‘Wouldn’t it be helpful if somehow you could anticipate the key skills that would be needed in the future to support people’s professional growth?’
And that was the question that eventually led Chris Watson to write his first book: Upskill: 21 Keys to Professional Growth. In this conversation we explore the steps in between: the research behind the book, how Chris pulled it all together and found the right writing style, and the marketing tips he’s learned along the way.
Writing a good business book usually starts with asking a good business question: here’s the step-by-step guide to everything in between.
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Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s an absolute joy to be here today with Chris Watson who is an award-winning specialist in the promotion of adaptive skills. He founded Endor Learn and Develop in 2002 following a successful career in publishing and higher education. He is incurably curious about all aspects of organisational behaviour. And his aim is to strengthen relationships in the workplace by sharing straightforward solutions. He’s also the author of Upskill: 21 Keys to Professional Growth. So congratulations, Chris, and welcome to the show.
Chris Watson: Really looking forward to our conversation.
Alison Jones: This is going to be really fun actually, because I’m going to ask … You know, it’s one of those things when you ask a question and you kind of already know the answer, but I can’t wait to hear it from your side. So, Chris, tell us how this book came about.
Chris Watson: Right, well for the last 25 years … I’ve worked in and been fascinated with behaviourally based learning and development. And so the driver for this interest was shaped by my own experiences as an HR practitioner back in the 90s working for a number of large, complex organisations. During this time I heard about something called the Peter Principle. It’s after a book, actually, by Laurence J. Peter. And the Peter Principle, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it Alison, it-
Alison Jones: I have in the context of the Paula Principle, interestingly. We had Tom Schuller on the podcast a little while ago. I hadn’t heard of it until then.
Chris Watson: Ah, right. Well just linking back to that then for people that don’t know it, it’s a term used to describe a rather disappointing phenomenon where in many organisations, particularly hierarchical ones, people tend to get promoted right into the level of their own incompetence. So what that means is they reach a level where they’re no longer able to perform effectively in a new role, so end up getting stuck at that level. Now, looking into it, invariably this is because the skills of one job don’t always translate easily to another.
I’m sure a lot of listeners will relate to this when you’ve had a magic weekend I think they’re called, whereby someone’s really, really effective in role, they’re good as an operator or they’re good on the tools, whatever it is. And they go away for a weekend. They’ve been promoted, and on the Monday they’re supposed to be really effective as a supervisor, or a line manager. And the skills at one don’t always translate to the other.
Alison Jones: Yeah, we’ve all been there. I’ve known people who’ve almost been destroyed personally because they were used to being really, really good at their job, and then they’re put in a different role where they don’t get to do the job they love anymore. They get to do a completely different set of skills that they have no aptitude for and no training in.
Chris Watson: That’s it in a nutshell. I remember even back then thinking, “Wouldn’t it be helpful if somehow you could anticipate the key skills that would be needed in the future to support people’s professional growth, i.e. the skills and approaches which are associated with successful outcomes at work?”
So fast forward, I suppose, to 2002 and I launched Endor Learn and Develop. And I became even more curious as to what these transferable skills might be, and if it was possible to identify them. We applied to the European Regional Development Fund to gain a bit of financial support, to set sail on a large ten -year longitudinal study to identify these adaptive work practises.
And during this, what became … we called it the Language of Work project, we got feedback from over 8,000 businesses in the UK, a tremendous representative sample of all sorts of diverse organisations. And they included everyone you can think of really from Virgin to the NHS, the police service, SMEs. So we were quite confident that we were getting a good-enough insight in terms of the state of play, and what organisations were interested in in terms of the adaptive skills that they most valued in their own employees.
Alison Jones: And I’m guessing this is even more important these days, because when you go into a job you actually don’t know what role you’re going to be doing in ten years’ time. Things are moving so fast. So those adaptive skills become more and more core to surviving.
Chris Watson: Absolutely. Indeed, many of the roles that people will be gravitating towards actually don’t even exist at the time that they’re setting sail on their career. So trying to anticipate actually what really does make a difference seemed a worthwhile pursuit.
Rather than simply publish the results of the Language of Work project I also wanted to help readers develop the skills highlighted by the research for themselves, to kind of empower them to take charge of their own professional development. There have been lots of changes in learning and development, and one of them is that people are becoming a lot more, I suppose, instrumental. They’re becoming self-directed learners. And instead of setting sail or being sent on two-week residential courses people are wanting short, sharp, pragmatic learning that’s linked to the requirements of their own evolving task. And I wanted to reflect this. So I thought it would be great to capture the results of the Language of Work project, but also combine it with a book which would mirror this trend towards more personalised, self-directed learning, create a kind of portable toolkit to help people adapt to the ever changing work approaches.
And I have to say I was a bit daunted by the writing process itself. I obviously prefer talking and I’m more used to that than lots of typing. So I did try things like Dragon Dictate, but I actually found it became almost too conversational and too anecdotal.
Alison Jones: This is a really … it’s a short, sharp book. There’s lots of bullet points. It’s very, very practical. It’s very, very focused on application isn’t it? I can imagine that’s quite hard to speak out. You almost need to just jot those bullet points down.
Chris Watson: Well that was it. I even looked at Pete Williams, I listened to one of the Extraordinary Business Book Club broadcasts and his advice on make it into a story. But as you say, the material just didn’t … It’s so diverse that it didn’t really suit that style. So I decided to focus instead on really just very short paragraphs, short learning bites which would be peppered really with bits of humour to try and help with the digestion.
Alison Jones: And this of course is not the first time that we have encountered each other is it, because at the point where you had the idea for the book you discovered the 10-Day Business Book Proposal Challenge as well.
Chris Watson: I did. Yes, and I’m forever grateful for that, Alison, because I’d pulled together a lot of the insights… in fact, I’d got far too many. I knew following from the Language of Work project what the 21 skills were that all of these organisations were saying that they valued. And we’d got plenty of ideas for things that would help people to develop in role for themselves, but I was sort of stumbling really in terms of what to do next.
I suppose my lack of confidence in terms of where to go meant that I was kind of sat on the raw data for probably a couple of months. And as you say, then all of a sudden I saw a post where someone had referred to the Business Book Challenge. And it really did act as a sort of galvanizer, pulling my thoughts together in terms of trying to create, I suppose, a document that could articulate the … not complexities, but the background and the opportunities provided by the book, but also pose it in a way that might be attractive to potential publishers. It’s exactly what I gained from the experience.
Alison Jones: Was it that ability just to pull it all together into a document that pitched it?
Chris Watson: Yes. And as well I think the camaraderie of sharing experiences with other nascent authors who are interested in publishing specifically a business book, and who are also gingerly walking toward moving it forward and learning from each other. So it was terrific.
Alison Jones: It’s really good to hear. I’ve heard this a few times from different people but it’s great that it’s that mix, as you say, of the deep work that you do yourself and the thinking that you bring to it, and that sense of other people in there with you. That’s terrific. It’s really good to hear. And I love that there’s so many books now out in the world that have come out of that challenge. It’s just a joy.
Tell us specifically a bit more about the 21 skills that you identified here. I remember during the proposal challenge you having to hack it down because less is more. What did the 21 that made the cut have in common? What kind of criteria did you use to narrow them down?
Chris Watson: We created an online survey for all the businesses that participated and asked them what really were the skills in their organisation that made a difference. By difference I mean that which were the skills that could be easily transferred into other roles, just linking back to the Peter Principle, but also the skills that seem to be associated with successful outcomes in role regardless of your seniority, regardless of where you are in an organisation, and indeed regardless of role title.
And actually once you start to become a bit reductive and think about cutting out the specifics and the technical aspects of a role, all of which can often be trained, then it becomes much more about the way that people go about what they do. So just sort of providing that as a guide for employers, what was really surprising was that there was such consistency in terms of the 21 skills that they were saying.
Alison Jones: So give us an example of one of those core skills so that people can get a sense of what the book covers.
Chris Watson: A fundamental one, one of the ones that comes up really quickly as number one on most surveys, for example, in organisations, is around constructive communication, the way that people engage and link up with people. Others are things like ability to influence; creativity and innovation comes up; providing direction and a sense of purpose; motivation to succeed; resilience and emotional control is very topical at the moment; team work and collaboration; and even things like using information effectively.
Alison Jones: I love the way you include ideas for delivering results. That sort of relentless practical focus of it is terrific. And you’ve got inspiration in there as well. Practical and inspiring, that’s how I like my books to be.
Chris Watson: There’s a cue there somewhere, yes.
Alison Jones: The writing of the book, how has it impacted on you both personally and professionally through that process of writing and rigorously honing down that massive body of stuff that you had to say? And now that it’s published by Crown House, what’s the impact on you professionally as well?
Chris Watson: That’s been really interesting. That’s been quite surprising actually. I mean commercially I suppose we’ve seen more inquires for Endor Learn and Develop since the book was published, which is terrific. Additionally I suppose I realise now just how much time and energy that you have to invest in launching a new title.
Alison Jones: Oh yes, it’s not just the writing is it?
Chris Watson: I can really see that now and appreciate it. I mean realistically I think the marketing alone could take up a year of your life if you had that much time to spare.
Alison Jones: Looking back, what was the single most effective thing? We’re just picking your brains now.
Chris Watson: I suppose in terms of overt book sales that you know have come directly from a given intervention, that would definitely be being face to face in front of people, and you’ve got the opportunity to really express what the book’s about, and you can see a result at the end of it. But what we’ve deliberately done is use all the same channels for Endor Learn and Develop for the book. So we’ve spread opportunities such as YouTube, we’ve used blogging. Crown House have been terrific in terms of organising author interviews, sending out press releases and then following those up. So there’s just so many channels now.
Alison Jones: I think you make such a good point about the fact that if the book is integrated with the business, as yours is so beautifully, then when you’re marketing the business you’re marketing the book and vice versa. So you’ve got a real synergy there.
Chris Watson: Absolutely yeah. The two do go hand in hand. And Endor provide behaviourally based learning programmes on almost all of the skills included in the book, so it means that both aspects are able to sit really comfortably together.
Alison Jones: Which is so important I think if you’re a business person writing a book.
There’ll be people listening to this who are very much still in the mire. They still have that mass of stuff that they know is fascinating and they want to turn it into a book but they don’t know how to go about it. So what would be your one best tip?
Chris Watson: I suppose there’s a little bit of contradiction in that, without doubt, I would say get support. It may well be… the Business Book Proposal Challenge isn’t a bad place to start. But there are lots of other … There are blogs. There are specialist business book sites for new business book authors.
But also don’t think that some of your own instincts about what you want to do aren’t worth following. I suppose the ultimate best tip would be to construct your boat and then set sail, and remind yourself that it was amateurs that built the ark and professionals built the Titanic. So I would definitely say don’t let any lack of experience hold you back from writing and communicating with would-be publishers.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I also always ask people what business book they would recommend that everybody listening should read if they haven’t read already. So I’m really interested. What’s your recommendation, Chris?
Chris Watson: The one that’s closest to my heart is a book called First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham.
Alison Jones: Oh, I haven’t read that one. Thank you.
Chris Watson: I like the fact that it does challenge conventional wisdom, if you like, around learning and development and around management practises. And it really is a revelation for anyone that’s interested in either of those subjects. One of the key messages … It contains the results of probably the largest ever survey in terms of what makes great manager. And they conducted … Gallup, the largest research organisation in the world as you’ll know, but they did 120,000 hours of behaviourally based interviews with the best managers. It’s an American term called superior managers, but effectively it’s people who could reconcile the challenge of both delivering tasks and also keeping people on board.
What they found was … They were expecting to almost create a profile of the best managers in the world, what they did and how they behaved and how they acted. And obviously I was really fascinated to see the results of this. But instead of finding out that great managers were great at this part of developing teams, that communicated in this way, they motivated people in this way, they actually saw no consistencies whatsoever which is quite staggering really. There were no common elements in terms of all of the key competencies that they were expecting to uncover.
So they were about to shut the door on what ended up being one of the most expensive surveys ever to be undertaken, and really resulting in very little tangible results, when one young researcher noticed that one word was being spoken about consistently in all of the so-called superior managers. And it was bleeding into their dialogue and into the way they’d describe what they did, but was absent in all the managers that were either really, really effective at managing tasks or really, really effective at managing just people.
Alison Jones: What’s the one word that kept coming up?
Chris Watson: All of these superior managers individualised what they did. So they recognised that yes it is important to share tasks, it is important to share goals with their people, it is important to motivate and keep them on board. But the way that they went about it was they were smart enough to recognise that when they were talking to Alison or talking to Peter, they maybe needed to apply different levers to make it appealing and to get them on board.
And it’s common sense really, isn’t it? I think emotionally intelligent people do that naturally anyway. They realise that the messages need to be personalised to really appeal to people and really capture their imagination. But what seems to happen is some people who are less successful at reconciling, sometimes, both people and task concerns tend to just stick with one blunt instrument or one way of pushing things forward. And that can push certain people away.
What it suggests is first of all there isn’t just one way to manage, as indeed there isn’t just one way to be a receptionist, or one way to be an author. Any job there’s a variety of ways. Certainly there are some skills that are advantageous, but none that you have to do it in this particular fashion otherwise you’re not going to succeed in role. And I think that’s quite refreshing. Linking right back to things like the Peter Principle, for so long there’s been this misnomer that competency frameworks are the way forward in terms of developing people whereby you look at the role, an organisation decides what are the characteristics and what are the skills that will automatically lead to success in a role. And they try to push people into a particular shape based on maybe some arbitrary profile that was undertaken years ago.
And what First, Break All the Rules suggests instead is that, well actually shouldn’t we now, with the speed of change, shouldn’t we be looking at the tasks that people are undertaking because they’re moving so quickly and they’re so dynamic? And instead of trying to fit people into a role, let’s look at the tasks that they’re required to undertake, the projects that they’re working on, and find quick and effective ways to get them to upskill so they’re really capable. And they can maybe manage some of that personal and professional development for themselves, and then move on with speed onto the next project.
Alison Jones: Yeah, because we’re driving forward by looking backward. Brilliant. And I love the way that brings it neatly around back to your book as well. I can exactly see where that inspiration kicked in for you. Fantastic.
So Chris, if people want to find out more about you, more about Endor, where should they go?
Chris Watson: Well if they’re anywhere in Lincolnshire, why not pop in for a coffee and a chat at either the Lincoln or Scunthorpe office? The kettle is always on and the door is open. Alternatively, for the more geographically challenged, why not visit the website? So it’s endorlearning.com. If you enjoy videos have a look on the YouTube channel. And I’m available on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I’ll put those links. But I love the fact that anybody not in Lincolnshire, particularly not in Scunthorpe, is geographically challenged. That’s absolute magic.
Lovely to talk to you Chris, and really lovely to hear the story behind the book beyond what I saw in the proposal challenge as well. I feel like I’ve got a complete view of it now. Thank you so much for your time today.
Chris Watson: Great talking with you, Alison.