Emmanuel Gobillot: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Gobillot, Emmanuel

“There must be a better way.”

That’s the motto Emmanuel Gobillot has adopted toward everything he does. As one of the world’s most popular speakers, consultants, and thought-leaders, he believes there is a better way to lead, relate to customers, and engage an organisation’s creativity, passion, and drive. The author of three bestselling books: The Connected Leader, Leadershift, and Follow the Leader, Gobillot gives audiences the tools to see inside their organisations in order to find a better way.

Prior to setting up his boutique consulting business Gobillot worked at the Hay Group, where he was head of consumer sector consulting and director of leadership services. He has worked with various organisations to develop their senior executive capability and to improve efficiency and return.

In The Connected Leader: Creating Agile Organisations for People, Performance and Profits, published by KoganPage, Gobillot redefines both leadership and our idea of what an organisation is, proposing a new focus and new tools to make organisations more agile. Leadershift makes the case that critical demographic and technological trends are coming together to challenge the very essence of what it means to be in business. In his subsequent book, Follow the Leader: The One Thing Great Leaders Have that Great Followers Want, also published by KoganPage, he explains why he thinks that the “one great thing” is charisma. and creates a frame of reference within which he anchors that belief for discussion of what continues to be a controversial subject: the importance of charisma. Opinions are divided, sometimes sharply divided, about that. My own opinion is that, like an expensive fragrance, charisma smells good but we shouldn’t drink it.

Gobillot holds an International Baccalaureate from the United World College of the Atlantic, a Masters of Arts with honours from St. Andrews University, and a Diploma in Management Science from the Nottingham Trent University.

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Morris: Before discussing The Connected Leader and Follow the Leader, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Gobillot: I find the question tough to answer as I am the product of so many influences that it is hard to just decide on one. I do think however there is a category of people rather than one person who have had a tremendous influence on me. When you consider that my parents divorced when I was still relatively young and that France was and to some extent still is a fairly matriarchal society I would say that the greatest influence on my personal growth came from women.

My mother struggled to make sure my sister and I had everything and became a role model for dedication, kindness and love. My sister who is a headteacher showed me and still reminds me of the importance of learning and discovery as well as service to others. My aunts taught me to question and two in particular came at this from very different places. One of them was a political activist who taught me to question the way the world works whilst the other was highly religious and taught me to question what I believe to be true. Finally, my paternal grandmother taught me to always do my best. Her belief in her grandchildren was all encompassing and I am sure she thought that if we didn’t do our best we would not only do a disservice to ourselves but a disservice to the world! But her enduring legacy is that you have to be the best you can be regardless of what you do.

She was fond of reminding me that my dad was very bright but didn’t apply himself at school. But look at him now, she used to say, he can’t help it, he may have become a train driver when he could have been a doctor, but he sure is the best train driver in France (and she was being as objective as a mother can be given my dad finished his career as one of the few test drivers on the high speed rail link). I guess that’s the power of grandmothers (oh and she sure taught to cook!).

And just to show that you never stop growing and you can learn from all generations my personal growth continued with the birth of my first child my daughter Charlotte who arrived some 17 years ago and is trying very hard to teach me not to grow old too gracefully whilst my wife Katherine has taught me patience (especially when it comes to dealing with both my children) and both together would not let me get away without self-awareness!

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Gobillot: When I came to the UK in the mid eighties the government used to run an advert on TV to recruit teachers. The advert simply stated ‘nobody ever forgets a great teacher’. That ad really resonates with me as I know it to be true. We can all remember the great teachers and mentors we have had. We can picture in our minds the people who took risks on us, the ones who never doubted us even if we often doubted ourselves. Again, I have been lucky to encounter many such people in my career, but as a young manager there was one in particular who made a huge impression on me and a difference to my way of approaching business.

I started my career in retail banking as a management trainee and was on a rotation programme with the bank. There was one branch manager in particular who was critical in my development. His name was Ken Ripper. Everyone called him Jack and he called me ‘spit a little’ rather than the usual “gob a lot” English people normally call me. Jack was an incredible mentor because he forced me to question everything and taught me that my ideas matter. I always wanted to experiment (never a good idea in a bank as we all found out in the early 2000s) and he would always force me to take my ideas to their extreme conclusion to test them to destruction to see if they would break. He also was the first manager I ever met who taught me that people and humanity are a key part of business. He coupled a wonderfully enquiring mind with incredibly varied interests and as a result saw lessons in everything and everywhere. He was one of those people who made you feel like you mattered more than he did. He was a living embodiment of what is called “socialised power’ – the ability to impact and influence people by making them feel stronger and more capable rather than making them feel stupid and inferior. He was challenging in a way that made you want to challenge yourself. He would spend his spare time rewriting early computer systems at the bank to make the life of his fellow managers better.

He was the first person I met in business who made me understand that you should always aim to be a better, more skilful version of yourself rather than aspire to be something you are not in order to somehow fit in. He was the one who set me on my course of always looking for a better way and taught me that the answer could only be found through collaboration (hence my motto there must be a better way and together we can find it).

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Gobillot: At a practical level the biggest turning point was when my English teacher in France told us about an international school in Wales that accepted people from all backgrounds and provided scholarships. As a 16 year old desperate to see the world but without the financial backing to do so I saw this as a huge opportunity. I applied for and got a scholarship to The United World College of the Atlantic in Wales where I did my international baccalaureate and got so much more than qualifications. I knew it was a special place then. I now know it was the turning point I needed to realise the world is truly yours for the taking.

At an emotional level I never truly knew what I wanted to do until I encountered the world of debates at University. St Andrews University has a proud history of debating and a very active society. I had never heard of debating until I saw a debate during my freshers’ week and from the second I saw it I was hooked. It played to my French education having been taught the need to be able to argue anything and more specifically both sides of anything as part of rhetoric classes. I discovered I loved the performance of speaking. I love the idea of impacting people and sharing thoughts. My kids and my wife would also argue I’m sure that I love the sound of my own voice. So I joined the society, eventually became president and have been looking ever since, in everything I’ve done to get that feeling of excitement that comes with exchanging and playing with ideas.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Gobillot: There are two areas that have been of huge value.

The first comes from the French educational system. France prides itself in an education that is driven by the exercise of the mind. It is underpinned by reasoning over retention. I now realise that I owe much of my critical reasoning to that way of thinking. I also take pleasure in words, discourse and rhetoric which I put down to the French educational system. The French value intellectualism over many other things. It is not rare to switch on the news and see a politician talking to an economist and an intellectual. That’s right, being an intellectual is a job in France! I do think that heritage drives my curiosity.

The second area interestingly is my philosophy master and, in particular, logic. The downside of my French education is that I could easily get lost in ideas or value ideas for their own sake. Whilst that might be enjoyable for me it may also be pretty useless for clients, audiences and readers unless I can take them on a journey of thoughts that lead to actions. This is what logic and philosophy, maybe counter-intuitively, have helped me do. I was taught a way to critically examine an idea to surface its applications.

Those two put together provide the empty container I could have filled with anything. I chose to do it with business and leadership.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Gobillot: That one is easy because I wrote about it recently in a short article. I wish someone had told me that not only do you not need to fit in order to move up, but in fact the more different you are the more likely you will be to be spotted.

I see too many young leaders park their views and opinions at the door in order to fit in. They see that ability to fit in and be a good supporter as being key to career advancement. The problem is that this is true up to a certain point so that belief often gets progressively engrained as it gets rewarded.

There comes a point however when they often feel invisible and others, who possibly don’t fit in as much, seem to progress faster than they do. The problem is that their way of fitting in was by forgoing voicing the very opinions senior leaders want to see to promote you to the very senior levels of the organisation.

I fully endorse the view shared by Rob Goffee that leadership development should be about being you, more and with skill rather than a poor copy of someone else or a smaller version than yourself. They key is learning how to make your opinions be heard and adopted rather than rejected or not voiced at all.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Gobillot: I have a tendency, to the great annoyance of my loved ones, to see business lessons everywhere and in anything. I am somewhat of a leadership and business obsessive. That being said there are two in particular that I often mention in my speeches and to my clients.

The first is Winnie the Pooh! At the beginning of the story there is this fantastic moment. so beautifully illustrated by Edward Shepard, where Christopher Robin is coming down the stairs dragging Winnie, whose head is banging on every step. As he comes down Winnie remarks that he is sure there must be a better way to come down the stairs and that, if only his head could stop hurting for a moment, he could even think about finding that way. That, to me, captures the essence of a life of an executive. We all have that sense that there must be a better way to do what we do but that, given the pressures to deliver we are under, we don’t have the time nor, more importantly, the brain space to think about it. I often glance at that picture on my desk thinking that I am lucky in that I have the luxury to spend my life thinking about those better ways.

The second book I often reference is Alice in Wonderland. There are two moments in Alice which I think are great lessons for leaders. The first is when she plays croquet with the queen and the queen keeps on changing the rules to make sure she wins. Alice who is getting frustrated eventually stops the game and tells the queen she can’t do that. That’s not how the game is played. The queen turns back to Alice and just says “that’s the way we play here”. I often quote that moment to executives who get frustrated at competitive or disruptive moves. We have this idea that some of these things are not fair. We think the market is against us. My view is to always remind them that “that’s just the way we play here’. There is no point wasting energy thinking that business life isn’t fair when you could spend it making sure you win.

The final Alice moment that resonates with me is the Cheshire Cat episode when Alice is at a crossroads and asks the cat which to take. The cat tells Alice that “it depends on where you want to go” and when she replies that she doesn’t know where she wants to go the cat points out that it doesn’t really matter then which road she takes. Again I often see leaders, and especially young leaders, asking for direction when they haven’t really spent much time reflecting on their final destination. Leadership for many is an appointment rather than a calling. Unless we are prepared to think through why we want to do it and where we want to take it, personal leadership development really becomes secondary and, I would hazard, wasteful. It is also a good lesson for children deciding on which subjects to take at school, given few of us know where we want to go why not go with the flow and enjoy the journey. Life does not have to be linear to be enjoyable and retracing your steps can be a great way to see something you might have missed along the way.

Morris: Here are several of my favourite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Gobillot: That quote speaks to the essence of my work which is that without followers there are no leaders. I often say to the newly appointed leaders I meet that “leadership is not just about you but is all about you”. What I mean is that leaders have the privileged position to serve followers who have chosen to abdicate some of their own decision making powers for the service of a cause the leader represents. At one level the leader needs to realise that it is all about them in so far as they embody that cause whilst at another they need to remember they are the servants of their followers. It is a privileged yet difficult position to be in. Hubris is not an easy thing to avoid.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Gobillot: I am in two minds about that one. Firstly it is hard not to agree with it as there are countless examples around us of where that is true. What bothers me is that it can easily be used as an excuse for lazy or poor thinking. It’s like when people say something is common sense in a way that somehow makes it right. Because an idea is common or shared does not necessarily make it true. The converse, however, is also true. I have seen too many leaders who hold on to an idea, which their followers know to be wrong, simply because they see themselves as disruptive of the status quo and orthodoxy. So yes we need the courage to challenge but at the same time the confidence and honesty to listen.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Gobillot: I love Asimov. His ability to write so much and so well is unparalleled. In 17th century France we had a category of people called Les Hommes Honnetes (honest men) who were people whose general knowledge was so broad they knew everything there was to know at the time. I always think of Asimov as our century’s honest man. I also need to tell you that The foundation trilogy was one of the first texts I read in English for pleasure (rather than homework!).

This quote sums up the way I approach my work. I do think that the idea of the inquiring mind is best served when it is mixed with the engineering mind. We need to tinker with ideas the way we tinker with toys when we are young. We need to break things to try to put them back together and play around with the parts.

In one of his short stories Asimov talks about a critical role in a future society which is that of the science writer whose role it is to make scientific advances accessible to all. It is such a great insight and shows so much foresight as we now live in a world where curation and explanation has become as valuable as discovery and knowledge itself.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Gobillot: What can I say to that one? If anyone knows about vision it is the man who gave us light! On a serious note this quote is a good reason why I have lost patience with the leadership vs. management debate. It is pointless to energise people if you don’t have anywhere to take them to in the same way as it is pointless painting pictures of what could be unless you are prepared to take a stand and walk there. I also think the world hallucination is particularly well chosen as it speaks to the self-delusion that often accompanies grand visions with small plans.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what [begin italics] not [end italics] to do.” Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Gobillot: I would link those two quotes together because they speak to our inability to stand back from our drive to achieve. Most of the executives I know get to have senior roles because of their individual efforts. At some stage in their career that individual effort alone is no longer effective. They can no longer succeed by just doing, they can only go forward by influencing. Whilst most do make that shift intellectually successfully they still derive much pleasure from the single-minded pursuit of results. There is a reason most CEOs I know enjoy individual sports and pursuits so much – it is now the only outlet they have to achieve on their own.

What that achievement drive does have the ability to do however is to derail leaders by forcing them to seek doing. It is too often perceived as a weakness to stop something rather than start. I often ask my clients to make a list of things they are going to start and things they are going to stop in their business to create capacity for the “starts”. Needless to say the list of starts is often twice as long as stops (if indeed there are any of the latter). I don’t want to underplay the difficulty of making choices both intellectually and more importantly psychologically as whilst Drucker’s suggestion is right that it is useless in terms of business outcomes, the fact remains that it unfortunately is hugely rewarding in psychological terms which is why it is so hard to give up.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Gobillot: I do have to agree that advances in technology have helped us rediscover the power of mass collaboration or collaborative decision making as Davenport and Brooke call it. It was this idea that led me to write LeaderShift to explore the changing role of leadership in such a landscape and identify a necessary number of shifts in the way we lead to ensure that we build organisations capable of such collaboration and co-creation.

I don’t think this is necessarily a new phenomenon. I think most of our issues in organisations are issues of size. They are about making the big feel small. In a start up or small business or even in executive teams, collective decision making happens relatively easily. As corporations have grown in size and have expanded beyond their home markets the issue has become more pronounced. When we divide the corporation into numerous functions it is always hard to try to somehow link them back together (there are consequences to calling something a “division”).

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Gobillot: Yes, I do agree. My friend Tom Hood, the CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs, always says that success can only occur when our ability to learn is greater than the rate of change in our environment. I do subscribe to the view. I am also a huge fan of Rita McGrath’s work on discovery and indeed a thesis that assumptions are a key, yet seldom used, ingredient of success.

I also think that when you reframe your thinking from “where did we fail” to “what did we learn” you are making a subtle, yet powerful shift from a mindset of scarcity (we have lost something) to a mindset of abundance (we have found something). That shift in mindset can have a huge impact on resilience.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Gobillot: That’s the very question I have had on my mind for just over a year now as I started to work on my next book that looks at how to make collaboration more effective.

I think it is rooted in what is best described by a quote I keep on hearing proponents of collaboration use at conferences – “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’. This is a fundamental belief that to me begs the question “what happens if you want to go far and fast” which let’s face it is the challenge most of us face in business today, especially given our achievement drive.

Delegation and collaboration are rooted in four fears that stem from this belief – fear of loss of value (in a world where my value resides in what I know or do, what happens to it if I share what I know and do), fear of loss of quality (if you want something done well, do it yourself), fear of loss of momentum (do I really have to stop and engage others when I know I can do it quicker myself) and fear of loss of control (why would I want others to potentially miss delivering something I am accountable for).

There are countless examples that prove these fears to be valid and reinforce them. I do think that we need to have a new construct that gives collaboration discipline so that we can address those fears for most leaders. It is that construct I am currently working on and hope to be in a position to share as the next chapter of my writing career.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Gobillot: I live in a small town that counts 15 hairdressers. That tells me something about change. If people didn’t like change we wouldn’t need even 10 hairstylists. I do agree that comfort and custom play a part in resistance but I worry when we think these are the only two elements. I hear so many executives referring to having to create a burning platform for their employees in order to disrupt the comfort they feel. First I have to say that having worked in the oil industry I find the analogy somewhat sickening. Second if you actually look at the psychology of an actual burning platform you will realise that people actually are frozen (pardon the pun which really isn’t meant to be one) into inaction through fear. I do agree that dissatisfaction is necessary to change but the most productive dissatisfaction is the one that is driven by desire rather than fear. We are our best and most productive when we are dissatisfied by something because we have a vision of how things could be.

In my experience the best way to fight against custom is to teach new habits. So by all means create energy for change through dissatisfaction and vision but make sure you can highlight plans and teach practical steps that will help channel that energy.

Finally it is also important to remember that changing always comes at a cost. I often tell people about my grandfather who fought in the Second World War and saw everyday there after as a bonus day. When he was told by his doctor he would need to stop eating so much, drinking and smoking, he took the view that the cost of change was too high. After all if every day is a bonus day you want to live them to the full. Helping people calculate the cost of change and offering them a way to meet that cost or opt not to pay it is also part of the leadership challenge in change.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Gobillot: My good friend and a brilliant thinker, Fons Trompenaars, likes to say that in the Netherlands MBA stands for Mediocre But Arrogant! Joking aside let me preface my remarks with the thought that I do think much of that criticism does not necessarily stand up to scrutiny especially when it comes to some of the prestigious MBA Schools.

I do, however, think there are two areas in particular that could do with being looked at more deeply.

One is what I call the fundamentals of management. When I started my career much of the education we received was classic management training. How do you set objectives? How do you hold a performance conversation? How do you motivate people etc. Whilst many of these topics are addressed, they are addressed as topics without enough time being spent on the practice of running a business. I am still astonished at how little even some senior leaders know about the fundamentals of management. I also would put myself in the category of people responsible for that failure as so much of our time has been devoted to the topic of leadership that we have forgotten about day-to-day management.

The second area we should do more to bring to life is the area of business as a part of society. I am troubled by much of the political discourse (maybe driven by the election cycle in the UK) that says that business and especially big business (with all the pejorative connotations that the description entails) is the problem rather than part of the solution to our society’s challenges. Whilst business education covers such things as ethics I do think we need to make more space to think through how business contributes and, perhaps more importantly, how that contribution can be best described to others. It is easy to get caught in the trappings of a business without giving a second thought to its fundamental purpose.

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Emmanuel cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His Amazon link

Here’s a link to a video of his presentation to the HayGroup

Here’s another link to a video of his presentation at Google.

Twitter link

This link is to a more recent program during which he discusses some of the early thoughts that are going into his next book.

A link to a meeting for entrepreneurs of growing businesses

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