Campbell Macpherson hasn’t really stopped grinning since March, when I handed him the Business Book of the Year trophy at the Business Book Awards ceremony. In this week’s show we talk about the impact of winning such a prestigious award (or even just being shortlisted), and how your book can plug into the heart of your business.
(We also note how good it feels when, on the night, you come back to sit at your table clutching your award to rapturous applause, and the commissioning editor who turned your book down leans over and says: ‘I don’t always make the right decisions.’)
Campbell’s website: http://www.changeandstrategy.com/
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Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club: it’s a delight to be here today with Campbell Macpherson, who’s been helping business leaders around the world clarify their strategy and instigate sustainable change for more than 30 years now. His clients have included some of the biggest and most innovative organisations in the world, including Aviva, GoCompare, Openwork, Capital Radio, BBC, American Express, Anderson Consulting, it goes on and on and on. He learnt to write in the RAAF, and has a physics degree from Melbourne University, and of course his book, The Change Catalyst, was Business Book of the Year 2018, so congratulations Campbell.
Campbell Macpherson: Thank you.
Alison Jones: And that’s where we met, we’ll come onto that. But let’s start first with the book. Just tell me a little bit about The Change Catalyst and why you wrote it.
Campbell Macpherson: Well, it’s a book about leadership, and it’s also about change, but mostly it’s about leadership, because if you’re not leading change I don’t think you’re leading anything as a leader, you’re really just managing the status quo. So how I came about writing it is that I was on a secondment for three years in Abu Dhabi with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which was one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, and coming up to the end of my three-year contract I thought, “Right, I’m going to be resuming my consultancy at the end of this. Now, what would really be good as a door-opener would be if I had a book.” I thought, yeah, that was a nice thought, but how to go about it? And then I saw a survey from Bain & Company in early 2016 that said that 88% of change initiatives actually fail, and I thought, that is the trigger for the book. So I then gave a speech in Abu Dhabi about why change fails, and instantly I felt well there’s chapter one, or part one, why change fails. There’s part two, what to do about it, what the essential ingredients of successful change are, and the rest of the book flowed from things that I’d done before.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. You make it sound so easy, and it is a staggering statistic, that, isn’t it? You can see immediately there’s a real need there.
Campbell Macpherson: That’s why when I saw it I thought, goodness me, that’s the statistic that the rest of the book will just flow on from, so it was a godsend to be perfectly honest.
Alison Jones: “Hooray! Everybody’s in crisis, I can write a book about this.”
Campbell Macpherson: Well actually it’s interesting, it’s interesting, the commissioning editor, at the Business Book Awards the commissioning editor from another publisher who I actually sat next to at the Business Book Awards, rejected the book which was fabulous.
Alison Jones: Awkward.
Campbell Macpherson: Oh, it was great. Particularly when it won the leadership category and then the overall Business Book Award, she then turned to me after several glasses of champagne and said, “I don’t always make the right decisions.” But anyway, what she’d actually said and why we fell out, to be perfectly honest, is that she said, “Don’t start with the negatives. Don’t start with why change fails, start with the essential ingredients for successful change.” And I dug my heels in and said, “No, no, no, no, no, everyone wants to read about the failures, and we all learn from our mistakes but more importantly from other people’s mistakes.” Anyway.
Alison Jones: Yes. And actually articulating that pain brings it into sharp focus, it gives people… You have to make them feel the pain before they realise they need that solution and they’re prepared to invest the time and energy and attention that’s required to get it.
Campbell Macpherson: Yeah, completely. Financial advisors call it the ‘disturb’. Disturb your clients, and then give them the solution.
Alison Jones: Yeah, absolutely, and in marketing, copywriting, it’s called PAS. Problem, agitate, solution. So you state the problem, you make it really painful, and then you hand over the solution when they’re really desperate for it. It’s a bit crude, but it is incredibly effective.
Campbell Macpherson: Yup, I agree.
Alison Jones: So the Business Book Awards of course, that’s where you and I met, on stage when I was handing over the trophy to you for the Business Book of the Year. So I’m really fascinated by this actually, tell me a little bit about that process from your perspective. Obviously I saw it from the judge side as Head Judge, but I’m really interested to hear how it was from the side of somebody submitting an application.
Campbell Macpherson: The process of submitting the application was really, really easy, in fact the whole thing was very seamless. The questions that you all asked that we filled in online were straightforward and logical, it was a discrete word limit which is always good, otherwise authors go on forever. So that was all very, very easy. Interesting to hear what it was from the judges’ perspective just to show … You showed the process of actually judging the books in various videos on the night, which was astounding the amount of work that you all went through to do it so professionally, which was very impressive. And of course, people kept asking me afterwards, “Did you have any idea?” I had no idea whatsoever as you could probably tell with the first speech, because I had no idea what to say. It was a complete surprise.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Well, it’s good to know it was straightforward, we do try and make it straightforward, but you never quite know whether it was. And the sense of nervousness … Did you just come thinking, “Do you know what, I’m just going to have a really good night out,” or were you in it to win it?
Campbell Macpherson: My wife and daughter disappeared to Australia that morning on holiday, and so my son and I, I thought oh well, let’s just get a couple of seats. Wiley’s not taking a table, so because I was the only non-US author that had been shortlisted from the Wiley’s table, so they weren’t taking a table, the commissioning editor was doing something else, I thought oh, we’ll just get a couple of seats, it’ll be a bit of a hoot. I’ve got to go to London to fly out to Vegas the next day for a conference I was talking at, so why not?
Alison Jones: And why not indeed. And it was a terrific night, wasn’t it? I think we …
Campbell Macpherson: It was, it was a fabulous night, and gosh, it’s been remarkable for me personally and my business, I must admit.
Alison Jones: Well let’s talk a little bit about that, because it is quite a coup, isn’t it, when you can stick on that label, Business Book of the Year. It doesn’t change the book, the book is exactly the same book, but it changes, I think, how people see it. So just tell us a little bit about what that impact of that award has been on you, both personally I guess, but also professionally.
Campbell Macpherson: Personally’s a good point. I’ve always been relatively confident, at least on the outside, but it’s given me a huge boost of confidence. I didn’t realise … I knew I liked writing, I didn’t know I could write something that was actually good. So that was a huge benefit. But professionally it’s … Suddenly people who have been, “Yes, I’d love to catch up, that’d be great, let’s organise a time sometime in the next six months,” were actually on the phone and saying, “Ooh, let’s catch up next week.”
Alison Jones: Suddenly you’re flavour of the month.
Campbell Macpherson: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So that was fabulous, and I’m sure it wasn’t coincidence, but three days after I sent out my email newsletter and linked it in Facebook and everything else I could possibly surmount or possibly use to actually advertise the fact that it won the leadership and Best Business Book of the Year, suddenly Henley Business School sent through the contracts to become one of their adjunct faculties. So it really has, it’s changed a lot of things, which is fabulous.
Alison Jones: That is hilarious. Ooh, quick, better get him now before somebody else poaches him.
Campbell Macpherson: It probably wasn’t like that, but it certainly felt that way.
Alison Jones: It felt like that. And just before we came on air you were saying that you’d taken it out to Vegas with you and basically had it displayed on your seat on your aeroplane all the way over, hadn’t you?
Campbell Macpherson: Well, it sounds a little bit naff, but actually I went straight from the Business Book Awards after a sleep straight to the airport. So I had both awards there in my hand as people were taking photos of me on stage, it was quite hilarious. It was great.
Alison Jones: That is brilliant. And I think it’s important, it would have been awful, disappointing for us, I think, as organisers if the person who’d won had been a bit sort of, “Oh, that’s lovely, thank you,” and not really enjoyed it and really made the most of it. So when you have these victories in life, I was going to say small wins, there’s nothing small about this one, it’s enormous. But when you have those wins, it’s good, chat about it. People love seeing people celebrate, don’t they?
Campbell Macpherson: They do. They do. And they like people being happy and going, “Goodness me, look what’s happened, isn’t that great?” You can be far too cool in business.
Alison Jones: You can, and I think people want a piece of that. If you’re happy and celebrating you’re good to be around, and that’s always a good thing in business, isn’t it?
Campbell Macpherson: It is. But no, it’s been … One of my clients, I think I said this on the night in the speech, one of my clients said to me, “Could we agree terms today please, because if you win any of these awards then you’ll probably want to charge me more.” And the good news is that I have.
Alison Jones: Excellent, so you have put your rates up on the back of that, and without any problem I’m imagining.
Campbell Macpherson: Yeah, it was good. It was very successful.
Alison Jones: And the moral of the story is, people, enter those awards, because you just never know.
Campbell Macpherson: Well, precisely. And it was a great night anyway. I must admit, the books, it sounds a little bit silly but so many books, as we were going through, that were shortlisted, every time you and your fellow judges were announcing one I thought, “Ooh, I need to read that one.” “Ooh, that sounds good, I need to read that one.”
Alison Jones: It’s a good point, because even if you don’t win the overall award as you did, then just putting it in there and having it showcased is a good thing as well, isn’t it? So if you get shortlisted you can shout about that.
Campbell Macpherson: And I was happy to be, I was thrilled to be shortlisted. I had so many people just contact me going, “Congratulations, that’s fab, to get a book published is one thing, to have a book published by a recognised publisher like Wiley is another, but to have it shortlisted for an award, that’s just … Congratulations. And the Business Book Awards of all … That’s fantastic.” So everything else was icing on the cake, to be honest.
Alison Jones: Yeah, fantastic. So tell me a little bit about how the book actually works with your business. Obviously put the rates up which is excellent, glad to hear it. But you actually tie it in really organically, don’t you? You’ve got a whole series of workshop that I can see are branded alongside The Change Catalyst. I’m guessing this was consciously planned, but which came first, chicken or egg, and what works well, and what might you change next time?
Campbell Macpherson: Well the daft thing is, the main workshops that I’m now running, being the Leading Change for Leadership Teams, Leading Change for Executives, the Power of Change workshop for everybody else, weren’t planned at all. And it was while I was mowing the lawn when I had the book in my hand, not during the mowing, but it suddenly dawned on me, hang on a second, you should be writing workshops on the book. So I completely wrote the book first, and then built workshops around it. Now the fourth part of the book, or the fourth chapter or section of the book, is all of the, I call it Getting Down to Business, which is after I go through why 88% of change fails, what to do about it, what the essential ingredients to successful change are, the third part is culture change, the fourth part, Getting Down to Business, is all of the different models and propositions that I’ve been offering over the years, like organisational design and strategy clarification, strategy development, strategy implementation, leading your people, creating external leadership teams… All of those were designed to be propositions and services and workshops, but the core leading change bits, for some reason I was just writing a book, it didn’t click on me that that should actually be what the business should be about. A bit weird.
Alison Jones: See, you and I should have had a conversation before you wrote the book. This is where we missed out. But that’s really interesting, how do you find … The workshops that are based on the book, do you actually use the book as recommended reading? Do you base it on that …?
Campbell Macpherson: Yes.
Alison Jones: Yeah, so tell me a little bit about how you feel the difference is between those that haven’t got a book behind them, and those that now do.
Campbell Macpherson: Well, the book is not just a calling card, it was going to be a calling card but now it is the basis for my Leading Change for Leadership Teams and Leading Change for Executives workshops. So not only do they get the book beforehand, but we also reference the book as we go through each of the parts of the workshop. So the leadership teams one is a two-day workshop and we go through each part of the book, so why change fails and what the essential ingredients for successful change are, that’s two half days that uses the book as reference. Now, I don’t say, “Now turn to page 127,” but all of the models, all of the case studies and the flow of the workshop is all from the book.
Alison Jones: And do people like having that sense of a reference they can go back to? Do you have better quality conversations off the back of it? Because that’s my experience.
Campbell Macpherson: Okay, I see what you mean. Yes, yes, and it helps that it is all there in a logical order. The part that’s missing, that’s probably going to be, not probably, will be the second book, is all about how to embrace change, and it’s all about personal change. So The Change Catalyst is about leading change, it’s for leaders. The next book will be about personal change, how to actually embrace change, because the link is obvious. You can’t possibly lead change if you can’t help your people to embrace change themselves, because all organisational change is a culmination of a myriad of small personal changes. So the next one will be even more of a self help guide really, but how to help yourself embrace change.
Alison Jones: And presumably how to help people around you do it as well, as a manager. Because often these work on two levels, don’t they?
Campbell Macpherson: That’s exactly one of the things in the next book, that helping others is critical to helping yourself.
Alison Jones: Yeah, absolutely brilliant. And I’m guessing that that one’s going to be locked into the business from the day one.
Campbell Macpherson: Well, honestly I’ve already written it as a workbook for the workshops, so yes.
Alison Jones: Ta-da. Beautiful. It’s such a great case study, I love that. And I love that it kind of came around accidentally but now you’re nailed the process for book two. Let’s talk about writing for a minute, because one of the things I commented on on the night was that I loved your writing style. It’s very clean, it’s very clear and crisp, and you did say that you basically learnt to write in the Royal Australian Air Force, which made me laugh. So tell us a little bit about that.
Campbell Macpherson: Well, this is fairly ironic, way back in 1981 I found myself accidentally in the RAAF academy as a good little officer cadet.
Alison Jones: Accidentally.
Campbell Macpherson: And we had this quite bizarre and very quirky Air Force writing instructor, who modelled himself on Winston Churchill in every possible manner, except with a slightly Australian accent, so it was very comical. And he taught us three things when writing, and it’s weird to learn how to write in the Air Force, because really the Air Force manuals were about as interesting as reading the user manual of a household appliance. But anyway, there were three things that he taught me to do, and one was tell them what you’re going to tell them. Number two was tell them, and number three was tell them what you’ve told them. So that’s why the fifth chapter, which ironically I had omitted until a friend of mine said, “You haven’t told us what you’ve told us,” is called And Now Tell Them What You Told Them. So it worked really well. And it’s funny how such simplicity can stick with you over the years, and actually guide your writing, because if you do those three things odds are you’re halfway to writing something that people may actually remember and do something with.
Alison Jones: And it made me laugh, because my husband is an ex-para, and he’s also a trainer, and that’s his mantra. Tell them what you’ll tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them. And I’ve always laughed at it, but I’m just wondering if there’s a military connection here as well. It made me laugh. But yeah, it’s amazing, you find this, you think you’ve said your piece and it’s been really clearly communicated, but of course most people are only reading or paying attention with a fraction of their brain, and you need that reinforcement. And it’s not being critical of anybody, but you know, we’re all busy, but when you have that distillation it cements in somehow in your mind, doesn’t it?
Campbell Macpherson: It does, but the challenge is not to be repetitive.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Campbell Macpherson: Even though what we’re saying is be repetitive, it’s actually not to be obviously repetitive. But it’s true, the introduction needs to tell them what you’re going to tell them, and also entice them into reading the next bit, and then at the end of it sum it up for goodness’ sakes, otherwise people will have forgotten what they’ve actually heard or read.
Alison Jones: Yeah, reinforcement rather than repetition. Yeah, good point. So when you sit down to write, what does that look like for you? What’s your routine? How do you get started and how do you keep going?
Campbell Macpherson: The best way to get started for me, and every writer from what I can understand is very different, but I just sit down in front of a computer and go, “Blah,” on the screen.
Alison Jones: How are you spelling that?
Campbell Macpherson: However you like. Other people will have to craft their ideas carefully in their heads and painstakingly … The first hundred words may take days to write. I just get it out there, or get it on the page, and it’s not in the right order, it doesn’t quite say the right thing, but after I’ve done that for half an hour or an hour, I then will go back and say right, now let’s get logical and see if I can order this and find out where the gaps are, and try and write in a way that someone would want to read. But I find the best way to start writing is just to start writing, not worry that there might be someone standing over your shoulder reading the sentence you’ve just finished, because no one’s reading the sentence you’ve finished and it’s just the start.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. That’s a really important point, I think, is that when we write I think we’re very constrained often by the books that we’ve read, books like your book, which feel very polished and finished, and when we write and it doesn’t look like that it can make us feel as though it’s not working somehow. But this is an essential stage, isn’t it?
Campbell Macpherson: It is, and it’s fun, to be perfectly honest. It’s fun, and if you’re not constrained by having to write something perfect the first time, which is impossible, to write something perfect the first time, then it all just starts to come out. And it’s very, very, very enjoyable. I didn’t have any trouble keeping going, that’s one of your questions. It was more of a case of could we stop please, because I’ve written too much. So I would take swathes out.
Alison Jones: Did you have a plan that you were writing to? Did you have a sense of how long each section was going to be, or did you just literally sort of vomit it all out on the page and then go and shape it afterwards?
Campbell Macpherson: Yeah, I did literally that. Literally that, in fact, when I received some feedback at a very rough draught from family, obviously friends, from an agent, from another commissioning editor piped in with a few ideas, then I reshaped the whole thing. But as you’ll see in the book, as you will have seen in the book, some chapters are three pages and some are 23. So it’s what felt right at the time in the book. I didn’t want to repeat what I’d said in the previous section, but I just wanted to acknowledge this was a slightly different point and then move on.
Alison Jones: And that’s interesting, because I often say to people there’s no requirement for you to have chapters of regular lengths, but there is a sort of an unspoken contract with the reader, isn’t there? That this is the structure of the book, and this is how it works, and you can read a chapter before you go to bed at night or whatever, and when they’re uneven like that it can be really powerful because it changes the rhythm and it sort of mixes it up a bit in the book. But if you don’t know what you’re doing it can be a bit disorientating for the reader.
Campbell Macpherson: Yes, well luckily I didn’t think about it too much. And it worked out rather well. But it’s the sort of book that I would like to read. I think that sums it up. And when I got enthused about a subject, that’s when you’d get a 23-page chapter.
Alison Jones: That’s right. And you’re right, the rhythm changes, and it’s conversational almost. I did like that about it.
Campbell Macpherson: No, no, very much. I must admit, of all of the comments and accolades it’s received, that your comment that the writing was beautiful was the number one, that floored me. That completely … Because writing a book that someone might read is great, but writing a book that someone might want to read is another step. But actually to have someone who knows what they’re talking about really say the writing was exceptionally good, I think that was the biggest confidence boost of the lot, to be perfectly …
Alison Jones: Oh, well I’m glad. I stand by it, it is, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And I think I said on the night as well, it’s not every time I do this, but I found myself going back and rereading sentences or paragraphs just for the pleasure of it, so that’s always a good sign, isn’t it? And you just go on to a Word document, do you? You don’t use any fancy systems or anything when you’re writing?
Campbell Macpherson: No. No, just Word. Just Word and increasingly bigger font as the years go on. But no, just Word, that’s fine.
Alison Jones: So what’s your best tip, Cameron, for a first time author who’s listening to this show and wants to write like you do? What do you say to them? Wants to win awards like you do.
Campbell Macpherson: I never quite thought of it that way. Best tip, I’ve got two really. One is to have confidence in yourself, to have confidence that you are going to write something that someone will want to read. And the second tip is just enjoy the writing experience, because if you really jump into it it can be just a fabulous thing, because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Alison Jones: I love that, because so many people approach it fearfully and with reluctance and a sense that this is going to hurt, but you just went in and just had fun.
Campbell Macpherson: Exactly, exactly. Yeah. I suppose the third tip is when you give it to people, be prepared to take criticism and helpful hints on the chin. That’s often difficult. Don’t treat it as though someone’s telling you that your baby’s ugly.
Alison Jones: Actually, I love the concept of the ugly baby. The chap that wrote Creativity Inc, whose name has completely slipped my mind now, he has this lovely idea … You know, the guy who runs Pixar. Ed Catmull. Pixar obviously has these fabulous polished cartoons at the end of the day, the feature length cartoons, but he said, “You start off at the beginning with an ugly baby, and you’ve got to be gentle to it, because one day it’s going to be beautiful but right now it’s pretty scruffy, pretty rough around the edges.” It’s very similar when you’re writing a book, I think.
Campbell Macpherson: Yeah, I agree. I agree.
Alison Jones: Yeah, fantastic. So I also always ask my guests what would their recommendation be for an extraordinary business book? One that you think that everyone listening to this show should read, and why. Obviously The Change Catalyst, but apart from that, which one?
Campbell Macpherson: There’s another one? I didn’t realise.
Alison Jones: Believe it or not, there are.
Campbell Macpherson: The book that … There are two books actually. One is Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, that I even reference in The Change Catalyst, is a great, easy to read, very straightforward but insightful dissertation or analysis of what a good strategy is and what a bad strategy is. That’s excellent. And the second one, just read the first six chapters of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. That’s 20-odd years old now, but it is just as relevant, particularly as companies are changing so much. It talks about how large organisations find it awfully difficult to change, and it’s their success that ends up being their downfall.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Brilliant, and do you know, I’ve read both of those but not for a long time, so I’m going to go back and revisit them. Every week in my newsletters I do a review of an interesting business book for people, so I shall revisit those. Those are great recommendations, thank you so much. Now, Campbell, if people want to find out more about you, more about The Change Catalyst, where should they go?
Campbell Macpherson: Well, my website is changeandstrategy.com, so all the Ws, changeandstrategy.com is where you’ll find out more information about me that you ever wanted to know.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Such a pleasure talking to you today, and congratulations again on winning the award, and I hope you carry on milking it for all it’s worth.
Campbell Macpherson: That is the best description I’ve ever … Thank you so much.