What I've Learnt: Neal Archbold, Head of Innovation and Strategy at Big Radical

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo
Neal Archbold

Neal Archbold recently joined design and innovation agency Big Radical as Head of Innovation and Strategy, where he will be leading on product and service development.

Prior to working at Big Radical, Archbold worked for Aviva, O2, Telefonica and the Ordnance Survey to name just a few, and was co-founder of Nuddge - the HealthTech development focused on helping people manage their mental health at work.

His story is varied and interesting - in this week's What I've Learnt, he shares the valuable lessons from it - including why to own up to your mistakes, make the most of me-time, and not being obsessed with promotion.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Rather strangely to most people: commuting on the train. I recently read something on mindfulness that described commuting as a form of “in-between time”: a rare moment between activities and tasks. I have learnt to love it, not hate it. I use it to think, relax, listen to podcasts and educate myself. Four hours a day of “me time” - it’s all about how you frame things.

What's been your luckiest break?

At 24 years of age, I was given a head of department role at Aviva. I was pretty inexperienced still, but managed to be trusted with a team of 30 of my peers working on product development, insight and research. 

The faith that was put in me I was very thankful for, and I managed to learn so much about leadership at a relatively young age. It felt like the break that accelerated my whole career.

What's your best failure?

It follows on from the luckiest break above actually.

In 2004, having just received my first “big role” I signed off an IT development release form, without properly understanding it. I was probably a bit caught up in how senior it was to be able to do this. The release happened over a weekend.

By Monday morning, the release I had signed off had pretty much taken out our entire sales system. I walked into the office to a chorus of abuse and anger from Sales, Technical and Ops staff. The new kid has taken down a complete sales channel!

I then walked into the Board meeting to discuss. Anger everywhere. Blame being thrown everywhere.

I sat there ashen-faced and feeling sick. I decided to bite the bullet (thinking my promotion would be immediately reversed) and put up my hand and said, “Stop all the blame guys, it was my fault, I didn’t do my job properly. Mea culpa.”

The impact was instantaneous and dramatic. The arguing stopped immediately, as did the blame. The Sales team started to tell me not to worry, they had found a work-around and IT Dept. said that actually they hadn’t been entirely clear with me.

Later that day, I bumped into the brilliant MD who had attended the session and he said “That was real leadership Neal, you stepped up and owned it. It takes a proper **** to go after someone after they admit to making a mistake. You became a leader.”

From that point, humility, ownership and being authentic have been my leadership mantras. 

What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?

Sleeping on the streets. Through a couple of charities (Railway Children and the CEO Sleepout), I have been “fortunate” enough to experience homelessness for a few nights to raise awareness and funds to tackle this problem in the UK. It is an equally eye-opening and frightening experience, and has made me truly value what I have and determined to change the perceptions associated with this inexcusable societal challenge.

How would you describe your work/life balance?

I don’t like the term work/life balance. Work is part of your life, so if you look to disaggregate them, I think you’re heading down the path toward resentment or conflict. I love to be busy and I work very hard, but my family is my world. I constantly and consciously make sure I get the mix right.

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

I would totally recommend Factfulness by Hans Rosling. Using data and insights to build a real-world view, I found really interesting. In this time of Fake News and growing ignorance, it is actually quite spiritual to look at the world this way.

I can relate to the concept of being a “possibilist”, which is how Rosling describes himself. Not being naïvely optimistic but understanding that although things are bad, they can simultaneously be getting better - and we should push to explore possibilities.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Slow down dude! I was obsessed with promotion and career progression. This led to me always feeling uncomfortable in my skin, restless and - to others, probably - impatient. As I now get close to the big 40, my enthusiasm and drive remains, but I have learnt to savour experiences more and to enjoy the now more, personally and professionally.

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

I know it sounds cliched but my Dad. My Dad is a highly skilled carpenter and joiner by trade. Not the most academically gifted but creative, skilled and resourceful unlike most people I know. He would be ideal to be stuck on a desert island with! 

Although our careers have been so very different and our skills are incomparable, he has been a constant inspiration. He worked very hard, he was passionate about his vocation, and utilised his gifts in the greatest way he could. I feel if I become one-tenth of him as a person and father, I will have done pretty good.

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

I adore Lego. Our house is full of completed sets, half-demolished sets and probably four to five bin-liners of random Lego pieces.

My passion started as a kid but has probably grown as I have become a Dad. All my kids love it and my youngest in particular, I think, is destined to be a “Master Builder”.

I coined the phrase “Legofulness” in 2017. I find working with Lego to be an amazing stress-buster and relaxation tool. A combination of being with the people you love - focused on a task and building something beautiful - I find really peaceful.

I also think it’s a small attempt to demonstrate to my Dad that I do have an iota of practical talent also!

What does success look like to you?

For me, success has always been twofold.

Firstly, that the teams I work in, work with or lead do amazing things together. I love experiencing teams and individuals striving, growing and succeeding. There is not a better business-driven buzz than seeing those around you grow and develop into the best versions of themselves that they can be.

Secondly, that businesses become liberated and enthused to make genuine positive steps to change for the better. Innovation is such a scary and often unattainable thing, and I would deem my career a success if it had become simpler, more practical and more widely attained.