As a former senior partner at a household name in global professional services (EY), an executive coach working with ‘leaders and potential leaders’ and now the founder of a new global disability network, Iain Wilkie is the ideal interviewee for a discussion of leadership. But, perhaps most important of all, is the insight his own journey gives into what leadership is.
‘I’m someone who was shy and had a stammer who found himself in a business environment where extroversion and speaking up were highly prized,’ he recalls. ‘I had to learn to change, to find my strengths and to develop them. I had a mentor who believed in me more than I did myself and he put me in roles that were, to me, often uncomfortable but which helped my development.
‘Because I didn’t have the more obvious, extrovert qualities, I invested time in building genuine relationships with people and when times are tough, both for you and your clients, it’s relationships and their quality that counts. The more senior I became, the more I found that to be so.’
He says: ‘people living with some kind of difference are often more understanding of others who have differences. I think there is greater empathy there and research supports this view. We also become more resilient through dealing with knocks every day along the way, perhaps more creative and also better listeners. If you stammer as a child, you’ll often avoid speaking and so become a good listener.’
Iain sees stammering as a fundamental challenge to the assumption that ‘sounding good’ is key to leadership and success. Now, as a coach and mentor, he likes to work with people with ‘something different about them’ - not a disability necessarily but ‘outsiders’ because of their ethnicity, social background or similar. ‘I’m interested in helping quiet leaders to unleash their potential,’ he says. ‘In this world of extroversion and sound bites, quiet leaders can find it hard to cut through, yet have much to offer.’
Iain was a partner at EY for 21 years, including three on the UK and Ireland Leadership team. He set up the EY Stammering Network and then the national Employers Stammering Network (ESN) with the British Stammering Association. In February 2019, he launched ‘50 Million Voices’. He explains: ‘there are 50 million people of employable age who stammer. We’ve quickly become a team of leaders across 14 countries sharing good practice and ideas around supporting stammering in the workplace and piloting the idea of a longer-term network. We’re using PurpleSpace’s unique member zone to share. The pilot is exceeding my expectations and I’m thinking about future funding and possible expansion. The aim is to create greater and faster change.
‘I mentored a guy who went on the TV show The Undateables. On the one hand it’s positive that someone who stammers is on a show like that. It gets it out there. But stammering is still positioned as a problem to be fixed, something we should feel sorry for. It’s still that medical and charitable model, whereas it should be perfectly acceptable to stammer. Why ever not?’
Iain has been working with us on developing the PurpleSpace Leadership Framework.
He summarises what a network should look for in a senior champion: ‘trusted, authentic and courageous leadership. Champions who don't just like the role, they love it!”
He goes on: ’You want someone who is visible and influential in the boardroom and prepared to share their story and/or those of others. They need to be authentic and willing to have honest one-to-one conversations with people at all levels of the organisation. They must be trusted by the rest of the board and understand how to achieve change in a way that is consistent with the organisation. And, of course, they should be keen to listen.’
To get the best out of champions, to ‘enable them to be amazing’, as Iain puts it, network leaders need to be clear what they want. ‘Champions want to do a good job. Arm them with stories, personal stories but also stories of what’s gone wrong and how easily it was fixed. Give them a platform. Even for senior people it takes courage to talk about something others might see as a weakness. Try work shadowing – and upward mentoring gives a champion a good excuse to talk about the topic.’
Iain identifies three typical barriers to disability in business: hardwired negative attitudes, cost and fear. ‘Purple Champions have a wonderful opportunity to help fellow Board members to unpick these,’ he says. ‘Examples from your own employees are often more impactful in changing culture than stories from external speakers. Spending time with colleagues with differences goes a long way towards changing culture - from top down and bottom up.
‘When I give presentations I tell my audience that I may stammer,’ says Iain. ‘Yes, a joke puts them at ease but it’s far more than that. It’s a positive differentiator. It says I am authentic, vulnerable and comfortable in who I am.’ Nobody can ask for more than that.
At PurpleSpace we reckon that as the world of work becomes more complex so listening becomes an increasingly important skill for a leader. We have 650 leaders in our parliament - strong-willed, smooth-talking, successful - yet they have delivered nothing much for three years. A key part of the explanation is that they are not listening to each other. On the other hand a single Samaritan can change the world from the other end of a telephone line through nothing more than listening. Let’s hear it for listening leaders.
- 5%+ of children under the age of five will stammer
- 1% of adults stammer
- c80% of people who stammer are men
- Worldwide about 50 million people of employable age stammer (including 363,000 in the UK)
- Famous people with a stammer include George VI, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Roberts, Joe Biden, Ed Sheeran and Emily Blunt .
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