‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’
Jonathan MacDonald is extraordinary in many ways: a victim of bullying as a child who grew up to practise ‘radical forgiveness’, the youngest ever Chairman of the British Music Industries Association, the current British heavyweight jiu-jitsu champion…. Oh yes, and an advisor, award-winning, best-selling author and keynote speaker. How? Find out here.
We talk about diversity, change, structuring and writing a book, metaphor and coin-flipping – to name just a few – and he makes an incredibly generous offer to Extraordinary Business Book Club listeners which you’d be a fool to pass up. Get the kettle on and get ready for some top quality brainfood.
Jonathan’s site: https://jonathanmacdonald.com/
Jonathan on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jmacdonald
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club Summer Reading List 2019: https://alisonjones.com/the-extraordinary-business-book-club-summer-reading-list-2019/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, where it’s a real pleasure to be here today with Jonathan MacDonald, who is a private advisor, keynote speaker, award winning best selling author, whose core purpose is expanding the way people think, which has been very varied. He’s one of the few people that companies such as Google, Apple, P & G, Unilever, Nestlé, Microsoft, Ikea, they all trust him to challenge their thinking and provide new perspectives and avenues of thought, particularly on the topics of disruptive innovation, future trends, and how to use change to fuel outstanding business and personal success.
So Jonathan’s been creating and advising businesses for almost three decades. He was the youngest ever chairman of the British Music Industries Association, which is pretty cool. And he’s the author of several books, most recently Powered By Change, which was the winner of the 2019 Business Book Award in the Embracing Change category. So welcome to the show, Jonathan.
Jon MacDonald: Hi there. Thanks for having me.
Alison Jones: It’s a pretty stellar introduction though, isn’t it? I always feel a bit sort of cowed when I read one of those.
Jon MacDonald: No, I love it. I just feel slightly embarrassed, but that’s fine.
Alison Jones: ‘Is that me? Really?’ So, but start by telling us about the book and this wonderful windmill metaphor that you set up in it, which I really, really loved. Just – where did it come from? Why did you write it? All that kind of stuff.
Jon MacDonald: Yes. I think over the last almost three decades in business, I’ve observed a couple of what I would call truisms, I guess. Things that just always seem to be the case. And there’s so many variables in business and life of course, and so many uncertainties. But one of the few things that has always consistently been observed by me and also by many others, people I speak to, my peers, is that how we actually handle change determines our success. And because today’s the slowest pace of change we’ll ever experience.
So the mental agility to handle uncertainty and flux and turbulence is something that is directly proportional to success. And so I eventually started to model out how one could use change as a fuel to create success, whether or not this thing that we dislike or hate or we’re concerned about, it could be the very thing that could power the engines for great success. And that’s why I started to use the metaphor of windmills because there’s this lovely ancient proverb that says that when the winds of change are blowing, some build a wall and others build a windmill, and that’s how the book starts and ends.
Alison Jones: And it’s brilliant because it’s the best kind of metaphor, because it serves as the metaphor for what the book is about but then you also use it as the structural organisation for the book, which is really smart because of course each arm has three parts and it just works beautifully. I mean, did you sort of go, “Oh, that’s good.” When you worked it out or did it sort of evolve as you were writing or what?
Jon MacDonald: You know what? I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud. So, so this is totally an exclusive here, I’m just about say. No one’s actually ever asked me that question. So what actually happened that was I started mapping out my thoughts using a piece of software called Goalscape. And Goalscape is all in circles with intersections of circles. And you basically prioritise the inner circles against each other. And so as I started mapping my thoughts out, it started to look like a windmill. And for some unknown, it’s just I guess the weird way that the universe works sometimes, I started to be staring at a windmill in front of me whilst using a windmill metaphor in my head. And the blades of the windmill, if you like, were pre-populated by the words that I’d written in there. And so they became the sections, i.e. the blades, blades one to four. And the intersections, the inner circles, of which there are three in each blade. Just, Yes. So it actually just, it was staring at me in the face and-
Alison Jones: So you could say basically this has been co-written by AI, hasn’t it?
Jon MacDonald: Yes. One could say. Yes, I guess. Hey listen, that’s a good marketing angle, I should have said that to the publishers at the time. But yes, I’ve never said that out loud.
Alison Jones: How funny. That is really, what I love about that as well is very often one of the themes that comes up on this podcast is the way that we can blend visual thinking and writing, which obviously is textual and linear and all that good stuff. But when you draw out your ideas, you get a new perspective on them and you see them differently and also you can communicate them more clearly.
Jon MacDonald: Yes, that’s right. I think I’m a very visual person so, and to be honest with you I’m not, I wish I were more a writer than a thinker and a drawer. But I tend to visualise things in my head, then essentially sketch stuff down. But the last thing I do is actually type keys on a keypad. That’s my least favourite part of the journey was the physical writing part…
Alison Jones: You couldn’t put it off any longer.
Jon MacDonald: Exactly. Yes. The publishers were leaning, breathing down my neck. There was an advance involved and I’d had a year, right?
Alison Jones: And you can’t just send them a picture and go, “It’s sort of like this?”
Jon MacDonald: I tried. I tried, but Hachette were really inflexible. And they wouldn’t take an A4 piece of paper with a drawing on it, I can’t believe it.
Alison Jones: But you know what? The book that can start with an A4 drawing that captures what is about is almost always a really much easier to read book. There’s something about the clarity of coming at it from that perspective. And I love it when an interviewee goes, “You know what? I’ve never told anyone this before.” I love that. Anything that starts with that, I just love that. And then, the awards evening. I mean, tell us the truth. We were you sitting there with your speech all prepared going, “I have nailed this.” How was it? What was it like to win?
Jon MacDonald: Well, I read all of the… Well first, it was a great honour to win, by the way. So I was absolutely floored by that. But I had read all of the other books in the category and so I had already decided who was going to win. And it was a book called the Mother Of All Jobs.
Alison Jones: Yes, Christine Armstrong. It’s a really good book.
Jon MacDonald: It’s a great book. So I’d already decided that she had won. And so I spent most of the award ceremony trying to find . And I couldn’t find her anywhere. And I was gutted actually, because I was going to go and find her and say, “Listen, out of all of our books, yours is the one that I would vote for.” And so, yes, I couldn’t find her. And so as they read out the winner, I was pouring some water or something. I was kind of just waiting for her name to be, I was just going to find out where she was in the room so I could speak to her after this. So I was waiting for her name to be read out and then she’d stand up and then I’d know where she was sitting.
And that’s exactly what happened. And so I’m very far away from having a speech prepared. I didn’t have any idea. So then they read my name out and I was absolutely gobsmacked. And so I walked up to the podium and thinking, “What the hell am I going to say?” Now, what can I possibly say here?” And it was just really… Yes, it was just last minute. And what was in my head, I realised that I wanted to say thank you to some people, but it made me feel… The first time in my life I actually felt like an author. That’s what it made me feel. I felt like an actual author.
Alison Jones: ‘Nobody can take it away from me that I’ve won an actual…’, that’s brilliant. And Christine, if you’re listening to this, I don’t know if this is going to make you feel better or worse. I’m so sorry. Christine has actually been on this podcast. She is ace and I love her to bits, and it is a super book. So there you are people, if you go read Jonathan’s book, definitely read Christine’s if you haven’t as well.
Jon MacDonald: Yes. Actually, don’t read hers first. Otherwise you’ll see how bad mine is. Read mine first, whatever you do.
Alison Jones: And then when you were on stage and Nadine was about to bring you on to do your speech, and she looked at you and you had this fabulous white tux on. I don’t know if it was a tux or it was just a suit. It looked amazing. Anyway. And she said, “Oh, nice colour.” And you came back quick as a flash. “Thank you. I was born with it.” And it was just the best moment of the evening. Everybody was just… It was just brilliant. I can’t believe… It’s like you set it up. But one of the reasons I love that so much is it brings up something of an elephant in the room, which actually the point about Christine does as well. Because the first year of the business book awards, and Lucy’s been on here talking about it, we looked at the list, it’s like, “Oh my goodness, it’s a list of white male winners. How did that happen?” And ‘Yes, really?’ And this year we’ve got a lot more women and we’ve got a bit more BAME as well. We’ve got a bit more kind of ethnic mix in there, which is brilliant. And none of it happened at all consciously. It’s just, it is what it is. Flipping heck, this lack of diversity in business books particularly is shocking. Why is it?
Jon MacDonald: Well, I guess to veer away from what could be prescriptive causality and thinking, “Well, because there are a few fewer people of ethnic backgrounds or females, that means that there are fewer authors in that space.” so rather than making that kind of assumption, which I think could be tempting, I would proffer that there is a preference towards a white male dominated business world that is not necessarily cognizant but it’s the way things have been for so long that there is a hangover of that into the present moment. So I think we’ll find in 10 years time, no one will remember when book awards were just purely white male writers. No one will remember that, because in 10 years time it will be totally mixed up. And more so in 20 years time there’ll be human and nonhuman writers as well.
So, we will move from, what we call diversity now will eventually become normalised and then new diversity will come in. And so in 10, 15, 20 years time there’ll be these awards where books have been co-written by AI, to coin your phrase from earlier. And there’ll be a big hoo ha about whether or not we’re allowed to bring a robot on stage to accept an award or whether or not the business book awards is a human-only ceremony. And so it’s academically interesting that diversity at the moment is something which we all know is actually normalised. If you walk around London, you throw a rock in the air in London, it will hit on someone who isn’t an Anglo-Saxon.
Alison Jones: Don’t do that. Please don’t do that. We’re not advising that you do that.
Jon MacDonald: No. A metaphorical rock. And so I’m keen on meritocracy, to be honest. I’m keen on good writers getting recognised for good writing. And I’m totally colourblind when it comes to that. I mean, looking over at my bookshelf now next to my bed, I have out of the dozen or so books on there, I would say 50% are probably written by women and 25% written by white males and 25% written by males of other colours. And the women, the female writers, and on my bookshelf come from all manner of different origins side. I don’t see good writing as based on gender or colour. And in fact, quite on the contrary, I find that writers who have different backgrounds have a new emphasis that they can add to my thinking. And by the way, all of this should be caveated by the fact that several of my favourite authors are white males, so I don’t see it as any different and I’m just glad that there is diversity now.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s really interesting isn’t it? Because my next question was, “What do we need to do about it?” But you’re saying actually we just need to keep making people aware that the default, the lazy default is the historic thing that we’ve inherited. This vision of a businessman as the white, middle-aged bloke in the suit. And I think that there is something about that, is there’s something about once you’re aware of that, it’s harder for it to have a hold on you.
Jon MacDonald: Yes. I think awareness is the first. The first part of any mental journey has to start with awareness. And in fact, if we are aware that there are all types of writers of different backgrounds and origins and genders and whatever, then it can be very hard for us to then ignore it, due to the fact that we’re aware. Now, of course if there’s prejudice, our ignorance can persist. But I think that persistent ignorance is becoming lesser seen, although I walk around town and see the old boys’ network, the gentlemen’s clubs, and they tend to be kind of the Westminster type lots. And I think that business is changing far faster than politics I would say. Yes. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Alison Jones: Yes. I don’t think any of us could argue with that. That’s really interesting. And then can we ask about the writing for a minute? Because you know we’re all colour blind when it comes to actually sitting down in front of the computer. You said it was painful. How did you get over that? How did you make the writing work for you?
Jon MacDonald: Well, I found that the way to do it, this is my methodology. Again, I haven’t actually told anyone this either. So there’s another big exclusive. Two in one podcast. So after my sketch, the sketch became a PowerPoint presentation, believe it or not. I created it because during my keynote speeches all over the world, I can create a PowerPoint in… That’s like breathing for me. So from my sketches, it became 118 slide presentation. And that presentation, I then spoke to, or rather presented over the course of, believe it or not, five sessions of three hours to a guy called Andrew Cave who is the journalist from Forbes and Telegraph. And I presented this to him. No one knows this, by the way. So I presented it to him and he then transcribed what I had said word for word and sent that to me. And then I crossed out a lot of the bits and said, “No, that wasn’t what I meant.” Or, “I didn’t say that. How dare you. I would never say something so ridiculous.” I was far smarter in real life.
Alison Jones: It’s horrible listening back to transcripts. I feel your pain. I do this every week. But yes, go on. Sorry.
Jon MacDonald: Yes, it was horrible. But he was brilliant. And so Andy transcribed what I presented and then we basically… He showed me where the holes in my thinking were. So he would say, “You mentioned this particular topic.” Like there’s one thing called elevation inside purpose, which is the first blade. And elevation is all about how we think about the business that we’re really in. And he said, “You bang on about this point but you haven’t given any examples.” And then I went off and populated that with four examples. And he said, “Yes, but everyone uses the example of Amazon. Can you not use an example that isn’t a giant monolith company?” And so he pressured me to basically fill out stuff that I just assume. I throw these jargonistic terms around and assume that everyone’s on the same page and then realised quite candidly that no one was and it was just in my head. So it was because of Andrew that I was able to actually fill in the blanks as it were, all 70,000 words of them.
Alison Jones: And are you still friends?
Jon MacDonald: Oh yes. We had lunch the other day. And I mean, he is the absolute opposite character to me. So not only are we mates, I think he’s like my older, quieter brother. And he’s very, very… There’s no part of our personality that’s the same other than we are both tremendously curious about stuff. And so we want to find out about stuff. Because he’s an investigative journalist. And I’m nowhere near that, but I’m curious about the world and I’m curious about humans. And so we marry on curiosity. And two more unlikely people you would never ever meet in a room. You would look at us and we’d never be next to each other at a dinner party by choice. But we are beautifully in love in terms of curiosity.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. Okay. I’m going to unpack that a bit just for people listening because there’s so much there. That’s awesome. Firstly is identifying your superpower. Clearly your superpower is not sitting down and churning out a book. Your superpower is thinking…
Jon MacDonald: Thinking.
Alison Jones: …and speaking. So that’s how you did it. And I love the PowerPoint slide. It forces you to be clear about what you’re saying in that point. Unless you go to like, 8-point text, which isn’t good. Presumably you did a readable PowerPoint slide. And that’s a brilliant aid for clarity. And it also means, actually not in your case because it’s quite highly structured, but sometimes it’s almost like having record cards, isn’t it? You go, “Oh, well, clearly it needs to start with this.” Or that needs to go there. And you can shuffle things around, which is brilliant.
Jon MacDonald: Exactly. Yes. I mean that was the… I mean, bearing in mind it’s a relatively free… I mean, there’s free versions of presentation software of course available. But for something that is readily available by most people, it is the most powerful tool I have ever used. So at the moment, I’m speaking to publishers about what could be next, an end of 2020 book, maybe a September 2020 book. And we’re bandying around ideas and I’m essentially sending them mini PowerPoint presentations. And they know now that that becomes a bigger PowerPoint and eventually it becomes a 70-80,000 word book. But it always starts for me, on cards. Sort of massive, great big messages.
And by the way, 8-eight point font, it was absolutely the opposite. We’re talking 34-point, 40-point. So I had to minimise this stuff down. I had to de-produce my thinking to the core, such fundamental structure of what I was talking about. Because otherwise, you don’t really know. It’s like trying to build a car from the paint job backwards. You have to build a car from the frame, and then the sub frame and the axles. You don’t think about the car stereo first. And so Andrew was, because he’s an investigative journalist, he was absolutely fascist about fundamentals. “Why is that point, Jonathan? Why is that more important than that?” And I said, “Well, it’s not more important.” He said, “Well, why is it mentioned first then? What is the first? What is behind this?” And he kept on saying, “Why? Why, why, why, why, why?” And that’s how it happened.
Alison Jones: I love that you’re still friends. That’s like quite incredible, really.
Jon MacDonald: Okay, well listen. We’re not drinking buddies, but we are definitely… We can do-
Alison Jones: And at no point you came to blows?
Jon MacDonald: No, not at all. And actually cause he’s so passive and so gentle and so… And I’m more alpha. But equally I was bullied for so long in my life. We’ve had chats too, all about the abuse I went through in my life. And so I get on very well. Most of my friends are much more quiet than I am. I tend to hang around with introverts and Andrew is one. And so yes, it suits my personality more. I like enabling those who have a voice but don’t necessarily want to share it to understand how they can share it.
Alison Jones: And I have to say, it’s funny actually. When I met you at the awards evening, you were not at all what I’d expected given the story I had read in the book about your childhood, which I mean… What you went through as a child is horrible. And I think it’s a real testament… We won’t go into it in detail, but I think if you read the book, it’s a real testament to kind of the triumph of the human spirit and also the way that you used that to power your own journey, which is pretty much what it’s about in the book, isn’t it? You take the stuff that’s coming at you and you make it fuel.
Jon MacDonald: Yes. Well, exactly. I mean, at the end of chapter two, I think, concludes with me saying, I had to become powered by change. It was literally that or death. And without giving away the stuff that happens in that chapter, from the level of abuse that I had, I had a binary choice. I’m either, I might’ve been killed by change or empowered by change. And so it was only in the last few years that I’ve realised how my life has consistently been driven by this concept of being powered by change. And now, I practise radical forgiveness. I practise radical gratitude. And I am extremely grateful to my tormentors that they have enabled these building blocks of my personality now. If it weren’t for the abuse that I suffered, I wouldn’t be where I am. And so I have actually not only in person forgiven most of those people, I’ve also thanked them as well. And that was also a very cleansing experience too.
Alison Jones: And I hesitate to say this, because you are obviously much more high-minded than I am. But there is an element in which success is the best revenge as well, isn’t it? That’s a very unworthy thought, I’m sorry.
Jon MacDonald: Yes, no, I appreciate that thought. Yes, I personally didn’t see it like that, but an even better revenge is to be gracious and to forgive. And there was-
Alison Jones: That’s what I meant to say.
Jon MacDonald: Yes, exactly. And they’re all good. But saying thank you and forgiving is… It helps everyone involved. And it also means that you don’t carry any of the negativity anymore and you give it away.
Alison Jones: Yes, Yes, absolutely. I think forgiveness is, it’s one of the most powerful and underestimated forces on the planet.
Jon MacDonald: I agree.
Alison Jones: Wonderful. I always ask people to give their best tips. So if somebody is listening… I mean, hopefully they won’t be fuelled by the kind of abuse that you faced as a child. So let’s not focus on that one. But if somebody’s in the middle of writing their first book, if they’re struggling and if they’ve heard so much already that I’m sure would help them, but what would be your kind of the one thing you’d want to tell them?
Jon MacDonald: Well, firstly I would say that everyone is battling in their own war. So we all have our own versions and so there is no hierarchy in terms of bad, what theoretically could be seen as bad background. So I’m respectful to the fact that everyone has their journey that they’ve gone through and demons they’re still fighting. I would say that if you can de-produce, down to what the ultimate ontology is of your thinking, what the ultimate fundamental building blocks are. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
And I use the process consistently even in this conversation of thinking: what is the fundamental part? And I would advise any author, aspiring or existing, to break down their thinking into: what is driving the ultimate force or the starting thought? What are we really talking about? Powered By Change could have been called Accelerate Your Business Success In An Uncertain Time. It could have been, all this kind of stuff. But really, really, it’s about change and how to use it. Really. And if you can describe your book in five words, then you’re on to something. And that’s really all I’d say.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. Thank you. And apart from Christine Armstrong’s Mother Of All Jobs, which you’ve already recommended strongly and apart from Powered By Change is there a book, a business book, particularly, but doesn’t have to be, that you particularly love and you would recommend others to read?
Jon MacDonald: Well, yes. Although I don’t use business books to inspire me about business. I use other works. And so for instance, Sun Tzu, The Art Of War is in my opinion, one of the best books on how to gain competitive advantage. I would say that Nudge is probably the best book about marketing, as is Freakonomics. I’m a big fan of philosophical prose, so I use a lot of the writings of old. But I don’t just talk about the Greeks. I don’t read the Greeks solely. I’m really interested in ancient Chinese philosophies. I mean there’s a book called I Ching, which is the ultimate book about change. And it’s tremendously complicated to get your head around, but once you’ve got it, once you’ve gone into the rabbit hole of I Ching, it becomes a playground of how to think about things. I’m a martial artist….
Alison Jones: Was that the source of the quote that inspired the book about when the winds of change blow?
Jon MacDonald: It wasn’t, but it’s actually from the same time in history. Now, being a martial artist, I’m competing in the World Championships this August in Florida. And I’m the current British heavyweight jiu-jitsu champion.
Alison Jones: How did I miss that? That’s brilliant.
Jon MacDonald: And so being a martial artist, I use books like the Book Of Five Rings, which is a brilliant book on martial arts. But actually there’s an easy metaphor that can be drawn between that and business. By the way, my overachievement, if one could call it that, is actually because every year I flip a coin between two things I’m really scared of or can’t do. And so 12 years ago it was between run the London Marathon and swim the English Channel. I was 35 kilos overweight and it landed on marathon and three months later I was on the start line at Greenwich Common. Six and a half hours later I crossed the finish line. I’ve learned four languages. I’ve learned to write with my left hand. Writing a book was actually another coin flip. Getting selected for the world championships in a martial art that I’ve never done before was another coin flip.
So everything that I do is actually because of a coin flip. And yes, I’m pitching the concept of coin flips to publishers, although they just say, “Look, you’ve got no credibility in the personal space. You’ve only got your business credibility.” So can I concentrate more on the business side. But one day, I assure you, one day there will be a book called Coin Flips, where I talk about my adventures and the life hacks that I’ve used to gain performance.
Alison Jones: I love it. It’s like a more kind of productivity- and personal development-focused version of Dice Man.
Jon MacDonald: Exactly, exactly right. And if there is anyone listening that wants me to write Coin Flip, then please do get in touch…
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Oh, amazing recommendations there. And also thank you for bringing the word ontology in. We don’t get that nearly often enough on this show. Raised the level a bit. I really love that. Thank you. If people want to find out more about you and your incredible life, and the book and all that kind of stuff, where should they go, Jonathan?
Jon MacDonald: Well, Powered By Change, people can find on any good bookstore poweredbychange.com is the website. It’s also in retailers, in airports, and train stations. But my website is jonathanMacDonald.com which is J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N-M-A-C-D-O-N-A-L-D.COM. Not M-C, it’s the kings of Scotland as opposed to Ireland. And so Yes, I would love to keep in touch with anyone who wants any advice or help or mentoring or just pointers because I’m a massive fan of paying it forward. I didn’t receive a great deal of help when I was starting. It wasn’t very offered. And so I’m going to rectify that. And so if there’s anyone listening who would like me to give them pointers in the right direction, then I will give my time freely for that because we’re all in this together.
Alison Jones: That’s an amazing offer. Thank you so much. That’s brilliant. It was such a pleasure talking to you today, Jonathan. I sort of feel I would like to talk to you for the rest of the day because I’m sure there’s other stuff we haven’t unpacked. Would you also be open to people sending in suggestions for your next coin flip?
Jon MacDonald: Yes. Oh goodness, yes. Let’s do that. Send them.
Alison Jones: All right, let’s do that. What’s your Twitter handle?
Jon MacDonald: @jMacDonald, so at J-M-A-C-D-O-N-A-L-D. And also my email addresses me@jonathanMacDonald.com. But there’s a contact form on the website as well.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And if you’re doing it on Twitter, please copy me in @bookstothesky so that I can lobby for my favourite. Brilliant.
Jon MacDonald: Yes. Hashtag coin flips.
Alison Jones: And then, you see the publisher will go, “Oh it’s trending on Twitter. Look at that.”
Jon MacDonald: Yes.
Alison Jones: “We must commission that book.”
Jon MacDonald: Yes. Maybe they will because it can’t just be about business the rest of my life. Come on. Coin flips. Come on.
Alison Jones: And good luck…. when are the world championships?
Jon MacDonald: 9th of August.
Alison Jones: Well, good luck on those as well. Let us know how you get on.
Jon MacDonald: Thank you. I will. Thanks Alison.