Judith Humphrey: An interview by Bob Morris


Humphrey #1Judith Humphrey is the Founder of The Humphrey Group, a Toronto-based firm that teaches leaders at all levels how to be influential and inspiring communicators. Since its establishment in 1987, The Humphrey Group has expanded globally and is recognized as a premier leadership communications firm that works with clients in Canada, the US, Mexico, Europe, and Asia. Today Judith is a sought-after executive coach while continuing to design programs that expand The Humphrey Group’s leadership communication intellectual property. She has published two books: Speaking As a Leader: How to Lead Every Time You Speak…From Board Rooms to Meeting Rooms, From Town Halls to Phone Calls (2012) and Taking the Stage: How Women Can Speak Up, Stand Out, and Succeed (2014).

Judith also publishes a regular on-line column for Fast Company. In 2015 Global Gurus named her number 11 on its list of the top 30 Communications Gurus in the world. Judith received an M.A. in English from The University of Rochester and taught communications at York University before entering the business world. She also was awarded the 2012 YWCA’s prestigious Woman of Distinction award for Entrepreneurship.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Judith.

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

Humphrey: My mother. She was a housewife but her vision was not confined to the home. She taught me the importance of having aspirational goals. This has led me to reach high in life and in my career and take the stage wherever I could.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Humphrey: My first boss. He was tough on me and would question every statement I made. I later realized that his “Socratic approach” enabled me to learn how to make a case for my work and my ideas. That allowed me to lead from below early in my career, and develop a business that coaches even the most senior executives.

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.

Humphrey: Yes, it was when I began playing the violin at the age of 12. Before that it was difficult for me to have my voice heard in our large family. I would speak, but felt no one was listening. When I began playing the violin I suddenly realized the magic of reaching an audience. That has shaped my entire career and now my colleagues and I in The Humphrey Group teach others how to reach their audiences.

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

Humphrey: It was not the content of what I studied that was of lasting importance. Most of my courses were in English literature, and my focus for much of graduate school was on Medieval English. Needless to say, reading Chaucer in the original is not a key business requirement! But my formal education taught me to think clearly and present my ideas – and that is a skill I will always use and teach others!

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?

Humphrey: I’m actually glad I didn’t know then what I know now. Today I know how challenging it can be to reach and gain the support of decision makers. But then I was naïve – so when I decided I wanted full-time work in the business world, I simply made a cold call to the senior vice president who was head of HR for one of Canada’s most dynamic companies — Nortel Networks. I introduced myself, asked him if his company would be interested in someone with my academic credentials, and told him I’d love to work for Nortel. Within weeks I had a great position with that company, and that job launched my career. So it’s a good thing I was boldly naïve.

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.”

Humphrey: Yes, leaders lead by inspiring followers, and followers are far more likely to buy into the leader’s vision if they have been part of it. So we in The Humphrey Group teach leaders to speak by engaging people, drawing upon their experience, building upon their knowledge, using their language, and commending them for what they have accomplished. We call this audience-centered leadership. It is the essence of great speaking and inspired leadership.

Morris: From Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Humphrey: I love that quotation. Bravery is such an important quality in business and in life– whether we call it boldness, courage, bravery or daring. Every significant move I have made over the years has been shaped by this willingness to take risks. We encourage this quality in our clients. Every time they step onto the stage, they need a sense of boldness. This is the concept that underlies my book Taking the Stage. To take the stage means to put yourself out there, to be daring in ways that will allow you to express your voice and enable others to be inspired by you.

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?

Humphrey: The Great Man theory of decision-making is dead. To begin with, there are many Great Women out there, and organizations need the best leaders. But it’s not just a matter of having both genders in the executive suite. It’s also time for leaders to draw from the collective, encourage people at all levels to contribute their ideas, and work with teams to find collaborative solutions. These goals require great communication skills, and leaders must be able to listen, draw ideas from their teams, and articulate what they discover clearly and inspirationally.

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

Humphrey: It’s true. In fact, the very first poem in the English language was called Caedmon’s Hymn, and it was the story of creation delivered by a humble shepherd in a mead hall. Stories tell a narrative that engages the audience. There are two kinds of story lines that we teach our clients. The first is the narrative that takes an audience through the speaker’s central idea. It involves a set of points that elaborate main message. The second kind of story is one that is more personal—it brings the speaker into the narrative, and provides the audience with insight into his or her character. So there is a “macro” story line and a “micro” story line in a good script. Both are critical.

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?

Humphrey: There is only one way to overcome resistance, and that is by communicating as a visionary leader who can take people to the “high ground” and inspire them with the new perspective. If you believe in the future your organization is creating, then speak clearly and passionately about it, not just once, but again and again. Eventually others will move from resistance to responsiveness. This is ultimately what leadership is about.

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?

Humphrey: This won’t come as a surprise to you, I’d say communications training should be more front and center in MBA curricula. Anyone coming out of business school should be able to advance an idea; persuade others; deliver a compelling message that inspires listeners; and give a PowerPoint presentation that does not get into the “weeds.” Yet there is still a false assumption that bright people can communicate well naturally. This simply is not true. In fact, the more knowledge people have, the more difficulty they often have communicating clearly.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

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

The Humphrey Group link

Taking the Stage program and book link

Twitter link

LinkedIn link

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