Better leaders are those who adapt to change and use the right resources to promote success for their employees and organization. Here to talk about change management consulting with host Michael Zipursky is keynote speaker Paul Gibbons. An expert on the crossover of business science, ethics, and change, Paul has authored multiple books, including the Amazon bestseller, The Science Of Successful Organizational Change. He and his team aim at producing better leaders for better businesses and a better world. Here you will learn about how Paul draws the connection between better philosophy and their consulting business while capitalizing on the knowledge of science. He also shares how writing a business book can impact your leadership skills and shares his steps on creating the perfect content.
I’m here with Paul Gibbons. Paul, welcome.
Thanks. It’s good to see you.
Paul, you’re a keynote speaker, an expert on the crossover of business science, ethics, and change. You’ve written multiple books. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and KPMG hired you to consult on a major change of leadership and change management projects. When you introduce yourself when people meet you, what do you tell them that you do?
I always turn red. I blush like a thirteen-year-old teenage girl when people ask me what I do. This has always been hard to pin me down. I used to be an independent consultant and now, I mostly write. I don’t say no to consulting work but neither do I hunt it down. I did have a consulting firm and over the years, we became $5 million in revenue. That was fast and we worked for the best of the best. In England’s Barclays, HSBC, Shell, British Petroleum, Cadbury Schweppes, Anglo-American Mining, those are all in the Top Ten UK firms and those were our customers. We did well.
When someone says, “Paul, what do you do?”
I do keynotes and I write books somewhat about business, change management and culture change is my sweet spot but I’m also ambitious. I want to tackle some problems that we have in the United States. In Canada, there’s a book called Truth Wars, which is about media, political and corporate disinformation. I’m a business ethics guy. I’m interested in corporate disinformation and how businesses manipulate reality. Examine climate change, for example.Leadership must have a set of concepts, including practices that you do day in and day out. Click To Tweet
I want to dig into a lot of this but let’s start from a different place. Based on what you mentioned, you worked with the best of the best and very well-known brands. How did you get to that point? Take us back to the consulting from the year running where you got up to a $5 million revenue working with some great well-known clients. What were you doing to land those deals?
It’s more serendipity than I wish and this is a weakness in my practice. Some systematic marketing plan, tools, and approach that we could have done. All of our contacts seem to me to be serendipitous. To say that it is serendipitous, it doesn’t mean you do crap. It doesn’t mean like, “Whatever is luck and maybe they’ll come or they won’t.”
What were you doing? Because to create that serendipity and luck, there’s a preparation that goes into it. There are choices that you make that put you in the right place at the right time. Take us back to memory lane. What were you doing on a daily, weekly, monthly basis to create those opportunities?
This is a fact. If you look at consulting research, it shows that 60% of consulting work is through word of mouth. That doesn’t matter whether you’re impressed by the Coopers, Accenture, Mackenzie or whatever. That’s one. You want people to say nice things about you. I’m talking about $3 million, $4 million, $5 million big gigs, which for a leadership firm, it’s not a big gig if you put and do systems implementations. My brother does systems implementations. That’d be $100 million, $200 million, billions of dollars systems implementation for the government in the UK. For a leadership firm, a $5 million gig is a big land. You want people to say those things. What were we very good at? We were good at networking and hanging out with people. Not just networking like, “How’s your drink buddy?” We constantly, and this wasn’t managed, talk about the stuff that we were doing that was special, exciting, unique and added values to clients and we did that because we believed in it.
How did you do that? It sounds like you weren’t going to the pub and having a Shandy or a pint of Guinness, there was something else going on. What were you doing to share that information? Were you inviting people to an event? Were you going to an event that was held by another association or group? Walk us through a little more tangible for everyone.
That stuff is very American. We don’t do much of that in Europe. It was more like the pub and the Shandy. The more networking events, I never went to any.
For example, let’s say HSBC or whoever, will you say, “I would love to grab a pint of beer with you and chat about this specific topic?”
It was more incoming than outgoing. I know that sounds strange. I like to hang out with people who have interesting views about the world. I like to hang out with consultants who are up to stuff, who I think you’re visionary, smart and knowledgeable at delivering value. A lot of our referrals came from inside the consulting network. Other consultants would say, “Go talk to my boy, Paul Gibbons.” The main thing is that I have this saying that if you put all the proposals, we did competitive proposals at the beginning, not so much at the end. Sometimes consultant like a competitive proposal is like, “We’re going to be a 1 in 10 shot or 1 in 20 shot.”
Are you referring to RFP-type proposals?
Yeah, we did that. Sometimes we replied to a government RFP, so there might have been 300 people pitching. We got one of them but it’s a numbers game. We weren’t doing that by the end. What works well is we went into a Cadbury Schweppes. We had a connection there. One of the younger people in the firm was 24 or 25. He said, “You’d like to meet my boss.” He knew this guy. In I go and after twenty minutes, it’s like, “Let’s work together.” He’s like, “Here are a couple of problems we have.” He brought a couple of people in. He asked his assistant to send a couple of people upstairs and we met with them and he said, “Can I have a proposal by Friday?”
Why did he do that? What did you do in that meeting, in that environment?
We were doing some very special leadership development work. I think we’re the best in the UK. How do we develop that stuff? We developed that stuff because the leadership development stuff that we were doing was harvested from the best that we could find. The firm was founded in 2000. I’m talking about the second decade ago. It’s the best we could find from around the world. The people that we’re working with on my team were so curious about the best stuff. We were in personal development workshops on weekends. We were reading all the books. We were working hard and we were also working hard to apply that in our programs.
What was someone else doing when it came to leadership training or development and engagements? What were you doing at that time that was different?
We wouldn’t do any one-day course. We wouldn’t do anything that someone said, “Can you come and do a day’s leadership training?” I said, “You’d be wasting your money.” To develop a leader is more like golf. You can show someone a video and how to swing a golf club and then they abstractly know like, “That’s how you swing a golf club.” To get truly excellent at playing golf, you’ve got to swing that thing 20,000 times. Leadership is a bit like that. You don’t teach it from textbooks. I have one of the new books that I’m writing. I’m saying like, “Are there great leaders in the world who have not read any books on leadership?” What would you say? They haven’t read or ever read a book on leadership.
One person comes to mind who doesn’t read books. I’m sure it’s influenced by the environment around them.
Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs never wrote a book on leadership. Gates is fiercely proud of that. Are there people who are appalling leaders who’ve read every leadership book that’s ever dropped out of? “What’s the value of what’s in the leadership books?” is the question. There’s not that much in there. Leadership is a set of concepts. It’s practices that you do day-in and day-out. It’s talking about what’s exciting and the latest proposition. It’s that constant work of getting people, customers and staff excited about the work and product that you’re doing sincerely because taking it will get you so far. People who sell vacuum cleaners for a living, I don’t suppose that they can get authentically excited but we believed in better leaders for better businesses for a better world. That was our vision and we spoke that all the time. The staff was excited about it. When the staff had a coffee with someone, they couldn’t help. It’s like seeing the best room you ever saw. They couldn’t help but say, “Wow.” They’re not selling. They’re speaking about what’s there for them right now. It’s like, “I saw this amazing movie or I ran this amazing program.”Your freelancer experience drives your customer experience. Click To Tweet
What I’m taking from this is it’s not that you are saying, “We have a better framework, methodology or we’re going to come and take you through our PowerPoint and show you why we’re better.” You were being very straight. You were, as you are right now, direct about what it takes to succeed. You weren’t holding any punches. You weren’t taking work that would just generate revenue. It had to be an engagement where you felt that true change could happen. That energy and level of commitment are what separated you from others.
The employee experience, the people that worked for me, they were excited. We always focus on getting the customers excited. As I’ve said to you, all of our work came from these organic-looking referrals and that was because the staff is excited. As I say, on one of my books that your employee experience drives your customer experience. If you have excited, engaged, motivated learners working for you, the customers are going to go, “I want what they have.”
How do you do that? There are consultants and founders reading this blog who have a team of 5 or 10 people. They’re thinking of themselves, “I’ve always put myself at the front. I’ve been the expert and authority. I’ve put the spotlight on myself, my articles and my speaking. My team has done the work. They’ve helped with administration, they’ve helped with delivering the work, but I haven’t put the spotlight on them.” What did you do to get your team to the point where they had that level of energy, excitement and were drawing in opportunities for your firm?
They would bring them in and they might say, “Do you want to meet my boss?” They were often excited enough and competent enough to speak to others. Our conversion ratio was insane. When we got to the proposal stage as unfortunately none of us likes that, but that’s part of being a consultant. You get to the proposal stage and you have to write a document. Sometimes it’s 100-page documents or a five-page document. I’ve written more 100-page documents than five-page documents. It’s nice when you can write them a five-page letter and they’ll say, “Here’s $150,000.” That’s nice. It’s certainly not the first time.
We’re going to be here, we’re going to be pitching into Accenture and KPMG and the Center for Creative Leadership and Harvard Business School, Duke Business School, and we’re going to be pitching against the best of the freaking world. Those are our competitors, so let’s not kid ourselves. This is a gig for HSBC Bank and it’s got a $2 million price tag. Everybody wants to win this gig including the Dukes, the Harvards, NCHs and Oxfords. That’s the reality of the situation. We’re not the favorite. You’re looking at these horses. You look at Harvard, you don’t have this crappy consultancy that we were an extra power plant in Battersea in England. How are we going to win this? First of all, there’s a certain hunger. I am very competitive. I was like, “I don’t want to waste my time writing this. We are going to kick their ass.”
You’re rallying the troops.
Also, myself. I’m not going to waste my time writing a 100-page proposal, which takes three weeks and lose. First of all, I do things in my proposals that I think are set. There are people that start proposals with some crap business talk, “Thank you for inviting me. We’re honored,” and everything like that. I always used to say that they should want to buy what you’re selling. They should want to pick us by the end of the first paragraph.
What do you do?
You lead with their needs. The thing is you lead with your best punch. You might start with, “You probably have 100 people pitching for this. Let me tell you what they’re all going to say that won’t deliver value.” For example, “You’ll be choosing from the best business schools in the world, the best consulting firms in the world and here’s the thing that they miss.” You get their attention like, “Whoa.” Then they want to read the rest of the proposal. Don’t vary your goodies on page 68 because let’s be honest, nobody reads page 68. If they’re not sold by the bottom of the first page, you’re wasted your time. It’s from the very top down. The key selling messages, I did this for this firm Korn Ferry. I ended up helping with the proposal. They had their key differentiators on the 15th PowerPoint slide. If you put a KPMG proposal, Accenture proposal and Oxford, if you put these side-by-side and you take off the logos, can you tell the difference?
They say it’s about websites as well. You get a bunch of people in a similar industry and you remove their logos, remove a few things and everything is the same.
They all got the same pictures and three column structure. Take that off. What is going to be special? That desire, that absolute commercial need, when you’re the underdog, you have to stand out. It’s not a luxury to say the same old BS things that the other ten people are going to say because if you do that as the firm that we were put into considerations, they would even look at you. They’re like, “Who are these guys?” When I’ve got Harvard and Oxford, “Just toss that in the bin,” and they say, “Okay.” You have to stream from the very beginning why you are better than the best in the world.
For many consultants, it’s hard to draw the connection between philosophy and improving their consulting business. How do you leverage your knowledge of science and philosophy to help leaders create and run better businesses?
This is more of my writing lesson on how I built a consulting firm. One of the things I’m interested in is management pseudoscience. One of the things is how do you know, you know. A lot of managers rely on their gut to make decisions. If you look at books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational, and all these books on behavioral science, it’s like the worst thing you can do is to trust your gut for important, complex, risky decisions because we have cognitive biases. We have cognitive biases that are inherited from when we were living on the Savannah. It was better to see a tiger that wasn’t real than it was to not see a tiger. False negatives cost you a lot more than a false positive, to put in mathematical terms.
That’s one thing. The whole philosophy of knowledge or epistemology is what you know. We have data organizations that are using data science but you can’t just have your data science implementation without people in the firm that know how to understand and use data. You’re wasting your money unless everybody in your firm is data-friendly and what does that mean? That means they’re using data rather than their gut for one thing but you have a data culture so that when you’re arguing for ideas in a meeting, you have the facts or the evidence behind you. That’s one of the things that you saw as a philosophy of knowledge, it’s business ethics. Ethics is a lot of what I teach in my MBAs.
Paul, you shifted from doing a lot of consulting work to writing and to doing a lot more speaking. Are the books bringing you the speaking opportunities if you look at your business?
I don’t do nearly the amount of speaking that I could or should be doing. It was partly because when I’m writing, I like to cocoon myself. That’s one thing. It’s an attention issue. Writing almost has to be, “Clear my calendar for nine months,” and not many people have that luxury. Because I sold the consulting firm in 2010, I have the luxury of taking nine months and writing a book. The second thing is I write books because I want the books to be great.When you're the underdog, you have to stand out. Click To Tweet
You’re not writing a book with the intention like many people to put the book out there that leads to speaking and consulting.
I write books because I want to say something original, interesting and controversial. I do that. If that lands me speaking gigs, that’s wonderful.
Do you think that comes because you sold the consulting firm? It gives you the ability not to necessarily think about money as much as someone else, or is that just how you had been and you are?
The reason I didn’t write for a very long time is that I wanted to write a book that I would read. A lot of what I read in the leadership, change, and transformation is not the book that I would even waste five minutes on.
They’re repetitive. They say the same things. There are books like John Maxwell on leadership. I don’t think there’s hardly a valuable word in them. He’s got 28 books on leadership. People I do like, there’s a Stanford professor called Jeffrey Pfeffer. He’s one of the best guys in human resources. He’s written a book called Leadership BS, he’s professor emeritus at Stanford in his 70s or 80s. He questions a lot of what we think of as management wisdom. Let me give you one example, MBTI, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Everybody has done it. I’ve done it ten times. I used to run workshops on it. Psychologists hate it. It’s got no validity.
I can’t remember if it were two women or a woman that I met. They pulled this framework out of their backsides, so to speak. The survey industry is a $1 billion industry. You say that to people who were making their living doing Myers-Briggs as I have done years ago. It’s a horrible thing to hear that it’s pseudoscience. It’s the same thing with learning styles. It’s pure pseudoscience but there are people who are making a living. I’m the kind of a guy who’s like, “Where’s the data? Where’s the facts? Where’s the evidence? Where’s the truth? Can we cut the crap and try to produce some results here?” That’s my shtick. Does it make me popular? No, but the two change books are bestsellers, so they’re popular in a way.
Let’s talk about books. How are you getting the books to be bestsellers? Do you have a team behind you? Is it all your publisher? Are you doing something specifically? You’ve figured out how to get it out there.
They’re good books. I don’t do any marketing.
You don’t jump on podcasts?
I do a little bit here but I do a podcast a month or something like that.
When your book is available, how do they know that it’s available?
I have mailing lists. It’s very small. It’s like 1,000 to 1,200 people. It’s not very big.
You send that out and that creates a bestseller book.
It’s a bestseller category. Let’s be fair. The Science of Organizational Change is top 2 or 3 on Amazon. If you google organizational change or change management on Amazon, it’s top 2 or 3. Is that making a bestseller? Maybe not. It’s not on the New York Times Bestseller list.
It’s being read by many people.
It sounds thousands of dollars a month. It sells $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 a month, which is a lot for a business book especially one that was written in 2013. It still sells 500 copies a month or 1,000 copies.
When you say $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 a month, is that what you are getting from the book or that’s top line what you’re receiving from the book?
That’s what I’m getting from the book. I wrote the books because I wanted to write books. I wanted to write books that were interesting and controversial, that had new ideas in them. I did not want to write a boring book. I hate that.The worst thing you can do is to trust your gut for important, complex, and risky decisions because we have cognitive biases. Click To Tweet
What advice would you have for someone who wants to write a book? A lot of people would want to get a book out of them. They feel they have it in there. They may feel like it’s obligatory but they haven’t started.
I don’t know. Does it matter? What do you think? I defer to your expertise because I have only run and started one consulting firm. We were successful but there’s enough luck in life that says, “Maybe I had a lucky decade.” You’ve seen more people and so you’re the best person who’s best placed to advise should you write. I wouldn’t write a crappy book.
Not so much in terms of should someone write a book, but do you have any best practices, principles or approaches that you use to write a book that you found have been helpful for you? It’s to help someone get a book out to get it going, to create and develop a great book.
Here’s a good practical piece of advice. Every book should start with a preface. In that preface should say, “Why I thought it was important to write that book.” Maybe you’re stuck. You don’t know whether you can write a book, you should write a book, you have the motivation to write a book or you’ve got enough good stuff in your head to fill a book. All that may be true but you feel like there’s something you got to pay attention to. Write the preface. This is why I’m writing a book for you. This story, the story that I want to tell you, this is why I think they will change your life in some respect. Write that. Those are only two pages. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare. Write that in an afternoon and then take a look at it. That will either catalyze you to think, “Wow.” It’s a way of helping yourself think through the reading and it’s going to be at the beginning of your book anyway. There are many other steps at that. Think about the outline, ideas and research.
That’s a great step. I appreciate that. That’s different. I haven’t heard that before. As soon as you said it, I’m like, “That makes a lot of sense.” It’s a great way to get started. You publish a book in 2019 called Impact, which is all about what leaders must know to lead in the 21st century.
It’s change management and digital transformation.
For all the consultants out there, if there was one book that you put out that you feel for someone running a consulting business would be beneficial for them or just knowing what you know that you would suggest, is that the book or is it a different book that they should take a look at?
The Science of Organization Change, that’s the book I wrote in 2013 that’s still at the top of the charts. Both my books say this but lots of what you’ve read about change are crap, and we need more science and change because a lot of the methodologies used to change are either stuff like Myers-Briggs or learning styles. There’s the stuff that people have made out like 4, 8, 6-box models, pyramid model or whatever. Where’s the science that justifies you saying that it’s a model that’s useful to you. The other one, The Science of Organizational Changes is very good. Impact sells as well. I’m very proud of it. It’s got some interesting stuff on how you de-bias organizations.
We know you have cognitive biases. It was always said like, “Everybody has cognitive biases except for me. They don’t get rid of their cognitive biases.” We all have them, so what do you do about that? What do you know about this thing? Everybody knows about behavioral science. We all have cognitive biases and confirmation bias. We all have filter bubbles. What do you do about that in your business? If you have people who are regularly making poor decisions because of cognitive biases which they are, I guarantee. The obvious one is the planning fallacy. You know about planning fallacy if you’re a consultant. There was an experiment done at Stanford University where they said, “How long will it take you to complete this term paper? What’s your bottom estimate for the best case?” “Three weeks.” “What’s your worst-case estimate?” “Six weeks.” The average time in which the term paper was turned in was 9.5 weeks or something like that.
That’s called the planning fallacy. We all know it and consultants is that because we assume when we draw a little giant chart in our head, we’re making a lot of, generally speaking, fairly favorable assumptions about the way the world is going to work out for us. This applies to writing books and consulting projects. It applies to almost everything you tackle on luck is that the world doesn’t quite work out as smoothly as you would have liked. You know that your team has this thing called the planning fallacy. When they say, “Here’s the plan, the milestones, the timeline, and the deliverables,” you know, as a leader that they’re well-intentioned but it’s wrong. It’s fatally optimistic in many ways. You’re using that in the capital budget. What do you do about that, is the question. There’s a good chapter on that in my book. The book I’ve got coming out is going to be republishing a book I first tackled many years ago. It’s on purpose and meaning at work, spirituality, and religion in the workplace.
In business and life of entrepreneurship, everything that you have going on, people often focus on the outcome, destination, and end result that they want. They don’t focus as much on the journey but yet the journey is where we spend a lot more of the time. What are your thoughts on that?
You’ve got to enjoy the journey. You’re going to spend a lot more time journeying than you’re going to be out coming. That’s for sure. That applies to parenting, proposals, consulting businesses and marriages. This goes back to the beginning of our sales conversation is you should have targets and metrics you want to hit but it’s the means that you want to be focusing on. How are we generating these conversations? Who are we being when we’re having these sales conversations? As I said before, it’s a holistic thing. My staff, we had great methodologies.
Our staff was excited about them, they were talking to friends about that. Serendipitously, we generated this virtuous world where we were doing great work, getting people excited, getting staff excited and getting more incoming work from interesting customers. We had this beautiful virtuous cycle for almost a decade. It was beautiful to watch. It was serendipitous. It looks managed and chaotic. We didn’t have a marketing plan. I know that’s hard to find with many people. Would I do it the same way? No, I would probably have a social media and marketing person now but back in the 2000s, it worked for me. That’s all I can say.False negatives cost you a lot more than a false positive. Click To Tweet
Paul, I want to thank you for coming on. I appreciate you sharing your journey. I want to make sure that people can learn more about you, your work and your books. Where’s the best place for them to go?
Paul, thanks so much.
Thanks for being in touch. I much appreciate it.
- Paul Gibbons
- Truth Wars
- Thinking, Fast and Slow
- Predictably Irrational
- Leadership BS
- The Science of Organizational Change