Episode 272 – Three Peaks Leadership with Philip Levinson

Taking an all-seeing, all-knowing, conquering, dictatorial approach to managing people is going to land you in a world of pain.’

Philip LevinsonPhilip Levinson always dreamed of becoming a CEO, and thought he was ready. But when he got there he realised the truth: nothing can prepare you for this. 

In Three Peaks Leadership he shares the lessons he learned, including the fact that leading at the highest level means not just surmounting the initial challenge of securing the role (the first peak), but embedding the changes for the long term (the second peak) and charting a course for the future, including your own exit from the role (the third peak). 

He’s disarmingly honest about the lessons he’s learned in humility along the way, both in leadership and in writing this book…. 

Three Peaks Leadership site: https://www.3peaksleadership.com/

Lev on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Threepeakslead1

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

The Business Book Awards winners: https://www.businessbookawards.co.uk/winners2021/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Philip Levinson, who has over 35 years of experience in the global real estate sector, including five years as CEO of two SGX listed companies. He’s a mentor to CEOs, an occasional commentator on REITs, and an officer in the Royal Australian Naval reserve. And he’s also the author of Three Peaks Leadership: How to make it as a CEO and beyond, which is just out from Practical Inspiration Publishing.

So welcome to the show Lev.

Philip Levinson: Alison, hi, it’s just great to be here.

Alison Jones: Oh, it’s very, very cool to have you here. Let’s just start with the congratulations. How does it feel, published author?

Philip Levinson: Thank you very much. Yeah. So it feels terrific. I have to say I was being driven to the venue for the launch last night and I suddenly had this sort of overwhelming feeling that we’ve actually achieved it. But I think it’s the team work that’s gone into this that has been so extraordinary.

Alison Jones: Yes, I think until you’ve done it, you don’t quite realize how many people are involved at all the different stages of the journey, do you?

Philip Levinson: Well, I thought when I press send the next thing that would happen were the royalty checks would come

Alison Jones: A bit of a black box in between.

Philip Levinson: You certainly educated me well, so now I know that there’s a phenomenal amount of work that needs to be done after that press send. And I have to say you and the team at Practical Inspiration have been absolutely fantastic. So thank you.

Alison Jones: Oh, brilliant. And we will come on to talk about, well, certainly the writing journey and the publishing journey, but before we do, I just want to sort of pull back a bit and just say to people who are going: three peaks? What’s he talking about? Tell us, what are the three peaks?

Philip Levinson: So if I may, just the genesis of the book was my first 10 minutes as the CEO of a public company, which is something that I had aspired to do for my entire business career. And within 10 minutes I realized how woefully ill prepared I was for the role. And having done the job in two guises for a period of five years and left, and had some time to myself, I thought: wouldn’t it be useful to write a guide to aspiring business leaders, those currently in the job and those looking at their next role? Just as something as a sort of aide-memoire or primer, these are the things that are generic, these are things that are going to happen to you. And there’s a requirement I think, to be better prepared.

So the first peak really is the one that, somebody said to me, it slaps you in the face the moment you arrive. It’s the issues that are really going to get you in your first few months in the role. In my instance, that happened within the first 10 minutes as I said, I was in my first management meeting.

Hi, everybody I’m Lev, anything that you would like to tell me that you think I might find interesting or important from here on. There’s a bit of muttering at the end of the boardroom table, and somebody was pushed forward to tell me that half the staff were looking to leave because they hadn’t had a pay rise for three years. So that to me was the first peak, but it’s also the preparation for the role.

And then moving onto the second peak, which is doing the job. All the issues that you’re faced as a leader of a business and getting really under the hood of the business, getting under the hood of the organization and the market that you’re in. You get to the top of the second peak and you look out and there’s the future.

And the future includes trends that are going to affect your business. And also, how are you going to exit gracefully from the role that you’re currently in. And that’s what the three peaks journey is all about.

Alison Jones: And I love this metaphor for lots of reasons, but one of them I think is that as you are approaching the first peak, you can’t see the second two, the moment when you get the top of the mountain and then you can sort of see the terrain ahead of you.

 Yeah, everybody’s so focused on the first peak.

And I think it’s really interesting to have that kind of sense that this is not a kind of one hit and you’re done. And then, you know, the sort of the credits roll and you ride off into the sunset. It does not work like that.

 Yes, give us some examples. I mean, you’ve given that great example of obviously that sort of particular issue that slapped you in the face in the first meeting, but generically what do you think, and I know that you’ve got some really strong opinions about why people aren’t necessarily prepared for the role, just to give us an example of a couple of things that people don’t know they don’t know about being a CEO.

Philip Levinson: Oh, well, I think the best examples I can give are contained in the seven surprises that I was given after I’d been in the role for quite some time. And by definition, they were a hell of a surprise. For example, the first one is you don’t, as a CEO or a leader, you don’t run the company.

You’re not actually running the entity on your own. You’re part of a team that is charged with running a business and ensuring that all the parts are interconnected and heading in the right way. But you can’t possibly imagine that you are going to be the single force that does that.

Another example would be the giving orders. And again, you know, you’re at the pinnacle of the organization – giving orders is very costly. If you actually tell someone to do something directly, you’ve got to prepare yourself for some pushback, for some resentment, for the orders to be misinterpreted, ignored. So you’ve got to, instead of give orders, you’ve got to make suggestions and guide people in the direction that you’d like them to go.

Another one might be, and I certainly forgot this, is that you’re always on. No matter where you are in the organization, physically everybody’s looking at you and I remember it well, when I came into the office in a particularly bad mood for some reason, and thought to myself, ‘God, everybody’s in a bad mood, I can’t believe it. The whole place is in a bad mood. And you know, on today of all days, I can’t believe it.’

And I went to see my leadership coach and ‘I had a terrible day and I arrived at the office in a bad mood because of…, and everybody’s been in a bad mood,’ and she said, ‘why do you think that is?’ And yes, yes, there were a lot of ouch moments, I have to admit.

So those are the sorts of things that you don’t know you don’t know, until they’re pointed out. They’re blindingly obvious once they’ve been pointed out, but you don’t know to look for them. And again, that’s part of the purpose of writing the book.

Alison Jones: It’s quite an exercise in humility this as well, isn’t it? Because you’re talking about the most senior echelons of leadership where traditionally that kind of polite fiction has been that you have all the answers and it takes quite a lot of courage, I think, to kind of come out from behind the curtain and say, look, do you know what, this is what’s going on. And you’re human, remember.

Philip Levinson: Well, that’s another surprise, you’ve got to remember that you’re human, but the fact that you think that you’re omnipotent – and being a leader of business is a balance between humility and omnipotence – is in itself a mistake. You’re not always going to be right. You’re not always going to be making the right decisions.

You’re going to be making decisions on imperfect information, but so long as you have a plan, that has been agreed, and so long as you’re doing things from the right place, from the basis of a strong value system that ensures that whatever you do, you do with the best of intentions, recognizing that you’re not going to get it right all the time, that should stand you in good stead. Taking an all-seeing, all-knowing, conquering, dictatorial approach to managing people is going to land you in a world of pain.

Alison Jones: How do you think military stuff, you know, the Naval Reserves stuff, I know you’re a helicopter pilot as well, I’m just interested actually in how those experiences have fed into your leadership style.

Philip Levinson: Well, I joined the Navy in part to learn how to lead. And I have been incredibly fortunate with the people under whom I served. One of whom has been interviewed for some of my podcasts because he’s such an extraordinary leader and his guiding principle, apart from the desire to serve, is that leadership is actually followship. To be seen by your team to be a good follower, to be followed as a good leader, if that makes sense. And one of the things that you don’t do often in the military is give a direct command. Now, there are times when you absolutely have to, and you need to make sure that people will do what they need to do, when they need to do it, at your command. But if you bark orders all the time, you’ll very quickly lose credibility, respect, and the ability to take people into situations, which they may not be comfortable in and make sure you get the best out of the team. So you lose that respect. You therefore lose your effectiveness. So that was a very, very important lesson.

The other one was consistency, not playing to favourites, not being up and down mood wise. Not being somebody that your team couldn’t judge how you would react in a particular situation.

You have to have that self-awareness, and that ability to project the fact that you know what’s going on, and that you have command.

Alison Jones: And that it’s not actually about you. It’s really fascinating, because I’m sure lots of CEOs who have no military experience see that kind of military style of command as being, as you say, barking orders and you know, people jumping to it. Really fascinating to get that perspective.

Philip Levinson: Yeah. it’s an incredible subject.

Alison Jones: Yeah. And I want to talk about the writing too, Lev, because you did this in quite, well, not an unusual way, I mean a lot of people do it, but I know you’re happy to talk about it, which is brilliant, so just tell us a little bit about that kind of sense that I have stuff to say, I’ve got great stories and material, how do I pull it into a book? What did you do?

Philip Levinson: So basically what I did in the first instance was write little notes to myself in my daybook. Predominantly about mistakes that I’d made. So I remembered in certain situations not to do the same thing. So they were my aide-memoire. After five years, I had quite the stack of daybooks filled with mistakes.

I came to you and said ‘Hi Alison, I’m Philip Levinson. I’d like you to publish my book Mistakes I Have Made, volumes one, two and three by Philip Levinson.’

Alison Jones: ‘Attractive prospect. However…’

Philip Levinson: …so under your tutelage, we narrowed that down, but it was a decision that there was a lot of material that I thought might be helpful. And I was very fortunate to be in a place where I was on my own a lot with a few of these daybooks. So I started to write. I have to admit that, and this isn’t a party political broadcast for Practical Inspiration Publishing, but you guys really did turn what I would have been ashamed to have put out into the public domain last night, into something that I was very proud of yesterday.

So it was a real process, but as I said at the beginning, it was unbeknownst to me when I started, such an incredible team approach to the production of the book.

Alison Jones: Well you see you are going to have to unpack this, because again, we’ve just sort of created a black box for people. You know, there was an awful lot of stuff, it was a mess, it came out really well. Tell us more, tell us what, you know, what were the kind of key points for you in that process? What did you discover about the stuff and that process of turning it into a structured, readable book?

Philip Levinson: Well, again, one of the first things I learned was that you park your ego because whilst you might think that you’ve put something in or you’ve sent something in that is worthy of a Booker Prize, your publisher might have a different view and your editor certainly would have a different view.

So for me it was a leap into the unknown. And recognizing that I was able to take your advice and I was able to take the advice of the editorial team as well, who I knew had my best interests at heart, but also had some fairly interesting critiques of the material that had been produced.

And one of which, I remember again talking to you about this, was that when I started writing the book it was a bit of a mea culpa. Oh, these are the little mistakes I’ve made, aren’t I terrible, don’t make the same mistakes. Which I then took out and I think you and I had a conversation where you said, we need to put a bit of Lev back into this.

 You need to be prepared to, do you remember that conversation? You need to be prepared to to expose, as it were, to expose yourself to the glare of publicity. And if you’re not prepared to do it, well don’t do the book.

Alison Jones: And I think it’s a really great lesson, isn’t it? Because we talk about this so often actually in the Extraordinary Business Book Club, that tricky balance between putting your story in there, because it’s your story and that’s, in a sense, one of your credentials for writing this book and you make that human connection and you get the emotional engagement and it matters, but not doing it self-indulgently.

 It’s not all about you. It’s like leadership, isn’t it? It’s about how this can serve the reader. And I think that you really got that. And as you say, you did properly park your ego and sort of say, well, actually this is, I’m not just telling the story for the sake of the story, I’m telling the story so that somebody else can understand how that applies to them.

Philip Levinson: Yeah. So I found it very helpful actually in the end to be able to say you know, first surprise, you’re not in charge. And then give it a practical example as to how I found that out the hard way. Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that anybody that reads the book doesn’t and will not make mistakes.

Of course they will, but there’ll be a sort of, I hope, more of a set of rails to run down than I had

Alison Jones: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask you actually what is your hope for the book now, now that the canapés have been cleared away from the launch last night and the book is out there in the wild. What do you hope for it sort of personally and professionally for you?

Philip Levinson: So the first thing is that I hope that people whose opinion I respect read the book and say, actually I get this. And I’ve been very lucky to have had a few fantastic texts and emails back saying thanks for your book. In fact, I got one yesterday saying, from somebody who really was a guide and mentor of mine, saying I took photos of the last couple of pages of your book for a course that I’m running.

So I was thrilled to hear that because if it resonates with someone like that, we’re doing something right.

But the idea is to build a network, almost a support network for business leaders, both people who are founding startups and running all the way up to running major companies.

Because one of the things that I found is how lonely it is. It’s often said, but not much understood how lonely leadership is. And you literally can’t turn to your senior team members and say, ‘Oh my God, this job is killing me. I’m just having a terrible time,’ because you’ve got to be strong.

You’ve got to be strong for yourself, and you’ve got to be strong for your team, but there are other people with whom you can have that conversation, who have your best interests at heart. And that was actually one of the best pieces of advice that I was given before I took the CEO role. It was given by a friend and somebody who I regard very highly in the business community, who said, you’ve got to build a ‘board of Lev’.

You’ve got to have people around you who have your best interests at heart, who will not be afraid to give it to you straight between the eyes if they think you’re doing something stupid, and will be there to pick up the pieces when you’ve tried and failed and to help you try again. And I found that incredibly useful.

And actually, interestingly, from my perspective, a number of those people were at the book launch last night and I was able to thank them all publicly.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s a nice bringing it together, isn’t it? I love that concept of the ‘board of Lev’. I remember you telling me that and I really took that on board for me as well. I thought it was a great concept.

Philip Levinson: Well, that’s really what we’re looking to do with the book it’s to get people to think more about that. And you know, if from my perspective, somebody I’ve never met calls me up and says, I need help, I’m in a similar situation to the one that you found yourself in, what did you do? I’d be thrilled.

Alison Jones: Yes. And it’s great that the way that a book can really serve as the focal point for a community like that. I’m very, very pleased that you’re using it professionally in that way. I think that’s brilliant.

If somebody is listening and they are, you know, in a very different spot on the journey, being where you are now, what would be your best advice for somebody who’s still scribbling things in the daybooks?

Philip Levinson: My best advice would be make sure that you know yourself, because you may decide that it sounds like a great idea to be the CEO of a company or to found an entity. But if you don’t know yourself, you don’t know your strengths, you may be setting yourself up for failure without knowing it.

And by that I mean, that you may not be the sort of person for whom a leadership role is suited. For example, if you have thin skin and a huge ego you’re going to find yourself in a world of pain when you read a newspaper article about yourself or an analyst report, or you overhear someone talking about you in less than flattering terms,

Alison Jones: It’s interesting, you’re talking about leaders here, but actually that applies absolutely in spades to writing a book as well, doesn’t it?

Philip Levinson: It certainly does. It certainly does. I mean, again, and you counseled me on this, you’re sort of presenting yourself almost naked to the public. And you’ve just got to be prepared to be poked at and ridiculed and open to criticism. But I think if you’re robust enough to do that then there’s a book in everyone , as you and I have discussed before, and your writing, sitting down and writing the book is a great credit and could well help somebody else.

Alison Jones: And actually the fear of exposure is so much worse than the reality of it, isn’t it? It’s interesting.

Philip Levinson: When you do get criticism and if you’re not ready for it or you’re just at a low point, it can be quite harsh, but again, if you’re not prepared for it, and again, you did a fantastic job preparing me for it, but if you’re not prepared for it, then it’s going to hurt. If you are prepared for it, it hurts slightly less.

Alison Jones: Yeah, and there’s no way to protect yourself fully apart from never doing anything that matters.

Which is not…

Philip Levinson: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

Alison Jones: …not a great life plan, is it? Of the books that you’ve read, and I’m thinking particularly business books, but they don’t have to be business books, is there a book that you would recommend to listeners that’s been particularly impactful for you? Apart from Three Peaks Leadership of course, because Seth Godin said the book that changes your life is the one you write.

Philip Levinson: I can see that. The Long Journey, Nelson Mandela, just incredible story of perseverance and triumph and reconciliation. So I think I would recommend that to anybody who hasn’t read it.

Alison Jones: Do you know, it’s one of those books that is kind of part of my cultural mental furniture, but I haven’t ever actually read it and I must do that. Yes, when you’re focused on business books you can get terribly narrow. And actually there are these really important books that tell us who we are and where our society is and what are the sort of things that drive us, so I love getting recommendations like that.

Thank you. It’s a really good reminder.

Philip Levinson: No, that was a very, for me, that was, you know, I put the book down. I didn’t want to put the book down, but I put the book down and when I read it Mandela was still alive and you almost wanted to sort of send him an email saying that is amazing. But how, but how inspirational.

Alison Jones: Yes. Brilliant. Thank you. Great recommendation.

And Lev if people want to find out more about you, more about Three Peaks Leadership, more about the work that you do with CEOs, where can they find you?

Philip Levinson: philip.levinson@ceolearning.com.

Alison Jones: Well, that was a nice, succinct answer.

Philip Levinson: Yes.

Alison Jones: And you’re based in Australia. aren’t you, we should probably point that out as well.

Philip Levinson: Well, I’m based, so my business is in Singapore, my children live in Sydney and I decided to come back to Sydney. It’s no hardship, I can tell you, for the duration of COVID.

What I’m looking forward to doing is getting on a plane and bouncing through Singapore to London.

Alison Jones: Yes, where we can have the London launch

Philip Levinson: That’s right.

Alison Jones: Eventually, when we’re allowed to do things like that. Won’t it be grand.

Philip Levinson: Yes.

Alison Jones: I can’t wait. Not long now, not long now, I’m getting my jab tonight. I’m so excited.

Philip Levinson: Good.

Alison Jones: Very cool. Right, Lev such a delight talking to you and lovely, it’s always great when you’ve worked with somebody right from that kind of, you know, twinkle in the eye stage to look back on the journey and thank you for reflecting on it so thoughtfully and so honestly, brilliant.

Thank you so much.

Philip Levinson: Well, Alison, thank you. I mean, you really did take something that was literally a twinkle and turned into something that I have to say I was very proud to launch last night and it was truly a team effort.

And the only regret that I had last night was that you guys weren’t there to share it.

Alison Jones: Yeah, too right, I’d much rather been in Sydney. One day, Lev one day.

Philip Levinson: We’ll do that.

Alison Jones: All right. Goodbye for now.

Philip Levinson: Great, thank you so much, Alison. We’ll talk soon.

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