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The fun guy and the listener - The Walt Disney Company’s Thomas Spiller

by Matt Gleysteen, Lead Digital Product Manager, The Rezidor Hotel Group

On February 16, 2018, AmCham Belgium’s young professionals were joined by Thomas Spiller, Vice President Public Policy, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at The Walt Disney Company, for a Young Professionals @ Noon lunch to speak about his professional journey and key lessons learned along the way.

The Connected, Competitive Workforce

Thomas Spiller opened the luncheon with a nostalgic throwback to the days of fax and telex communications, referring to a less connected world. Today, he’s noticed a significant shift from fax to smartphone communication, and the impact this has had on the competition in applying for jobs. The connected world opens up opportunities for eager, bright and driven applicants to apply for any position from anywhere around the world. Smartphone technology also adds a 24/7 direct line between workers and supervisors. Increasingly, globalized teams across time zones set a new standard with an eager workforce on standby to tackle any task at any hour. Doesn’t 24/7 communications risk a work-life imbalance? He admitted that although it’s not always possible to maintain a balance, it’s important to know your priorities and follow them. If a career is your priority, then it’s up to the individual to work harder to accomplish their goals and come in above the increasing competition.

Live Your Brand

Representing one of the most well-known brands in the world, Mr. Spiller said that in order to maintain a competitive edge against an increasing applicant pool, it’s essential to build and maintain a personal brand. Personal branding can range from being known as ‘the brain’ to ‘the comedian.’ The objective of personal branding is to be authentic and memorable. Branding himself as the fun guy  and the listener, Thomas Spiller lived his brand well by timing excellent improv jokes every few minutes and engaging the group by asking each person around the room to describe themselves in three words and pose a challenging question. For the next two hours, the young professionals around the table described themselves with words like ‘entrepreneurial, caring, and creative’. Within a few hours, the individuals had identified their personal brands and opened up to one another about some of the more difficult questions we’re asking ourselves everyday.

Create Against the Machine

One of the most existential questions posed to Mr. Spiller was ‘What do you think will save us from machines taking our jobs?’ A broad smile came across his face as he looked down to think. A moment later he raised his eyes and looked around the room and responded with two words – ‘soft skills’. He explained that as more tasks become automated, it’s the soft skills and creative imagination that cannot be taught to machines. Of course, a leader from the world of Disney would understand the importance of creativity, empathy and trust. Thomas added an anecdote emphasizing the importance of building trust with people, whether they are your CEO or your manager or a taxi driver or a trainee.

Choose the Difficult Path

With an international career between the US, France, Japan and Belgium, among industries ranging from nuclear to media/entertainment, Thomas Spiller described his professional journey as a challenging and unforgettable one. Although working in the nuclear energy sector had its challenges, it proved to be an excellent career move. “Once you’ve worked in a difficult industry, you can do anything, but of course stick to your guns, follow the company values and if they don’t align with your own, then make a change.’’ When asked what his most pivotal career move was as a young professional, he recalled the opportunity to set up a new office in Washington DC for a company headquartered in Paris. While all of his colleagues were staying close to the boss in Paris, he went to the States to stand out from the crowd and challenge himself. This move opened up new doors and launched him on a career around the world traversing industries. He tied this answer back to the original key lessons of personal branding and soft skills. By taking the alternative path, he stood out, built relationships with humor, listened, learned and rose above the crowd.