Exclusive Interview

NMP Live Meets Jim Lawless

In the global marketplace for motivational speakers on transformational change and inspirational leadership, Jim Lawless is undoubtedly one of the best, and busiest.

A corporate lawyer-turned jockey and free-diver, Jim put his money where is mouth is and proved first-hand that his principals and ethos work. We sat down with Jim to discuss transformational change, workplace agility, why we're inherently preconditioned to be risk-averse and how it's possible to break that mentality. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.


In conversation with Jim Lawless

What was your motivation for leaving corporate law and embarking on a new career?

My career started as a corporate lawyer and that wasn’t a job that I was very suited to but it took me a long time to realise that and a longer time to have the courage to shift out of it.

I remember, really distinctly, a day, I was on Clapham Junction station, a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. The whole world was in shorts and flip flops carrying beers in carrier bags and I was going into work and a train was announced going to Brighton. I remember thinking ‘ah wouldn’t that be great if I was going to Brighton’ and then I remember thinking ‘but you could, you could, you’re deciding, you’ve got legs and you’re deciding to do this.’ So I still did it, I didn’t go to Brighton, I didn’t have the courage for that, but that was a really big bit for me, a really big moment of realising that I was taking choices, I owned this.

Why did you train to become a jockey?

So the journey to become a jockey was a bet from a client who had seen me speak. It was a £1 bet that I couldn’t become a jockey riding in my first race under UK Jockey Club rules of racing on the TV within twelve months. That was the gig. I don’t think I thought I could do it, oh I know I didn’t. I think I was waiting for somebody to put me straight on this and then I could give him a pound and just carry on with life. But that’s not what happened because I followed the ten rules.

Rule one is to act boldly, to do things that you would never normally do in an attempt to get this thing started. So my bold action was to, and it often is, to get in contact with people who might be able to help. I had dinner with a woman called Gee Armytage, which happened through these phone calls, and at that end of that dinner, she put her hand across the table (to shake) and said ‘yeah I think we can do it, we start on Saturday morning, meet me here at 7 am and if we can work together on this, you’ll be a jockey in 12 months. 

If I shook her hand, of course, I was stuck wasn’t I because there was no way back. There was no way you’re going to let yourself down once you’ve shaken hands with a legend so I was going to have to up my behaviours. I think that’s the biggest part of it, of any change; if we have the courage to commit to it and therefore change our behaviours we get different results really quick, both from ourselves, from our own bodies from our learning’s but also from other people around us, so that was how it started.

It was a 12-months with huge highs, huge lows and just the most incredible sense of joy for a whole team. A huge sense of satisfaction and joy when we managed to do it.

What led to your free-dive challenge?

So the jockey challenge was very much to prove the ten rules. When it came to deciding to do the free dive, that started on a personal level. That started because my daughter, who is 19 now, she was I think 11 at the time, was quite ill for a period. She’s fine now, but she was not fine, and I decided to do the free dive as a sponsored event. I thought I’ve scuba dived; I thought if I can go to 30 metres, which is the recreational floor for a scuba dive, without a tank, that would be amazing right? But all the freedivers just laughed because you do that as a warm-up, it’s not even a warm-up. So it got out of hand and it ended up being ‘can you be the first one past 100’ and that’s what it grew to. 

It remained a sponsored event for a charity called Sparks, but I was very interested to test various aspects of how we manage our brains under pressure, literally as well as metaphorically. That was a hugely enlightening experience.

What are the main topics on which you speak?

The main topics will be change, transformation, agility, risk, disruption, looking at challenges or situations that could seem impossible when people are being asked to make a big shift and helping people look at that differently.

How would you describe your presentation style?

It’s really funny; I think the presentation style has to change for the audience that you’re faced with. So, I’m recently back from Orlando, 3000 people at Disneyland; a big sales conference. That’s got to be a huge load of energy, people have got to come off three incredibly intense days feeling high and optimistic and then spreading out across the globe to do something. Quite challenging, quite challenging. 

Then you can be speaking at a dinner table with fifteen people; they’re the board of an incredibly successful organisation. It’s daunting enough the fact that you’re spending time with them because these are really sharp cookies and they can stop you and just throw you out at any moment. That is a different level of style.

I’d say in general what I attempt to do is (a), get it right for the audience, but (b), me as a speaker, it’s pretty energetic. I love playing with dynamics with an audience by which I mean very consciously speeding up, building the energy, getting excited but then throwing in a pause; putting it right down, putting in a thoughtful point after all that energy. So they think we’re going on a story about freediving and horse racing, and we are, but we’re building up something really profound about how you could think about the challenge that you’re being faced with and that you just heard your chief exec speak about thirty minutes ago and then at the end of that we’re going to have a long pause and I’m going to stare you straight in the eye.

We’re going to take a little bit of a rollercoaster and that might sound manipulative. I hope it doesn’t, because it isn’t. It’s using the tools of stagecraft to help people really engage and think and that’s what I’m trying to do, not sell my way of viewing it, just have a real good think. Let’s swap ideas.

You’ve said there are only two ways to motivate people. What are they?

I think that’s correct, there are only two ways that we can encourage, control or, through vicious ways, try and get somebody to do what it is we want them to do. Whether that’s to follow a new and exciting launch of a product within an organisation or a new way of going to market or whatever it may be, a new way of working. Or, whether it’s something more coercive and unpleasant, and it works at home and it works in the workplace and I think that the only two ways we’ve got are manipulation or inspiration.

With manipulation, I mean carrot and stick. I offer you, the other half of this equation, the something that’s grim if you don’t look at it my way or something very exciting if you do. That was how we ran the Industrial Age right? All of the Industrial Age which we moved out of, arguably in the mid-’80s, arguably some places are still struggling to move out of it. So that was carrot and stick.

Inspiration is where we provide a framework, the necessary ingredients for people to find their own motivation. So we’ve got external motivation, ‘do it or else’, internal motivation, ‘that will be exciting, I could learn some new stuff, my friends are all doing it and it would be great on my CV and we could win and…’ whatever it may be.

And there’s always going to a wee bit of a mix. We going to want to be paid right for our work but more and more that’s being called ‘the hygiene factors’, with good reason because most of us will do really exciting, stimulating long hours for a reasonably ok payback financially because we want to be doing the work.

Why are people risk-averse?

We’re animals right. I mean we’re really good at being civilised, and that’s one of our great achievements, but we’re animals and we’re herd animals, we operate in packs and we have status within packs. So, if I’m going to take a risk in the workplace where my status in the pack does matter, on some psychological level as well as everyone always immediately goes to ‘it matters or otherwise I will get fired’, we’ve got to work hard to get fired especially if we manage our stakeholders and our risk appropriately right, we’ve got to work to get fired for taking sound commercial risk but we go there, that’s not really the issue, it’s not the financial risk, it’s the reputation risk, it’s how people might talk about me at the bar and that’s what we don’t like.

So most of the downside of the risks that we’re looking at in my kind of work of change and high performance, is the risk of going out on a limb to do a better, more fantastic, great thing than I’m currently doing and the risk with that is, ‘I might look a bit of a wally, other people might think it’s a crazy idea and if I did go ahead, it might go wrong.’ Its reputational risk, we don’t like that. As soon as you point that out to people, that more people would rather ride motorbikes or go skiing or rock climbing than give a presentation, because that’s more scary because that’s ego rather than our bodies. We’ll put our bodies on the line, we don’t think about it - most of us, but ego ‘wey hey’!

As soon as you point that out that’s all that’s going on then people are up to give a presentation, they’re out to go and create change, they get it really fast but it’s so instinctive, it’s so deep within us that we often don’t even see that’s what we’re doing.

How important is taking risk in business?

A huge number of the people inviting me to speak now are looking at agility, innovation, rapidly changing how things are done. Whether that’s in a supply chain or how we sell or market a product. Indeed in some companies, it’s a reinvention of who they are because their market’s slowly dying and they can see it and they don’t want to be a Kodak, they want to move faster. 

In order to do that, an increased appetite for risk has to come and that’s going to be partly financial risk. That is generally, by the time someone like me gets involved, managed and decided upon. What’s very difficult is asking the men and women who’ve worked in that organisation for a period of time to start making changes and to start having a different relationship with authority and usually, not always, but usually, authority is faster at getting there than everybody else is. So everybody’s thinking I can’t talk to him because her because…. actually him or her has got there because they’re ok with that now. They don’t need to be called sir or madam or treated special, they want to get their sleeves rolled up and do stuff but there’s still a lag in that and that’s understandable.

It’s incumbent on that community to change the communication and to help this community feel comfortable. But that appetite for risk has got to change; it will drive the successes in 5 or 10 years’ time.

Is there a single takeaway message from your talk?

I hope it’s rammed with them, but to me, if I could ask the audience to take a point away, it would be that we set up these rules, these ideas about who we are and what we can do and then we start living within them and complaining that life’s flat. Actually most of these have been set up to keep us safe from taking a risk, ‘people like me like can’t do stuff like that which is great isn’t it because now I can pick up the remote and pour myself a glass of wine, because people like me can’t do that other stuff so I get to do this stuff’.

It’s just amazing how frequently these ‘rules’, as I call then in my analysis, fall down when we try.

So people like me, who were rubbish at school at sport, we can’t be jockeys and overweight 36-year-old former lawyer me definitely can’t be a jockey. Well, it turns out you can. Not necessarily a good one or a world-changing one but you can have a go, you can experience that, and that, I think, is really exciting and really important in terms of how work is going at the moment to have a great career, to be able to do that is really going to become fundamentally important. That would be, I think, the takeaway I’d like to ask people to leave with. 

Why does your story resonate so well with audiences?

I think that people respect, and therefore I get a bit of credibility for having gone out to prove ideas about risk, reputation, change, raising your performance, changing your behaviours. They are quite hard yards to walk and I’m asking people to walk that. They want to know who are you to ask me that I think and I think they hear about, which isn’t the core of the presentation, they hear little bits about the jockey adventure, what was involved and how the rules were applied and what that required of me and ditto with the free dive. When they see some film, because I love showing film of those adventures too, it’s very visual, brings it to life, I get a bit of credibility and the principles I’m speaking about get a bit of credibility.

The second thing that I think works for people, and it’s very funny because people are always very awkward about giving this feedback to me, they always say ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this but a lot what people said they loved was you’re just ordinary’.

I do love that, I’m fine with that actually; I’m just fine with that. They just like the fact that I’m not a multi-billionaire who sold 14 companies and I wasn’t fast-tracked at school into an Olympic, it’s a lot of work to get to an Olympic medal, I’m not taking anything away but I wasn’t a gifted sports person, I was just a 36-year-old fat lad who was up for proving something that he was working on as a consultant and I think they really, really like that because if this 36-year-old fat lad can do it and become a jockey then maybe I can make this sales gig work.

I think they love those two parts.

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