Posted by Holly Carberry

Earlier this month I was interviewed on The Leaders Council podcast. The Leaders Council is chaired by Lord Blunkett, and the podcast series features interviews with leadership figures from across the UK, with an aim to understand leadership and what it means today. I had a really great time chatting about leadership, what makes a great leader and what the future of leadership looks like with the host Scott Challinor. You can listen to the podcast in full here on YouTube or Spotify.

For those of you who prefer to read your content rather than listen to it, I’ve transcribed the conversation here on the blog, so you can read the whole thing. If you’re a leader, a business owner, planning on starting your own business or moving into a leadership role, I hope you’ll find the conversation useful – if you’ve got any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

My name is Scott Jelena, and you are listening to the Leaders Council podcast, for the people who run the country and the people who keep the country running. As regular listeners of this programme will know, part of our mission here at the Leaders Council is to bring you a variety of distinct perspectives on leadership. Today, that mission takes us to Evolution, a professional coaching and training provider to businesses and individuals. We’re speaking with managing director and founder Martin Crump on the show. Martin, very warm welcome to yourself today. Thank you for joining us.

Good morning. Thanks very much for having me.

When did you decide to become a coach?

25 years ago I was made redundant. I was working in manufacturing as a training officer at the time, training and working within HR and working on people development. When I was made redundant I decided that the redundancy was an opportunity: it gave me about a year to establish Evolution and get us started, which was really valuable. I decided that I wanted to move away from working with just one organisation towards working with as many different people as possible.

How would you sort of describe your own personal leadership style, which has developed over the years in the work that you’ve been doing?

My own style is very much collaborative. My role is to provide a vision and a direction for the organisation – but also, I totally appreciate that people are more skilled than I am in their own areas of expertise. I do really believe that everyone has unlimited potential, and by giving people opportunities, and working together and utilising their skills, it just means that we’ve got much more chance of achieving what it is we want to achieve.

You’ve obviously worked with lots of different types of leaders over many years. What are some of the key fundamental issues that you’d say leaders face today in the 21st century?

The quote I’ve heard several times from leaders is that this job would be really easy if it wasn’t for the people! So I guess the diversity of individuals, different personality types, how they behave, and just the way that they feel on a day to day basis is probably the biggest challenge that I’ve come across when it comes to leaders. There are all sorts of external challenges around the economy and other national and international issues that come up too. But I think on a day to day basis, on a medium term basis, the biggest issue they have is around getting the best out of the people they’ve got.

Over the last few years leaders have faced an immense challenge with the upheaval of the the COVID 19 pandemic and all its knock-on effects that have really tested leadership to the limit. Have you seen any patterns in leaders behaviour or the issues that they face coming out of the other side?

I think the biggest difference has been the creativity and flexibility that leaders have had to utilise over the last couple of years in terms of keeping the wheels turning, and rolling out a very quick response to lockdown initially. Particularly when it comes to remote working, but also the the issue of then having to try and lead people in the way that they led them before, but remotely. It was a very steep learning curve for a lot of people and I was coaching quite a lot of leaders through that process. 

Now the opposite is the case, where some want to come back to the office and some want to continue working remotely, and organisations are trying to strike a balance. I think the leaders who have planned for hybrid working and what the future will look like for their organisation are the ones who are really benefiting from it now in all sorts of different ways. The ones who had planned it well had policies and a strategy in place 12 months ago. They’re finding the transition to where we are now a lot easier than the ones who are just suddenly saying “everybody back in the office”. That lack of planning and sudden changes to a team’s ways of working can cause all sorts of issues and I’ve seen that a lot. Creativity and a flexibility of approach has been essential over the last few years.

Right, it’s basically a case of kind of evolve and adapt or die, isn’t it? And these are things that are going to be lingering for quite a while, because COVID has accelerated the digital revolution so much, and we’ve learned so much.

It has, and there are all kinds of events like that if we if we use the evolution analogy – there are extinction events, and there are big changes that happen in the world globally, where as you say, it’s adapt or die. The ones who adapt more quickly, actually don’t just survive but thrive through those changes. The move to a more hybrid working approach, and from a training point of view, a more hybrid and blended approach to delivering training, has always been something I’ve wanted to work towards. The last few years forced that to happen. I think there are great advantages to the hybrid working model. There are difficulties to it as well. But I think that the the organisations and particularly the leaders who embed this kind of approach into their organisation are the ones who are really going to do well in the future with things like work life balance, and all the mental health issues and productivity as well. 

Absolutely right. I’ve spoken to many business leaders who’ve come on to this programme and talked about sort of the key takeaways from COVID that they’ve used to make their businesses more resilient and to move into the future. Is there anything personally from your point of view as a trainer and coach that you feel you’ve learned yourself from the pandemic and that you’ll be taking forward?

Oh, absolutely. When the lockdown happened, we were looking at a really good year. And then we just lost literally all of our business overnight; within three days, everything had gone. So it was very much a case of adapt and adapt quickly. I was kind of reluctant to use things like Zoom and Teams before the pandemic. But once we were forced into doing it, I immediately started seeing the benefits of using those tools. I’ll certainly be been moving that forward. So from a coaching point of view, for example, I can work with different people from all over the country on the same day, without any lessening of value. I’d always had a plan to create an online academy, pre-COVID, but it had taken me ages to just create one course. Now we’ve got an established academy with a couple of hundred users, which we launched a few months ago. So moving ahead, it’s completely changed my business model, and there are lots of positive takeaways for me from it.

You’re a published author, Martin, and one of your works is Evolve or Die, which is an ultimate self help book for leadership figures. We have a lot of younger viewers that tune into this podcast that are of the entrepreneurial mindset, and maybe have that big idea (without giving too much away for those who haven’t read the book). What are some of the key pieces of advice that somebody with a business idea can really take away from that and use to embark on that road success? 

I guess, for me, the key message in all of that is that you’ve got most of the answers yourself. It’s important to ask other people’s advice and bring them into the network, but you need to be able to ask the questions of yourself as well. And so understanding where you want to go and how you’re going to get there is, is really the key to it, and the book enables that. So it’s the ultimate self help book. We call it that because essentially you write it yourself. There are a number of questions posed, and then a lot of blank pages for you to fill in and answer yourself. It’s really about self awareness, about helping yourself, planning your own future, if you like. So, for me, that’s the key takeaway: that you’ve got a lot of the answers, you just might need to be prompted and probed which is what coaching and training does for you anyway. It is your business at the end of the day. If you’re an entrepreneur and you want to start a business, you don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it. Just find out for yourself.

Exactly right. Sometimes experience is the greatest teacher, isn’t it? We learn so much more from our experiences and having to adapt to the pandemic is a great example of that. Now that we’re out of the acute phase of the pandemic, and some of the challenges of COVID are starting to shrink away, we’re still in a very volatile period with a lot of other global forces in place. What are some of the key things that leaders are going to have to take into account in the future?

You’re right, we are entering into a volatile future. But I guess in a way it’s always been volatile, although maybe not to this extreme. And so again, flexibility is key. I think it’s important to know what it is that you want – to have a goal, to have a five year plan or a three year plan or an operational plan for a year. But it’s also really important not to get stuck on that, because the the environment that you’re in might change rapidly. There’s a famous saying that I refer to a lot, that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got, which is about consistency. But that’s only true if the environment that you’re in stays the same. And if the environment changes, which it is very rapidly doing now, doing the same thing means that you’re not going to get the same thing that you’ve always got – you might get even less, and certainly things are going to change. So the ability to be flexible, to be able to react to situations, but still have a kind of ultimate goal in mind are things important, but it’s also really, really important to utilise the excellent skills that you’ve got in your organisation that you might not be tapping into at the moment. As a leader, you don’t need to have all the answers, but you do have to have all the questions. You don’t necessarily need to have all the answers, but the people around you can help you find the right answers. And the point you made earlier about wisdom and experience – that is valuable. But sometimes that wisdom and experience will limit you in terms of your ability to solve problems. So people will say, oh, we tried that years ago, it didn’t work. That kind of attitude is really common in organisations. Yeah, it didn’t work years ago in the environment that you were in then, but maybe it will now.

I think you raise a very important point there – that experience can sometimes hold you back if you don’t go into things open-mindedly, and I think there’s a great deal of merit in the idea that we can try things again, in a changed environment, and we can ask questions and share with them some authenticity as a leader.  Often I think we feel the pressure to have all of the answers when that’s not always going to be the case. Sometimes you do have to show that vulnerability and show that you don’t know everything. But we can go through this journey together and we can find solutions.

Yeah, and I think people really value that; not having the answers. When I train, I like working with all organisations because they’re all interesting. But sometimes the leaders, the senior leaders, the chief exec, the business owner etc wants to be on the course as well. Because they’re very aware that they can always learn something and you know, people say, “If I can take one nugget away from today that changes what I do, then it’s worthwhile,” and I think that’s a great attitude to have. I’ve worked with organisations where the senior leaders don’t want to be seen to not know everything. And I think that’s really sad, because nobody knows everything. And I think the more vulnerable you are, in a sense of asking what’s the best way to do this, let’s find out. That’s going to help you survive in all kinds of different scenarios.

I agree, that authenticity, as you said, is so very important. And sometimes maybe as leaders we do you get caught up in the culture of looking as if we have all of the answers when plain and simply, it’s sometimes better not to. Learning is something that happens every single day. It’s important to acknowledge as well that whether we’re at the top of the business, we’re midway through or we’re at the bottom of a business, we’re never ever finished products, we’re always in a constant state of development. And I think a key part of that is when there are questions and where there are setbacks, you’ve got to respond to that accordingly. And, you know, take setbacks on the chin and use that to become more resilient and use that to improve, whereas sometimes I think culturally, especially in this country, maybe we do shy away from setbacks and shy away from failings a little bit too much when we should really approach it with kind of a win or learn mentality, shouldn’t we?

I agree. I think I’ve got a friend who says everything that happens to me is a learning opportunity. And so he asks himself, whatever happens, what can I learn from this? And I think that’s just a great attitude to have. And I think we need to invest in learning opportunities for leaders, much more heavily than we do now. Somebody showed me a model years ago, which was a pyramid. He said, this is the amount of effort and training we give people at the lowest levels in the organisation. And then as we go up, we give people less and less learning – whereas what we should be doing is inverting that pyramid really, and giving leaders that are higher up in the organisation more and more opportunity to learn and develop and grow. Because they’re the ones that influence the culture and the direction and the performance of the business overall.

Incredibly important points. I think reinventing that pyramid, as you say, is something that should seriously be be looked at. And as we enter the future, and leaders begin to embrace the challenges of this new post-COVID world, what are some of the priorities for you when it comes to helping business leaders and leaders of organisations embrace those challenges that are on the horizon?

For me, I think the key to development is that the higher up an organisation you go, the more interpersonal skills you need, the less technical skill you need, but the more interpersonal skills, so we’ve always been focusing on interpersonal and communication skills. For me, this is about making it more accessible on a regular basis. So we’ve just launched our online academy and we’ve got a couple hundred users so far. We designed the academy with lots of flexibility: there’s a membership option to it or you can buy individual courses, and we can put together corporate packages with in-person training, face-to-face online training and coaching and online learning. We’ve got organisations who are buying the content, and then delivering it themselves. There are people who I coach, and sometimes I’ll facilitate a team to deliver the training for their organisation. But most importantly, people have access to the content forever. We have some microlearning courses, short 10-minute courses, on various useful topics like giving and receiving feedback. And as somebody said to me the other day, he was walking down the corridor to carry out an appraisal – he had to give somebody some feedback – so he was watching the video on how to give feedback on his phone as he walked towards the meeting. For me, that immediate access to the skills and the techniques and the knowledge that you need to be able to do what it is you need to do now, I think is the key. Making it flexible, and accessible, and really tuned in to what people need now. From an evolution point of view, we’re focusing on that kind of technology and the ability for people to access stuff, when they need it and where they need it, rather than “I went on a course once, what did I do with that folder? Somewhere in a drawer at home?” 

It’s being able to access that immediate response that we’ve become so used to with a computer in our pocket. I’ve given my coaching clients access to me when they need it. Not at night, because I do like to sleep, but you know, quick conversations before meetings or after meetings to reflect on things. Because they’re so busy, leaders need to be able to solve a problem now rather than have it disappear if they don’t deal with it now and pop up again next week or the week after.

Yeah, I think that’s very right. And I think as you start to execute that and build that side of things up and I wish you all the luck in the world Martin and we’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on how things pan out in that respect. For any leaders, anybody who runs their own business, their own organisation that might be tuning in to this today and might be interested in Evolution’s work or looking into the Online Academy, what would be their best port of call for that?

You can email, or you can give me a ring on 01872 555939.

Fantastic. So for anybody who is listening into this that may be interested in the work of Evolution or looking into what the academy provides, please do contact Martin Crump on the email or the phone number that he’s just outlined. And you know what, Martin? I think as we start to understand how things are panning out in the the new world and we see what new challenges are on the horizon for this generation of leaders and the next, I would love the opportunity to perhaps catch up with you again and welcome you back on to the show, just to kind of reassess the situation and see how things are how things are changing.

That’d be great Scott, anytime.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having you on the programme today, Martin. It’s been wonderful having you with us and by all means, do take care and do stay safe with all that’s still going on as well. Thank you. It’s been an immense pleasure welcoming Martin Crump, Managing Director and lead coach at Evolution on to today’s programme, and I do hope that everybody tuning in has thoroughly enjoyed the interview today.