I’m used to asking the questions, of my clients and my team, so it was a refreshing change to have the tables turned. I’ve been profoundly influenced by Jamie Smart’s insights into clarity. Having known and worked with him for a few years now, I’ve been able to take on board his message about producing the right conditions for success. He’s written a book called Clarity: Clear Mind, Better Performance, Bigger Results and his latest book Results: Think Less, Achieve More that I highly recommend. I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Jamie for his podcast series, where he talks to transformation leaders about creating positive change in all aspects of your professional life. You can listen to it here or catch the highlights below.
Jamie: What I’d like to ask first is what sparked your interest in doing change work, in doing the work of what I call a ‘transformation professional’?
It was a bit of luck really. I was working in the ‘corporate space,’ for Procter and Gamble, and I wasn’t asked to leave but I was asked to take a role I didn’t want. It caused me to take a step back and look at how else I could earn a living that motivated me.
I took a year off to do an MBA, and while I was there someone kicked me into thinking that there was something else that I could do. He went through an assessment centre for a job and didn’t get it, but when they described what they were looking for he put my name against it and said, if this is what you’re looking for then this is the person you should talk to.
I thank him for that, and it was by luck that I went for that assessment. There were two very inspirational characters who were running my assessments, one ex-military and another ex-corporate like myself, and they just had a way of being, and a way of talking about their clients, of talking about being in a laboratory with their clients that made me think yes, change is what I want to do. I’ve never looked back since that day.
Jamie: How did you take action? What did you decide to do?
Everything in my life changed at that stage. It was clear to me that what I wanted to do was to work with people. I’d come from a hard sell environment before, but wanted to develop a mantra that we still hold now at my company, which is about wanting to create heroes and heroines of the people we work with.
I was able to do that, not just to ‘get on the stage’ as I called it in those days, to deliver workshops and talks: I was able to create heroes and heroines in front of me, and that inspired me. I’ve only had three people in my life that have done that for me, and I was suddenly surrounded by people who were very good at doing it, and were giving me the opportunity to be paid for something that I loved, and was motivated by. That was the moment where I had my freedom to do what I wanted to do. So it was luck, but I do believe that luck is partly created by you too.
Jamie: What were the circumstances of that happening? Of someone coming and asking you to do what you want?
It’s a question I’ve never really asked myself, but if I think back to the MBA there was the ability there to just be yourself that I’d almost never had. I’d worked in corporate life and never given myself the opportunity to be myself. I felt I needed to be professional, I felt I needed to ‘put on a suit’, but during the MBA I spent a year working very hard with other people who were very senior in organisations; and I realised that if they could do it then I could do it.
A lot of what we do now is working with people to release their authentic self, to bring their real self to work, and I think that’s why the person who recommended me into this role did it, because he saw what I could do. I have an ability to build relationships with rapport across different levels, and also the ability to build connections with individuals. Having given myself a year off to be myself and enjoy myself, that’s how I came across to that person. So I think, to come back to your question, that I gave myself the opportunity to be lucky.
Jamie: You talked about creating heroes and heroines. Will you say more about that?
I’d been working with a consultant colleague for a while, and we’d all had a few glasses of wine when she asked me ‘why do you do this?’ I forced myself to come up with what I thought was a cheesy answer and said, well it’s about creating heroes and heroines. She said, I get that, so give me a couple of examples.
And I said, if I can create the conditions for teams to thrive, and love being here and love being successful, and if I can do it for my clients - that feeds the soul for me. It makes me feel proud, it’s the reason I get out of bed in the morning. A number of my clients I’ve followed through almost all of their career, to where they’re at senior levels in organisations now.
It also feeds into another principle we have which is ‘pay it forward’. If you can do things for others that benefit them and ask them to pass it on then I find that it comes back to you.
Jamie: How do you see that, about when you do good things for people good things come back?
Well it’s one of the points of view that I have that some people find clunky, that they struggle to take and absorb and agree with, which is that I believe in relationships with a purpose. I believe that every relationship has a purpose, whether it’s my daughters and helping them grow up, through to my colleagues, through to my clients, and those relationships don’t always need to be ones where you’re liked. It’s more important to be respected.
The other side of the coin about paying it forward can be about challenging the other person in the relationship, about where they’re going and what they’re doing. If you’re sitting in a room where someone wants feedback, they’re more likely to ask someone who’s going to be truly honest with them. Relationships with a purpose are about giving, about paying forward, and also about being the one who will call behaviour, will say when they don’t believe things, will be refreshingly direct.
Jamie: It seems that the thing that would stop people from calling it as they see it is their own insecurity.
I was working in the Philippines and it was three years after we’d run a major talent event, and an employee of the organisation we were working for stood up and said: “Three years ago I had a conversation with Colin that I didn’t like. And in fact, I hated him. I hated what he had to say and I hated him for saying it. And at that point I really could have walked away from it, from the organisation and from that talent event.”
“But it’s fascinating,” he said, “that since that talent event I’ve been promoted three times. And I’m now in a very senior, significant position because of that conversation. And I still don’t particularly like Colin but those words he said three years ago were right.”
Jamie: Google has a prize for the failure that yields the most valuable insights each month. How can someone who’s listening to this become more comfortable with failure?
One insight I gained from one of our clients is the concept of taking financial risks yourself. For a lot of people that’s a scary thought, but we do work now where we go in and say, we’ll put fifty percent of the fee at risk, so we’re almost saying you get a discount. If it fails you get it for half price, and if it’s successful then you pay us full whack. When our clients allow us to fail it allows them to be part of that failure and we can work in there.
What we started to do was have more belief in how we do things. Putting our money on the table when we go in with clients actually is scary, and is difficult for people working with me to do. In the senior team, it’s great that we can make those decisions, we have the authority to do it. But then we start encouraging others to do it, we say “take a risk, start talking about how confident we are at what we do, because we do a good job.” It’s about giving them that ability to commercially put that on the table.
And I think the other side of it is defining failure. Because every organisation has had failures that have allowed them to build something new. We do a lot of work in the luxury sector, and every day in the luxury sector at the top five-star hotel, someone is creating something new, it’s a new experience, and a new way of working, and to compete in it you’ve got to push the boundaries. It comes back to relationships. If your relationship is strong enough with people, and it’s based on integrity and intimacy then people will allow you to fail with them because they see that it improves performance, it drives things up.
Taking just a little example which I love, my daughters were having a mystery stay in a luxury hotel; on the day we arrived we left some soft toys they’d bought at Disney with the luggage at reception. When we came back later, we were taken up to the room and the lights were out, the curtains were shut and the lady who was showing us in put her finger to her lips and said “shhh!” The two toys had had a bed made specially for them.
Now that created a moment of magic, created something that had never been done before. It could have gone badly, but that person was willing to take the risk and my daughters still talk about that moment. So those moments of pure inspired magic always come from doing things you’ve never done before.
Jamie: What are some of the realisations that have made a big difference to you personally as you go on this journey?
One is the realisation that I can do this myself. I used to recruit business partners because I felt I was inadequate and didn’t have the wherewithal to run a business. My belief is that everyone has the wherewithal, it’s just about the type of business you create through the belief in yourself and challenging yourself. One of the biggest insights for me was I don’t need a business partner. If someone wants to work with me then great, but I don’t need them.
And the second thing for me is ‘fit to lead’ which I owe to Dave Spence, one of our consultants in Asia. He’s one of the fittest people I know, but he tells a story about being very close to a heart attack, being overweight, working in banking, marriage ending, and he realised he needed to grab hold of his life. And he did the same for me in many ways, in that he encouraged me to focus much more on physical and mental wellbeing, and not just on financial and business targets.
I find that’s a huge part of me being successful now, keeping physically and mentally fit and being aware that if I role model that fitness, that mental wellbeing, I can hopefully be an inspiration and role model to other people just like Dave was for me.
Jamie: A question I’d like to ask, Colin, is all of this for what purpose?
Someone asked me the other day, when I was going for a mortgage, when I was going to retire. And it was quite soul destroying actually, realising that I couldn’t get a 25-year mortgage because I didn’t have enough years left. But I’ve never taken the concept of work-life as a principle, I’ve always taken the principle of a life balance. I’m a strong believer in this. Money’s important but it’s not the massive driver for me. I’d like to be a role model for my daughters and the people who work with me. I want to leave some form of legacy or ‘footprint on the world.’ That is about caring and is about paying it forward, in a commercial way. So that’s the purpose.