In this episode, I have Rene Carayol, an internationally renowned keynote speaker who specializes in diversity, leadership, and culture. His clients include Google, the world bank, Barclays and IKEA. He has worked with Prime Minister David Cameron, Sir Richard Branson, and Nelson Mandela. His latest book Spike is leading the strengths-based revolution.
I’m going to kick us off with a question about your origin story. I read that you started your career in IT at a retailer. Then you moved to Pepsi and you’re now seen as a leading expert on leadership, diversity, and inclusion. Was there a defining moment that you look back on in getting you to the place that you are today?
Yes, there was. It’s a story. I spent 10 years at Marks and Spencer’s, which was a British retailer. They taught me everything about management, but not so much about leadership. Then the phone rings and it’s Pepsi, and they’re looking for a board director. I just knew that got the wrong person. It was never going to be me as life without it. I’d never been in a boardroom.
I got the job. Before I know, I’m in Purchase, New York. It’s April 1992 BG, before Google, and on my very first day of work, as life would have it, it was a board meeting. I’m in the boardroom on the board of Pepsi. I’d never been in a boardroom before. I’m shaking hands with my colleagues. In those dark days of April, 1992, there’s seven of us on the board. Seven men, all American apart from me, I didn’t look like them.
I didn’t sound like them, we’re shaking hands, getting to know each other and the door bursts open and in walks Larry, chief executive. Larry says, Jeff, I’d like to introduce you to your board director, Rene Carayol. Let me tell you a little bit about Rene. Larry has no notes. Larry has no Google. Larry starts to tell my life story. Rene’s parents left Gambia in West Africa in the early 1960s, heading for London, the mother country, there a British colony.
He talks through my education, junior school, high school. He talks through my university education, no notes, no Google. I did nine different roles at Marks and Spencer in 10 years. He talked through every one of them in chronological order. Named them all. No notes, no Google. Matt, guess how he was making me feel, which is unbelievable. No one had made me feel that way before. He finishes up and having introduced me made me feel part of a family, made me feel I was part of something special.
Gave me someone to believe in. It lasted me three, four minutes? No. It’s lasted me a lifetime. In that moment, he taught me everything about inclusion. There’s nothing else I needed to know. I belonged. I felt part of a family in three or four minutes. To this day, I don’t know how much work he did to memorize all of that. I don’t know how he researched it. I’d never put on any application form that I was born in Gambia.
I didn’t think that was ever going to help me. Larry found it all out. It’s amazing. The power of inclusion.
That’s such an inspiring and wonderful story. One of the notes that I had before our conversation was something that your website says, and I think it’s a perfect lead-in or follow-up from what you just said. It says, “We all need something to believe in and something to belong to. We must try and create an environment where differences, both respected and valued and encourage different approaches that when added together can create vibrant and innovative teams.”
I wanted to ask how do we, as leaders help to create that environment? I’m going to restructure the question to say, how do we as leaders help to create that environment if we don’t have an unbelievable memory and can make someone feel included in the way that he did for you?
You have to take the time. To me, before we take on any assignment of the company, we also 30 minutes in the reception. Just give me 30 minutes in reception. I’ll sit down in your reception. We tend to see two sorts of leaders. There’s a leader that comes in with staring on their mobile phone, reading emails that should never have been sent to them and it takes them 20 seconds to get across reception. They get in the lift. They’re still reading their phone. There’s no eye contact.
They speak to no one. There’s a second sort of leader. When they walk into reception, they know everybody’s name. Hi David, how’s your son’s vomits for the weekend. Hi Margaret. How was your daughter’s operation? It takes them 15 to 20 minutes to get across reception, but they’re creating an environment where everyone feels recognized. Everyone feels valued. They’re creating the role of the leader. It used to be the cleverest person in the room answers all the questions, dish out all the activities, delegate all the tasks.
Today, it’s creating an environment where others can flourishing, where everyone feels valued, where everyone feels as though their voice counts, their opinions matter and that they’re going to be embraced. When the leader walks in embracing everyone you know the culture you’ve just stepped into, take the time for everyone. We were saying, there’s two things that we need to do and especially given the pandemic, look out for each other. Look after each other.
One thing that your work talks frequently about is when you’re focused on diversity and inclusion, it’s not simply the right thing to do, It’s also the smart thing to do. I would have to say personally, my experience has been that approach that you described has been abundantly true. It’s not just the morally right thing to do, It also makes you a better organization when you embrace different perspectives, backgrounds, different approaches. How do you make that case most convincingly to organizations that you work with?
Look, you’re right. It’s no longer just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do, but it’s never been the easy thing to do. No one is born inferior or superior, no one is, but our difference is our strength and our strength is our difference. Homogenous teams might be easier to align, easier to come to the same answers, to come to the same conclusions.
It’s easy to get to the right results when we’re all from a similar background, from a similar education, similar type, but it’s not the best solutions. It’s not the best decisions. It’s not the right outcomes. McKinsey did some seminal pig groundbreaking research in March 2020, where they proved that if we look at diverse teams, especially at the top of the organization, they can add 34% to the bottom line, 34% uplift financially to the bottom line with cognitive diversity. We all come from different backgrounds.
We look at the same problem through different eyes and we come up with different solutions, harder to align, harder to get to the same conclusion, but those outcomes are so much better. Now it’s inarguable. It’s not as easy, it’s tougher, but isn’t that the role of the leader? Isn’t that what we promise our shareholders, isn’t that what we promise our stakeholders to get to the best outcome we possibly can, not the easiest. Diversity works, but remember, diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.
Can you expand a little bit on that and specifically what’s fascinated me about our audience when we hear from the people that listened to the show is we have some people that are much more senior in their career, much more farther along in their leadership journey and some that are just starting out. Do you have different pieces of advice for leaders at different stages of their careers, of how they can embrace diversity and inclusion?
If we break it down so that everyone gets it, diversity is being invited to the dance. When you’re invited to the party, then that’s diversity being asked to dance is inclusion. We think that opening up the gates, opening up your recruitment policies, getting different sorts of people coming in is brilliant. That’s great, but you’ve got to create an environment where they can flourish.
It’s not good enough just to get them in. You come from different backgrounds, you have different faiths, different learnings, different experiences, but the environment may be set up for completely different sorts of person. We’ve got to work hard to ensure that environment embraces everyone no matter where they are from, no matter what they are like. We call it creating an environment of psychological safety. There are some people who, if you ask a question, they’re going to jump up and down and put their hands up and down, they can answer that question straight away and scream very loud.
That’s one sort. Then on the other end of the spectrum, you might have those who go for a completely different culture may not want to speak out loud in a crowd. They might be more comfortable answering you privately. They may want some time to digest and think about it, maybe respond by email. We’ve got a crane environment where we cater for all those different styles. There was a time where we shoehorn people to the job description.
Now we make the job description malleable so it fits the person that joins. It’s no longer the best person for the job, it’s the best person for the team. That gives us a completely different lens. We’ve got to make allowances for all the different types of people that come in different shapes, sizes packages, but each one of them brings something unique, special, and different to the mix. Our job as leaders is to create an environment where they feel valued, embraced, and celebrated.
Your most recent book focuses on the strengths-based revolution. Can you explain a little bit about what that is, and then what prompted you to write the book?
Very straightforward book in that everyone is brilliant at something. No one is brilliant at everything.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the two or three things we are outstanding at, and some people call them superpowers, some people call them gifts, some call them blessings, I call them spikes. The things were outstanding at. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I went into work every day and the things that were asked of me were the things I was brilliant at?
What got me to write the book was just the things I tend to do really well are things I tend to enjoy, the things I tend to enjoy, the things I tend to do really well. Having coached many fabulous leaders around the world, I soon realized that the best of the best of them are brilliant in only two or three things, but then they are Olympian standard and because they’re fine-tuned them they’ve horned them.
They’re outstanding at those two or three things, but they use the team to compensate for the things they’re not so good at. They don’t try and be brilliant at everything, that’s a recipe for disaster. They try to be adequate on most things, but not brilliant in everything. Sports teams, they worked this out years ago. Every player in every sports team is brilliant at one or two things and that’s why they play the position that they do.
I’ve translated that into business. When we have our annual performance appraisal, there used to be, here’s the two or three things you’re outstanding at, here’s 125 things you’re not so good at. Why don’t we focus on the 125 things and get you to be adequate to those or average of those? It doesn’t make sense. The root to the top for everyone starting their career is focused on the two or three things you are really good at. That’s your route to the top. That’s the accelerator to the top.
It’s the what you’re going to be famous for. What you’re going to be outstanding at. What you’re going to be brilliant, not what you’re going to be average at. That’s not going to get you to the top. I wrote that book Spike, which is all about identifying the two or three things you’re outstanding at, fine tuning them, making your spike spikier and get to the top of the organization even quicker.
That really resonates with me. Something that really made me look forward to this conversation is, you’ve had the pleasure of working with some truly exceptional organizations and some unbelievably inspiring individuals. Is there something that you’ve taken out of one of those meetings that maybe you weren’t doing before that you right away implemented into, whether it was your routine, whether it was a question that you asked, whether it was some way that you showed up.
Is there a memory or a story from an interaction at one of these great companies or meeting with one of these transformational individuals that forever altered the way that you approach things?
That’s a great question, Matt. Richard Branson. Branson has a stammer. Not many people know that.
He came up to speak and as I introduced him, he came up and he stammered, he stepped back, composed himself, came again stammered again. I do what most people do, I stepped in and started conversation to take away from the stammer. He said, “No stop. I’ll do this.” Wiped the sweat from his brow, stepped up six attempts, Matt. Six attempts before he did it. The whole audience, you’re willing him to get there, willing him. I’ve never seen anyone try so hard.
He just told me, winners never quit and quitters never win. I’d never experienced anything like it. You soon learned why he’s so successful. It was unbelievable and none of us in that audience remember a word of what he said. That’s all we remembered. The six attempts to kick off it all, and his stammer just wouldn’t break. It was unbelievable. It said everything about him, Matt.
When you think about the world today, if you were a young leader, or you were working with a young leader, and you could snap your fingers and give them one or two traits that you think will be vital for them to succeed in the future. What are the one or two things that you think individuals should really focus on?
I’ll give them the book Spike, number one, Matt, that’d be the first thing. The second thing I say more seriously, I’ve never seen anyone hit their leadership potential without the intervention of a mentor. I think step number one, advice to everyone, go find yourself a mentor. Aim as high as you can. Aim Chief Executive, aim Chairman, aim president. No one ever asked the really top because they think they’re going to say no, they’re always going to say yes, because no one else.
Ask them for an hour a month, just an hour a month. Just give you a damn good listening to an hour a month, build that relationship. Take ownership of organizing the meeting, setting the agenda, being able to ask the right questions, and listen, listen again and listen yet again. The transformational advice you will get from a mentor who really cares, who gets to know you better each month. That’s the accelerator to your career.
The last thing I would say, I would say that I’m conducting an experiment with six people in my office, though, they’re 21, 22 years old, straight out of university. We’re asking the question, can we transform their careers by giving them leadership development at the start of their careers as opposed to 10 years later, 20 years later? Right at the start, I’m watching them fly, I am watching them just fly.
If you could intercept leadership, right at the start of your career, no one is going to do it for your career, and through our mentoring as well and pick up a copy of Spike. Nothing’s going to hold you back.
I don’t want to back you into your next book or make you tell me what it’s going to be if there’s even one in production. What are you the most curious about right now, either in the space that you operate or completely outside of the space that you operate on a day-to-day basis?
I’m writing another book at the moment. It’s working title is No One is Born a Racist. We believe that if you’ve been taught to hate you can be taught to love. I’m writing a really optimistic book. I believe that racism is so illogical. You can’t have a conversation, you can’t have an argument with anyone who’s a racist because there’s no logic there. What we’ve seen and what we’ve experienced, is most people are good, most people have really good intentions.
We think if intersected with a proper, warm, loving embrace about the future, there’s nothing we can’t hear. When we come together, we’re unbeatable. We think that we can bring all of us together, we’re going to create a fabulous world for all of us. Diversity will be our strength and inclusion will be our power.
Wow, that is wonderfully optimistic, and I believe it to be true place to shift to our final two rapid-fire questions that I get to ask all of our guests, and the first rapid-fire question is this. If you could describe your leadership style in just one word, what would that word be?
Our final rapid-fire question is this: What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
Believe in yourself.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.