Michael Tobin, Former CEO of Telecity Group, as of August 2014, talks to Liz Mellon about how extreme and unusual management techniques help teams to overcome fear of business failure
Ever since I read Forget Strategy, Get Results by Michael Tobin, I was eager to meet the man himself. Many leaders “talk the talk”, but a fraction of them “walk the talk”. Rarely had I encountered one that, at least on paper, also did it with panache and a twist of lemon. Shaken and stirred.
So, an interview over lunch was arranged. I was intrigued.
As CEO of global provider of data centres Telecity Group, Tobin leads the management of the company and the formulation and implementation of its strategy. But his book recommends management techniques that are extreme and unusual. For example he details how he and his team were kidnapped and interrogated by “Kalashnikov-wielding members of the KGB” to teach them how to handle journalists’ questions. He runs marathons, competes in triathlons and takes his staff on extreme physical challenges to overcome fear of business failure. After all, once you have swum with sharks (another one of his team-building activities), it puts even the biggest business decision into perspective. But would he just be the product of a ghost writer’s imagination, a brash London-East- End-boy-made-good on a mission to conquer the world’s toughest terrains, or a man of true courage and compassion?
We sat, divided by the table, age, gender and choice of career. Me, an academic, with some experience of running a small business, and he, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist who continues to build and grow a global business. Yet, we turn out to believe in the same fundamentals of what it takes to be a leader. We shared our experiences of the slums in India and our African encounters. We compared our shared views of China’s re-emergence as a global power, the true definition of courage and what it was like to grow up poor. My doctorate was on leaders’ values: Tobin wears his values on his sleeve, bright, shiny and offering guidance on a dark night.
During the interview, we dug deeply into a small number of core leadership capabilities we believe enable change at the warp speed demanded by business today. Core capabilities that are easy to list, but which are extraordinarily challenging to deliver. Let’s start with courage.
Tobin is clear that fear is a core driver for people. Too many organizations talk about the importance of collaboration and innovation, while employees are too scared to move outside the office manuals or to take a decision. And while fear is a driver, it leaves a lot of untapped potential in its wake, because fear drives people to conform and to do what they are told, rather than to take risks and go beyond what is being asked of them.
But having courage and taking risks doesn’t mean the fear goes away. As Tobin explains: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the capacity to take action despite being scared.” It’s like learning to scuba dive if you are afraid of drowning; the fear is still with you, but it doesn’t stop you. Fear leads to lack of initiative and acting under instruction, and ultimately to political behaviour, where being right and on the right side matter more than results. Having courage eradicates politics because people take actions and manage their fear, controlling it rather than letting fear stifle or stop them. He says: “I get lonely and inside, I have my demons, but I control my fear and do it anyway.” Failure is the liberation of fear.
Tobin points out that, if individuals only ever experience success, they will become more limited and one dimensional, to the point that failure can derail them. (The opposite is also true – those who experience only failure learn how to be helpless and suspicious of success). There is such a thing as a learning and a non-learning mindset. Those who can see risk and failure as part of the process of growing and developing are unafraid to experiment. And if success is measured by an internal barometer, as Tobin says in his book, you can become instantly more successful just by changing your mood. Tobin attributes the difference in rates of entrepreneurship between the US and the UK as the latter’s fear of failure – he sees the UK as a risk-averse nation.
There’s been discussion among female leaders about “having it all”, the notion that something has to be sacrificed (family time, children, socialising) for a woman to have a successful career. I think this takes the debate to the wrong place because no one can “have it all”; the key is about options. If you have no options, you have no choice and so you are compelled or corralled towards one outcome. If you can create options, then you have choice – but you then have to own the choice you make. Those who regret their choices are the ones who then talk about the sacrifices they have had to make and bemoan the impossibility of having it all. Tobin agrees. At school, he was a competent student, but preferred the idea of making money to going to university, so he chose to start work instead of pursuing book learning. He owned his choice, whether what followed had been failure, rather than the great success he has now achieved. Much of his charity work is driven by his desire to give equality of opportunity and education to those who would otherwise have no choices.
Tobin has a sense of derring-do, personal physical challenge, fun, keeping friends and family close to help run the business, a challenging upbringing, little education and being self-made. Like Virgin CEO Richard Branson, he has overcome childhood challenges, although in Tobin’s case they included being bullied at school, being chased across the world and attacked by a violent father (see box above). But like Branson, he believes in surrounding himself with people who he can trust, including life-long friends (three of his best men from his wedding work in his business). Tobin’s view is that skillsets can be learned faster than trust can be built and so he regularly gives challenging assignments to people he trusts who are, on the face of it, not qualified for the job in hand. So he gave the job of running an Initial Placement Offer to a network engineer, on the grounds that “it’s just another type of project” and had his head of investor relations build new data centres. Doesn’t having people he regards as friends running big chunks of the business make performance management hard? “No,” says Tobin, because he doesn’t have favourites; he has a steady eye on what’s best for the business. He thinks that performance management is easier if you surround yourself with “brilliant people”. Tobin is right, but the difference with him is that he doesn’t just say it, he does it.
It’s getting towards the end of an inspirational lunch, so I pinch myself and ask a tough question – with all this success, how do you keep yourself in touch with the, often harsh, realities of life? How do you stay close to the needs and aspirations of your employees, who don’t have drivers and fly business class? How do you keep in touch with what’s important rather than get swept away by your own importance? He responds by explaining about some of his charity work, visiting sick children in Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, poor schools in India, sleeping rough alongside other CEOs in London’s Paternoster Square once a year. The difference is that at the end of the day, he goes home – the sick and the poor can’t. It’s not 24 hours in their lives; it is their lives. How can he ever become smug or arrogant when there is such unhappiness and need in the world? And all his indicators pointed towards the same outcome for him when he was young, with poverty, criminality and violence in his family. But, in describing his philanthropy, he is tough on his own motivations, explaining that his charity work is an opportunity for him to assuage his guilt for having escaped his destiny; for having made it when others couldn’t. I was intrigued to meet Michael Tobin. From the moment I put out my hand to shake his, I knew that I was meeting an unusual leader.
Liz Mellon is co-author of Executing Strategy: A 5 Step Guide for Turning Vision into Action
Michael Tobin: the man and the author
Michael Tobin is second generation Irish and the youngest of five children. His father was abusive so his mother fled with her two youngest children to Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia). The Unilateral Declaration of Independence was declared shortly after their arrival. This led to two bouts of bullying; in Rhodesia for being British when Britain was thought to have restricted imports, and once back in Britain for having lived in an apartheid regime. Tobin eschewed University in favour of hustling reconditioned pianos from derelict houses on London’s Old Kent Road to be sold for £10 in the markets. He attributes a lot of his good fortune to luck (backed up by determination, commitment, risk-taking and hard work). Now, CEO of Telecity Group, Tobin leads the management of the group, and the formulation and implementation of its strategy. He has more than 25 years’ experience in senior roles across the telecommunications and technology sector. Prior to joining Telecity Group, he led Fujitsu’s e-Commerce operations in Germany. Before that, he ran ICL’s Danish outsourcing subsidiary in Copenhagen. He held senior positions based in Paris for 11 years at International Computer Group and Tricord Systems Europe, and was formerly MD of Goupil UK. Tobin is a non-executive director of Pacnet, an Asia Pacific provider of network and technology solutions.
Tobin is chairman of the Friends of The Loomba Trust and on the boards of Byte Night, which raises money for Action for Children; The Technology Leadership Group and The Prince’s Trust, and the fundraising boards of Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Make a Wish Foundation UK.
He was awarded Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for IT Services. His book Forget Strategy, Get Results was launched in February 2014.