Speaker Interview

Former BBC journalist, Blaire Palmer has been an “agent provocateur” and coach for CEOs and their teams for more than 15 years so she knows what goes on behind the closed doors of the boardroom. In her speeches she draws on those experiences to reveal what kind of leadership businesses need in our fast changing, fast paced world. Her working life is split between intense discussions with leaders, speaking to audiences around the world and watching superhero movies in airport lounges but she found a gap in her schedule to tell us what she’s up to at the moment.

Blaire – What has been keeping you busy so far this year?

2016 has got off to a great start. I’ve started work on my first book for 6 years which will build on the themes I speak about on stage. I’ve become a columnist for HR Zone which allows me to rant regularly about all the lazy habits businesses get in to when they don’t think properly about how to get the best out of their people. And I’ve been working with a couple of really forward thinking companies on how to drive a change in culture that makes the most of all the amazing talent they have in their business.

What can an audience expect when they hire you as a speaker?

I speak about leadership and how leadership is changing. Conventional approaches to leadership won’t work in an environment where staff want and need to co-create, to partner, to collaborate. A lot is changing in business – the hierarchy is breaking down, traditional permanent functional teams don’t exist any more, people have changing expectations of work, customers have changing expectations of business. Leaders who cling on to what worked 10 or 20 years ago will find that they are leaders in name only. No one is actually following.

But that can all be a bit dry to an audience unless there are also plenty of stories, a few laughs and a bit of interaction between me and them. We have a bit of a laugh and the Q&A which normally follows is nice and lively.

What’s been your most challenging event so far?

I’m regularly warned that an audience is going to be tricky. I’m told that they are very cautious about having an outsider come and speak, that this is the first time they’ve done it and that they are taking a big risk by having me there. I’m glad of the warning but so far fears have been unfounded. I think when you bring some humour to an event and when you’ve done your research so you know something about the world your audience inhabit, there’s very little for them to push back against. I present some pretty revolutionary ideas but the audience realises I’m on their side.

What’s been your best speaking engagement so far?

I had a great couple of days speaking at events focused on diversity. The company held two separate events so that staff from both of their sites could attend. The topic isn’t my bread and butter so I really had to think about how the changes I’m predicting impact diversity and how diversity could change the face of business. I found out, for instance, that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform others in their sector and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform others in their sector. This isn’t about being soft and fluffy. It’s actually madness to keep our businesses so homogenous.

A pair of superman boxer shorts sometimes make an appearance during your speeches. What’s all that about?

Well, I don’t always get them out. It does depend on the vibe in the room. But a year or so ago I was looking for some analogies to liven up the speech. I also thought a few props would bring it to life. And, you know, many of my speaker colleagues have done challenges like walking to the North Pole or sailing the Atlantic single-handed or winning gold in the Olympics. So I set myself a gruelling challenge – to watch 30 superhero films in 30 days. I realise it isn’t the same as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro but I’m not very outdoorsy.

I wanted to be able to tell some stories about how leadership is like being a superhero. But the reality was that a) I don’t remember any of the films because I watched them all so close to each other that they became a blur to me and b) being a leader hasn’t got anything to do with being a superhero in a movie. In fact, quite the opposite. Real leaders have their powers when they remove their mask. I use the superhero pants to make this point and have some fun with the audience. They also see me attempt to throw the pants in to the audience which always ends badly…usually for someone in the front row.

Why aren’t there more women on the speaker circuit?

I think it may be down to perception. When women contribute 25% to a discussion they are perceived as having participated equally. When they contribute 50% to a discussion they are seen to have dominated. At a conference where half or more of the speakers on stage are women it may feel to an audience who aren’t used to it that the female voice has become too strong. We wouldn’t feel the male voice was too strong if the figures were reversed and it is very common for me to be the only woman on stage all day without anyone remarking on that. My former employer, the BBC, has introduced a policy of having at least one woman on comedy panel shows. There used to be a perception that comedy wasn’t attractive to women and that they simply weren’t as funny. Opening the doors to more women has proven that’s not the case. Perhaps we will see things change on the conference circuit too.

If you could give businesses a tip for 2016 what would it be?

Question everything you do as a habit. Wherever you are doing something because it’s the way you’ve always done it, ask yourself whether that works. Just because you recruit this way, should you continue? Just because you have meetings this way, do they work? Just because profits are down, do you need to respond the way you’ve always responded in the past? Just because this is the market you’ve always been in, does that mean it’s the market for you now?

The businesses I’m working with are asking these questions and realising that, not only do many of the mechanics of their business not work now, they never really worked! I mean what if every meeting you went to was actually a really good use of your time? What difference would that make to your business, and to your sense of fulfilment at work?

What’s one thing nobody knows about you?

I am qualified to lamb sheep.