An Ode to Benny Higgins

Business, L&D, Leadership, Uncategorized, workplace

My “Howl” tattoo


so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.


Last week I had the pleasure of attending the annual HR Grapevine conference (#HRGV2016 if you want to check out the Twitter coverage of the day). Last week’s conference, and in particular one of the keynote speakers Benny Higgins from Tesco Bank, inspired me to write this blog post. From here on out I’m going to be referring to Mr Higgins as Benny, for convenience and also because its fun to pretend we’re friends.


So what was it about Benny’s speech that I found so inspiring? Never before, has my career and my love of literature collided so vividly than it did during Benny’s talk. I have a BA & MA in English Literature, but I’m now an L&D and BD Consultant; Benny is a banker and according to his Wikipedia page he has a “literary bent”. He quoted from the Great Gatsby (one of my favourite books) and from Maya Angelou’s poetry (everyone should read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) and I lapped it up. In his lilting Scottish accent, it felt to me like he spoke from the heart about subjects and topics he truly felt inspired by, and that’s what the best kind of presenters and speakers can do. They leave you feeling as if they’ve given you a small piece of themselves, an insight into their lives and hearts and you feel connected.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 10.55.04

Benny Higgins speaking at the HR Grapevine 2016 conference, I added my own favourite Gatsby quote.


Sticking with the literary theme, I would say that Benny was the very antithesis of what Holden Caulfield would have described as a phony:


“He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to show us what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God—talk to Him and all—wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.”

(J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye).


Perhaps I’m just one of life’s skeptics, and maybe I found Benny so shocking because post the 2008 financial crisis, we’re all experiencing severe distrust for anyone working in banking, and maybe I was expecting more of an 80s cliché, a Gordon Gecko or someone straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross:


MOSS: That’s the God’s truth. And it gets me depressed. I swear that it does. AT MY AGE. To see a goddamn: “Somebody wins the Cadillac this month. P.S. Two guys get fucked.”

(David Mamet: Glengarry Glen Ross).


After Benny’s session I started wondering about my presenting style, and if I manage to make a connection with my audience. I was recently lucky enough to give a guest lecture at Leeds Beckett University for their 3rd year business and HR students, and my talk was on values-based leadership. I truly hope it resonated with them. I tried to speak from the heart, I was open and honest about the types of leadership mistakes I’ve made and seen, although I doubt I was inspirational. Nevertheless, Benny has got me thinking that maybe its time that my literary and work lives stop being so separate. Although my favourite poem is Howl by Allen Ginsburg (the tattoo is mine), and I’m not sure your average sane person is going to be inspired by that, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” – and then again, maybe those of us who empathise with Ginsberg need inspiration the most.


Nevertheless I can certainly see why Benny chooses to quote Maya Angelou, an undeniably inspirational woman and a beautiful poet, I can’t believe he has been fortunate enough to have met her in real life:


Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

(Maya Angelou: Still I Rise).


I’m going to endeavour and aspire towards making my audience feel connected with me, and feeling as though we’ve shared an experience together. Next time I prepare for presenting or public speaking, I’m going to attempt to not just inform and persuade but also to connect and engage and I hope you do the same. We could all be a little more like Benny Higgins.


Values-based Leadership

Business, L&D, Leadership, Management, Uncategorized, workplace

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” Roy E. Disney.


I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked back to Leeds Beckett University to talk to their Leadership Centre students again. This time I’m going to talk to them about values-based leadership.


I started thinking about my leadership journey, and what type of leader I used to be, which invariably got me thinking about the leadership mistakes I’ve made; which is why I’ve decided my guest lecture is going to be centered around my own experiences, and helping them to avoid the mistakes I’ve made. I have also witnessed some leadership mistakes from people above me (as I’m sure most of us have) and I’m going to share those too.


One of the moments that so clearly stood out in my mind around the times I’ve seen terrible leadership, leadership from someone who apparently stood for no values whatsoever, was when my ex manager used to espouse buzzwords after jargon followed by nonsense to the extent that whenever he spoke someone would mouth “bullshit bingo” to someone else in the room, and we would all start mentally counting how many of these words he used. Values-based leaders are inspirational, and nobody was EVER inspired, by jargon. I hope the students leaving my session remember that for when they’re all of our bosses. The person I’m referring to was eventually found out, as is often the case, as being all buzzwords and no substance, and I was given his job, and if nothing else, I always avoided jargon and buzzwords.


I also want the students to leave the session understanding that they have to be their own brand of VBLeader. It is great to be inspired by someone, but you’ve got to adapt, hone and create a leadership style that’s your own. How do you do that? In my experience it was from getting stuck in, trying new things, and making some mistakes. Some people see being a VBLeader as being an “authentic” leader. I’ve got a lot of problems with this term, for a fantastic article on the contradictory nature of “authentic” leadership, see my colleague Mark Gilroy’s blog: The Problem With Authenticity 


Ok, so that was an example of bad leadership that I’ve witnessed, but what leadership faux pas have I been guilty of? One of many things I’ve learnt about the world of work since joining TMS, is that we don’t all want the same things from work, from our colleagues, leaders and career paths. We don’t all have the same values. That seems pretty obvious I’m sure but I think generally speaking, the world of work and certainly the world of clinical trials (my background) is so fast-paced that you never get the opportunity to stand back, think self-reflexively and wonder if there might have been a better way of packaging that piece of tough news, or in communicating a new strategy. We’re all so busy with our own goals and deadlines, and of our teams and staff hitting their deadlines that most “development” becomes a tick box exercise at best. However, as leaders it is our responsibility and our duty to think about these things. We must make the time to be self-reflexive and consider what our staff wants and needs from us, not just always think of bottom lines and outputs. I wish someone had offered me that advice in my first leadership role.


Being a leader can be tough and sometimes it calls for some tough decisions. I’ve seen many a leader fall into the trap of wanting people to feel involved in a decision they ultimately have no power to influence (thank you for voting against that change plan, we’re going to do it anyway but thanks for playing, I’m glad I got to waste some of your time with this). It has got to be the fastest way to frustrate your staff. If you’ve made a decision, or someone above you has, and it has to be that way, don’t take a vote or package it like you’re after consensus if you’re not. Be honest with people and tell them you’re going that way and why. I’m not saying to close yourself off to hearing other people’s opinions, but don’t mislead people. I understand the temptation, if they agree with you then you look magnanimous and people feel like their opinion matters, but if they don’t and you do it anyway you’re just confirming for people that their opinion AND their time don’t matter to you.


To summarise:


  • Know what your values are
  • Understand what your staff needs from you
  • Appreciate that different viewpoints can be beneficial
  • Be honest
  • Don’t bullshit.


I’m going to end this blog on the quote I’m going to leave the students with:


“In order to become balanced, you must dismiss one big myth: that the leader is the all-knowing person with all of the answers. […] The goal, after all, is not to be right but to do the right thing.” (Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jnr 2011).