The Agenda

#13 - Emmanuel Gobillot - Making people stronger and more capable

February 08, 2022 SHERPANY
#13 - Emmanuel Gobillot - Making people stronger and more capable
The Agenda
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The Agenda
#13 - Emmanuel Gobillot - Making people stronger and more capable
Feb 08, 2022
Why leaders should listen to understand before they talk so that people follow

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, leadership author, speaker and consultant, Emmanuel Gobillot, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about ways for leaders to listen so that they understand before they talk, and ways to make people stronger and more capable. For more podcasts, stay connected at

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #Leading Together

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Show Notes Transcript
Why leaders should listen to understand before they talk so that people follow

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, leadership author, speaker and consultant, Emmanuel Gobillot, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai, about ways for leaders to listen so that they understand before they talk, and ways to make people stronger and more capable. For more podcasts, stay connected at

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #Leading Together

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Nisha Pillai 00:00:06

Welcome to this special edition of The Agenda. I've just moderated a live event looking at some of the key leadership decisions facing organisations as we enter another dark winter in the COVID pandemic and we were all blown away by the keynote speaker we're about to hear from.

My guest today believes that there must be a better way for leaders to lead and for people to work together, and for the last 15 years, he's been on a quest to help leaders and their teams find that better way. He's been described as the first leadership guru for the digital generation.

Emmanuel Gobillot has written no less than nine bestselling books. He runs his own consultancy firm, and he's an acclaimed public speaker.

So big, warm welcome, Emmanuel, great to have you with us.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:01:00

Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to The Agenda.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:04

So let's start off by a better way. What does that mean? What do you mean by it?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:01:10

You know, so I guess I started this for the same reason a noise that makes a pearl, out of sheer irritation. You know, I was employed in a business finding myself constantly thinking, really? is that really how we treat people, be that customers, do we really have to do this?

You know, with all of that enthusiasm that those young people have for changing things. And one of the things I had early on, there has to be a better way. And one of the deals I made with myself was, whatever happens, I'm just not going to let that go. I don't want to become the person who thinks if we can get away with that, we'll be OK.

So that was kind of the mission, you know, and as I progress, I thought I've been really good at raising the issue of thinking, really? But actually, I can't be the one bringing the answer. The answer has to be a collective answer. So, the phrase I always use is there has to be a better way, and together we can find it.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:17

So what are the ingredients of the better way?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:02:19

I think the better way is one where everybody comes away from it thinking, I'm OK, I haven't lost my humanity, I haven't lost anything, I haven't compromised, I haven't. You know, we've built something together.

I think the problem is and I think that's a false Trump, the Dutch think a good, good friend funds always says, you know, the difficulty we have is we always try to make a choice between two positions, and as a result, we kind of end up somewhere in the middle. And actually, wouldn't it be better to try to combine those opposites and find something different? So I think it is. I think it is if we all put our points of view together.

Nisha Pillai 00:03:03

Give me an example.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:03:04

So I tell you, I look, I'm not going to make it. So Catherine on that. My wife and I got married and decided to go on a honeymoon as people do. So we've never been to Japan. I've been pretty much all over the world for my job, but we've never been to Japan. Neither of us had been to Japan, so we thought, OK, well then let's go somewhere. We've never been a honeymoon, you know, hopefully, there'll be only one. You know, it's kind of you to want to make it special.

So we thought about Japan and then we started to think, why? But I don't know. What about if it doesn't work out because we've never been we don't know. How about if it's a flop if we don't enjoy Japan? Let's go to New York now. We met in New York, we got engaged, we love New York. Okay, so we know 100 percent we're going to stay at the same place. We're going to love every minute of it, but it's boring because we've been before. So now if you're an executive, you probably end up in Istanbul. Right?

Nisha Pillai 00:03:53

Because it's kind of the middle of choice.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:03:55

Not a bad place, but it doesn't fulfill anything. It's just the ultimate compromise. So now the interesting point in business is how do you break that line and don't make it a straight line by saying, How do I get to Japan on New York? How do I work that out?

Now I'll tell you what we did. OK, so we went to New York on the Queen Mary. We've never been on the boat, so that's a new experience. We can enjoy Japanese food if we want to on the boat because you can have pretty much whatever you want. It's a brand new experience for both of us, but we knew that at the end of those seven days, we were in New York anyway.

So if everything went wrong, if we were seasick because we'd never been on the boat, we would have been OK. So what we try to do is you think, OK, what can we do? Which fulfills both the need of being new, something completely different than we'd never done, and the need of being guaranteed enjoyment? I'm not saying this is the perfect answer, but it's a different way of thinking than thinking, OK, how do I get a bit of both and end up nowhere?

Nisha Pillai 00:04:48

And do you think that way of thinking where you're trying to include both points of view on many points of view in decision making in leadership is something that these times need? Business leaders could do with more of that thinking right now.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:05:04

I think I think, yes, just because we just don't have the answer. There is no answer. You know, the future is uncertain, but that's the future. It has always been that way. And to think that me, with my point of view, with my experience, actually have that I have the right answer is unlikely.

You know, there is there are generational differences, there are gender differences. There are all sorts of things going on in the world which I have no experience of. So at some stage, you're going to have to get more points of view. Now, of course, not everything is a dilemma. You know, as a leader, you have to make a choice. Sometimes you have to make a decision. Sometimes you have to think, Well, look, this is not optimal, but this is where we're going to go with. And you have to learn with learning to live with the outcome.

But starting a position by saying, I know I'm right, I think is sure, you know, it has to lead you to failure because there is something somewhere which you won't have taken into account. So the more you can see, the more points of view you can bring in, the more you can deal with those dilemmas in a different way, the more likely you are to succeed.

Nisha Pillai 00:06:09

Leaders are nothing if they don't take their teams and the whole organisation with them. They can very well set targets and goals and strategies but they can be whistling in the wind. You don't take the team with them.

What do you think is missing right now in terms of bringing organisations together? We are, after all, still in the thick of the pandemic in many parts of the world.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:06:38

If you think about, you know, what is the job of a leader, what levels do leader? So leaders do three jobs. They have to work in the business. There's some stuff that leaders do. Yeah, they have to do themselves personally, deliver whatever.

Then they have a job which is on the business. Are we working efficiently? Do we have the right resources? Do we have the right capability? Are we doing things in the right way and so on and so forth.

Then there's a bid which is out of the business, what's coming up, what you know, what was the next thing that I haven't even thought about? Now I think what we are missing is the right ratio of those three activities.

Now the problem is the more uncertain things become, the more the pandemic has struck us. The more we want to resolve, the more we need the immediacy, the more we go back in the business and lead us by and large are comfortable in the business because that's where they were born. Leaders are made in the business.

Now what we find through our research is that actually value is created on the business. So you know, what we need is CEOs to spend 20 percent of their time in the business, 40 percent of their time, 50 percent of their time on the business, 10-20 percent out of the business.

Now that ratio, if it gets out of kilter if you start to spend too much time in the business, then what we lose is we lose that richness of ideas, that creativity, all the stuff that we need in order to get through. I mean, actually, the pandemic, you know, has brought some amazing stuff. I mean, I've seen in the public sector, you know, the public-private sector working together at the start of the pandemic to try to sort things out, boundaries breaking left, right and center. And that created a richness which, you know, just brought new ideas, brought creativity.

So I think if we start to think about on the business, what does that look like? How can we do things better rather than OK, I need to do this, that, and the other. But it's tough. It is tough because, you know, the more uncertain things are, the more the environment is pushing you back, say, Come on, give me an answer. You know, there's nothing worse than having a boss. I don't know if you you know you've got a boss who's been on a coaching course or something and you go and see them and say, boss, you know, I've been, I'm stuck. What should I do? And because they've been on the course, they go, What do you think you should do? And you go, No, I just want you to tell me.

Nisha Pillai 00:08:49

And so hang on a sec, I'm going to interrupt you there because I've heard you speaking, giving one of your acclaimed public addresses. And one of the key things you talk about is co-create with, Yeah. So you're talking about the need to empower your teams and help them to deliver on these goals and not giving them all the solutions, right? So the opposite of what you just said, like, how do you do that?

How do you empower your teams to feel that they can do it without censure, without the organisation coming on their backs?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:09:18

So what I'm talking about when I talk about this thing is how do I make you stronger and more capable now if you know that I'm capable, that I've been working hard, that I'm devoted, that I'm working and I come to you with a question, the likelihood is I've thought about it quite a bit already and am unlikely to have the answer. So if you want to make me stronger and more capable, then give me the answer, you know.

So it's not a one-size-fits-all. So I think the act of co-creation is really one where we sit down and think, OK, what do I need to inject here? You know what? What is it? I'm constantly thinking about what is it that I need to do in order to make you stronger and more capable?

Now the problem with leaders is we tend to see organisation as hierarchies with one person at the top, and that person's voice tends to be quite loud and resonate. But actually, that person's influence is tiny.

You know, if you think of organisation as an ice cream cone, the action is at the top, the thousands and thousands of people we interact with every day with thousands and thousands of customers or whatever it might be. Now that voice of the CEO at the bottom, he's actually quite a small voice. So you know, why is it resonate? Its impact is relatively small, so the thing for the CEO is to say, OK, how do I make the 10-14 people alongside me stronger and more capable so they can make the 10-15 people alongside them stronger and more capable and so on and so forth?

So co-creation really starts with a different way of working at the very top, which then automatically starts to filter through the organisation…

Nisha Pillai 00:10:48

Something that's been on my mind a lot at the moment. As we are entering into possibly another deep, dark winter of lockdowns because of the COVID pandemic is what is the role of business leaders in nudging their staff, their organisations for long to do the civically responsible thing, which is to get vaccinated? It's hugely polarising. Do you think the business leaders have a role in this?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:11:15

I think it is hugely polarising, and it's not an easy one to answer. So, like most things, I'm going to say, well, yes and no. Yes, they have a role. I think look duty of any employee of any kind is to keep people safe, you know, and they are something on which. So, you know, we talked about the dilemma. Health and safety are not a dilemma.

It's not one of those where you think, well, you know, it's either that or not, so I think there's a duty of care now. A duty of care doesn't have to translate into a mandate for vaccination. You know, there might be some more creative ways in which you can do it. But there also comes a point where you have to think about why is it that people don't want to get vaccinated?

And there's a lot of noise out there, and there's a lot of alternative facts, misinformation, all sorts of things that I think as a leader, you are remiss if you didn't deal with some of that because people don't just become a different person when they come to work. So they bring all of that fear and whatever it may be to work. So I think there's there's a duty for employers not to ignore it. I think there's a duty of care.

Nisha Pillai 00:12:25

And what about the duty for empathy? Because at the moment it's to do with the vaccinations. It might be other issues which are equally polarising gender issues, for instance, some people are for it and some people think it's nonsense.

So you have these divisions within your workforce as a leader. What is your role in terms of empathising with people you don't agree with you possibly?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:12:46

I think empathy is overrated. Not a bad thing. What do I mean by that? I think the problem with empathy is empathy is an intellectual exercise. It's about me understanding how you feel now that can be to either me dismissing it. It can be leading to me abusing that because I understand how you feel. Therefore, I may be able to manipulate it. But it certainly doesn't construct anything positive.

So I prefer to talk about compassion and compassion for me is a kind of active empathy that says, look, I really get where you're coming from, and I'm happy to help you do something with that, not, I get where you're coming from. You're wrong. I get where you come from now. You may well be wrong, but there's you know me telling you you're wrong is not going to help anybody to achieve anything.

So the act of compassion is one to say, OK, let's deal with what's on the table together, not me influencing you, not me trying to have one over you, not me trying to ignore you, but me trying to think, OK, how do we move? This is me. This is, you know, so talk about the vaccine thing. OK, so if I believe that vaccination is the right thing to do, is the right thing for me, is the right thing for you, is the right thing for everybody. You believe the exact opposite. What we do.

Nisha Pillai 00:14:10

What do we do? Tell me.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:14:12

Well, I think we talk about it. Why do you believe that? Is that right? Where do you get your stuff from? How are we going to move forward again?

Nisha Pillai 00:14:19

So a lot of conversations then take place in large organisations...

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:14:23

This is why we need to go back to actually what's useful. Now, you can decide to make the whole thing simpler by saying where you can't work here unless you're vaccinated or you can't come into the office, so you're going to have to have a policy.

But you know, we're back to there is a fundamental issue for any business, which is more than 14 people, which is at some stage you're going to get into intimacy. Let's have those conversations to get somewhere.

Efficiency, how do I make it happen at scale? We have a lot more technology now which can help us to have conversations at scale. We have different ways of working, so there's a big job to do. But, what's the alternative?

Nisha Pillai 00:15:03

So what do you think are the key qualities that leaders need during these uncertain times, these very polarising times? Could you boil it down for me?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:15:11

Yeah, I guess. Listen and talk. I separate the two because I think both of them have a different role to play.

Now one of the things we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, which is going to cause great difficulties for most leaders, is leaders had a tendency to over-communicate in a good way. So people, you know, CEOs would do little videos on their way back home. You know, this is what I've done today. Come on, you know, let's all be cool. And there was a lot of communication, over communication all the time to try to reassure people to try to get them onside.

Now I'm starting to see them pulling back and saying, oh, OK, you know, when we've done that for two years now, we need to move to something else. And I think that's going to create difficulties because people are saying, this is quite cool.

This other communication stuff is quite useful and it's engaging. And actually, I'm seeing more and learning more about the organisation MO. So I think there's a communication role. There's something about speaking more about broadcasting messages, being able to bring some narratives into the organisation.

The second quality is one of listening. It's one of saying actually what is going on and not listening? I mean, most leaders don't listen, they reload, you know, so they say: What do you mean? What I mean is they stay quiet because they're just thinking about the next thing they're going to say, all right. Not because they're listening to what you're saying. They're just thinking, OK, how do I know where I'm going?

So they've kind of reloading, you know? And now here's the issue. If I listen to understand rather than listen to argue or listen to be right, then then we get into a conversation and that act of listening is really hard again.

Nisha Pillai 00:16:47

Listen to understand. That's a very powerful point, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:16:51

Not listen to speak, you know? And that's...

Nisha Pillai 00:16:54

Or to convince you.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:16:55

Or to convince you or to try to, you know, constantly think ahead.

Nisha Pillai 00:16:57

That's a very, very interesting point. OK, so I'm going to flip it around. What do you think that people need organisations need from their leaders at this point?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:17:09

I think they need accuracy. So, you know, it is easy to be pushed into a situation where you have to say, you know, just because people are fearful, you know, what do we want as followers, as followers?

We want our leaders to be like us, but kind of better, you know? If you think about it, you kind of want them to be like us. But you want to think of them a bit better than you think of yourself than you think they've got something. And I think from my point of view, that's kind of what we want. We want somebody who is accurate.

So we push people to give us answers they don't have. So a strong leader would be somebody who says, OK, this is the truth. And if the truth is, I don't know, then you have to find a way of saying, I don't know, and that's how we're going to find out. You know...

Nisha Pillai 00:18:00

As you were speaking just now. I was saying to myself, we want our leaders to be like us, but better. And I thought, no, it depends on which country you're in. It's very polarised culturally.

So I want to ask you a final question about what it's like to be a public speaker, traveling the world, engaging with people from different parts of the world, different cultures. How much do you have to modify what you're saying to connect?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:18:26

Well, a lot, I think. So there are two-part to the answer. Now, most business is still done with American models that were designed in the 60s and 70s, 50s, 60s, 70s before there was anything technological or whatever else and we still bank the same models and it's still the same. So there is a global language of business just because everybody is being influenced by the same writing, the same business. So you've got to kind of know that language.

My problem is that language doesn't really resonate with me, and I've always thought, if you want to be understood, then you have to speak in the language of your audience so that requires a lot of adaptation. It also needs you to be careful that in trying to adapt, you also don't lose who you are. You know, so I mean, sometimes you know I go to.

I try to avoid countries that give me very long contracts saying, You can't say this, you can't say this. You can't say that because I know that that's like a red to a. They are the first things I'm going to say when I step on stage. So because I want to come back, I always will avoid those countries. So I think you have to adapt culturally. But if you have a message, you can't adapt to the point that your message is diluted.

Sometimes audiences will get it, and it's my skill to make sure that they get it. But I won't change the message just in order to please the audience. I'll try to make sure it resonates with them.

Nisha Pillai 00:19:54

So our podcast series is all about leaders on leadership.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:19:58


Nisha Pillai 00:19:58

Can I ask you to do a very difficult thing, which is to try and bring to a point where our conversation has been about what do you want our listeners to take away from this?

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:20:09

Well, I'm always asked, you know, what's the one thing, what's the one thing. And I mean, I remember having a discussion with my publisher when my first book came out said, you know, describe the book in one sentence, and I thought, What's the point of writing a book? If you can do it in one sentence, you know, it might as well just send a tweet or something.

So I always struggled with what was the one point. But you know, I think there is the closest I ever got in my practice to it, to a silver bullet, to leadership, to this thing that goes to the code. Is this question? If you can answer by the affirmative the question of how I made them feel stronger and more capable? and if the answer is yes, then I think people will follow you because they will trust you because they will see something in you.

You know, as a leader, if you can constantly have that, do they feel stronger and more capable after that small encounter that we've had after that, that two-minute conversation in the lift after that three-hour meeting, you know, not too happy? Not maybe that challenge or whatever, but that too they feel stronger as a result. And I think it's our duty as leaders to make them feel stronger. But it's also the reward that if we make people feel stronger, they will give us everything they've got.

Nisha Pillai 00:21:19

Now I understand why you're such a successful motivational speaker, Emmanuel. It's been great to have you with us on The Agenda.

Emmanuel Gobillot 00:21:26

Thank you so much.