Executive Interview: Leigh Thomas, Facebook

Leigh Thomas, Facebook
August 2, 2018

As part of Carlyle’s series of Executive Interviews and Industry Spotlights, James Colhoun (Associate, Carlyle) sat down with Leigh Thomas (Director of Global Accounts, Facebook) to discuss the effect of digital disruption on ‘Big Business’ and creating cultures which facilitate curiosity, learning and success.

What is your role at Facebook?

I work as part of a team supporting 30 of Facebook’s largest Global clients. These include businesses who are situated out of EMEA, or those who have a significant presence in the region. Broadly, the businesses we work with sit in the following verticals: FMCG, Auto, Tech, Telco, Retail and Digital Natives (that is, companies that are digital first).

What skills do you believe that you possess that were attractive to Facebook?

I have 20 years’ experience across Marketing, starting out at creative agencies, with a specific focus on client service and general management. I was previously Managing Director of Saatchi & Saatchi London and ran Campaign’s “Digital Agency of the Decade” Dare, which I helped to build and prepare for sale to Oliver.

I think my experience in business and brand transformation, especially with regards to the role of Digital might have made me attractive to Facebook. That being said, one of Facebook’s recruitment focus areas is always to recruit for “learners”. I was delighted and humbled to re-learn a whole swathe of new skills by joining Facebook. I believe my willingness to learn was a crucial aspect of the final decision to hire me.

Are there unifying themes you have observed across the suite of global businesses you advise?

In Davos two years ago, much of the conversation centered around the “4th Industrial Revolution”; Digital (specifically Mobile) had completely upended the norms in business. The Fortune 500 has seen a seismic shift in recent years. In fact, looking at the makeup of the Fortune 500 from 1955 versus today, only 12% of the original companies listed remain.

Why? Disruptor companies have identified a consumer need and developed new and innovative ways of serving them. Anyone with a smart idea and access to a mobile phone can build a significant business. Marketing and distribution are enabled in real time, and with real consumer signals to inform decision making.

What role does Facebook play in helping with the challenges these incumbent businesses face?

As Ben Horowitz [of Andreessen Horowitz] has pointed out, “The shift to mobile is still the most under-hyped wholesale shift in consumer behaviour” that they have observed in decades.

And given Facebook’s business is in the main on mobile, with over 2.5 billion people across its family of apps and services, we have a very real intimacy with that consumer behaviour. We are in a hugely privileged position in that sense.

For the six million advertisers on our platforms, this gives an almost unprecedented ability to reach their audiences, at scale, and with real ability to drive specific business outcomes.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have observed within these businesses? 

I would say the top three challenges are agility, clarity of vision and culture.

Big businesses struggle to move at pace. Their legacy structures, processes and systems impede agility. As Sheryl [Sandberg, COO of Facebook] often says, “No business failed because it moved too fast.” Ultimately, incumbent businesses default to risk aversion, and many have inbuilt infrastructures and hierarchies that are incompatible with a requirement to move fast, proactively disrupt themselves or respond to disruption, with the requisite speed.

This is a crucial aspect of our approach to business at Facebook. We still have the Sun Microsystems sign we’ve kept behind our own sign in Menlo Park, to remind ourselves that at any point great businesses can be disrupted [Sun Microsystems were the previous company headquartered in Menlo Park]. We try to keep ourselves lean and agile, and are constantly questioning our own trajectory, in order to remain alert to disruption.

Vision is also usually a clear indicator of long-term success. Many great businesses such as Unilever do incredible work in this space, with Paul Polman being particularly vocal about creating sustainable businesses and making long-term strategic decisions based on this vision.  Facebook too has the mission of “giving communities the power to share and bring the world closer together”. This informs everything that we do and gives us an incredibly clear sense of direction, as well as the basis for our culture. There are businesses that are less clear on the vision, and that does often indicate a vulnerability.

And last, but not least, a healthy, honest culture is vital from what I see. It is, in part, about having the freedom to ask the difficult questions, a culture where you can challenge without fear, and where people are empowered to test, learn and iterate.

What is the biggest challenge facing Facebook?

From my perspective that would be: how we grow and also retain our focus on the mission, our community across the platforms, and our culture and values? I believe this can be achieved if Facebook continues to commit to being open, moving at pace and always striving to deliver social value.

Honestly, I am so bullish about our future, and would bet the next 10 years of my career on this company.  We face unprecedented challenges as a business, but with our unhesitating focus on doing good with, and for, our community across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp, our values and culture, and our extraordinary leadership team, I know we are equipped to deal with the job to be done.

What do you see in Facebook’s future?

We don’t really indulge in crystal ball gazing as a business, but we do have a 10-year road map that we have spoken about often as a company over the last three years. What we do believe will remain crucial for many years to come though, is that people will want to connect and be closer together.

A Carlyle Perspective

The rapid evolution and deployment of technology is inextricably linked to changing talent requirements. Over the last 18 months, we have seen a marked increase in both the number of out of sector hires being made at executive and senior interim level, and the appetite of Boards to appoint NXDs with a technology pedigree.

Businesses out-with what might be traditionally considered as “technology focused” sectors are now appreciating that, in order to keep pace with an ever more sophisticated consumer base, they may need to look outside their own industry for the tools and talent to achieve this. As a result, we are increasingly being asked to identify and engage talent who can bring an agile and entrepreneurial mindset to our clients’ businesses. Senior individuals with specialist technology and change skill sets which can be deployed cross-sector are also in high demand.

More people now expect to have multiple careers over a longer period – and not necessarily within the same sector or function. Permanent roles are no longer seen as the only option for those looking to advance, utilise and share their expertise, with a noticeable rise in senior individuals choosing to undertake interim roles as the next stage in their career.

This shift is also affecting the culture and composition of the workplace. Flexibility in both working practices and methodologies is now much more widely expected, as opposed to being the purview of start-ups, SMEs and technology businesses. This requires a step change in mindset from organisations who are looking to attract the talent which will help drive their businesses forward, especially with regards to emerging technologies and customer engagement.

About Leigh Thomas

Leigh is the Director of Global Accounts for Facebook, with a particular focus on EMEA based global business. Her role is to enable her global partners and their agencies to engage effectively with the platform, across geographies, audiences and devices, in pursuit of bringing the world closer together.

She started creative agency side, with career highlights including many awards for creativity and effectiveness in roles such as Managing Director of Saatchi & Saatchi, London and running Digital Agency of the Decade, DARE, as CEO.

She is active on the exec of WACL (Women in Communications London) and is a Non-Executive Director of the tech-based marketing company McDonald Butler. She is in the Drum Top 10 Adverati, a Campaign A-lister, and a BIMA top 100 achiever.

About Carlyle

Carlyle is an advisory Search firm who undertake executive and non-executive mandates across the UK. In addition to permanent Search, Carlyle operate dedicated Interim and Board & Advisory practices, which focus on identifying and attracting the best non-permanent talent for senior, Board and advisory roles.

Carlyle have a proven track record of delivering senior Technology and Digital mandates for a broad range of businesses, including national Financial Services institutions and fast growth technology start-ups and SMEs. If you would like to discuss this further, please contact James Colhoun, james@carlyleassociates.co.uk. 

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