Human beings not humans doing! A lesson in leadership

Jeff Grout knows a thing or two when it comes to leadership. Here, he talks exclusively to HR Business Network about the leadership role, who’s the best in the business and preventing major pitfalls…

Jeff Grout joined Robert Half International at the age of 28 and became joint managing director just fours years later. He was later promoted as sole MD and during his 21 years expanded the company from 12 employees in two offices to 365 in 20 respectively.

At the age of 47, Grout became a first-time dad to his daughter, Olivia. On the day of her birth, he made the decision to resign and now makes his living as an independent business consultant, turning his hand to writing leadership books and becoming one of the ‘100 Best Business Speakers in Britain’.During his rein at Robert Half International, Grout would interview leaders on stage in front of an audience and grill them about their leadership styles. Consequently, he developed an interest and desire to learn about what leaders really do, and fittingly, this became the title of his sixth book*.

The content was based around conversations with leaders from the business world, sporting and military professions. Setting direction and providing clarity to all members of the organisation about the business’ objectives was one of the key outcomes. He says: “Leaders need to focus everybody by having a narrow range of priorities and reiterating: what do we do? And how are we measuring it?” According to his research, people want to believe their director has a plan for their organisation and the message must be clear and compelling.

Not surprisingly, good communication is high on the findings too. Those in charge, especially during testing economic times, need to create a motivating environment and recognise the importance of two-way communication in order for staff to buy into the organisation. In the current climate, leaders must sense moods, in particular if the company has made redundancies. Failure to do so can lose motivation, which loses morale and thus performance.While on the theme of communication, Grout expresses the absolute need for listening to the workforce. He says: “A mistake many leaders make is they see communication as one way. Effective leaders listen to their employees in order to gain respect and get them to engage in return.”

Former director general of the BBC Greg Dyke is a praised example of visible leadership, spending 100 days on the road breaking down hierarchal barriers and speaking directly to his employees. While on his expedition, Dyke asked his staff two questions, firstly, ‘what is one thing we should do as an organisation to improve our service to our viewers/customers?’ And secondly, ‘name one thing I should do to improve your life at work.’ This strategy won people over very quickly and he soon had staff ‘following’ him.

Grout adds that when people are given a clear view of the business direction they feel more like ‘human beings rather than humans doing’. It even stretches as far as to have them volunteering to do extra as a gesture of loyalty and trust.

This ongoing mantra of communiqué is one that should be channelled back and forth from the board, however, Grout argues many directors haven’t got the set of softer skills that are required to be a rounded leader. Having HR at board level can develop directors’ abilities to get staff feeling involved, included and inspired. And as extra pulling power to encourage more HR directors on the board, Grout says: “HR has a huge role to play in terms of business performance through people. If they approach the CEO with a programme that ‘will be nice’ for employees, it will fall on deaf ears. But talk about the return on investment in learning and development and you’ll get their attention.” It seems finances are the way to win over the board.

With such volatility out there, the pressure is on to prove your worth and leaders are no exception. Grout points out that key players are under the microscope and any minor flaws are magnified. “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work anymore. They need to be adaptable and able to reinvent themselves.” Again, it all draws back to communication. He advises: “There needs to be a balance of visibility externally and internally, it’s very easy for directors to demotivate people.

One conversation he had with a global IT company found upon announcing a pay freeze, staff responded maturely, understanding the need for cut-backs. In addition, the board reviewed expenses and ceased all business-class travel, once more, the workforce accepted this. But the noose tightened when it was revealed the company would start charging 50p for a cup of coffee. The lesson here, “certain things cost little or no cost to improve morale,” says Grout. To rectify the situation, the free beverages were reinstated and a couple of hundred pounds were put away each month for staff to have drinks on the company.

The message is quite simple; leadership is an art that needs to be reworked, remodelled and revised. The downfall comes when leaders become anonymous and don’t know their ‘followers’. Grout reiterates three points for effective leadership under the umbrella of communication: setting direction, creating a motivating environment and preparing the organisation for change. If this is not sufficient, his research finds that 75 per cent of change initiatives fail due to lack of communication.

Jeff Grout’s next leadership workshop will take place on 25 February. For further details contact Jeff at or visit* The title is ‘What do leaders really do?’ by Jeff Grout & Liz Fisher

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