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Colin Coulson Thomas Speaker

Interview with Colin Coulson-Thomas

Colin Coulson-Thomas shares tips for talent management, starting companies and being successful. Read more below.

Can you share a bit about your background and how you have become an authority on developing companies and talent?

I am Cornish by birth and family background. After graduating from the London School of Economics I qualified as a chartered accountant to get an opportunity to visit a wide range of businesses in various fields before going to the LondonBusinessSchool to broaden my business education. After a period in consulting, general management and marketing roles with ‘blue chip’ market leaders I started to establish a number of businesses – generally with one, two or three colleagues.

Successful businesses of which I was the founder chairman have won awards at national and international level. In parallel, I have held public sector board appointments at national and local level, and professorial roles at Universities in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, India and China.

I have an international outlook and experience, and have helped over 100 boards at home and abroad to improve director, board and corporate performance. I have spoken at over 300 corporate events and national and international conferences, congresses and summits in over 40 countries and delivered courses based upon my work in locations from Canada to China and from South Africa to Siberia.

I led a pan-European project funded by the European Commission to produce a new approach to restructuring, re-engineering and the introduction of new ways of working, and was the world’s first Professor of Corporate Transformation. I have also been the process vision holder or change management lead or adviser on some of the largest and most complex transformation programmes ever undertaken.

While these projects were successful and delivered on time, my surveys have shown this is a rare experience. Far too many organisations initiate costly, time consuming and disruptive corporate initiatives that fail to deliver. Hence my search in recent years for the quicker and more affordable, flexible and sustainable routes to high performance organisations and transformation which I set out in my latest reports.


If you were to start a new company today, what would be the first thing you would do?

I would start by focusing upon potential customers and their issues and priorities. Business is about customers, winning them and keeping them by finding profitable ways of helping them to address their problems and seize or create opportunities that will help them to achieve their aspirations.

I would pick a group or category of customers that I would want to help and that I would enjoy interacting with and serving. I learned in a war zone that very day is precious. I would not waste a second of my life looking at an area that did not interest me however lucrative it might be.

If you relate to your prospects, you can explore with them their frustrations and what would interest and excite them. I would aim to develop offerings that give people new options and choices. I would avoid duplicating something that already exists. Differentiation is vital for standing out and making an impact.

Success is usually a bi-product of what you do for others. Other people’s time is also precious to them. I would adopt approaches I have developed and/or championed to make it easy for people to help themselves.

It is difficult to become a market leader by copying other people. At some point you need to go out in front and explore, pioneer and discover. I believe you owe it to people you employ and/or work with to enable them to deliver offerings and achieve a purpose that is unique, special or different.


How should you go about finding the best people to hire for your company?

As we go through life we learn to distinguish between posers and deliverers, those who are smooth and those who are sound. I would avoid those who are overly self-important and self-centered in favour of those to whom customers would relate and who obtain satisfaction from helping others

In today’s world I would put a premium upon open-mindedness, flexibility and a willingness to learn. I prefer people with some passion and who question and challenge. I would avoid crawlers and bootlickers.

I would also avoid arrogant and expensive ‘high fliers’ who put their own careers first, and who demand favourable treatment and expect to be fast-tracked. In an uncertain world one may or may not need them in future.

Instead, I would go for those who put customers and the business first, those who excel at activities that are vital for customers, prospects and performance today, and who roll up their sleeves and deliver value.

It helps if you can get on with people, and if customers and colleagues are happy to interact with them in ways that are mutually beneficial. Where I would look for and hope to find the people I needed would depend upon the business I was setting up and customer requirements.

I would probably need fewer people than competitors as approaches I have developed and/or champion in my books and reports make it very easy for people to emulate what high performers do differently and to excel at difficult tasks. These approaches are affordable and quickly deliver multiple benefits and are ideal for supporting customers and helping them to help themselves.

I would help my own people as well as my customers. I see lots of people being trained for the top-down leadership, motivation and management of others. The ‘new leadership’ I champion is all about helping people and it delivers benefits for them and the environment as well as employing organisations.


Can you share some information as to what high performers do differently than the rest of us?

It all depends upon the activity or task. The results of my work on what high performers do differently in areas that are vital for corporate success are set out in over 40 books and reports. Areas I have examined include winning business, building customer relationships, purchasing, pricing and creating and exploiting corporate know-how.

The crirical success factors in each area studied vary from those in others, which is why generic lists of competences for managers and the generalisations set out in ’quick read’ books found at airport bookshops usually miss a key point. One can be hopeless at a whole range of things that people try to be good at, but excel in a few areas that are vital for success in a small number of critical jobs that lead to success.

Much training and development, a great deal of what is learned at business schools, and most of what the majority of people do in large organisations today is completely irrelevant to success in the key front-line jobs I have examined and for interactions with customers. Large amounts of management time, money and consultancy are devoted to activities that neither benefit customers nor differentiate.

In the area of winning business some 20 research reports based upon investigations I have led have been produced by Policy Publications setting out critical success factors in particular sectors and professions. Most of them can be quickly adopted. I have reviewed the processes and practices for winning business of over 100 companies and professional practices where the adoption of additional critical successn factors have boosted performance.

Each organisation and work-group will vary in terms of the critical success factors that it needs to focus upon. Encouragingly, even the most successful businesses in the top quartile of achievement are only very effective at less than half of the critical success factors. Every organisation that has ever participated in every survey could quickly improve performance by adopting additional critical success factors.

Required changes can be communicated quickly, built into processes and the performance support delivered to key work groups wherever they are, including when on the move. In my recent reports I set out how 24/7 support to enable ordinary people to excel at crucial and difficult jobs can be cost-effectively provided. For a large international company, or major public service, the cost of helping front-line staff to excel and stay current and vital can be cheaper than giving them a cup of tea.


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