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.

Here is an excerpt from Part 1 of my interview of Emmanuel.

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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.

* * *

To read all of Part 1, please click here.

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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