Leadership Lens:  Duncan Stewart

25 Jan 2017

Leadership Lens: Duncan Stewart

Director of Research, Technology, Media and Telecommunications of Deloitte

Duncan Stewart is an engaging speaker, visionary and analyst who provides companies with the insights and trends they need to plan for the future. Part of Deloitte Canada’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) executive team and one of the firm’s ‘go-to’ thought leaders globally, Duncan co-authors one of Deloitte’s premier publications: TMT Predictions. With 20+ years of experience in the TMT industry and a background in science and investment, Duncan provides data-driven, quantitative and counter-consensus input on what’s going to happen next.

Duncan StewartYou have provided research or made investments in the Canadian technology and telecommunications sector for many years, winning the Canadian Technology Fund Manager of the Year award in its inaugural year. What prompted your career switch to your current role at Deloitte?

My previous job was a sell-side tech analyst at a brokerage firm and it didn’t work out, which happens. But while I was at that firm, I had met with John Ruffolo and Richard Lee from Deloitte. Over a coffee John asked me: “Have you ever thought about working for Deloitte?” I was dumbfounded. The only accounting I knew was from studying for my CFA designation. “What would I do there?”, I asked. He grinned, and said “I don’t know, but we can figure something out.” He was right: there was no obvious role for me, but together he and I created one…and ten years later it still seems to be going well.

Why are global clients so interested on the impact of new and existing technology and demographic and regulatory changes to their business strategies? Is it driven by fear, uncertainty and doubt?

About seven years ago I presented to the management of a newsprint company. Newsprint demand was collapsing as the newspaper industry was seeing big drops in both ad dollars and readership. The numbers were awful, and the people in that boardroom had fear, uncertainty and doubt coming out of every pore. They wanted me to tell them that there was a bottom just around the corner, and newsprint demand would soon stop falling. I said that not only was that not going to happen, all available data suggested things would get worse: fewer newspapers printing fewer copies with fewer pages, forever. They never asked me back for some reason.

But in the last few years, most meetings are about certainty, knowledge and hope. Banks know that, in 2017, their core skill sets are doing stuff with money and technology. Retailers know that successful companies will be good at selling stuff…and technology. Even heavy equipment manufacturers (e.g. bulldozers) know that they need to be good at making 10 ton chunks of metal and technology. Everybody has figured out that if a magic genie offered them one wish, they would wish to know what was going to happen next across all areas of tech, media and telecom. I may not live in a lamp, but...

You have joked, on at least one occasion, that when giving a speech “everyone under 30 is enthralled and everyone over 30 wants nothing to do with me”. Are people over the age of 30 more skeptical about what you’re telling them?

I did say that once on a trip to Mauritius. Most of the older participants in the room feared, didn’t like and were threatened by technology. They hated what I had to say, and as a speaker I could tell as I was talking that I was losing that part of the audience. The younger crowd was digging it, but have you ever been on a blind date that was going sideways? That’s how it felt. Not only was I not getting a second date, they were already on Tinder looking for someone else as I was still speaking. That said, lots of people over 30, or even over 60 do get technology.

Mauritius is a nice island though – wonderful people, great scenery. I would go back in a heartbeat, but perhaps I will leave my PowerPoint behind.

You travel the globe speaking on behalf of Deloitte. Apart from the Island of Mauritius, what has been your most interesting experience abroad?

Talking to the Board of a telecom company in Indonesia (GDP per capita of under US$4,000) is a special opportunity to understand the challenges and opportunities of a huge part of this planet that is nothing like Canada. Learning about the Nordics, France, Turkey, or Singapore is a totally different experience again. Getting a blood clot on a flight to Israel was interesting, but not in a good way. (The Chaim Sheba medical center in Tel HaShomer is excellent, by the way.)

When abroad, what do you mostly hear about Canadians and the Canadian technology sector?

Almost nothing. It pains me to say that, but at one time Canada had a strong reputation globally, especially in telecommunications hardware. Nortel was a very big part of that, and then RIM/Blackberry. There are new Canadian companies coming along to assume that mantle of leadership, but a) so far they aren’t at that kind of scale yet; and b) they are not always known to be Canadian. Is Shopify doing great? Absolutely. Do most people outside of Canada know they are Canadian? Absolutely not.

There are exceptions. A number of folks in Israel seem to know about some Canuck companies and VCs. Same with some parts of the US. There’s a Swedish company I know that has an investment here. But, that’s about it. I am optimistic we will see our global brand recognition in tech rise again, but I have to be honest about where we are today. I love Canada – but we are off the tech radar for most of the world.

What are the latest leadership trends in business that you’re seeing and how do they differ from before?

I am so busy trying to predict the future across literally dozens of technologies and media trends that “leadership” isn’t a category I spend a lot of time analyzing.

I will say that, based on nearly 30 years in the tech and business worlds, the consensus of who is a “good leader” often resembles a popularity contest based on recent successes and share prices. Whether it’s Jobs, Gates, Buffet, Welch, or others I have seen the same person who was called a genius one year called an idiot five years later, and vice versa. Same with U.S. Presidents, by the way. At the time, some of the ones that history judges to be the best were considered the worst during their terms.

Speaking of which, the new U.S. President recently held a tech summit where leaders of many companies (e.g. Google, Apple, Facebook) were present. What impact will Donald Trump have on the technology sector both in the U.S. and abroad?

Although I cover TMT these days, my academic background is in US politics. And, I have no idea what the impact of a Trump presidency will be. Will he do all of what he said when he was on the campaign trail? Will his advisers moderate or change his actions? How will other countries respond? I honestly believe that no one knows the answers to any of those questions individually, much less how they will combine over the next four years. But, think about it this way: “Who was the U.S. President the year the light bulb, telephone or television were invented?” You probably don’t know the answer (I don’t either) and that’s because it didn’t matter.

Technology tends to progress at its own pace. Presidential politics and even global economic conditions are minor influences at best. There are a couple of obvious exceptions: the Apollo moon landing and the atomic bomb were both heavily influenced by government decisions. I am pretty sure Trump will not have a big effect on the space program and I am very hopeful he doesn’t do much with atomic weapons either.

On the subject of leadership, many experts believe that leadership trends have now become an oxymoron. Are today’s leaders just re-packaging and re-gurgitating insightful and inspirational things that were written about the topic 30 years ago?

I am not sure that “leadership” is a scientifically evaluable, testable or falsifiable concept. Disaggregating the effects of cycles, luck, randomness and competitive factors from true leadership (whatever that is) seems impossible to me. In my experience, the most successful corporate leaders over long periods of time tend to be really honest and plain spoken. They don’t use jargon and are willing to say when they were wrong or when things looked bad. CEOs that excel at this (in my view) include John Chambers at Cisco and Warren Buffet at Berkshire, and newer CEOs doing it well include Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and (especially) Reed Hastings at Netflix. His quarterly comments are great examples of clear communication. The numbers may be bad one quarter, but after reading his comments, you understand why, and what is likely to happen next.

One interesting trend that you’ve spoken about is that the older generation has largely abandoned books while millennials are buying up printed books and attaching huge value to them as cherished objects. The next generation actually shows no signs of abandoning printed books whatsoever. This is a bit of a head-scratcher. Pls explain!

To be more precise, it is interesting that older readers (55+) are more likely to be reading digital versions of books than 18-34 year olds. Young people still love print: they like the smell; they still have room on their bookshelves; they like showing off what they are reading to others (eBooks have no covers!), and many of them say that they already spend so much time looking at digital screens and that old-fashioned paper is a positive luxury. Meanwhile, some older readers still like print, but have run out of shelf room, and when going on vacation don’t want to pack ten books when an eReader weighs so much less.

But books are only one example. We tend to assume that Millennials are all about smartphones and digital 100% of the time. That’s simply not true. Many still watch traditional TV, for example. They also watch Netflix and YouTube and digital forms, but they are not ‘digital only.’ Do kids 18 to 34 do all their shopping online today, or will they in the future? Across a dozen categories, the answer is no. Some young people like buying shoes online but books in bookstores, while someone the exact same age gets their shoes in stores but all their books online. Everyone I survey is different, but none of them are willing to do everything through online channels. I can predict with certainty that in-store retail shopping is not going away in my lifetime.

You speak about many interesting subjects – fake news, smart watches, drone delivery, mobile payments, phablets, cognitive computing, virtual reality headsets, e-health, wearable computing, 3D printing, etc. What is the one area that you personally find the most interesting and why?

I love all my babies! Each topic has its own charms. But the one thread that unites them is I want to drive out ‘fake news’ and act as a trusted fact checker. I want to be the Snopes.com of tech, media and telecom! Is cord-cutting as big as people say? Let’s look at the facts: it’s easy to add up the number of people paying for TV this year, and compare it with last year. If the number is down 1%, then let’s talk about that and not freak out that subscribers are falling 10% annually! Are VR headsets the next big thing? Never mind hype and opinion, what does the DATA say? Are young people abandoning their computers for smartphones? I dunno. Let’s do focus groups and surveys and ask them. The answers are turning out to be the complete opposite of most peoples’ assumptions.

Last question: What do people get wrong about you?

Believe it or not, nothing. I try to be honest and transparent with people. What you see on stage, print or on social media is basically the real me. People who get to know me better have always commented that the only “surprise” is that there is no surprise. If you follow me on social media, read my blog, or have seen me speak the last few years, you will know that I love my job but love my wife even more. I tend to be skeptical about the next big thing or things. I enjoy travelling, running, hiking in France and cooking for my family. My dog is huge, and I read a lot of science fiction but I don’t watch any TV shows.