Kevin Murray: An interview by Bob Morris

Kevin Murray is Chairman of the Public Relations Division of Chime Communications, a London-based international marketing services company. Chime’s PR Division is ranked number one in both the PR Week and Marketing magazine public relations league tables for the UK. He started his career as a Crime Reporter on The Star Newspaper in Johannesburg, South Africa. He later moved in to public relations in the UK and was Director of Corporate Affairs for the UK Atomic Energy Authority before becoming Director of Communications at British Airways.

He moved to Bell Pottinger in 1998 and has considerable experience in managing complex and global communications projects and departments. He has led significant issues and crisis communications campaigns amidst the heat of international controversies in the chemicals, nuclear, aviation, and banking sectors, to name but a few. He also has years of experience coaching chairmen and chief executives on communication, and has drawn on that experience to add to the content derived from his interviews with the leaders in this book, The Language of Leaders: How Top CEO’s Communicate to Inspire, Influence and Achieve Results, published by Kogan Page (2012).
*     *     *

Before discussing The Language of Leaders, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

There is no doubt my wife of 35 years has been the most influential on my development.  She has always shown me where I need to be a better man, a better friend, a better father or a better husband.  She’s also been a great counsellor to me in my career and a huge support.The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?I have been hugely privileged to advise leaders in all sorts of companies for the past three decades and to work closely with them in periods of incredible change and stress.  Watching them perform, observing how they behave and how they lead, all of this has been very impactful on my development.

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

A big turning point in my career was when I was fired from my job as Director of Communications for British Airways.  I had spent two years there being required to be a messenger of often bad news, with no ability to influence change in the organisation.  Prior to that, at the Atomic Energy Authority, I had been in charge of all change programmes and had become very used to being a change agent.  The huge contrast between the two jobs was very influential in the way I have thought for the past 15 years.

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

When I was at school I intended to go to university and study to become a veterinary surgeon.  All my subjects were science-based.  However, while serving in the army during my national service, I engineered a weekend aptitude test at a university in Johannesburg.  The results were very clear.  A career in journalism or public relations was required.  This changed the way I saw the world, and I went into journalism at the age of 19.  Ever since that day I have been having so much fun that I keep thinking somebody is going to find me out because it never feels like working.

Here’s a hypothetical question about interviewing. For present purposes, let’s say you are writing a book about history’s greatest leaders. If it were possible, which five (5) do you wish you could meet with and interview? Why? What specifically would you be most interested in learning from each?

If I were able to I would love to interview Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan and Ronald Reagan.  Each would have the most amazing stories to tell and I would want to explore with them issues like the power of a grand vision, the art of delegating in huge organisations, the ways they thought about communicating in order to win support, and how much they thought charm and humour was necessary in leadership.

Long ago, one of the founders of Hill & Knowlton, John Hill, observed that public relations is (or should be)  “truth well-told.”  Do you agree?

I couldn’t agree more.  I hate that public relations is often dismissed as “spin”.  Public relations activities are about persuasion, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  In today’s transparent world not telling the truth is far too dangerous.  You will, ultimately, be found out and the damage will be great.  Public relations management is really what it says on the tin.  It is about trying to manage your relationships with your various publics.  Unless you have good relationships

All organizations need effective leaders at all levels and in all areas of operation. In your opinion, how best to develop them?

One of the things I kept hearing from all of the leaders I interviewed is that the only way you can build agile organisations today is to create more leaders everywhere.  The difference between leadership and management is that leadership is about engaging with people’s emotions to inspire them to the cause.  Management is about controlling behaviours to achieve results.  Great leadership appeals to both the heart and the mind.  In my opinion, the more leaders are taught these softer skills of relating to people, motivating them, recognising and uplifting them, the more successful they will be as leaders.

I am among those who think that crisis does not develop character in a leader, it reveals it. What do you think?

Having worked in the chemical industry, the nuclear industry, the airline industry, and many others I have had more than my fair share of crises, sometimes global in nature.  I have seen leaders implode during a crisis and I have seen leaders respond amazingly in these situations.  I do think those who are poor leaders are the ones who are most likely to fail in a crisis, because often the crisis has been caused by behaviours and decisions and poor leadership that preceded it.  But it also true you can see the real strength of a leader when he or she has to stand up and be counted.

Most of the companies annually ranked among the most highly admired and best to work for are also ranked among those most profitable and having the greatest cap value. In my opinion, that is not a coincidence. What do you think?

I agree.  All of my research has shown that happy and engaged employees usually deliver great results.  I sometimes believe that the customer should come second, because you can never put them first if you haven’t encouraged and inspired your employees.  Time and time again, I have seen examples of highly motivated employees giving effort that went beyond any contractual obligation, to achieve outstanding results for their companies.  I firmly believe that this issue of engagement and inspiration makes the difference between ordinary results and great results.

I think that films very effectively dramatize important business lessons. That is why, when conducting workshops and seminars on leadership, I use brief clips from films such as Paths of Glory, Twelve o’clock High, Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Tunes of Glory. Which films would you consider if teaching a workshop or seminar on teamwork?

What a good idea.  I think I would be looking at films like The Godfather, Groundhog Day, Seven Samurai (one of Ikira Kurasawa’s several masterpieces, on which The Magnificent Seven is based) and, yes, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Each of these will have powerful lessons about leadership and teamwork.  To be current I would throw in Avengers Assemble – a great story of a dysfunctional group learning to play to their strengths while working together.

In your opinion, what will be the single greatest challenge that business leaders will face during the next 3-5 years? Any advice?

I think one of the biggest challenges facing leaders in general today is that of sustainability.  Time after time I heard the leaders I was speaking to talk about the idea that you cannot have a thriving business in bankrupt society.  You have to have a healthy environment, a healthy society and only then can you have a healthy and thriving business.  I believe that businessmen are going to have to get a lot more long term in their thinking about business and try to find ways to get away from the tyranny of quarterly reporting.  This will take courage, it will take purposeful education of shareholders, but in truth there is no alternative.  Already consumers are demanding more of the brands they buy from, and more ethical, responsible behaviours.  This will be a movement that will gather pace and become unstoppable.  Leaders must get ahead of that curve or else risk being turned into dinosaurs.

Now please shift your attention to The Language of Leaders. When and why did you decide to write it?

The idea for the book has been at the back of my mind for years.  It was only recently when I began to question why so many leaders were failing, leaders who were otherwise very smart people with what appeared to be the right strategies.  Somehow, in spite of the right plan, they were failing, and losing their jobs.  The thought was that only those who spent time inspiring others and aligning them to their cause were going to succeed.  That kicked off the process of going out to talk to the 60 leaders I managed to get in front of.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

I don’t think there’s anything truly new in there, but what is new is the model that I’ve created to show how all these various pieces fit together.  Whenever people read the book, or hear me talk about it, they mostly focus on how helpful the model is as a tool.  It helps them to think about how they can be a more inspiring communicator and leader.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

When I started this book I perhaps thought it was going to be more filled with tips about how to be a better orator, and how leaders thought about sending messages.  But it changed and became more about the idea that leaders in today’s world have to be inspiring, and that they had to think about communication very differently to be inspiring.  It is only through inspiring others that leaders can achieve their goals.  This makes it a critical skill of leadership.

In my opinion, with rare exception, history’s greatest leaders were great communicators and most of them were also great storytellers. Do you agree? If so, how do you explain that?

I agree.  I saw a huge renaissance in story telling among the business leaders I spoke to.  Stories I believe are the superglue of messages.  A single story can reveal truths in the way that a book full of rules could never achieve.  Stories have a unique power and we are all naturals at it, if only we can relearn those skills.

What is “Napoleon’s leadership legacy”?

His legacy, as I refer to in my book, derives from the Battle of Jena in 1806, when he defeated the might of the Prussian army in a unique set of circumstances which demonstrated the effectiveness of different leadership philosophies.  The Prussians believed in command and control, and Napoleon believed in empowering his generals.  His empowered generals, commanding a far smaller force, overran the Prussians and demonstrated the power that anyone can wield when they create leaders everywhere in their organisation.

How best to ensure that your intended message has been understood by others?

That’s a really good question.  I believe that great communication is not about what you send, it is about what they hear.  The only way that you can check whether you have communicated successfully is to ask people what they have understood based on what you’ve said.  More importantly though, is the idea that they might actually do something different as a result of what they’ve heard.  I believe that communication is what leaders do to change behaviours and achieve better results.

Is it possible to be an effective communicator without being trusted Please explain.

I do think you can be an effective communicator even if you are not trusted.  However, I do not believe that you can be an effective leader if you are not trusted.  Winning trust from followers is an essential prerequisite of successful leadership.  And that only comes through thinking about how you communicate, how you listen, and how you encourage people.  This requires a whole new level of emotional intelligence from leaders.

We have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Therefore, in my opinion, we should spend 80% of the time observing and listening and only 20% talking. What do you think?

I could not agree more.  And we need to learn to listen and to see in so many different ways.  We have to make sure that the organisation we lead is listening and tuned into all of its audiences inside and outside the business.  We as leaders need to be far better tuned into our environment, to our employees and followers, and to the world that surrounds us.  This listening skill is what will enable better decisions and therefore more likely success.

Here’s another opinion and I am eager to share yours. I think that the power of listening is widely misunderstood and under-appreciated. In fact, I think we can learn more about a person from the questions they ask than from the answers or comments they provide. Your own opinion about all this?

I started my career as a journalist almost 40 years ago, and from an early age was taught about asking questions and unleashing my curiosity.  I am a massive believer in listening skills, and asking fundamental questions.  I have seen many leaders inspire people and teams to solutions simply by asking them questions and not telling them what to do.  Those teams, because they constructed the answers themselves, were far more bought in to the solution and therefore more effective in delivering it, than if the leader had been explicit and commanding.

What is “radical transparency” and what does it involve?

Radical transparency is what is today being delivered by the modern digital world.  We as leaders are being observed every second of every day.  Anything and everything we do can be filmed through mobile phones and put up on the internet.  Every decision we make can be seen by millions.  Every mistake we make can be seen by the world.  In this environment, it is essential that our leadership style changes.  It has to become more cognisant of the outside world and the impact of our decisions on external stakeholders.  It has to be more empathetic.  We have to listen and respond in ways that we’ve never had to before.  And we have to do so at fantastic speed.  This transparency has brought with it speed and the need for leaders to create much greater agility inside their organisations.

Please explain what impact it can have on external relationships, such as customers, the financial community, and the general public.

Because all of your external audiences can see everything you do, and because they can reach out to each other and organise themselves in protest at what you do, they have unprecedented power now.  Consumers have more choice and they can make those choices in an instant.  We simply do not have the time to get things wrong and correct them at a leisurely pace.  Of course we will make mistakes.  The issue now is how we react to them and how quickly we can make amends or rectify the problem.

You identify 12 principles of effective leadership communication. Which of them do most leaders seem to have the greatest difficulty following? Why?

Of the 12 principles I think the ones that leaders had most trouble with were listening and signals.  We’ve discussed listening at length.  But signals is a very critical area.  Most of us are unaware of the signals that we send through our facial expressions, our body language, or even the decisions we make or the things we act on or don’t act on.  All of these send powerful signals to all of the people who observe us and therefore can be far more powerful than any words we ever utter.  Unless we are aware of what our signals are saying to our followers, we may in fact sometimes be communicating completely the wrong thing and then not understand why people are behaving the way they are.

Long ago, Oscar Wilde observed, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Presumably you agree.

That’s a great quote.  It’s true though.  You do have to learn to be yourself better for a number of reasons.  You have to show your passion and you have to show what you stand for and what you believe in.  People won’t trust you if they don’t know who you are or what you stand up for.  But being ourselves is very difficult.  It requires courage.  So we need to think about how to do that better and in my book I talk a lot about how people can learn to perform themselves better, while not falling into the trap of being inauthentic.  If you try to be somebody else, you will be discovered very quickly.

For those who have not as yet read The Language of Leaders, how best to formulate “a framework for leadership and action, through mission and values,” so brilliantly explained in Chapter 5?

That’s a tough one to explain in just a few sentences.  All I think I can say is that I have seen school children lead their classmates with the power of a passionate vision and excite whole teams to action in support of them because of their passion and enthusiasm.  In business having that same excitement and passion for a task or a plan is infectious and requires a lot of thought.  More importantly though having a set of values that you live is crucial.  Having a strong sense of purpose and strong values is what enables leaders throughout the organisation to make decisions when you’re not there.  And that is an essential element of success.  The leaders I spoke to talked about spending 80% of their time communicating purpose and value inside their organisations as a tool by which to liberate leadership everywhere.

Also, please explain how to “communicate the future to drive the present.”

All the leaders I spoke to had one particular quality which I so admired.  They had all spent a lot of time thinking about the future and they had that future really clear in their minds.  In talking about that future, in talking about the goals that they needed to achieve to get to that future, they were really, really clear.  I think that’s a job of leadership – to provide that clarity in order to help people to reach the goals.  Increasingly the leaders I spoke to, were not only focused on the number (the profit or sales targets), but also the quality of relationships they were going to need in order to achieve their goals.  The one message that was loud and clear in my research was that trust today is money.  It is both cash flow and it is capital value.  We need to take trust really seriously and therefore being trusted is one of the key things that we need to be ensuring for the future.  It is only when you are crystal clear about that future that you can guide actions today.  After all, if you don’t have a plan, you’ll probably wind up somewhere else!

Why is it desirable to “bring the outside in” when building relationships and trust?

Bringing the outside in is all about helping your own team to understand exactly the impact of their actions on your customers or external stakeholders.  Many of the leaders I have spent time with find lots of different ways of bringing the outside in.  Either they bring actual customers into the organisation or they bring lots of listening into the organisation.  People are inspired by knowing what impact they have on the lives of others.  It isn’t until they hear from the horse’s mouth, that they really get it when it comes to customer service or other issues.  You can show them lots of articles, you can show them films, you can get them to read whole manuals.  Nothing will equate to bringing a customer in and asking the customer to talk about how they feel as a result of your actions.

In your opinion, what are the most important do’s and don’ts when engaged in a serious conversation?

I think the most important thing to do in a conversation is to really, really listen.  It is so rude to interrupt people before they have expressed their thoughts, and it is even more rude to stay silent simply in order to express your point of view.  I think the richest conversations come when the listener explores what the speaker is saying and tries extremely hard to understand.  Only then should you express your views.  I like to believe that I spend a lot of time listening before I begin to give my view on a situation.  And then, if you are talking, try to understand how you are being received by the listener.  Make sure that you are engaging with them and not losing them.  Being sensitive to others is a key to good conversations.

As you know, recent research studies conducted by highly reputable firms such as Gallup and Towers Waters indicate that less than 30% of employees (on average) are actively and productively engaged; the others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged (undermining the success of their employer).  In your opinion, how best to increase the number of those who are actively and productively engaged?

Engagement has become a strategic goal of so many of the businesses leaders I interviewed.  And at one level creating engagement is really just about using your common sense.  Thinking about this very personally I know that when I have been instructed to do things I am not very engaged.  When however my views are sought, my opinions respected, my talents recognised, my strengths played to, then I am engaged.  Then I will go the extra mile and I will do the very best that I can.  If I am given a strong sense of purpose, if I’m given recognition for what I do, if I’m given the training I need to do the job and if I feel fulfilled through what I’m doing, enjoy my colleagues and work collaboratively in a team, I can perform miracles.  It is amazing, however, how often these simple commonsense things are forgotten because a leader doesn’t take the time to have the necessary conversations.  I really believe that conversations in business drive change.  The more we learn the need to have those conversations, and then get better at facilitating the right conversations, the more successful we will be in engaging people and performing brilliantly.

What is your evaluation of Steve Jobs as a communicator?

I never met Steve Jobs so my view is third hand.  From what I’ve read, and from what I’ve seen of him on the internet, I believe that Steve Jobs was great at creating an immense followership.  I’m not so sure he was great at creating inspired followers.

Please explain what lessons about effective communication can be can be learned from President Ronald Reagan’s address on January 28, 1986, when he shared his thoughts and feelings about the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Very simple.  He connected with his audience.  And great communications is all about connection.

It was said of Nicolai Lenin that he exhausted his enemies by listening to them. What do you make of that?

I like the idea of exhausting people through listening to them.  It reminds me of my own definition of charm.  I believe the most charming people of all are those who are more interested in me than I am in them.  So I try at all times to be, “charming”.

What is a “killer question”? When to ask it?

A better question is a really effective question that helps you to understand what’s going on.  Obviously there are thousands of questions you could ask, all of which might be different depending on the circumstances you are in.  But if you are trying to understand what is going on in an organisation I believe there are five key questions we should be asking a lot more.  The most important of these is to ask people how they feel about things.  The word feel in that question is very important.  It gives people the licence to tell you what’s going on and how they are reacting to it.  If you ask them what they think about something the answer might be more intellectual and far less valuable.  Other key questions to ask are:

1. What do we do around here that we should never stop doing because it’s so good?
2. What do we only sometimes do around here that we need to do more and why don’t we?
3. What do we do around here that we really ought to stop doing and why don’t we?
4. What are the things we don’t do around here and ought to start doing and why don’t we?

If you use these questions systematically around the organisation you will uncover some amazing information.

Why should each person have an appropriate point of view? How to formulate one? How to communicate it most effectively?

We all have opinions.  Those opinions change with the latest information that we get.  Or perhaps not depending how dogmatic we are.  But to me a point of view is something different.  A point of view is your view on the world based on where you stand.  As leaders we have to take a stand on many issues.  Having a point of view that expresses our values, our beliefs, our sense of purpose and what benefits might derive from our point of view, is essential in today’s world.  I believe that in a world where anyone can put a point of view on a blog and have it virally communicated to the world within seconds, we need to think much harder about expressing compelling points of view that speak to what we’re about and what we believe in.  Once you’ve done that, it is amazing how often you will use it and how often you will be able to quick draw it from your holster in difficult circumstances.

Again, for those who have not as yet read your book, what are the different types of business stories? What is the singular strength of each?

I have listened to stories all my life.  Forty years ago when I started as a journalist I was trained in how to sense what a good story was, how to research it and then how to write it.  Stories have been central to my career.  When I was doing the research for the book and I analysed all the stories that these business leaders told me, I kept hearing four basic stories over and over again.  The first story was one in which the leader gave some valuable information about him or herself.  A lesson they had learned, a mistake they had made, something they believed in, personal insights into who they were.  These stories were great at building trust.  The second type of story was the future story.  This is where the leader talked about the future in story form and brought to life his vision in the shape of a story that moved hearts.  The third kind of story was the outside in story.  These stories bring anecdotes of customers and/or other stakeholders into the organisation and enable people to understand more about their impact on the outside world.  The final, and most often used story, had to do with what I call the values at work story.  These were examples of where values were being demonstrated inside the organisation.  Sometimes they were about not living the values.  Either way it gave the leader a chance to talk to things that needed to change.

What are the “undermining signals beyond the words”? How best to recognize them?

We’ve talked about signals before, but let me give you an example.  Many people are unaware of how they scowl or grimace when listening.  They may do so unintentionally, but that can send some very negative signals to the person who is listening.  My wife has a way of raising her eyebrow when I talk sometimes, and she is completely unaware of it.  However it sends a very powerful message to me of scepticism.  I now can use this to try to unpack why she feels that way and better communicate my point of view.  Leaders who scowl could be sending devastating messages to their followers and not know it!  However you could also be sending signals in much bigger and more dramatic ways.  You might say that you don’t tolerate bullying, but then do nothing about the super salesman who brings in lots of revenue, but is nasty to his colleagues.  Accepting that behaviour is the most powerful signal of all and will overwhelm anything you say.  I have come to view that we should do signals audits inside our organisations, because so much of people’s perceptions and therefore their behaviours is driven not by the things that are said, but the way leaders behave.

What are the most important do’s and don’ts when preparing for a major presentation from a public platform?

There are whole books written on the subject of presentations and media interviews, so I’m not sure I can do this question justice in a single sentence.  The only thing I would say is that you should always have the audience in mind when appearing on any public platform.  Who are you talking to, what do you want them to think and feel, and how best are you going to relate to them and connect with them to deliver your messages?   When appearing in front of the media, you are not talking to the journalist, you are talking to people out there!  Who?  Have them in mind.  After that it’s all about preparation and rehearsal.  Never ever go onto a public platform without preparing properly.

Someone has read and (preferably) re-read your book with great care and highlighted all key passages. Their objective is to become “fluent” in the language of leaders. Now what?

As I say in the book my 12 principles for effective leadership communication do not give you all the answers.  They simply set an agenda for the things you need to think about and be more aware of.  But, with that model in mind, and with the positive intent to do something about it, I believe that it creates a framework for much more effective and inspiring communication.  The problem is, it’s entirely up to you.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

I suppose one question would be on the subject of what I’m going to do after this book.  I have really been stunned at the success of this book, and I have been out talking two or three times a week for the past five months to various business audiences about the findings in the book.  I have now got so much more material, that the publisher has asked me to produce a second book.  The provisional title is, Communicate to Inspire – A Leader’s Guide.  If I can just find the time, (because I have a day job leading my own organisation), I hope to get this book finished and published next year.

*     *     *

Kevin cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:,1929.aspx

Posted in

Leave a Comment