Atholl Duncan of Black Isle Group

    We Spoke to Atholl Duncan of Black Isle Group on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Atholl Duncan.

    Atholl Duncan is the Chair of the leadership consultancy, Black Isle Group, and an Executive Coach. He worked with several senior leaders to help them steer their companies through the pandemic. He’s also the author of “Leaders in Lockdown” which captures the insights of global business leaders on how the world will change because of what we’ve all been through.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    I began my professional life as a journalist and executive at the BBC, covering major stories for TV News. After studying leadership at Harvard, I entered the corporate world and worked in various C-Suite roles in utilities, media and professional services. I later trained in coaching at INSEAD, a leading international business school. I am now an executive coach and advisor to senior leaders, and chair of the leadership performance business, Black Isle Group. In addition, I serve as chair of Scottish Salmon, the UK’s largest food exporter, and as an audit chair in a cinema business. My true passion is helping others learn and grow and, hopefully, avoid the mistakes that I have made.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    When I was running a part of the BBC as a youngster, we decided to move the news anchor to a new camera position in the center of a public area in the atrium of our new headquarters. The first time we used this spot coincided with a party to celebrate the opening of the new building. You could hardly hear the news anchor for the noise of chatter and clinking glasses. Drunken partygoers were embracing in the background. I had been warned, but apparently, I hadn’t listened. The lessons are easy: don’t be so gung-ho; listen to others; pay attention to detail.

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    There are many people who have given their time, their wisdom and their patience to help me from myself! There is one CEO, in particular, who took me under his wing and challenged the limits I was placing on my own ambitions. I will forever be grateful to him for waking me up. He also drummed into me how we are defined by the way we regulate and display our own emotions. Without a doubt, I was a little overemotional when I was younger, but conquered that with his help by realizing the difference between reacting and responding. I have experienced a lot of toxic behavior in my career. Here is one of my mantras: Do not allow the bad behavior of others make you feel bad. My favorite bit of advice from my CEO mentor came one day when I was waxing lyrical about how well some new hires were doing. He turned to me and said, “The key to great performance is simple; just hire great people.” Sounds easy!

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    At Black Isle Group, our purpose is to help people and their businesses maximize their potential. We do that by unlocking the secrets of changing behaviors and delivering results. Sometimes that means unlocking the large part of human behavior which is unconscious. Often it means helping people to create new habits. Coming out of COVID, it feels like our work has never been more important. The one thing the pandemic showed us is that the way we were doing business and running society is not fit for the future. My favorite quote from my book “Leaders in Lockdown” is from the EMEA CEO of Zurich Insurance Group: “Now is the time to re-set. Why can’t we create a world fit for our children to live in rather than the one we were destroying before COVID?”

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    Back in the eighties when I was a very young news editor at the BBC, I was on the ground in the town of Lockerbie in Scotland when Pan Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb. Being present at the scene of such an atrocity will never leave me, nor will the challenges of leading a team in that crisis. The three Cs are a good start:

    • Cooperation — everyone must work together.
    • Communication — you can’t overcommunicate in a fast-moving situation and tell people what you don’t know.
    • Care — for your colleagues, the community and all those involved.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    It is an understandable human reaction, especially under extreme stress, to consider giving up. But it is not really an option. Because you owe it to the people you work with to be there to see the crisis through. If you give up, you are letting them down. The motivation comes deep from your soul and should be underpinned by your sense of duty and responsibility. The drive is sustained by the knowledge that we have got through every crisis so far, and we know we will get through this one too.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    Inspiration and motivation are key. These attributes must be aligned with setting and communicating a clear direction. The leader must also display the courage to make tough decisions with confidence when they have incomplete information.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    I would normally say that the leader should walk the floor and be present on the frontline. During this health crisis that has often not been physically possible. Instead, we must try and recreate that feeling in the virtual world. Leaders in this crisis who have been most effective have been genuinely empathetic; they have listened; they have shown they don’t have the answers; they have displayed compassion and caring, which allows people to see the person and not just their title.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    Be honest. Bring clarity, brevity and impact. Use real stories to capture the hearts and the emotions of your colleagues and your customers. Don’t try and hide anything.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    One of the definitions of leadership is making decisions with incomplete information. Leaders have had to make big bets in this crisis. There’s been no time to dither.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    “Step forward into growth or step back into safety.” That is the choice every business leader faces. Stepping back is not really an option, however, because your competitors are already heading forward.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    The most common mistake I have seen is people rushing to be busy for the sake of being busy when the storm blows. This is an anxiety avoiding reaction but a false focus. We must concentrate on that which will ensure our survival and success. We must also give ourselves time to reflect, pause and consider. Too often people are blinded by the circumstances immediately in front of them. They miss the most crucial things. The pandemic once again reminded us of the most important matter in any business crisis: cash is king. That will remain paramount for many in the months ahead.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    In difficult times, you look for opportunity — and you work smarter and harder. Don’t focus on the one-way selling of stuff. Focus on building trust and helping people find solutions to their problems. The latter approach enriches both parties.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    1. BE FOCUSED — Don’t be a busy fool. Focus on the mission critical matters. Delegate the rest. Don’t spent time on things which are out of your control. I worked with one client during the crisis who was addicted to rushing around doing a thousand things. It was a challenge to get them to stop, think and focus. Being busy won’t save your business nor solve your problems. What will: working smart, being clear, doing the right things. It is all about focus rather than how hard you peddle.
    2. SHOW EMPATHY — Be kind. People remember those who stand by them during the crisis. Kindness and empathy will often be rewarded with life-long loyalty. How you behave in the crisis is not a short-term thing. The impact on your reputation and the reputation of your business lasts for more than a summer.
    3. BE AGILE — We’ve seen so much of this in the crisis. It’s the quick, agile, responsive businesses which do best. The rest are toast. Agile is also a mindset. Do we venture forward in search of opportunity or adopt the defensive crouch?
    4. TAKE A BREATH — When you are working at a million miles an hour to tackle the crisis, you must take a pause to reflect. If you don’t, your decisions will be poor and could endanger the whole enterprise. A leader who is exhausted and can’t think clearly is a leader who is not fulfilling their purpose. Your duty is to maintain your own mental and physical welfare, so you are capable of making the very best decisions in the very worst of circumstances.
    5. NEVER SURRENDER YOUR VALUES OR ETHICS — When the pressure and the stakes are high, values matter more than ever. Character counts. The temptation to compromise on values or turn a brief blind eye to ethics is never greater. Take the opposite path. Never compromise on values or ethics and be sure to demonstrate powerfully to your people that you expect everyone to do the right thing. A crisis passes. Values and ethics stay with you throughout your life and define the quality of who you are as a person.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” -Carl Jung.

    If I only I knew then what I know now! It is only through painful process that I have worked this out and hopefully become a better leader and person because of that. It is the inner game that makes us true leaders.

    How can our readers further follow your work?

    My book “Leaders in Lockdown” is available on Amazon. For more information on Black Isle Group you can try here and I have my own website at