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Q&A with Prime Woman Victoria Tomlinson, CEO of Northern Lights

Victoria Tomlinson has been a PrimeWomen contributor from our start – check out her blogs on leadership, being a non-executive director and social media for business. Here, we interview the chief executive of Northern Lights to find out how a business stays fresh and innovative after 28 years.

Tell us a bit about how you started Northern Lights 

I started Northern Lights 28 years ago. I had been a director of EY and on the London management team. When finally someone wanted to marry me, I was happy to move to the North of England for him and this seemed the right time to start a business. I had been thinking about it for some years but had never come up with a good idea. Starting a PR consultancy felt a slight cop out but I needed to prove to my husband that I could be self-sufficient. The deal of marrying was that I had to work or I’d be a nightmare to live with – his words! And I felt I had won the lottery – a husband who was happy for me to combine work and a family.

How has the business changed over the years?

Almost beyond recognition! I think our business reflects what has happened in the world and that you have to adapt and change the whole time. The first 18 years were pretty steady with a lot of big government contracts and the last ten years have been constant change.

The big changes have been getting into social media and digital ten years ago – we were very early adopters for B2B (business to business). We got on a plane to Dubai in the middle of the recession, winning business and operating successfully there for the last five years. And we have moved into leadership skills and helping business leaders with their personal branding.

Other business owners will be interested how you innovate – what made you decide to get into social media so early?

When I started Northern Lights, I planned to be a large agency with offices everywhere. But, I gradually realised I had done that job as a director of EY – managing 100+ people and seven buildings. While I was good at it, it was just people and building problems – not much creativity. If I grew Northern Lights, I would end up doing the same, whereas my strengths are creativity and relationships.

So, I decided to keep this business niche with a fantastic core team and a network of associates and specialists so we can be large when clients need it. But the danger of being small is ‘group think’ – especially if your team stays with you for years.

To avoid this, from the beginning I have brought in external people to facilitate our business planning sessions each year. I get other outside people to join the day – sometimes giving presentations – and always challenging us with new ideas and ways of looking at things. I am always prepared to pay people to help us, though often they do it as return favours to us. They also say they always learn something themselves!

Ten years ago, we had about four external people all talking about how social media – or Web 2.0 as it was called then! – was going to transform communications. By the end of the day, I said to our team, “We are going to be leaders of B2B social media in the North.” I am really proud of how we achieved that within a year.

Why did you decide to go to Dubai and how did that happen?

Northern Lights PRIt started at the end of 2011 when we had won three major pieces of work and not a single one was progressing because of bank funding. You know what they say, if you keep doing the same things you will get the same results? We had to do something radically different.

I decided to focus on “where is the money?” I looked at China and India, which were high growth but the travel and time difference would be very difficult for such a small business. I used to live in the Middle East and have a great respect for the Arab culture – which is not understood by much of the world. I posted on LinkedIn, “Can anyone talk me through the economy in Dubai and Oman?” A director spotted it, introduced me to someone who knew the UAE well and gave me confidence to get on a plane.

We used LinkedIn to research and get introductions in the UAE and I had 20 CEO interviews set up for that first week. My first meeting turned into a year’s contract! I was extremely lucky. You can read the full story here of how we won business in Dubai from a standing start.

You mention working with business leaders. Is that PR?!

What we do with business leaders is all about communications. As you at Prime know, people don’t want to retire in the way that our parents did. They want to find non-executive roles, be active in business some way and contribute way beyond “retirement age.”

Chief executives and directors don’t really need ‘an online presence’ when they are at the top of a large corporation – their reputation is all in their role. But, when they leave that world, they need to think about how they are found on Google and if it is clear who they are and what they are interested in doing. We have been helping them define their personal brand, write their LinkedIn profiles, write blogs and become thought leaders in their area of expertise.

Are you looking at further innovations now?

Northern Lights PROf course! The media world is going through a transformation. Print advertising is disappearing, newspapers are changing and are so much thinner and the world of PR is very different. I don’t think PR will exist as we know it in a few years.

We have therefore been looking at our business again to see where are the opportunities and what we do next. And I am in the early stages of launching a new business to help leaders who are coming up to retirement and not sure what to do next. We are in exciting times!

What are your tips to help businesses keep innovating?

  • Read widely, build large networks, go to events, meet people and ask them about the changes they are seeing and really listen. What are the implications?
  • Create a culture of innovation in your business. That comes from the top – encouraging your team to challenge you; sharing new ideas; every day, every week discussing what is new and what you need to change to adapt.
  • Nurture your team. Change is exciting but also frightening for many. You need to help your team through big changes by letting them own the process, doing change in achievable steps and being a constant presence to support through this.
  • Go for it! Don’t just sit and think about things. Get on that plane to Dubai – you will never know if there is business there if you don’t try it.
  • Build up reserves in the good times so you have funds in tough times to try new things. And always work out your cut-off point – when you have to abandon an idea. Innovation is as much about recognising something isn’t working as making the new things work.

We are proud to have contributing editors like Victoria Tomlinson on board at PrimeWomen. She’s just one of the reasons we are able to bring you informative, inspiring articles. Thanks, Victoria!

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