Tuesday 12 May 2009

David Taylor

Leadership: How to lead through turbulent times

Lewis Media Centre, London

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“I was watching the BBC this morning and I got the impression that there was one key thing to do if we’re in turbulent times” said David Taylor as he strode confidently to centre stage. “Just wait… all you have to do is wait for the current recession to be over. Now this session lasts an hour and a half, so hopefully by the end the whole economy will have changed for the better and we won’t have to cover any of the material.”

Fortunately for the 150 delegates waiting for leadership inspiration, Taylor doesn’t believe in such passivity, and instead used the London Business Forum to make a call to action: that only positive, proactive leadership will enable us to overcome our present challenges. The great news, boomed Taylor “...is that you’ve actually chosen to do something about it; you’ve actually chosen to be here. And in return for that I’m going to share with you ideas and techniques that always work.”

Keen to get the audience fully engaged, Taylor began by sharing a recent event experience. "I was at the Birmingham NEC recently, in front of about a thousand people," he said, "and the chairman [of the event] turned to them and said: 'We've got David Taylor here today. He's going to inspire every single one of you.' Have you ever seen a thousand people fold their arms at exactly the same moment?" In the US, he pointed out, there's less scepticism and cynicism. For example, when he told a large audience in San Francisco that "it doesn't matter what your age, your background, your experience - every single thing you need to achieve everything you want, you already have within you," everyone stood up and started cheering. "It was without doubt the most frightening moment of my life," he said. Nevertheless, it's obvious that Taylor is used to whipping up enthusiasm among his clients. Frequently, during this event, he left the stage to march up and down the aisles of the Lewis Media Centre. He wanted to look us in the eyes and draw reactions from us directly, to ensure he had our full attention.

Now it was time to get down to business. The biggest myth, claimed Taylor, is that leadership in a downturn is fundamentally different to leadership in boom time. “[the theory is that] ...we need a completely different leadership model in tough times as compared to other times” he claimed, but went on to insist that this is rarely the case. Instead, the key is to take your attention off what you don’t want, and to refocus on your core values – why you’re in business. Then deliver consistently and ruthlessly.

Effective business leadership relies first on successful personal leadership claimed Taylor. "Know where you want to go and who you want to be; know where you are now; know what you have to do to get to where you want to go, or who you want to be; and then do it." It was these steps that Taylor used as a structure for the rest of the event to instil the principles of effective leadership.

1. Know where you want to go and who you want to be

The key thing here from a leadership perspective is to "have a massive dream," Taylor advised. "And be very clear what the outcome of that dream is." It's important to "focus on what you want, not what you don't want," he said. "This is not [merely] positive thinking... If you focus on what you want you'll move towards it, and if you focus on what you don't want then you'll move towards that. Because your mind cannot tell the difference between a dream you have and a reality you have." As Dominic O'Brien, the world memory champion, said: "The day I became champion was the day I decided I had a great memory."

At this point, Taylor asked everyone in the audience to reveal their biggest ambitions to the nearest stranger. Why? "Because the statistics do not lie." Research from Warwick Business School, he said, shows that: "If you make a commitment to yourself - say, a New Year's Resolution - you have got an 8% chance of seeing it through. If you make a commitment to a loved-one, that soars to 18%... If you make a commitment to a stranger or a business colleague, who you don't really see each and every day, it soars to 79%." Get your new "buddy" to call you on your ambition, and the next steps you've agreed to take towards it, and you'll find it much easier to make progress.

2. Know where you are now

This is the most emotionally challenging part of leadership, Taylor said, because it means asking the question: 'Are you in ownership of your life?' "By the way," he added, "if you're not in ownership of your life, it might be an idea to find out who is, and give them a ring."

What does ownership mean in this context? It means accepting "total accountability and responsibility for anything or everything that ever happens to you. And one of the challenges in organisations is that sometimes people don't take that level of ownership."

3. Know what you have to do to get to where you want to go, or who you want to be

Getting this step right means "making true decisions", Taylor said. "Decide what it is you're going to achieve, and then close off all other possibilities... If you have a plan B in life, you will hit it almost every time."

4. Do it

The final step in the formula was the simplest piece of common sense that Taylor had to deliver. Implementing your dreams is "the most difficult [thing] to complete successfully, and the one that's the most important," he said. And it boils down to persistence. Whenever you do anything, he concluded, ask yourself whether it helps you, your team, your family, your organisation. "If it helps, do more of the same, and if it doesn't, do something else... I know for a fact that individuals who succeed at anything - be it business, be it financial, be it relationships - show a persistence that wipes failure off their lexicon."