Blair Palmer: best-selling author and expert on leadership, change, team building, and personal performance, sat down for an exclusive chat for our NMP Live Meets... interview series. Blair discusses becoming a change and leadership coach, working with companies to bring about change, and 'fraud syndrome'. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Blaire Palmer
What has been your professional background?
My career started as a journalist. I worked for the BBC since I was about twenty years old. I always wanted to work in the BBC and be a broadcaster – although I read law at university, but that was my dad’s idea, he wanted something a bit more secure for me – but journalism was my passion.
I started in local radio, and then got into network; I worked for Radio Five Live and for Radio Four. The biggest shows I worked for were the Today Programme, broadcasting to six million listeners every day; setting the news agenda and interviewing some extraordinary people. I then worked for Women’s Hour, also one of the big flagship programmes for Radio Four.
The only other option for me, really, was to work on The Archers, and then I would have done all three. But, I was getting pretty fed up at the BBC at that point and I discovered this new profession of coaching. We had someone on one of the shows I had been producing that was a coach, and I thought “that’s brilliant, I’d love to do that”.
How did you train to become a change and leadership coach?
At the time, the biggest coach training organisation was called Coach U (Coach University), based in the States, and it was a two-and-a-half-year program. A lot of people were taking it at that time, and it was about that time that the International Coach Federation was set up as well, and coaching was accredited. So, it seemed to me, I have a law degree from a top university, and I’d had a career as a journalist for a top organisation, and why would I compromise and not do the same thing for my coach training? So, that was initial and that was the foundation.
But I think that most of what I know about leadership has come from working with leaders – actually listening to them, actually working through issues with them. I could go in for a day, two days to a company, but my company tends to hang around for six months to eighteen months, so we really get to understand the challenges, the day-to-day challenges, of being a leader. Then you absorb all of that, and you bring that in to your next job.
How do you work with a company to bring about much needed change?
Change is really difficult for organisations. I think that companies aren’t really built for change. Most organisations that I work with are structured along industrial-age lines; they are hierarchical; everyone has solid reporting lines; they’re organised in to teams; they are expected to be there from nine o’clock in the morning, and not expected to leave until five-thirty in the evening, maybe longer. It’s kind of like working in a factory, kind of like a production line.
That’s really an out-dated model and I worry that companies that are really, really committed to that way of running their business are not going to be able to cope with the changes that are going on in the world that are affecting their businesses.
The fact is that people don’t operate in stagnant teams anymore; they operate in lots of different teams, it’s a matrix, they’ve got dotted lines and solid lines. People don’t respect the hierarchy, they’re not hugely impressed by status and seniority, so that hierarchy doesn’t really work. When you are trying to change that, you’re not just trying to change a few systems and processes, you are trying to change a whole mind-set, and that’s really difficult. It has to start from the top.
I do believe in bottom-up change, I think that everyone in the organisation needs to get it, and the ideas about how this is going to work will probably come from middle- and lower-ends of the business, because they’re the ones that are working every single day, cranking the machine. But, you need to have the commitment from the top. The CEO and the board, and the top hundred, top two-hundred-and-fifty leaders have got to recognise that they have to change their behaviour; they have to start listening; they have to let go of their ego; they have to be people who are true to their word; they need to be honest; they need to be vulnerable. All these things that go against what probably got them to where they are today, and that’s where it has to start. I have to sense that there is a willingness to do that before I really believe that the company can change.
How often should a company consider change?
I think that change is on-going now, I don’t think there is ever a point where a company can say, “we’ve been through a change program and we are stable now”. If anything, I would say that the only role for leaders – the definition of leadership for me – is people who drive change. If your organisation doesn’t need to change, you don’t need leaders.
If you just imagine that you have got leaders and followers. If your leaders are not going anywhere, then you don’t need anyone following. So, the definition of leadership to me, is that leaders bring about change; leaders drive change. Otherwise, it’s just fine for them to do management. That’s what keeps the machine ticking over, and that’s fine of you’re not going anywhere. But, I think that everybody’s industry is changing so much, you have got disrupters coming up your blind side all the time, and if your industry hasn’t been disrupted yet, it’s going to be.
We are seeing all sorts of interesting, whole new business models emerging now; so there really isn’t any room for complacency. Change is an absolute constant and leaders can invest in all sorts of development for themselves – such as communication skills, and the ability to give feedback – but actually, if there is one thing they need to be able to do their job it’s to have a lot of change muscle. They need to be really robust about their own response to change – to be comfortable with that, or to know that they are comfortable with the discomfort.
Can you explain ‘Fraud Syndrome’?
One of the biggest surprises I got when I started working with senior people was that they were all waiting to be found out, and very few felt they deserved to have achieved that position. I actually found it very reassuring, because I have the same thing.
I remember when I was a journalist on the Today Programme, and I had to go to 11 Downing Street – I was going to be interviewing the Chancellor, I was going to be meeting various ministers – and I went in and I did my interviews, and I mingled, and then I came out of Downing Street and I called my mum, and I said, “it was amazing, no one realised I was twelve years old”. Because I had felt like a twelve-year-old dressed up as an adult, and that at any point someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “little girl, you shouldn’t be in here”. So, it was really reassuring to find out that so many people feel that way.
At the very beginning of my career, I would have helped leaders to find ways to overcome that sense of being a fraud; they they’re going to be found out at any moment, that they don’t really know what they are doing. I think that my approach has evolved a bit – I really don’t think that most CEOs know what they are doing, and not because they are rubbish, but because, who knows what they are doing? I mean, if they really are trying something new and fresh, then they are doing something that they have never done before. And if they are doing something the same way as they did it five years ago, because that’s how they know how to do it, then it’s probably out of date. So, of course they have Fraud Syndrome, because they actually don’t know what they are doing, and it would be far better to be honest about that.
No one wants to be led by an idiot, and it’s not about saying, “I don’t have a clue what I am doing”, it’s not about that! It’s about saying, ”look, my experience has got me to this position, but we’re about to do something that we have never done before, and I have ideas about that, and some of my ideas are going to be very good, but I need everyone else’s ideas too and lets do this together”. So, this idea of being a fraud, rather than being a dirty secret, can be something that really helps you to engage other people, and to connect with them, and to get them involved in changing the business and making the business better.
Should leaders take risks?
Leaders should be always taking risks. I think we have become really risk-averse, I think since the recession companies have started being run by FDs (Financial Directors) – and there’s nothing wrong with FDs, they play a really important role – but they have their eye on a particular thing; which is how did we perform last month? how did we perform in this quarter? how does this quarter this year compare with the same quarter last year?… are we steadily rising? They are, by their nature, typically, there are exceptions, but they are trained to be risk-averse. So, when that’s the only voice that matters, then of course companies play it safe. And if you just look at companies that are succeeding now, these disrupters, they are not playing it safe. I mean they are really taking massive risks.
Zappos in America is an online retailer, they have just scrapped all their managers, they have got rid of managers. I just saw a funny YouTube film this morning of them making fun of themselves – everyone screaming, “I can’t do my work because I don’t have a manager to tell me what to do!”, and people sitting around on their phone because they don’t know what to do, because there are no managers. Of course, it is ridiculous, everyone is getting on with it, the company is doing really well, but, it is a risk, they don’t have anyone else they can look at and say this is how you do it; they are making it up as they go along. They may end up reintroducing management in the future; but based on their learnings.
I think that you have got to take risk, you have got to trust your instincts; be a person on conviction and then live with the consequences. The thing that I have always thought is that it is better to trust your instincts and be wrong, than to not trust your instincts and be wrong. At least you can live with that – I did what I thought was best, and it didn’t work out. It is very difficult to live with, “I didn’t do what I thought was best, and it failed”. So, much better.
Now, of course, you have got people working for you; you have got to think about them, the impact on them, you have got to think about the impact on customers. Of course, you have got to balance all of that up, but you can’t guarantee an outcome either way, so you might as well go with what you think; go with those instincts, and tweak – what I call ‘bug-fix’ – tweak it as you go.
Do you offer follow-up workshops to your keynote presentation?
So, sometimes forty-five minutes or an hour is the slot, and it’s a speech with a little bit of Q&A, and that’s pretty typical. Sometimes the event organisers want something more; they want – and often rightly so – they want to not just have this stuff wash over people, but actually give people the opportunity to reflect on what it means. In that case I can work with them to design whatever it is that’s going to bring that about.
So, we’ve done things in the past like breakout sessions, where let’s say they are sitting cabaret-style so they are on tables anyway. I set them a question to think about, and it could be a very generic question like, ”of all the things I have talked about in the presentation, which is the one that you think would have the biggest impact on your organisation? If you were leading that, what would you do?“ So, then they have a little discussion and we can hear about that, or it could be something significantly more involved. I have a team in my company; a team of facilitators who are really exceptional coaches and really at the cutting edge of all of this stuff around leadership. I can bring them in and we can do real breakouts where we really get under the skin of what’s going on in the business, and what needs to change. We do exercises where we, we call it ‘putting the smelly fish on the table’, it’s the stuff that nobody really wants to talk about; it’s the dirty secrets of the company. And we get all of that out, normally using post-its – one of my favourite accessories – getting all of that stuff out, and creating a big collage of these, and starting to pull them in to themes. And sometimes companies are worried about that because they think it is going to be negative. But actually, if you have got all that sitting there anyway, and you are trying to brainwash people in to thinking it’s all going to be brilliant, they don’t buy the message. When you give them the opportunity to say, “okay, what is going to get in our way, then? what is going to stop us? This all sounds brilliant, the new strategy sounds great and the new brand looks amazing, I’m really excited to be part of the business, but there is stuff that is going to get in the way”, and you give them the opportunity to express it, then I think people really believe that you mean it, and we can definitely help with that.
What are the key take-away messages from your presentation?
I think that one of the things that people take away from the presentation is that they are normal. I think people can feel quite isolated in their business and they can think that they are the only one that thinks that way. So they can think, “I spend all my time just cranking the handle, when surely I should be bringing about some change here… surely it is hugely risky not to do that”. Or they can think, “… I see these images of what a leader is supposed to look like, but I actually found that being close to my people, and making connections with them, and actually swallowing my ego a bit, has worked better”.
And when they hear me, from the stage, talk about some of those things – particularly when we get to the Q&A and people start talking about their experiences – I think they realise that they need to trust their instincts, that they are right. They realise that they are not alone, and not only are they not alone, but that this is a trend; there is change sweeping through organisations. And if my messages have resonated with them, then they are sort of on the right side of that change.
So, I think they feel reassured and more confident to go back in to their organisation the next day, with a real commitment to doing something differently, and to create a community of leaders who are going to, together, do something different.
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