Human on the Inside with Futurist Simon Waller

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5 min read

We’re big believers in the power of human skills. But don’t just take our word for it – the evidence for excellence powered by human (‘soft’) skills are everywhere! In this engaging, ever-enlightening series, we speak with industry leaders, innovators, and game-changers to learn a little about their personal career journeys, and how human-led strategies, philosophies, and cultures are proving a force for good in their working worlds …

Welcome Simon, and thanks for stepping into the #SuccessIsHuman Spotlight! You’re a Futurist, international speaker, business advisor, event & TV host. Whoa!

In 1 sentence (ok, we’ll give you 3), what does your job/work entail?

I help educate people on the technology shifts impacting our work and lives so we can take advantage of the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls (do I get bonus points for keeping it to one sentence)?!

You also founded the Digital Champions Club, a program to help the growing SMEs identify and implement value-adding technology projects, and during 2020 launched Pirate TV to help organisations turn their physical events into insanely engaging live-streamed TV shows. 

You’ve authored two books – ‘Analogosaurus: Avoiding Extinction in a World of Digital Business,’ and ‘The Digital Champion: Connecting the Dots Between People, Work, and Technology.’

In your earlier life you also started a number of different consulting businesses including Grow Think, Tomorrow[at]Work, and WeWorkTogether, and prior to that, spent almost 3 years as a futurist with Rio Tinto!

How does all this work speak to your personal purpose and what drives you as an individual?

When I was working at Rio Tinto, I undertook a Master of Business Leadership (like an MBA but with a bigger focus on the people side of things) and there was a big emphasis on self-leadership and understanding your personal purpose. Mine went something like this:

‘We live in a world of limited resources, but unlimited potential. We all have a responsibility to use those resources and our potential to create a better world for friends, family and future generations.’

If there was one trend that had the potential to make the world both better and worse, it’s the rise of technology. Technology has helped to lift millions of people out of poverty, but in many cases put those same people into programs of mass surveillance. Technology is moving faster than government regulation, social norms or even our personal ethics and it would be easy to throw up our hands and say there’s nothing we can do about it. I would argue that the very first thing we need to do is be more informed so we can make better personal decisions about which technologies we want in our lives.

If there was one common thread that brought all these different projects together, it would be that.

Tell us a little about your personal education pathway/s – what led you to where you are now? How closely do your formal qualifications match your current career?

I would say there’s a pretty close match between my education and my career. I undertook a Bachelor of Commerce as my Undergraduate Degree and then spent a bit of time working in a small family business. After leaving that business, I became interested in futurism and went back to university to complete a Graduate Certificate in Futures Thinking at Curtin University’s Graduate School of Business. This led me to a Master of Business Leadership, which I completed while working at Rio Tinto. My initial role at Rio Tinto was as a Business Improvement Coach, from which I transitioned into the internal Scenario Planning and Strategy team. 

I left Rio Tinto in 2010 when I moved from Perth to Melbourne, and although I’ve avoided using the term ‘futurist’ until quite recently (it’s always felt a little grandiose), I have been working in future-focused education and consulting roles ever since.

If you could share one piece of career advice to your 21-year-old self it would be …

It will get hard. Never compromise your values. Don’t stop believing.

Maximising the potential of individuals, communities, and businesses through the power of human skills is the reason Maxme exists. Can you tell us a little about the role and/or value of human skills in the work/workplaces you’re involved with right now?

If I was to look at my own work, I would suggest that human skills accounts for at least 90% of the value I create. For my team, it might be slightly lower, perhaps 75%, but even for them, the acquisition of technical skills is still fundamentally reliant on the human skills we have. Without the capacity for critical thinking, communication and meaningful engagement, how would we know what technical skills we need to develop, or how to apply those skills effectively once we have them? 

If I was to put my futurist hat on, I would also suggest that the more technical the skill, the easier it is for it to be automated. We can already build incredibly powerful algorithms and software platforms to undertake technical work for us. And these systems are increasingly easy and intuitive to use. 

As we move forward, the challenge won’t be so focused on how to use these platforms, but instead on how we identify and elicit meaningful information from our fellow human beings in order to feed these systems with the stuff that matters (i.e. reaching solutions that will make a positive impact). For all this to happen, we’ll need an abundance of human skills!

Self Awareness sets the critical foundation for all Maxme learning experiences. With that said … what’s your strongest trait/personal superpower?

My personal super power is the ability to take abstract ideas and ‘technology speak’ and translate it into something that is understandable and relatable to non-technical people.

And on the flip side, what’s one human/‘soft’ skill you’ve had to really work on improving over the course of your career?

Empathy. In a number of my ventures, I’ve had the great privilege of having both staff and business partners who are far more empathetic than I am. Their ability to read people and then subtly shift their energy in response to how others are feeling has always amazed me. Working with these people has both helped me develop my own empathy, and perhaps made up for my own limitations.

If you could share one piece of career advice with recent secondary or tertiary graduates, or other individuals keen to join or start a business like PirateTV or the Digital Champions Club, what would it be?

I would share the same piece of advice that my dad shared with me – “Make sure you have a good partner.” 

Working in or starting a small business is time-consuming and often physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. If you don’t have partners that are both competent and trustworthy enough to run the business in your absence, then you’ll forever be questioning things and never take time out. Personally I think the ‘hustle’ movement is bullshit – we can’t do our best work if we don’t take breaks. 

In every successful business I’ve ever had, from the family business selling fishing boats 20 years ago, to the Digital Champions Club and most recently Pirate TV, I’ve always had at least one great partner who I would trust 100% (and conversely, the number one reason for why other ventures have failed is taking on a partner I probably shouldn’t have).

You’ve been granted approval to add one University graduate to your team, but have 100 applicants, all with outstanding academic results. How do you find your perfect candidate – what are you looking for?

Great question, and coincidentally enough, I had this exact same dilemma only a couple of months ago when I hired a new web developer and digital content specialist to join my team. 

First I would filter for individuals that have the minimum level of competence to do the job. This isn’t just limited to academic results, but technical and interpersonal skills as well. 

Second, I’m going to filter for curiosity and the desire for learning. Using my recent example, this involved giving the applicant a practical web development exercise with no perfect solution. I both wanted to see how they would approach it, what additional questions they’d ask, if they’d seek feedback and how they took on that feedback if/when it was given.

Finally, I’m looking for commitment and an alignment of purpose. One of my favorite interview questions is, “Why did you apply for this job? Not any job, but this particular job?” I remember asking this when I was looking to hire a business manager back in 2015 and there is one response I’ll never forget. The applicant replied, “I’ve got two teenage boys, and you work at the intersection of technology and education. What you do is important, this is the only job I’ve applied for.” That was the response given by Sunny, who has now been my business manager for over seven years!

In the words of John Dewey, “education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” What’s next on your #learning agenda?

My learning agenda is always full! In an informal capacity, I’m currently learning how to upscale and manipulate video content for a new keynote. In terms of more formal education, I’m also booked into a TV and Radio presenting course through NIDA some time later this year. My slightly longer term learning goal is to do a PhD in Technology Ethics (but that one might be a few years away)!

…and without wanting to take away from such a great quote I’d want to add, “it’s not just that education is life, life is also the ultimate educator.”