Thu, April 25, 2024

We live in a very different world now where teams are really the driving force of organisations; team production, team performance.

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With a personal mission in life to ensure that teams reach peak performance, Toby Bassford, Managing Director of Tillon Group, has an engaging and purpose-driven approach to ensure the people and organisations he consults meet exceptional standards to be more and do more. Bassford’s skills are reflected in his extensive experience across global businesses and being a trusted partner to many executives. Basssford is based in the United Kingdom and was recently in Kathmandu when Business 360 caught up to learn about the Tillion Group and what leadership means to him. Excerpts:

Could you please tell us about Tillon Group?

Tillon Group is a global consulting and technology company which is really focused on helping organisations integrate people with strategy. It is our belief that organisational performance is really tightly tied to the ability of individual leaders and teams to perform at their very, very best. And so, the work that we do is helping often scale-up companies. Sometimes the larger organisations find it difficult to best leverage the human capital or the human potential that they have got inside of their companies. So, we do a mixture of more bespoke consulting, supported by technology that is really designed to help people work at their very best.

What are your plans for Nepal?

The plan is to bring the work that we do globally to Nepal too. The ultimate plan is to help organisations based in Nepal to perform at their very best. We have worked with a number of clients here. Personally, I have been fortunate enough to be here many times over the last few years. This is actually my 12th time in the past couple of years and it feels a bit like a second home to me. I have met so many really good leaders here during my visits. Nepal is such an exciting emerging economy. I really want to bring in some of the best lessons that I know, that I have got and that I have learned from many organisations that I have been working with across India and North America. I want to be able to support leaders and teams in this economy to be able to accelerate their growth so that they can maximise the potential that they have got. So, we are hoping to be able to partner with organisations and leaders here and just to do our bit to help businesses do as well as they possibly can do and support the growing ecosystem that is emerging here.

Are there any plans to set up an office in Nepal?

I think that would be the hope. I think all being well, if things continue to grow and thrive here, we will certainly be looking to establish more physical presence here. So, we are just in the process. I have a business partner who lives in Bhutan and obviously there are a good number of friends and leaders I am getting to know here. So, the plan is very much that we want to build a proper presence here and accelerate a business that is thriving in Nepal.

You have been involved for a fairly long time in helping develop leadership qualities within organisations. Through your experience, how do you define leadership?

That is a very pertinent question in the current global context. Leadership, at its heart for me, is about influence. I don’t believe leadership is primarily a role or a title, and I think that’s very much at the heart of understanding what leadership looks like in the new world that we live in. So, we’ve come through this huge cultural upheaval over the last 20 years that has gone from a late industrial age which is very, very hierarchical in the way that organisations work, very much focused on the individual. We live in a very different world now where teams are really the driving force of organisations; team production, team performance. That means leaders need to learn an entirely new skill-set in how they operate, which means that they need to lead through influence, effectively influencing other people. I think a lot of people in organisations now want to be around leaders that they choose to follow rather than have to follow.

So as a leader, if you are in a place where you are appealing to the title that you have got, where you need to do this because I am X, then you have probably already lost your credibility with people. So, at the heart of good leadership is an effective ability to influence other people, and that is everybody you know, whether or not they are more senior to you, whether or not they are peers, your direct reports, you lead by building effective relationship and influencing people. So, for me, that’s at the heart of what leadership means. Titles then can just follow that. I always, when I was in-house inside of organisations, only gave titles to people when I already saw them operating with that level of influence because it makes it safe for somebody to have a title at that point.

What are the aspects we need to follow to be able to influence people? 

How do you influence the people? Well, how long have you got? That’s a huge topic. I think about leadership in three different dimensions which in many ways represent some of the skills that would enable somebody to effectively influence. So first of all, you need to have some level of technical knowledge and some level of IQ - what I call skills intelligence. If I am going to influence somebody, I probably need to know some of what I am talking about in any particular sphere. I need to be able to have some level of subject matter knowledge that is useful to another person for me to be able to have influence. Now that alone is not enough. It is important but if I only have that, I am probably not going to effectively influence many people.

I also need what you call EQ or emotional or relational intelligence. So, you need skills intelligence and you also need relational intelligence. Relational intelligence is your ability to be able to build a bridge towards the other person. That means I need to know how to build rapport, means I need to be able to build an interest in the other person. I need to understand what’s going on with the other person. I need to be able to ask good questions so that I can understand how I connect, what it is that I’ve got that might be helpful to that person. I need to be able to make the other person feel at ease. I need to be able to create an environment of trust between me and that person. So, there’s loads of other stuff that I ought to do with skills and relational intelligence.

Then, I also need to have what I call PQ or personality intelligence. I need to understand myself. So, the question I often ask leaders is, do you know what it’s like to be on the other side of you. A lot of what I do with leaders is hold a mirror up to them and say, here’s what life is like or what people experience when they are on the other side of you. Because we have all got what I call broccoli stuck in our teeth, everybody’s got behaviours, tendencies, things that they do that undermine their connection with other people. It might be a tendency to talk too much, might be a tendency to not make eye contact. It might be a tendency to be too critical in the way that they respond. It could be hundreds of things but if you don’t know what those things are, you are likely to create some kind of offence or disconnection simply because you don’t understand yourself and you have not asked what do people experience of me? So, if you work hard at building the right skills, building relational intelligence, building self-intelligence or personality intelligence, you have got a really good chance of actually beginning to build the skill set, the three-dimensional skill set, that’s going to enable you to be somebody who’s effective at influencing other people.

What are some common traits of authentic leaders?

Positive trait. That is the one common thing I have found in leaders. First of all, I’d probably say humility. And by humility, I mean somebody who is confident in the things that they are, they know they are very good at but they also maintain an openness to new possibilities and new learning. So, they don’t have a fixed or closed mindset. So even though they might have a strong opinion, they remain open to the possibility that there are other ways of doing things. They also, as part of that humility, are prepared to acknowledge where they have got things wrong. I think what that does critically is it creates an environment where it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to be wrong, and it creates a permeability about them that actually invites people towards them. I would say humility is a really important one.

I think obviously talent and people who work hard at harnessing the skills that they have got is also important. I rarely meet people who may have an innate collection of skills, but they have actually worked hard at disciplining their skills. I don’t believe talent and success are accidents or I believe that they are the combination of somebody’s talent and opportunity and the fact that they work really hard. So, I don’t think you have a substitute for that. So, somebody is humble, somebody who is actually prepared to work hard. And it’s not just time. It’s about the quality of the way in which somebody disciplines themselves. They discipline their talent. They focus their talent. They keep developing skills in a really systematic way.

And I think finally, hunger. People who are hungry, not physically hungry, but are hungry to do more and to do better, they don’t get satisfied. When people begin to get to a point of satisfaction, they get complacent. So, people who remain hungry, normally it’s because they are driven by some kind of ideological pursuit, some kind of belief that what they are doing is going to make the world better. I don’t meet many people for whom money is the thing that maintains the hunger over time. It might get you to a certain point, but at the end of the day, it’s not the thing that keeps people going. So being hungry, humble and smart or disciplined, I think would be the three things that I most look for people to be a success.

Are successful outcomes the only measure of good leadership?

I think leaders have got to do two things. The first thing that they need to do is to drive their own performance or make sure that their own performance as measured in the performance indicators inside of the business that they are in are effective. I don’t think a leader operating inside an organisation can ever get away from the fact that their success is in large part driven by the core metrics that the business uses to measure their performance. But I don’t believe that’s the only key measure.

I think the other key measure is how successful are you at multiplying skills, expertise and knowledge into the leaders around you? And that’s actually the metric that I often am most interested in because you can have a talented individual and they add value to the business, but a real leader is able to multiply their capability, their performance into the lives of others, because what the business then gets is not just one effective leader. They get multiple effective leaders. The very best leaders know how to do themselves out of a job time and time and time again. It’s the most precious resource. When I train people to do everything that I know and how to do it then that actually means that we act. We at times think we do ourselves out of a job but we don’t. The people who can multiply their skills, knowledge and expertise actually become one of the most valuable assets to the business because they multiply and build a leadership pipeline, which helps scale business. So, leaders stay focused on driving their own performance by the core metrics and they’re able to effectively multiply the leaders. I think they are the most effectively leaders. That would be the main thing I would personally look at. There are loads of other things within that we could talk about but the bottom line is these are the two things that leaders have got to manage.

How should people deal with challenges and crisis?

Well, that obviously depends what the crisis is. It depends on the challenges that you are facing. But I think dealing with real pressure and real crisis always needs to start with at least some measure of self-management. Often under pressure, leaders’ default to natural tendencies, natural behaviours that may undermine their influence. So, we’ve got to be really careful as leaders that under pressure we are maintaining a balance in the way that we are operating, that the behaviours that undermine our influence don’t get inflated by pressure. So, I think the first thing is that leaders need to make sure they do not default to their natural behaviours under extreme pressure. Let’s use the example of the early stage during the Covid pandemic when there was a huge crisis for businesses. One of the biggest things I was doing – I was part of an executive leadership team of a fairly big global IT company then – was making sure that we were self-managing. I was making make sure that we were not leading out of insecurity and were leading out of a balanced and secure position.

The next thing is to make sure that you over-communicate with people. Whenever leaders create a vacuum, it always gets felt. There is no such thing as a vacuum in communication. I don’t believe leaders should ever not communicate. Even if they are simply communicating and don’t have lots to say at the moment, they should communicate and say this is where we are. Leaders should communicate and say I want you to know that this is what we’re working on at the moment and we will come back to you as soon as we’ve got the answers. Communicating something is way better than communicating nothing. So, over-communication is very important because it’s to do with presence, any vacuum gets filled. If you don’t fill the vacuum of communication, somebody else will fill it and it’s probably not going to be good. So, make sure that you own the communication waves.

I think the third thing would be presence. In the midst of crisis people need presence. They need to know that somebody is leading. They need to know that somebody is there. They need to feel proximity to leaders. So, again, in the early stages of the pandemic, it was a huge task because effectively we were scattered and presence was difficult. Actually, what we worked really hard on, what I started with all of the team leaders across the business was I told them to prioritise presence, even though you can’t physically be with people. What does it look like for you to set up a mechanism by which people feel like they are connected to you?

And I think the final thing is often in crisis what people need more is direction. So, there’s a time and a place for high collaboration and there is a time and a place for being more direct as a leader. Crisis is a time where you need more direction. People are happier to receive clear direction when things are under pressure. So be prepared to give stronger, clearer, simpler direction more consistently so that people feel more secure when they are being directed in that kind of a time and environment.

How should leaders deal when they are challenged or when their leadership methods are challenged?

Again, it will slightly depend on what that particular challenge the people are bringing. The first thing that I would always try and do is make sure that I don’t inadvertently create a culture that is going to damage me in the long run. What I mean by that is I want as a leader, it’s a high priority for me and it should be a high priority for other leaders, I want people to always feel like they can come and give feedback. They can come and address challenges. They disagree with me. I want them to feel like they can come and talk to me openly about it. And so that is more important to me than whether or not somebody comes and says something that I like or not. So, the first thing that I want to make sure I do is that I don’t respond to that person in a way that shuts down the future opportunity for people to come and talk to me. Because if I respond negatively, if I respond defensively, if I respond aggressively, it’s not only them that are not going to come back and talk to me in the future, you have got to believe that they are going to tell their teammates about how I have responded to you. You have to, because it’s very likely that’s what’s going to happen. So, I need to watch the way that, and this is part of relational intelligence and self-intelligence, how am I responding to that person to make sure that they know that I am not defensive, I am okay with them coming and sharing stuff that I don’t agree with.

Hence, the first thing that I would always tell them is that I am really thankful that they have come and spoken to me about this. I would tell them that I appreciate the fact that they have come and shared their views and opinions and that they have shared the challenges that they have seen, either in my leadership or in the way that we’re working as a team. And the reason that I want to do that is I want them to know that I am good with it, like I am secure enough and that’s not a threat to me. If it feels a threat, I look insecure. So, I thank them. It’s really helpful and also because all feedback is feedback. Whether or not it’s good it’s still feedback and often there is some truth there. Even if it’s not, even if I don’t agree with the majority of it, there’s still some truth in that that I need to be mature enough to be able to look at. And there’s also the fact that perception is reality. If that’s that person’s perception, it is their reality and I have got to understand, rightly or wrongly, that is how they see reality. That’s why I thank them.

First, I watch my body language. I don’t respond by pointing fingers aggressively back. Often if somebody being threatening towards me, I actually often just sit back. I take a really relaxed position just to communicate that it is fine, I am good with it. I would then try to ask questions rather than come back immediately with ‘I don’t agree’. I don’t want to get into a debate too quickly. I’ll come back to them and say, I am really interested to understand more about the thing that you said and what makes you say that and why did you say that? Because question asking positions me in humility as a learner. I also try and work hard at the questions I’m asking because rather than get into a disagreement or a debate I’ll try and do is ask questions that might help that person realise there’s more than meets the eye.

They may be approaching the conversation with a really narrow viewpoint. So, asking questions might help them realise that this perhaps more going on than they thought. Questions like ‘I wonder have you thought about X’. It is interesting you say ‘I wonder how you think that fits in with the wider context and picture’. So just asking questions first and I may then finally go back with ‘I am really grateful for you sharing your opinion. But in this situation, this is how I see things. I’ve learned a couple of things from you in the conversation, but this is still my opinion’. So, you’ve got to still be ultimately prepared to own your conviction, own your opinion, own your direction. And there’s a point sometimes where you just need to disagree but don’t believe that disagreement makes you stronger. Sometimes it makes you stronger if what the other person is saying is actually true for you to say, ‘You know what, it’s been so helpful here with your opinion. I actually think this part of what you’re saying is true, and I’m going to take that on board and do things differently.’ That’s fine. It doesn’t weaken you? It strengthens you as a leader. Humility is a trait that attracts people to hold you up.

Is there any leader that you look up to?

There’s a leader, Steve Cockram, one of the founders of Giant Worldwide, which is a company I was part of before who I think has played a really significant role in life for me, who I still admire, still have deep respect for and look up to. Now, we have become good friends, almost more peers helping each other. But certainly, ten years ago, I think he played a very defining role in my growth and development and the ultimate reason was the fact that he was prepared to believe in me. So, it was a particularly defining time in my career and my personal life where he actually helped my confidence. I had had a difficult time and he backed me and almost invested in me at a level that wasn’t necessary. He went over and above what his role required. And so, I think there was a quality of the way that he relates to me that I found deeply impactful. And I think it’s really affected the way that I lead other people because I know the impact that he had on me. I think it’s given me that perspective of you are never a loser as a leader if you give more to somebody than you need to. Actually, all it does is it attracts people towards you. So, I think his generosity towards me was hugely impactful. He was also super smart, really good, a good strategic leader but it was the quality of belief that he gave to me that I think was really impactful.

A lot of what I do with leaders is hold a mirror up to them and say, here’s what life is like or what people experience when they are on the other side of you. Because we have all got what I call broccoli stuck in our teeth, everybody’s got behaviours, tendencies, things that they do that undermine their connection with other people. It might be a tendency to talk too much, might be a tendency to not make eye contact. It might be a tendency to be too critical in the way that they respond. It could be hundreds of things but if you don’t know what those things are, you are likely to create some kind of offence or disconnection simply because you don’t understand yourself and you have not asked what do people experience of me?  

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MARCH 2024

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