey and others changing rapidly.
I wanted to be part of that at board level, to help steer and drive it and to bring my expertise in the private sector in to that is quite exciting for me.
What was relevant to students maybe five or ten years ago is not necessarily going to be what’s most useful or relevant to them in their future careers. We’re looking at how we can help students learn better using technology, pretty exciting stuff.
It’s your first NED role, what made you decide to take on an additional position on top of a pretty hectic day job?
Taking on a NED role has always been part of my longer-term career plan. I sit on the tech leadership team here at GSK, but not on the board. I see this as a great opportunity fairly early on in my career to gain board-level experience. And, with this particular position at the University of Surrey I can gain strategic experience in a big complex organisation.
When I was looking for NED opportunities I had tonnes of opportunities to sit on the boards of startups, but my career direction has always been focussed on the transformation of large incumbent companies and helping those larger companies getting their heads around what digital is and how it can help change their business and drive efficiency or open up new commercial opportunities. I was looking for a large organisation going through disruption where I could put my unique lens on it.
Has being a NED been what you expected it to be?
It’s super early days! I’ve only had an induction day and I haven’t been to my first board meeting yet, but from what I‘ve experienced so far, from the members of the board that I have met and the induction day I’ve been on, I’ve found that I have more transferable skills than I thought I had.
For me, the really interesting bit is the breadth of understanding of the organisation that I am now getting exposed to that I haven’t had before.
At GSK my exposure has been very much in the vertical that I am involved in. Having the NED experience for me really broadens horizons, because you’re looking at all aspects of the business, compliance, governance, HR, and finance, etc. Although I got this NED role because of my very specific experience, getting this exposure to these other areas is critical for me for building future skills. Ultimately, I want to be in a c-suite position and getting that experience at board level is really important.
Has GSK been supportive of this parallel career of yours?
Massively. I have been at GSK two years and from a personal development perspective, it’s a very supportive organisation. On joining they actually encouraged me to look for NED positions because I’d been very upfront in terms of the direction I want my career to go and they’ve been super supportive throughout.
Thomas Cook’s demise has been partly blamed on a poor digital strategy, you were previously at rival TUI what did you get them to do differently?
TUI is a great example of a company embracing change. I look back very fondly on my time there, even more so now that I see what has happened to Thomas Cook. Commercially TUI is actually in a really good place in comparison to Thomas Cook.
If you look back three or four years ago to when I joined TUI they were very similar businesses. When I joined TUI my role was to help set the strategic direction for Digital in order to support their move away from their high street stores which ultimately allowed them to reduce cost and compete more effectively with Booking.com, Expedia and in my personal opinion that's largely where Thomas Cook failed. They didn’t embrace that change quick enough.
Culturally within an organisation it is really hard to do this. A lot of my time is spent educating people and almost reverse mentoring senior leaders to explain why digital is important and how we can use technology, data and analytics to drive efficiencies, change how we operate or unlock new commercial opportunities.
My key learning is to always start small and ground any change in the commercial or the customer outputs that it actually delivers.
I spend a lot of my time overseeing the running of small pilots, testing and experimenting at small scale to find what works and what doesn’t work. Then, when it does work, the trick is to scale it quickly.
It is important in a company or organisation to really quickly build the trust of the C-suite. From my perspective, you build that trust by showing delivery and understanding the business, trialling something small and proving that it works and then unlocking the commercial value really quickly after that. That pace will snowball as you continue to build trust.
How did you find the Nurole experience?
I was referred to Nurole by a friend and ex-colleague of mine. I found the platform incredibly easy to navigate and I find that the emails that you send through of opportunities are quite targeted and tailored to my needs, so in terms of what made it through to my in-box I was finding three or four roles that were relevant to me. I will definitely be recommending it to others!
What would you say was your biggest career break?
Whilst I was at HSBC I was given the opportunity to step up early in my career, in my late twenties, to lead the digital team and be responsible for all of the digital properties for the whole of the UK and their 3.6 million digital customers. I sat in on the UK leadership team at HSBC alongside the head of the branch network and the head of the call centre. That was a pretty big responsibility early on in my career and I thank the CMO at the time who gave me that opportunity and mentored and supported me through it. It was a big risk on his part.
What book are you currently reading?
Re-reading The Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries
What is your favourite holiday destination?
Bali, it’s just tropical luxury. It’s the one place I can chill and disconnect from wifi and my phone.
What do you like doing in your free time?
You’ll either find me cycling or out driving my racing car on track days.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The original Ivy in Soho
What’s your favourite app?
What time does your alarm go off and how many hours’ sleep do you get each night?
My alarm goes off at 5.30am and I get about six hours, which definitely isn’t enough!
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