As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Campbell Macpherson, an international business adviser, keynote speaker and the author of The Change Catalyst, the UK’s 2018 Business Book of the Year, and The Power to Change out now. www.changeandstrategy.com
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 have enjoyed a crazy and eclectic mix of careers to date, including Marketing Director of Virgin Wines, Strategy Director of Zurich, HR Director of a 1000-person financial advice firm, eBusiness Head of a major insurer and Strategic Change advisor to a major Middle East Sovereign Wealth Fund. I have also worked with countless CEOs and leadership teams on matters of change and strategy.
Where I got started? Flying jets, very badly it must be said, in the Royal Australian Air Force. The one constant in my careers since has been change.
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?
The instance that springs to mind is one of my first training flights in the air force. My final approach to the airfield was so low that I almost took the top off the guard box at the front of the base. I will always remember the service policeman in the guard box wondering what the noise was, poking his head out of his window and physically ducking as my wheels whizzed by a few feet above him. When we landed, my instructor unscrewed his joystick and proceeded to beat me over the helmet. I really shouldn’t have laughed.
The lesson? You can’t be good at everything, no matter how much you want to be or try to be. Build on your strengths. For me, flying was not one of them.
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?
I joined Andersen Consulting as a Senior Manager in their Change practice in the late 90s and luckily the Global Partner for Financial Services took me under his wing and shepherded me through the political quagmire of that global consulting firm.
I learnt more about leadership from Dave Hoffman than any leadership course could have taught me. He trusted me. He let me make mistakes and learn from them. He taught me the power of empathy, the strength of humility and that the only way to instigate change is to engage hearts and minds to make it happen.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. What do you advise your clients about purpose? When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The CEO of a major global recruitment firm called me a while ago and said, “We need a purpose.” They had gone fifty years without one. So, why now? “Our 35 and younger employees are telling us that they need a stronger reason-for-being than filling vacancies and making money,” he replied.
“It’s worse than that,” I responded. “Your 35 and younger customers are thinking the same thing.”
Purpose lies at the heart of every successful business. A business without a clear, customer-facing purpose is ultimately doomed to irrelevance. But your purpose cannot be based on empty wishes, it must be based on a genuine assessment of your strengths; of what makes you special. Lastly, keep it simple. A purpose statement that is the product of endless wordsmithing sessions will be a ‘platypus of a purpose’. An attempt to please everyone will end up pleasing no-one and provide no direction whatsoever.
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 teamleading teams during uncertain or difficult times?
I was HR Director of a 1000-person financial advice firm. After guiding the creation of the firm out of five acquired companies, I was asked to join the board to lead the downsizing efforts that lay ahead. The first thing I had to do was to prepare my new HR team for success — ensure they were skilled, confident and trusted and supported one another. I made sure every team member was crystal clear on what we needed to achieve and just as importantly, why. We then worked together on the ‘how’. I gave everyone the platform to voice their concerns and fears. I worked to build their confidence as individuals and as a team. I also worked hard to prove to them that they could trust me to be open and honest with them at all times and that I would provide them political air cover when needed.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have considered giving up several times throughout my myriad of careers. Running your own business, especially, is a roller-coaster of a ride: the highs can be stratospheric and the lows just as extreme. I have ended up in the trough of both of the ‘change curves’ I talk about in The Power to Change more than a few times. What keeps me going? In the moments when I have found myself wallowing in ‘the trough’, I allow a small period of feeling sorry for myself before I look in the mirror and ask my reflection, “OK, so what are you going to do about it?”
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership today is all about leading change. If you are not leading change, you are not leading anything; you are merely managing the status quo. And if the last year has shown us anything it is that the status quo no longer exists. While there are several key things that a successful leader of change must do, as we discuss in the Leading Change workshops and webinars I run for organizations worldwide, there are three that are most critical:
- Give your people clarity — of what is happening, why and of what you all now need to achieve
- Build trust through empathy and action. if your people don’t trust your motives or don’t believe you understand their concerns and are on their side, they will not succeed — and neither will you.
- But the most important role of a leader is based on the fact that no-one changes because they are told to. They only change if they want to. A successful leader helps their people to want to change.
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?
The worst way to boost morale is to try to fire your people up with unrealistic, empty promises based on baseless wishes. Politicians sell us castles in the sky all the time. It works for a short time but ultimately ends badly for everyone. Your people need a vision based on reality; a vison that embraces the uncertainty rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.
A critical component of boosting morale on a sustainable basis is to give your people the ability to accept change, embrace it and look for the opportunities. To help them build a trust in themselves; that they will be able to grow and thrive during times of change. It is the greatest gift you could give them — and your organization.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Up-front, honestly with compassion and empathy. Don’t sugar-coat it. Tell them the news and wait for it to sink in. Most importantly, be quiet and listen when they react. All change is emotional and they will be experiencing a range of emotions. Lastly, accept responsibility and let them know what you are going to do next — this small glimpse of certainty will be very welcome.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Flexibly. Strategy is not a ‘set and forget’ process. Actually, it never was. Great leaders base their strategy on solid foundations such as what makes the business special and what gives it the right to win in their market. They describe a preferred destination, or even better, a range of potential destinations, and then engage their people to work out how to deliver it. They allow their people to try and learn — forward momentum is everything. They let their people know that the plans will need to be altered as the future reveals itself — and that there is nothing wrong with amending plans when facts change. In fact, it would be crazy to do anything else.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Here’s two : 1) Stay true to what you are; to your core purpose, and 2) Build trust — with your people, with your customers and with your suppliers through open, honest, genuine and empathetic two-way communication supported by action.
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?
1. Believing that ‘broadcast communications’ are sufficient. The CEO delivers a speech outlining the situation, what needs to change, why and what is going to happen next — and thinks that this is sufficient. It isn’t. As he or she is talking, the heads of everyone in the audience will be filled with doubts, concerns and fears — that are never addressed. Very few leaders give their people the opportunity to voice their doubts and concerns, but they should as it is the critical first step to enabling people to accept change and start to move on.
2. Not engaging their people to uncover the implications of the change. Every new strategy has consequences, which need to be tabled so that we can all then start to work out how to overcome them.
3. They cut too deep. Too many companies, even some with strong financials, use difficult times to shed staff and slash ‘discretionary’ spending such as advertising, marketing and people development. I completely understand this when the very survival of the business is at stake, but companies with strong financials should be using this time to build for the future — not alienating employees and customers when they need you the most.
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?
Perhaps one of the key lessons that 2020 taught us was the value of recurring revenues. Tech companies have known this for a long time. The rest of us now need to catch up. Eg a boutique hotel chain I know has always run a membership scheme. 25% of their revenues come from their membership — which have continued throughout the pandemic.
We can also use this time to explore innovations — new products, new services, new ways of looking at our business and our market. Create a buzz, engage with customers and look for the nuggets of opportunity. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.
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.
- Revisit what makes you special. This is the time for a reset; to ensure your future is based on something real. One of my insurance clients has done precisely this. Revenue from their core client base fell off a cliff and we helped the leadership team to go back to the basics: What do we do? Why does the company exist? Why? The renewed focus then gave us the ability to prioritize and start to plan.
- Make sure your leadership team is strong. Your business needs your leadership team to be focused and working as one. You can no longer afford any weak links or rebels around the top table. They need to operate in an atmosphere of complete trust, able to air their concerns without repercussions have robust disagreements to arrive at a collective decision and they need to be working together to deliver share objectives. This was the second thing we did with the insurance client above.
- Engage your people to understand the implications of the strategy or change. This is a critical step that too many leaders overlook. The new CEO of the largest investment platform in the UK had articulated his ambition and engaged me to “do your workshops and get everyone aligned to deliver”. One session with top 80 managers will always stay with me. The CEO stood up in front of them and spelled out his strategy. I then moved to center stage and said “So, what could possible go wrong?” We spent the next hour identifying all of the implications of the strategy, getting all of their concerns out on the table. We spent the following hour prioritizing them and then the afternoon working on what we needed to do to overcome them. By the end of the day, the strategy was theirs, not just the CEO’s.
- Enable your people to embrace change. If your people aren’t ready, willing and able to embrace change, you — and they — will not succeed. In the ‘Embracing Change’ workshops and webinars we ran for employees a global fund manager, I couldn’t but help notice that one of the delegates was wiping away tears during the session. She came to me in the break to thank me. Her father had died recently and she had no idea that the emotions she had been experiencing were normal. Just knowing this was an enormous relief.
- Listen. Most of us listen to reply rather than listening to understand. In turbulent times, we need to hone our listening skills.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Change is not something that we should fear. Rather, it is something that we should welcome. For without change, nothing in this world would ever grow or blossom, and no one in this world would ever move forward to become the person they’re meant to be.’ BKS Iyengar, founder of Iyengar yoga.
I have had so many different careers in my life so far — some through choice, others through necessity. And several careers lie ahead. Even someone who teaches leaders how to lead change and individuals how to embrace it, can find change tough sometimes. This quote from Iyengar helps to remind me that change is inevitable and that I have the power to embrace it — and thrive.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can subscribe to my newsletter and learn all about my workshops, webinars at www.changeandstrategy.com.