As former UK Managing Director of Robert Half International – the largest specialist recruitment consultancy in the world – Jeff Grout built up the UK operation from two offices and 12 staff into a business with a domestic turnover of £65 million, 19 offices and over 360 staff.
Following his time at Robert Half, from 2002-2006 Jeff was Business Manager to Sir Clive Woodward. He is a successful business author, commentator and columnist, and has appeared on numerous television and radio programmes. Jeff is now an independent business consultant, speaker and coach specialising in leadership, people management, team building, peak performance, recruitment and retention issues.
Watch our exclusive interview with Jeff or read the full transcript below.
In conversation with Jeff Grout
Tell us about Robert Half and how you made the leap to public speaking?
The company I joined was a company called Robert Half and they were advertising in the newspaper. The advert was, "You won't be home in time to watch Crossroads," which was a popular soap at that time. And the whole idea was actually, that this will consume your life, as it were. I joined and I quickly found that I was pretty good at this. Having worked in local government, I was a decidedly average town planner, and there's something pretty unpleasant about being average. So within two or three months, I thought, "I could be quite good at this. And if I apply myself, I can be really good at this."
So what was going to be a three-month job became 20 years. I became the UK managing director. I opened about 19 offices in the UK, acquired some businesses in Europe, and I was doing that until the age of 47. I found that with my brand new partner, that I was going to become a dad for the first time. And the day that my daughter was born, Olivia, who's now 20, I resigned from corporate life. And I then wanted to do something that gave me some form of flexibility. One of my clients was Unilever and the client at Unilever used to book lots of speakers. He said, "I think you could be a business speaker," and it all started from there.
What character traits do successful leaders share?
I think certainly, there is a desire for success. Success on whatever those terms are so, therefore, there's a desire to actually achieve something. But I think the one trait that I found in everybody, whether they are a corporate leader, they're an Olympic champion, or they're an Apollo astronaut, is almost a child-like sense of curiosity. They are really keen to try and learn things, they're widely read, they question people.
Certainly, with Sir Clive Woodward, I'd say he's a magpie. He was always asking questions of people. And when he was England rugby coach, he went to the States to look at American football. He went across to Australia to look at Aussie rules football and it’s just learning from that. So I think that desire for knowledge, and I think they see their careers as a continual process of learning.
How do you coach leaders to deal with imposter syndrome?
I wouldn't necessarily call it imposter syndrome. I'd probably label it as 'status anxiety', whereby people ask themselves are they good enough? And certainly, I remember in my job and I'm thinking, "I've now got 360 people who look to me in terms of their livelihoods and whatever." So that whole thing about, am I up to this? And I remember saying to my leadership team, in a year we might have grown the business to about 30 million in sales. And say actually, "We know we can run a 30 million pound business. Let's see if we can run a 40 million pound business." And when we got to 40 million, "Let's see if we can run a 50 million business." Ultimately, you learn as you go along and you grow. Sometimes it's good to scare yourself a bit and to recognise those responsibilities. It's new ground, but let's see what we can do there.
How important is goal setting for success in business?
I mean, certainly, I think from all of the leaders I interviewed, there was a consensus that their prime role was to provide direction and to focus everybody on a simple, clear objective and a narrow range of priorities. And if there's one thing I think I've learned is that too many leaders spend too much time in the day-to-day, not enough time creating the vision, setting the overall objectives. And at the same time, what they need to do is to declutter the agenda. There is a study, I think it's by Cranfield Business School, that basically said that 90% of leaders have real clarity about the future goal, the future objective, but only 20% will get there.
And this study said that the two main reasons why companies don't get there, and I think this absolutely right is, one, is what they call dysfunctional teams. In business, we give the term 'team' to any group of people are working together, but this Cranfield study found very little evidence of proper teamwork. They found people working in silos, people inhibited about raising issues. So number one, either people didn't have the right people on the team or the people weren't acting as a team.
The other one, which they said was the most significant, and these are organisations with maybe 6, 8, 10, 12 priorities, and according to the study was those organisations that have no more than three core priorities at any one point in time, have a 90% chance of successful execution.
So the message is clear. Narrow the vision down, de-clutter the agenda, and focus on those three things that make the biggest difference.
How important is failure to achieving success?
I think the biggest enemy of future success is not learning from past performance.
I think all of us tend to analyse failure more carefully, and I'm thinking of my business. If we had a major problem, a major mistake, a major cock-up, I'd get the various people concerned together. I'd probably call a meeting maybe very early in the morning and we'd have a post-mortem. I'd have to concede sometimes those post-mortems became blamestorming sessions, but ultimately we would review, we would analyse, we would learn. I then look back and think, "What do we do in our business when we have a stonking success, something has gone really well?" And the reality was we go down to the pub, we'd open a case of champagne, and we get pissed.
And I think working with some of the elite sportsmen and women was actually – they put a lot of focus on understanding the reasons for success, because success is what we want to replicate. I would say people were having post-mortems of success and some leaders, bright leaders, were actually having pre-mortems, i.e. What would be the biggest barrier to us achieving a success? Let's address it.
One of the things that I talk to about with leaders is whose resignation would give you a sleepless night? Okay. So what can we do now as a pre-mortem to prevent that eventuality from happening? So, therefore, well actually, let's look at what are the expectations? What can we do maybe in their current role? Do we need to adjust their salary package? But what can we do now to prevent that from happening?
In business, how important are qualifications and experience?
I'd say most companies recruit to three things, really: qualifications, knowledge, and experience. And the one thing I learned from 20 years working in recruitment, is career success has far less to do with qualifications, knowledge, and experience, and everything to do with attitudes and behaviour. And consequently, yes, to be considered for a particular job, there's a minimum level of skills, qualifications, experience. But once we get beyond that minimum level, it's about judgment. It's about attitude. It's about team building. It's about communication. And it's about commitment. How committed is that individual? And it's really trying to get people to look towards those things, will actually determine success, rather than just being focused on skills, qualifications, and experience.
How do you retain and motivate staff?
I think to retain people, first of all, they need to feel involved. They need to feel included. And that's a matter of someone feeling like a fully-fledged human being, not simply headcount. And in many, many cases, people are just seen as what they can bring in terms of the business. I think now more than ever, there needs to be much more of a personal relationship.
There's lots of evidence to suggest that if you're genuinely interested in this individual who works for you, you're generally interested in how their mum is now, how their daughter got on in their A level results, that person will give you more. So it's getting that person to engage. And the role of the leader is to create an environment that people choose to give it their best.
People have discretionary effort. It can't be squeezed out of them. It can't be forced out of them. They can only volunteer it. And if you treat them well, they will give you more. A lot of it is about communication. And when I say communication, I mean dialogue. Good communication is two way.
I met, a number of years ago, Greg Dyke, when he was Director-General of the BBC, and he said something about communication that's always stuck with me. And he said, "Leaders must first listen to earn the right to be heard." And the majority of leaders default to telling. Because they're in a leadership position, they believe that their staff want to hear from them so they talk, they broadcast. But great leadership is about asking great questions. Leaders will never have all the answers, so, therefore, it's imperative they equip themselves with all of the questions. And what I found was that great leaders ask great questions and listen.
So take Greg Dyke. In his first 100 days at the BBC, he got out of London. He visited locations that no Director-General visited before. He shunned the executive dining rooms. He queued up in the canteen and he took the opportunity in the queue to ask people, senior people and junior people, the same two questions:
Question one, tell me one thing we should do at the BBC to improve our service to the viewer or listener?
Question two, tell me one thing I should do to improve your life at work?
And that's all he did in this first hundred days. And, of course, in the second hundred days, he implemented as many of those suggestions that he could. And what was interesting, he said in his first six months at the BBC, asking questions, listening to the answers, and then acting upon them. He said, "I had everybody onside. Everybody engaged."
Beyond delivering a keynote speech, do you provide workshops?
When I started out, and I started out going into something of a recession and I was desperate for work. And afterwards, people would come up to me and say, "Oh, Jeff, I loved that keynote. It was fantastic. You don't happen to do a workshop, do you?" And I quickly said, "Yes, of course." Now, I'd say I split my time probably 50/50 between keynote presentations at large conferences, and those much more intimate, probably 12 to 15 delegates, in terms of a workshop. So I do workshops around interviewing skills, about presentation skills, workshops on leadership, team building, leading change, all of those things. And particularly with some of the sportsmen and women I've worked with, doing a session on lessons from sporting excellence, so translating some of those sporting lessons into the business environment.
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