See, I got the job based on success I’d had in a similar role in Hull. I’d worked for the company since I was 18; at 24 I was made Program Director, the youngest ever at a U.K. radio station. Awards, praise in magazines and performance bonuses seemed to flow my way on a weekly basis. The promotion to the bigger hitting sister station in Leeds was a natural progression.
But things quickly went wrong.
The thing was, back in Hull I had been playing to a completely different set of rules. Our parent company was a global media giant based in London, so you can guess how often head office came up to check on us. That meant I had near total freedom to be creative – to be adventurous – to mess around. I was in charge of a great young team who knew how to work hard and have fun in equal measure and over the years we created some genuinely innovative and entertaining radio. Don’t get me wrong – we screwed up a lot. But no one ever saw it. The good stuff got recognised and the – let’s call it ‘less good stuff’ – got forgotten.
Then in Leeds, suddenly I had people breathing down my neck. The thing was, for whatever reason this radio station had never been as successful as the management would have liked. Powerful people had staked their reputations on hiring me to fix it and they were checking up on a regular basis. ‘This is important’ and ‘Don’t f*** this up’ became mantras in management meetings.
But f*** up is exactly what I did. Assuming I could replicate my previous success with the ideas that had worked in Hull, I started a new breakfast show. But I’d misread my target audience terribly and the show bombed. Sponsors pulled out. Audience figures were in decline. My team were looking at me like I was leading them off a cliff.
I started to feel the pressure big time. I was here to fix this. I was ‘the man’. But everything I tried was going wrong and I could feel the breath on the back of my neck getting warmer. Unhelpful stories like: ‘You can’t do this’. ‘You’re not good enough’. ‘These people don’t like you’ were running round in my head, getting faster by the day.
I was stressed, self-absorbed and snappy with the people around me.
From the outside my life looked pretty much the same. Same car, same penthouse, same social calendar filled with restaurant launches, gigs and pop stars.
But from the inside, it all seemed to be falling apart. Who I was – how I saw myself – was directly linked to my career. And right now I was a failure. It was the closest I’ve come to what I’d call depression.
Around that time my partner and I had just bought a new apartment. It needed some work so I took time off and helped the builders with a bit of laboring. Filling my days with manual tasks like stripping the walls and carrying the wood up our stairs, I was able to forget all the problems at work. It was the happiest I’d been in months. For one short week I started feeling like myself again. There was a lesson there somewhere if I’d known to look for it.
But as soon as I went back to work the fear and the stress returned. I became irritable again; my mood deteriorated. Eventually my partner had enough. One night she snapped and gave it to me with both barrels. She told me how self-obsessed I’d become. How I was no fun to be around and how I took everything too seriously.
Incidentally, this is pretty much the opposite of what any book on managing people when they’re down might tell you to do. But it was the best thing anyone could have done – It broke my pattern. And one thing she said struck a much deeper chord:
‘It’s like you’re someone else’
You see, my whole life I’d prided myself on being in control. Somewhere, once, I’d heard a line about ‘sleepwalking into a life you don’t want’ and it had stuck with me. One thing I was sure of – I was never going to do that. And yet, here I was. I didn’t want to be miserable, to be stressed at work and unpopular with my team. This was not the life I’d always seen myself in, but somehow I’d ended up living it and I had no idea how to get out.
But at least now I was looking.
The first clue to solving to my problem came later that week, when I was called into a meeting with my line manager. She was a sympathetic lady, very smart and successful in her career. We got on well and she could see I was struggling. ‘But look’, she said, ‘that team depends on you and you can’t let your struggles show. Try this. Every time you step out of that door wear your invisible ‘cloak of confidence’
My invisible cloak of confidence. I had to sit and think about it a while. How could I act confident right now, when it was the last thing I felt? Even if it was possible, it didn’t seem like it would make any difference.
But I was running out of ideas so I gave it a go. I walked out of her door and strutted across the office like she’d just doubled my pay. And you know what? I did feel better.
It was a lifeline. It showed me that even when everything was falling apart, I did have control. There were things within my power to do that I could do to feel better. I wanted more tricks like this.
I’d had some great training in psychology and leadership through work and while I’d loved it, I’d never fully applied it. I hadn’t needed to; things had always been great. But that night I went back to some of the notes I’d taken and started to look for more ideas like the ‘cloak of confidence’. It became something of an obsession. Over the next year I read every book I could find, attended leadership courses, gate-crashed lectures, got a coach. I sought out incredible people who were fantastic at what I wanted to be great at and asked them what they did.
And slowly, slowly – the more I applied the mindsets and strategies I was learning, the more positive an effect it had. I started to feel better and gradually noticed the change in my work. My team didn’t seem so angry with me. I was getting more done. My relationships improved. And I stopped dreading coming in to work every day.
I was so excited at the impact everything I was learning was having on my happiness and success, I could not stop myself from wanting to share it with others. But I knew they were unlikely to spend their weekends trawling through the piles of books and lectures I’d amassed. I worked out I’d spent over 5,000 hours just reading, taking notes and interviewing people. I couldn’t ask everyone in my team to do this – the entire radio station would have ground to a halt! I had to think of a better way to explain what I’d learned.
One of my core skills in broadcasting was finding ways to make complicated things simple. Getting ideas to connect with audiences in a way that would make them feel something, remember something or take action. So I spent hours working out ways to model the complex things I was learning and turning them into simple, practical and repeatable tools. I knew if I could do this, it would make the learning stick for me and make it easier to teach to others.
Once I’d created a few of these ‘tools’ I began teaching them to anyone who would let me. And actually, a few that weren’t so keen too. I was still the boss, so they kind of had to.
Before long I was doing 20 x 1-2-1 coaching sessions a week, running mini trainings and applying a whole range of the new approaches I’d devised.
Not everything worked. But over the course of the year I began to see people achieve remarkable things. I saw members of my team go way beyond what they thought they were capable of. I saw them take risks and try things that inspired audiences and advertisers. What’s more, my team started to love what they were doing.
It had an effect on our bottom line too. As a business we went from declining audience figures and making a loss to 2 straight years of audience growth and massive profit.
So what was different? Well firstly, I realised I’d hardly done any actual ‘work’ for months. I hadn’t had any new strategic insights, created any ground breaking new content, had any meetings with new clients or stayed up late writing ideas for shows. 100% of my energy had been focused on coaching my team, inspired by the great things I’d been learning.
I had switched from being self-obsessed, pissed off and telling them what to do, to serving them – spending my time empowering them be better happier, more effective versions of themselves.
When I realised this it was life changing. Because this is leadership. Our desire and ability to serve those around us. Giving our time and our energy to empower others and help them make the most of their skills and potential. Not only was this working better than anything I’d done before (even during my time at Hull) – it was hugely fulfilling and brilliant fun.
Another two years of doing this and I had virtually made myself redundant. I’d done the heavy lifting and leadership was now like spinning plates, requiring only the lightest of touches to keep everything running well. I realised my job was to just help the team create a clear vision and strategy and then coach them to deliver it. It was brilliant… but I was getting restless. 3 main reasons for this:
- I was so excited by the impact of this coaching I just wanted to spend more and more of my time doing it.
- The industry I had been in since being a teenager was changing and becoming less fun.
- I was bored… I felt like I was doing the same things over and over and I wanted a new challenge.
At the time we were working with an Australian radio consultant, Phil Dowse. He would come over twice a year to give us a kick in the ass and help us invent bigger, better ideas. One afternoon, we were in a building affectingly known as the ‘scout hut’. Phil was doing some personal brand coaching with me. He asked me a question that he liked to ask everyone:
‘What are you famous for?’
I said I’d been in a few magazines if that’s what he meant.
‘You know, as a Programme Director are you the guy who really knows how to make a station fly musically? Do you stand out for taking exceptional talent and making them great on the radio? Do you know how to build incredible breakfast shows?’
I thought hard about it, but could not give him a good answer. I felt like I was good at all those things but I didn’t deeply care about any of them. Certainly not compared to some of the awesome people I knew, who really did commit their lives to being the first to find new music, or the best at working out complicated new production techniques.
My meeting with Phil was still troubling me when I got home. Why couldn’t I answer such a seemingly simple question? I took myself for a walk and spent hours that night pacing the streets of Leeds, trying to come up with the answer.
Somewhere late that night the answer hit me. I went in to work the next day and ran into see Phil in the Scout Hut. ‘I’ve got it’ I said.
‘The thing I can be best in the world at is helping people realise their potential for happiness and success. It’s empowering my team to develop how they think, feel and act’
I was super proud of myself. I knew this was one million percent true. I had nailed it.
But Phil just looked at me and said ‘No, that’s not what I meant. I meant radio stuff.’
I knew then I was in the wrong place. It was time for a change.
Within a matter of weeks I quit what had been my dream job, in the only industry I knew, and the company I had been in boy and man for 15 years. My idea? That I would take my coaching systems to the world.
One problem. Just about the time I made these decisions, a bunch of guys at the Lehman Brothers bank realized there was no way they could sustain their out of control mortgage lending, and very nearly brought the world’s economy to a standstill.
At the time that the world was experiencing the biggest economic turbulence it had seen for a century, I was leaving a highly privileged job to go and do something that I had essentially made up. Outside my office, these systems had no real proof. My team had no choice but to go along with my kooky new ideas – but would others do the same out of choice?
Most people told me not to do it. There were other, safer jobs I was qualified for – other radio stations that I could have worked at. I’d had offers from a couple of big marketing firms. But I knew this was my unique way to serve the world and be fulfilled. This is where I knew I could make the biggest difference.
And that’s where Live Big began. It hasn’t always been easy. When I started my partner found me my first client; an insurance firm where her friend was head of HR. A couple of months later a friend hired me to work with his team. I’m sure he did this just to help me out – I don’t think he really understood what I was trying to do. But it was a client and I was super grateful.
I didn’t get another one for 12 months. By the time I had been going for 2 years my savings were close to running dry and I’ll admit I was starting to look at the jobs boards of some of those marketing firms.
Then one day I got a call. It was from a guy I could hardly remember – Clive Morgan – one of the line managers from the first company I had worked with.
‘Hi Stuart – I’ve been meaning to get in touch for ages. I just wanted to let you know what a huge impact that training day you did has had. I’ve been using that 4 Questions tool you taught us with my team – and honestly, you know the difference is incredible. I was wondering if you’d be able to come in and do something else for a new office we’re setting up in Doncaster?”
That was it. Knowing for sure my work had made a lasting difference was the kick in the ass I needed to keep going.
It was also a moment of real clarity. My purpose was to serve business – not chase it.
So I started finding ways to do this in whatever way I could. I knew that if I stayed focused on serving, and not becoming worried about finding work I could make a real difference. I was convinced that good things would flow from here.
So I set out to make more free speeches, drove all over the country every week speaking to any group that would have me. And the message connected. I met people who believed in the same vision of life, work and leadership that I believed in and they brought me in to help their teams make it a reality.
10 years on Live Big has helped thousands of people all over the world make a difference in their work and their lives. We’ve refined the ideas – tweaked the tools and created a deeply exciting way to help everyone to do more, go further, live life, love work and realise the potential they are capable of – to Live Big.