Tim Richardson: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris


Formerly, Tim Richardson headed Leadership and Talent at PWC (2000-2009), where he was the driving force behind the creation of an integrated talent strategy and leadership development. He started his career in financial services. He now focuses on talent and leadership consultancy bringing insights to senior people, Boards and all levels in organisations to encourage a more responsible approach and response to leadership challenges. Over the last 20 years he has worked with corporate clients such as: HSBC, BBC, Lloyds TSB, Thames Water, Barclays, Unilever, and Tear Fund as well as extensively within the voluntary sector. He has considerable international experience, including the Far East, Central Asia, mainland Europe, North and South America, and Africa.

Tim has worked with senior partners and leaders around the world in a coaching and facilitation capacity often bringing insights to strategic forums. He has designed and facilitated large conferences of up to 300 people and has himself spoken at a number of conferences around the world on the subject of talent and leadership. His first book about leadership – Monday’s Times – a modern day allegory of the search for leadership soul in business, was published in 2009.

Tim has a bachelor’s degree in business studies from Greenwich University and is a fellow of both the Chartered Bankers Institute and the Royal Society of Arts.

His book, The Responsible Leader: Developing a Culture of Responsibility in an Uncertain World, was published by KoganPage (February 2015).

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

Richardson: probably and I know it sounds trite, but my wife. She is so very much the opposite to me and models different ways of doing things that over many years of being together, I have been required to learn about myself and how I can be both inspiring and frustrating. This has helped me discover so much about self awareness. And learning never stops. Professionally, probably my dear friend and mentor Dr Nick Isbister who taught me to listen and coach, and continually holds up the mirror to me.

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.

Richardson: I would say that the day I met with Art Miller some 20 years ago now and interviewed him for a magazine article I was writing. He is an American who founded SIMA International – a system for identifying motivated abilities – an approach to understanding people that is built on strengths and autobiographical stories. I found this thinking so consistent with my own beliefs about human beings and our potential. I went on to undertake the process myself and train myself as a coach to use this approach.

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

Richardson: In parts yes, and in parts no. Much as I love books and theories, I am also a pragmatist and I love to help people apply insights and theories rather than dwell in the academia. My early academic schooling was solid but uninspiring if I am honest. But then it was the seventies and education was narrow in focus then. My business studies degree was more informative for the kind of work I do now and helped me develop a real love for strategy, leadership and organisations. I was working at the time and was able to apply learning real time, something that I have carried over into the way I develop people and leaders.

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?

Richardson: That it’s about making and sustaining great relationships at all levels in organisations. Getting things done is about working with people’s motivation and connecting with them be they a senior executive or a junior teller.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Richardson: I love films so this is hard. So many come to mind, but I will pick one – Dead Poets Society. I love the way that Robin Williams’ character uses inspiring narrative to release potential and talent. He also represents a classic maverick who wants to support the values of the institution but wants to change the way things are done. However, he also fails to understand how powerful the organizational system is to resist his efforts for change. It eventually throws him out albeit after he has inspired people to take responsibility.

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

Richardson: I’m a story fan so I love things like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books. There is much in there about reluctant leaders having to step forward and bring people with them, building teams of unlikely contributors and persevering with real focus. The films are pretty good too!

Morris: Here are several of my favorite 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.”

Richardson: I agree completely. The assumption is that to lead is to release, not control or direct. In many scenarios that we face, this approach will succeed and moreover, will earn respect from the ‘people’ as they grow themselves. It is also about sustaining for the future which is a primary act of leadership.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Richardson: I’m not sure that ramming things down people’s throats is a leadership phrase that I would champion. Great leaders win people with ideas and are generous of heart and spirit.

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

Richardson: Human nature I guess. We are suspicious of radical and scary ideas until we see them work (or not). Take Apple and their fixation on design. We all scoffed to start with and now, design is the new normal.

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….’”

Richardson: This is all about ‘noticing’ and remaining curious. Given that the pace of change is not going to slow down, it will be those whose antennae are working best and who remain open minded and curious who will spot opportunities and take courageous choices.

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

Richardson: I am reminded of a quote I have often used myself from an inscription in a church (or so I am led to believe) – “a vision without a task is but a dream; a task without a vision is drudgery; a vision with a task is the hope of the world”. The business world is full of great visions that haven’t a chance of being fulfilled and remain fine words on posters around offices.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Richardson: Indeed. I hate wasted effort and more than that, I hate to see people giving everything they’ve got only to find that a leader hasn’t been honest with them and failed to say that the goal posts have moved. Giving people or helping them to find a sense of purpose and meaning is one of the most significant acts of leadership anyone can do. So let’s stop creating initiatives or projects for sake of it.

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?

Richardson: I think that in some scenarios there will tend be a need for a ‘superhero’ leader to step up and make the tough call. However, in most organisations that I know – large and small – decisions taken after collaborative and effective dialogue are more likely to secure buy in and commitment to action. Moreover, listening and being open to wisdom from a range of sources mitigates against extremes and blind spots that we all have in us. Some Boardroom’s would do well to recognize this.

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?

Richardson: Success in our times of such rapid change will depend on peoples’ and organisations’ ability to learn quickly. This means prototyping and moving forward without complete information. Perhaps using intuition and insight more than typical analytical approaches. Being open to challenge thinking and ways of working or assumptions we hold dear, will enable us to notice more widely what is (or isn’t) going on and opportunities ahead.

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

Richardson: I know many who are a great at delegating but I have also met top leaders who hold on to tasks or responsibilities they should let go of. Human nature fights against giving away power or control especially if it is from these sources that a person gets his or her sense of value and identity. Ego is a hard force to fight in self, so C-suite executives good do well to cultivate a strong and better sense of self.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Richardson: As humans we live each day drawing on the past experiences and making sense of today so that we can move forward hopefully in a positive state of mind. For centuries, storytelling has been our way of connecting past, present and future. Great leaders recognize that to motivate people you have to engage them and connect at a deeper level often around meaning and purpose. Using narrative to help people see themselves as part of the story is so important to releasing potential and enlisting response. Stephen Denning in his work – The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling – provides many great examples and techniques to help leaders see how they can balance the analytical, logical and cerebral with the emotional and relational. This is a key thread in my book. As a storyteller myself I am constantly impacted by stories that I hear told. They inspire me, challenge me, discomfort me. My first book Monday’s Times is a story about leadership discovery. I enjoyed writing that.

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?

Richardson: One key here is to enable people to let go of resistance and feel confident enough to step up and forward into what might be unknown. Leaders can’t make people change. People choose to shift. So change interventions that are about ‘driving’ things into the business set off on a track that is all about ‘doing to’ people rather than ‘discovering with’ people. This latter point helps in encouraging people to step out of their personal comfort zone (this will be different for each of us and leaders often mistakenly assume that everyone will be in the same place and move forward at the same pace) through reassurance and often by going ahead of people. Resistance is natural and is a fundamental part of our humanity. As leaders we should welcome the fact that people will have questions as this requires us to be more mindful and creative rather than simply relying on formulaic change management processes.

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?

Richardson: This is difficult territory. Business schools perform a valuable role in research, collating learning and creating communities of learners. But I think they have relied too heavily on learning from analysing cases at a distance. Real and deep learning is about exploring theory and applying it oneself in one’s real context so that one can make sense of insights at an analytical AND emotional / gut level. Sometimes this is missed by business schools. Classrooms after all are but one way of learning that only works for a small percentage of the population. In addition, the fixation with ‘teaching’ about success based on increasing shareholder value has caused narrow thinking that has proven to be flawed. Business schools that explore alternative definitions of success and responsibility will begin to attract more focus and, hopefully, students who will shape organisations for the greater good. I know of some now that are developing ethical MBAs and MBAs focused on stewardship. I applaud this.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Richardson: I wonder what people said when this question was asked in 2007. Global economic crash was not foretold by too many I recall. Looking forward 3-5 years in such fast-changing times is brave indeed. So by implication then, it will be how to balance flexibility with reassurance, both personally and organisationally. And my advice would be to stay humble, admit when you don’t know what’s going on, lead from who you are and do everything you can to engage and connect with stakeholders.

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

The RSA link

Abundant Community link

Bright Future link

Eden Project link

Waverley Learning link

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