The most important thing, by some margin, is to care about people’s careers and their development. Constantly ask yourself — where does this person need to grow? If they grew, what would be possible for them? When you care this much for people, you can be amazingly direct- because they know it comes from a place of contribution — the Buddhists call this ruthless compassion.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Gibbons. Paul has a 40-year career straddling international business and academia. His research and writing explore how philosophy and science can be used to enlighten contemporary business thinking, debunk myth and pseudoscience, and solve practical business problems, including changing culture, developing leaders, and using analytics and evidence to make strategic decisions. Paul’s academic background, starting in math, then in economics, neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, allows him to bring perspectives to business not typically found in traditional business books. His consulting career, mostly in Europe, included founding an award-winning “teal” Organization Development consulting firm, Future Considerations. Paul has coached dozens of CEOs — on strategy, change, and talent issues. His change experience includes clients such as Comcast, Shell, PwC, BP, Barclays, KPMG, British Airways, HSBC, Nokia, The Body Shop, Comcast, the NHS, and UK Ministers. He was the change management lead on a $1 billion program for the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions. Paul has appeared in Microsoft’s Distinguished Author Program and at Google and appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. He was awarded Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (UK) in 2017 and speaks or reads six languages. He now writes, hosts the award-winning Think Bigger Think Better philosophy podcast, plays competitive poker, chess, and bridge, and raises two boys in Colorado.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Itis a very mixed bag — on the one hand, I started college super young, at 15, and had already been auditing college classes for some years. Though a science/ math guy, I went to Wall Street and although I earned $1m a year in my early twenties, I had developed a pathological fondness for nightlife and became addicted to alcohol. By my early 30s I was washed up and needed a complete reboot — including (of course) getting sober.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My science/ math stuff and intellectual talent turned into a huge liability in many ways. First of all, my worldview was myopic, the world of feelings, community, spirituality, purpose, connection, and deeper meaning was hidden from me. In the 1990s, I tried to correct that and went off the deep end embracing all kinds of funky spiritual ideas and attending workshops of all kinds every weekend.
The other problem was that I’d never learned GRIT. People say “oh you must have been studious” — no quite the opposite, because of my talents I never learned the value of hard work, determination, dealing with failure.
So, as with most humans, my greatest strengths were my greatest liabilities. I had to work super hard to overcome my substantial character deficits.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I worked in London, and many of the people at my firm were from elite private schools, Oxford, and the British aristocracy (the Queen’s cousin, Lord this-and-that)… I had gone to Wisconsin and wore a 20 year old suit of my dad’s and carried my papers to work in a plastic grocery store bag. (They had 1000 dollar briefcases and 2000 dollar suits.) I’m amazed, maybe because I was American, and maybe because (dunno) they liked me, these people invited me to hoity-toity events where I was a complete Columbo of a guy amidst the London “deb” scene in the 1980s.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to talent today?
This is fundamental stuff, but surprisingly new! At the beginning of my career, being an “a$$hole” (or worse) was seen as good management — you kicked backsides, whipped people into shape, gave them a piece of your mind.
We’ve come a long way.
The most important thing, by some margin, is to care about people’s careers and their development. Constantly ask yourself — where does this person need to grow? If they grew, what would be possible for them?
When you care this much for people, you can be amazingly direct- because they know it comes from a place of contribution — the Buddhists call this ruthless compassion.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
Most good managers (and that is by no means all) know the power of creating a vision for the team. However, it doesn’t stop there — you have to constantly refresh it, you have to incorporate new members, you have to co-create it so it is THEIR vision.
I always say, people won’t perform if you say “hey — if you do a good job I will make fat stacks” or “hey if we deliver this, I will get promoted.” They don’t care.
They do care about purpose — and that is what you have to drill into.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
You need to build trust and repair trust and that means you have to talk about trust. Nobody trusts everyone to do everything (that would be stupid) — you have to differentiate it. I don’t yet trust you to X…. but I trust you enormously in the area of Y. For me to trust you in X, I’m going to need to see you (what they need to do to become competent and reliable.)
The vision thing (again) — when I started a company that was all I had. No clients, no startup capital, no nuthin’ — but I had vision (and a damn good one in retrospect) and people joined as a community before they joined as employees because they were inspired. I had to say to one dude — look man, I need to start paying you — what would be reasonable? The power of that is the company is 20 years old and though I’m not there, the vision is the one we painstakingly developed in 2000.
Make everything about learning. If you are doing interesting and complex things, which I hope you are, the s&*^t will hit the fan, you will fail. How you deal with that is critical — take time to learn as a team. Be humble and take responsibility for YOUR role in the failure FIRST, then the team’s role, and then the role of circumstance.
Learn how to hold people to account, firmly, yet kindly. Be precise in WHEN you want something and what EXCELLENT looks like. Too many leaders say “hey can you do this?” That is incompetent — when they finish and it is wide of your standards they have to rework it — so don’t take for granted they know exactly what you want and WHY… Have a 5m conversation — will save heartache and loss of morale later. “Dude, I need a sales presentation for client Y” — use the one we did for the other client as a template — but I’d like a much punchier intro, better graphics, and more information on our experience. Do you think you could do that by Friday?”
Create the next generation of you. You should always be trying to make yourself redundant — useless because the people around you are so competent and emerging leaders. The better they become, the more it frees you for creativity, managing up, the next promotion, or whatever.
So that is it TRUST, VISION, LEARNING, ACCOUNTABILITY, and LEADERSHIP
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
If I had to do it again, I’d give people equity from the start. When we grew big, I always thought it somewhat obscene that I owned 90pct of the company but only was generating 10 % (or so) of the revenue. It wasn’t fair. I’d give people equity once they passed a probation period, and give them more for loyalty and they stuck around and grew.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Yeah — we need to fix the planet. There is nothing inevitable about human survival although we behave as though that were true. If the earth were an orange, our atmosphere would be a millimeter thick skin around it. That is all that is between us and extinction — a tiny mixture of gasses into which we pour toxins without much care. Turn OFF your freakin’ engine when you go into Starbucks! Do you really need an F-150 as a single dude who isn’t a farmer or contractor? Stop using 30 plastic bags when you go to the grocery store. Simple stuff. And there is big governmental and corporate stuff but it starts with a level of personal responsibility.
I suppose my other pet peeve (also from Starbucks) is learn some civility and manners — it freaks the hell out of me when people say “gimme a latte” or “I will take an americano” — dude, did your mom not teach you please? The next time you are in line at Starbucks listen to what people say when they order — to my mind, it shows a callousness and lack of care.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“My brother has his sword; King Robert has his Warhammer, and I have my mind…and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.”
Comes from Kant. Sapere Aude. Dare to Know. Think for yourself- question authority. Stand out from the crowd.
There are 1000s of mom and pop leadership firms — we entered that space of thousands of wannabees. I used to say — the client is gonna get 100 of these to look at — how, within the first seconds of looking at it, and we going to get to the top of the pile? What are our competitors all doing that is stupid? How is the orthodox approach destroying value?
Thank you for all of these great insights!