Interview Transcript

I think it does, Karl. What I’d say is, it’s really interesting to understand what you have drawn on, throughout your career, to face uncertainty, to be able to bring this vulnerability to the table, that allows you to reach people, that allows you to learn fast, that allows you to take in information, to make space for others. What have you fallen back on? What have you learned, over the years?

I fall back on, and I mentioned it earlier, the story of the seven habits of highly-effective people. During one of my interview processes, for a more senior role, within Iceland, in 1997, I was interviewed by Malcolm Walker’s exec coach, a guy called Peter Lee, as part of the panel. I didn’t get the job, but I got it a year later. He said to me, go away and read a book called The 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People. At that point, I’d never really picked up anything like that, in my career. Within six months of reading that book, I’d cancelled my wedding, which was six weeks away from happening, because I realized I was going down a path that I didn’t really want to be in; couldn’t face up to it. I met my now wife, Rachel. I sort of knew her at the time, but I realized that she was the person I wanted to be with. That was a fairly significant life-changing impact. But I got myself so imbued in that book, in the learnings of Covey and the style of Covey and what it taught me.

The first habit is proactivity. Take responsibility for your life. We are human beings. We’re not animals. We have a distinct advantage over animals, in that between stimulus and response, our ability to choose our response. That led me to Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning. I read Frankl and it was just like, oh my god. If that guy can have that much vision – it makes me quite emotional, just thinking about it, to be honest – and that much personal responsibility and clarity of thinking, when he’s been in a concentration camp, starved and tortured for three years, anybody can do it. Anybody can do it.

That’s what I always fall back on. I fall back on, take responsibility for everything that happens to you in your life. The whole world is dominated by people who will tell you that you can’t do it. The headlines of the newspapers are constantly preying on those fears. VAT is going to go up next month. Rail fares are going up. It’s going to rain next week. The government has lost control. We haven’t got enough PPE. It’s constantly dominated by headlines that prey on people’s fears that somebody else is to blame. It’s not my fault. It’s not my issue. It’s not my responsibility to fix this situation.

Whereas Covey subscribes to the position that says, everything is in your control. But you have two circles. You have a circle of concern and a circle of influence. People who worry about things that they can do nothing about, play in their circle of concern. People who focus on the things they can influence, play in their circle of influence. What happens – and this is probably what happened to me, over time – is that your circle of influence grows, because you’re spending more time in it and you’re focusing on the things that you can do something about. Eventually, things that were once in your circle of concern, are now in your circle of influence, because you are growing your responsibility and you are growing yourself, as an individual and you are impacting more people. Proactivity, first habit.

Second habit. Begin with the end in mind; have a vision. The whole leadership habit. Where am I bloody going with myself? Until you know where you are going, with yourself, how can you lead an organization? You have to work out what it is that you stand for and what the end of your life looks like. The example he uses, you may have heard it, he goes into a church, it’s a funeral, there’s somebody in the coffin and there’s this great sense that this dead person added tremendous value to the whole of society, to business, to his friendships, to his family, to everything else. You look in the coffin and it’s you and you’ve got four people who can speak about you. Somebody from your close family, a friend, somebody from a work environment or somebody from a sports club, spiritual group or something that you’ve done for the society. What do you want them to say? Write it down. I struggled, for about 10 years, to write it down. Then I was at a conference, with Sodexo, in Paris and one of key note speakers stood up and he did a really good speech on the future and how to anticipate and all this sort of stuff. Then he read this poem out, at the end, called Successful Life and I thought, that’s it. I was scribbling it down, but he didn’t say where he’d got it from.

I shot off, to the front of the stage, and managed to drag his assistant out and said, what was that poem? Who wrote it? He said, it’s called Successful Life, written by Bessie Stanley, in the early 1900s. I got a copy and I’ve given it to, literally, hundreds of people, in my career, since then. Almost the first time I sit down with anybody, they’ll say to me, what do you want, what’s on your mind? I go, let’s not have this conversation. How do you feel about the world? What are your biggest challenges? What questions are you asking yourself? As I leave, I say, why don’t you have a read of that, because that’s what’s important to. It’s amazing, the reaction you get. He’s given me a piece of paper, with a bloody poem on it. What the hell’s going on here? Have a vision, that’s the second habit.

Third habit. Ruthlessly prioritize around that vision. Take responsibility, have a vision, and then prioritize your life around it and cut the noise out. Focus on things that are not urgent, but are very important. Almost every day, write them in the box. What do I need to focus on, today, that is not urgent, but it’s important? If you spend your time in that box, it’s long-term planning. It’s relationship building. It’s planting the seeds, to grow a harvest in six months’ time. It’s long-term education. There are no quick fixes in life. Everything takes time. But the urgent and important box is important, because it’s the ringing fire alarm. If the fire alarm is going off, you have to get out of the building, now. Forget everything else. Not urgent and important is the fire safety drill and the risk analysis, to make sure that the fire never happens in the first place.

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