An inspiring conversation about leadership (and life) with HR director Toby Peyton-Jones, shortly before he became a Government education advisor, gave me much to reflect on.
Toby Peyton-Jones is preparing to leave Siemens at the age of 59. His back catalogue includes assignments in China and Germany plus a decade as HR director in the UK. What’s he learned about leadership and life along the way?
How often do you remember the very first words someone said to you?
Twenty-five years ago I was on a Siemens training programme run by Toby Peyton-Jones. “Think of me,” said Toby, describing his role as a facilitator, “as the piano player in a gin joint.”
Toby has always had wit, colour and individuality coupled with the musing air and intellect of a university don. How on earth has he happily prospered for three decades in the corporate world?
It turns out he’s happy to be different. “I’ve always sought out places where I stood out like a sore thumb,” he says, reflecting on his time in the army as well as his career with Siemens. “That way you don’t join the same queue as everyone else. I figured there might not be a lot of opportunities in Siemens that are Toby-shaped, but when one comes along there’s probably not going to be a lot of competition for it.”
Toby discovered he was different early on. He couldn’t read or write until he was 10, in an era when children with dyslexia were undiagnosed and classed, at best, as slow. “I learned coping strategies at a young age,” he says, “and found I had other useful gifts.” One was memorising vast tracts of text by heart. Can anyone else recite a translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Parts 1 and 2?
He passed 11 O levels (and went on to get three science A levels and a degree) but failed three first time round: “English, English and English. I got a U for one which I explained to my father was off the end of the scale. ‘Which end?’ he asked.”
Some of his teachers showed similar belief. When a history teacher handed back homework to everyone in the class but passed Toby’s to his form tutor “because it was so awful”, leaving him to sit out the lesson without an exercise book, the form tutor called Toby to his office a few days later. He said he couldn’t read the comments written at the bottom, but the rest of it looked fine.
“So a few people believed in me. And I wasn’t put off by negativity. In fact it’s made me very robust. I’ve seen people at work crushed when they get something wrong, whereas I always cut myself a lot of slack. And I enjoy feedback.”
Yet many of us struggle with it. A few years after I first met Toby playing piano in a gin joint I saw him in action again, this time facilitating a 180 degree feedback session. He was a model of calm and reason but it didn’t feel so comfortable for the rest of us, whether giving feedback or on the receiving end. Telling your manager what you thought of them felt alien, and so too did being listened to. Toby is big on listening and, fast forwarding a couple of decades, it seems to be an increasingly valued skill in business.
“We think of listening as a passive process but that’s a big myth. Listening and synthesising are essential skills for today’s leaders.” He freely admits he’s not a natural listener himself but has learned how powerful it can be. He encouraged the Siemens UK Board to use Listening Groups rather than Town Hall meetings to discuss strategic topics with employees. To begin with there was a lot more transmit than receive from the Board, but with coaching that’s changed.
“The Listening Groups are now very powerful, positive experiences,” says Toby, calling on Einstein for support. “He told us we’re only limited by the quality of the questions we ask. That’s what limits our humanity, our intellect. Once you start on a journey of enquiry it unlocks possibilities no-one had thought about.” A lot of people, he adds, base their career on what they know, “while I base mine on what I don’t know. I’m forever asking questions of myself and of others.”
As well as asking more questions and listening hard, another big step for today’s leaders is recognising they don’t have all the answers: great news for employees who blanch at the thought of another troops-rallying PowerPoint presentation telling them exactly where the organisation is headed.
“In today’s world, where things are changing so fast, the idea that just one person can have a vision that is cascaded down through an organisation is clearly bonkers. We’ve grown up with this idea of a visionary, iconic leader but it’s fundamentally flawed,” argues Toby.
“People have developed their career by having an opinion and being right, only to find when they get to the top of the Christmas tree they’ve not really got a clue about how the world is going to unfold. That’s very threatening. And it means that the traditional skill set has to be turned around.”
Rather than coming up with a vision and an action plan, leaders should be setting out what Toby calls “the field of endeavour – the space the organisation needs to move into”. Their skill must lie in engaging and motivating their people rather than performance managing them towards a set of objectives.
“Leaders have to ask: how much of our attention is on delivering today’s business and how much is on building tomorrow’s? They need to make sure they’ve got really smart people to deliver today’s business, but the leadership job is about building tomorrow. That’s a big shift and it’s changed the conversations we have in our board meetings.”
It’s also changing the culture of the company. “We’ve had to create a different climate, in which people can really bring their talent to bear, and make sure we encourage ideas from all parts of the business. Harvesting the collective intelligence of the organisation is a key leadership task today.”
One way it happens is via Siemens’ internal social network, where employees can post project opportunities and invite colleagues to sign up to a task if they’re interested, circumnavigating traditional recruitment processes. “We need an environment that’s open to innovation and open to challenge, where we’re happy to disrupt ourselves. The culture and creativity of an organisation are probably the last bastions of real competitive advantage, and investors are beginning to understand that we need to get to grips with these intangible assets which don’t appear on a profit and loss balance sheet.”
Could customers – or indeed colleagues – be pondering how culture and creativity will get their project delivered on time? Toby is back in the gin joint. “You need two hands to play the piano,” is his way of seeing it. “The right hand will still be totally focused on ensuring we deliver on our promises. But you can’t play music today with just one hand: you need to develop the left hand too. We have to create the right climate for the magic to happen.”
Toby’s been an architect of culture change in Siemens which he likens to the ‘coming out’ of the company. One measure of progress could be the willingness of colleagues at a recent Siemens Leadership Forum to share, for example, what it’s like to struggle with mental health issues, or to grow a career as a gay person in the 80s – highly personal stories that moved some in the audience to tears. You sense Toby’s heart-felt determination that the company truly embraces diversity, “where everyone can bring all of themselves into play”.
He sees diversity as “the fuel of innovation” but recognises some leaders are challenged by it. “Although we know intellectually that diverse teams are stronger, we’re biologically hard-wired to be suspicious of people who don’t look and sound like us, and when we’re under stress biology kicks in.”
The earlier we experience diversity the better. Toby lived in Trinidad until he was eight, the only white boy in his class, and when his family returned to the UK it was normal at Christmas for immigrants with nowhere to go to join them. “My parents embraced people from all walks of life and that rubs off on you.”
He delights that “being different is now good” in the business world and talks of his own coming out. “I’ve always been myself, but not as explicitly as I am today.” He’s referring not just to his openness about his dyslexia but to his career before Siemens which as well as the army (Royal Engineers and Territorial) included, amongst other things, three years as a professional racing boat skipper. And then there’s the zoology degree.
“When I worked at Siemens HQ in Munich, the first question anybody asked me was what I’d studied at university.” He knew zoology was not the right answer; the convention was either engineering or, for the world of HR, perhaps a background in organisational psychology. “In the late 80s I was told by my UK colleagues, ‘for goodness sake don’t show anyone your CV when you’re in Germany’. But we’ve come a long way since then and today people are fascinated by my background.”
He credits zoology – especially his study of genetics and neuro-science – for helping him understand why people behave the way they do. What better preparation for the world of work?
“I’ve always thought if you can understand a brick you can understand a building,” says Toby, painting one of many pictures that pepper our conversation. “Leadership is now talked about in terms of managing an eco-system and we see companies today acting in an organic way.” The vocabulary of his student days is now part of the business lexicon.
His army years were another valuable training ground. Attracted by the adventure and suited “to the peace-time role of the Sappers: building bridges and blowing things up”, one big bonus was learning a lot about leadership.
“I learned about the necessity of planning but also how you’ve got to leave the plan behind, use your initiative and feel and act like an empowered unit.” It also gave him perspective on what’s important. “If nobody dies, that’s pretty good. I look at people getting heated and shouting and I can rise above it. I learned from the army how to manage difficult situations.”
Perspective is a word he often conjures with. “Two hairs on your head feels like not a lot, but two in your soup seems two too many. Part of my journey has been to develop the ability to toggle between two perspectives and I think that’s a really valuable skill.
“We judge ourselves by our intent but others by the effect they have, which is bizarre. I like to find out what lies behind people’s behaviour – what their journey has been – and I treat people as if they’re well intended, which is true 99 per cent of the time. Like I said, I’ve cut myself a lot of slack in life and I do others too.”
Toby’s positivity is infectious and I wonder whether it’s due to nature or nurture. Both, perhaps. “I feel very passionately that I was blessed to have parents with a tremendous positivity. And my father, though very disciplined, was a risk taker. He knew about boats and we did a lot on the water. His attitude was that he had four children and he could afford to lose one.”
He laughs loudly, and I remember him putting forward the same rationale before the birth of his third child. Later I find an absorbing Daily Telegraph obituary for his father, a naval commander who was awarded the DSO for gallant conduct during the second world war and who twice escaped whilst a prisoner of war. After breaking free in Bologna he walked over 300 miles, through the winter of 1943, later putting to sea in a rickety boat. For his escape from enemy hands, he was appointed MBE in 1944.
“I grew up in an environment of ‘it’ll be okay’,” says Toby, revealing nothing of family heroics. “The nature of life is that it’s uncertain. A lot of people try to limit that uncertainty, and then of course they limit what’s possible.”
Being at ease with uncertainty turns out to be an excellent qualification for a trainer, which is how his career at Siemens began. He saw it as “a guerrilla activity. The nature of training is that you’re preparing people for a future world that hasn’t arrived. By its very nature, you’re undermining the existing way of doing things. You’re continually saying: we used to do it that way but now we’re doing it this way. And that’s true today more than ever.”
One thing that’s changing is the traditional career path. Where once it was T-shaped – leaders progressed up an organisation and then broadened out into general management – now, says Toby, it’s all about “meta skills and meta knowledge”. Leaders need to broaden out much earlier.
“If you know about accounting, you’re probably going to be automated. If you know about accounting and project management, you’re getting interesting. If you know about accounting, project management and healthcare, you’re even more interesting. And if you know about accounting, project management, healthcare and customer relationships – well, now it’s really getting serious. Your leadership capacity to make judgements is massively increased.”
All roles are on the move says Toby. Leaders can have a particular focus but they need to understand every other part of a business. “Half of a CEO’s psyche should be around people and the culture of their organisation. And if an HR person doesn’t understand the technology today, or the sales process, then that’s just not good enough. We need multi-disciplinary teams.”
The closest he comes to sounding frustrated is when talking about finance teams who deal only with financial data. Simply reporting the figures is of limited use when so much of a company’s worth comes from intangible assets; Toby wants to see finance functions measuring where value is being created and destroyed and synthesising data to uncover more useful trends. “Unless they expand their portfolio, and rapidly start integrating data from sources like HR and customers, they will become like the fire extinguisher in the hotel: you can’t operate without it but it doesn’t really do much in the meantime.”
When he steps down from his role on the board of Siemens plc later this year he’ll make time for various non-executive roles with an educational bias. He’ll also continue to represent Siemens externally, for example by continuing as a board member for the Institute for Apprenticeships.
“There will always be those who thrive in a very academic environment but others will feel crippled by it. We need to bring through a much more diverse pipeline of people,” argues Toby. “The half-life of knowledge is now five years in most technical areas. The idea of spending three years studying before you apply any of it is clearly bananas. The learning and doing model is important, not only as an alternative to the academic approach but because in a rapidly changing world it’s just faster and more efficient.”
The only pause in our conversation is when I ask what sort of people have inspired him in his career. “The ordinary, not the extraordinary,” he says after careful consideration. He loves seeing people develop. “And when anyone leaves it’s a chance for renewal. There are always other flowers ready to bloom.”
After an hour of Toby’s wisdom and wit I wish I’d had far more regular injections of it throughout my own career. It’s good to hear he’s thinking of writing books. “I like what words can do,” he says, “and stories are very powerful. People give a bit of themselves away when they tell a story.”
Toby should be a poster boy for dyslexia, I reflect, but most of all for diversity. He may be white, well-spoken, middle-class and middle-aged yet has some of the scarcest and most desirable qualities in the working world. He asks questions, he believes in listening, he sees things from different perspectives. His positivity is immensely inspiring. Please, please can we have more Tobys.