Episode 409 – First-Time CEO with David Roche

David Roche‘So they go, “Hang on, I’ve got to look confident… I have to have all the answers,” which is the worst place to come from.’

Becoming a first-time CEO is a lonely experience, and David Roche (who’s got that particular t-shirt himself) believes every new CEO should be assigned a coach and mentor, because if we expect our leaders to have all the answers, we’re setting them – and ourselves – up for failure in a complex, fast-moving, uncertain world. 

David has been involved in the book trade for many years, but that didn’t insulate him from the hard work of authorship, including the paranoia of wondering if his draft was ‘good enough’… 

Merging the personal with the professional, and storytelling with business strategy, this is an episode that offers coaching insights and writing wisdom – and which will be particularly interesting if you’re aiming for or already seated in the CEO’s chair, or writing for those sitting in it. 



David’s site: https://greyareacoaching.co.uk/

Alison Jones on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

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

Write it Wild waitlist: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/write-it-wild/

Alison Jones: I’m here, again, with David Roche. Lovely to have you back, David. David is a non exec chairman of London Book Fair, which we’ve just staggered out of, and chair of the writing agency New Writing North. He’s a consultant and a professional coach and mentor working with first time CEOs. He’s worked in both retail and publishing as CEO of Borders and Books Etc, Product Director of both Waterstones and HMV, and Group Sales and Marketing Director of HarperCollins.

He’s also been President of the Booksellers Association and is a sometime literary agent, rather by accident I think, and his latest book is called Become a Successful First Time CEO: Master the confidence, relationships and strategies you need to succeed.

So welcome back, David.

David Roche: Thank you very much. I noticed it was episode 97, I think, that I was in first time around. You’re over 400 now?

Alison Jones: Over 400 now, yes. Blimey, it’s definitely time to have you back, isn’t it?

And I must first say, I really enjoyed David’s book about becoming a first time CEO, of course. It’s useful whatever field you’re in, but as a publisher, it’s really fascinating reading all the industry gossip in it because you had such a fantastic career through such a seismic period of publishing and bookselling history, didn’t you?

David Roche: I should point out early that there’s lots of stories and anecdotes in the book, but most of them are for other people. There are a few I slipped in of my own, but…

Alison Jones: Those are the ones I was really interested in. I was trying to put names to these coy references.

David Roche: I mean, I guess over the years, I mean, we talked before about digital revolutions, and I guess that actually, even my very first job out of university, I think, which was with a textile manufacturer that produced millions of metres of textiles just south of Rome in Frosinone, unfortunately, I wasn’t based there, but I did get to visit.

But even that the whole planning process for production was computerized while I was there, and we managed to leapfrog ahead of people who’d been there for donkey’s years, but who couldn’t cope with the change.

Then at HMV, with the change in formats that happened constantly from tape to CD, video to DVD, and so on and so forth.

And then into books, it’s like, there’s nowhere safe, everywhere is subject to change. And it’s a fabulous opportunity for people at the beginning of their careers to show how fast they can adapt and move compared with some people who are stuck in the tram lines.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And yes, exactly the same when I graduated. I remember them saying this is the first time I’ve had an editorial assistant have their own computer. And it was a huge thing back in 1992.

But you’re writing now for people transitioning into that CEO role for the first time.

 What was the genesis of that? Like, what made you think, here’s a book that needs writing?

David Roche: I think I have to go back, to the coaching course I did, I looked at coaching courses when I first left Harper Collins many, many, many years ago and decided it wasn’t for me, certainly at the time I did quite a bit of consultancy, but then when I went to non exec directorships and became a chair, I thought that the disciplines of coaching were really interesting.

The challenge, the active listening, the support and so forth. I thought actually that they overlap quite well with those and I think when you’ve been an exec director for many years, as I had been, to make that flip into non exec, and have what’s known as sort of nose in, fingers out, or whatever the expression is, to leave people alone and just help and guide, it’s quite a difficult thing to do sometimes. So I found the coaching course really helpful with that. And then I sort of fell into coaching as a sideline to some of the other roles that I have and really, really, really enjoyed it. I started off doing some pro bono stuff for people trying to get into the publishing industry from backgrounds that you know, that wouldn’t normally occur to a lot of their communities, there were roles in publishing for everybody.

And, I’ve been, it was at New Writing North then, so I came across a lot of writers who it never occurred to them that writing could be a career. And, then through the course of coaching and actually starting to do it professionally, I just found that this first time CEO was a real sweet spot, and it took me back to when I was made a CEO for the first time, I had a coach. It wasn’t a coach mentor, but a coach, and it was invaluable to have someone in your corner who was safe to talk to, who was independent and just to bounce things off, to be a sounding board. It was… and I got the most out of coaching first time CEOs myself. And I found that they really responded incredibly well.

When you first do coaching, it’s a bit of magic, really, that you sort of go, right, okay, well, we’ll try this and try this, try that and at the end of it, you might go, well, okay, it was okay, but didn’t go brilliantly. The other person on the other end goes, that was fantastic. It’s absolutely… and you simply go how did that happen.

Alison Jones: It’s almost the less you say, the more space you give, the more powerful the intervention, isn’t it? That’s the big difference, I think, between coaching and any other kind of intervention.

David Roche: Sure, I think, yes, I mean, there’s an element of coaching, I think, on the course it was likened to a driving test, that there are certain formal manoeuvres that you have to do, mirror signal manoeuvre, whatever it might be, but when you pass your test, chances are you’re going to find your own style and your own theory, you know, you might have the window open with your elbow on it or whatever.

And certainly, I found the mentoring side and using, I have 28 years of experience as a board member on various sides of the board table, that that was useful and actually, particularly with CEOs, they don’t have a lot of time and bouncing things off, you know, with the questions to eventually get to a point where you are moving forward. Sometimes they just didn’t welcome that. They go, look, I’ve got 20 minutes, I’ve got this meeting tomorrow. So often the most interesting thing I found during coaching was that there’s, if the client comes into complete block, certainly I’ve found, and I’m not sure everyone else has found this, but there’s a sort of incubation effect where you’re talking about something else. But I think it’s more than that. If they’re completely blocked, I might go, right, okay, let me tell you about something that happened to me. And I might say something that’s vaguely relevant. You know, I was doing this blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And before I’ve even got halfway, they’ll go, stop, just spark something that I’ve got exactly what I need to do.

And I think it’s, there is an element of incubation effect or reflective practice, but to me, they’re surrounded by their problem. They brought it in, we’ve discussed it. It’s ever present. But then everyone knows it’s quite easy or much easier to see the answer to other people’s problems than it is to see your own.

They’ve now moved into problem solving mode because I’m telling them the problem I had. And suddenly the two are in the same room, the problem solving mode and their own issues. And it makes that connection, which makes the breakthrough. And it happens too often.

Alison Jones: A lovely description.

David Roche: It happens too often for it to be a coincidence.

It really is a magic, you know, it’s a magician moment. If you can’t see an answer to your problems and someone else can come solve it, it is a magician.

Alison Jones: Yes, it does feel like magic, absolutely. And what strikes me as well is how few places there are for any CEO, but particularly a first time CEO with all the kind of insecurity around that, to say, I don’t know, or to explore questions that they don’t have the answers to.

David Roche: I feel particularly, I mean, you gain a sort of rhino skin as you go through your years as a CEO, but right at the beginning, it’s a completely different job to the one you had before. It’s not just a step up, with more responsibility in more departments. It’s completely different and any support groups you had before or the relationships with your peers changes completely and your previous peers changes completely whether you’re, you’re going into a new company or you’re being promoted from within.

And you know, I just find it amazing that all the concentrations on the selection process and I’m sure we’ll come on to talk about aspiring CEOs, but there’s an absolute element where I think within the selection process, when you get to the short list, probably most people on the list can do the job. And the real question is, can you be trusted to do the job?

And that’s where the relationships start to develop already between the selection board or selection committee and the incoming CEO. But, the first thing they’re thrown in front of is the hundred day plan.

You know, right, that’s immediately get on, we’ve got a hundred days to deliver, the clock’s ticking. An induction is just that, an induction, you know, it’s dates and times in the diary to meet various people. There’s no such thing as a transition plan and these people are just left on their own.

 But they’ve come in without necessarily being geared up for it. So they go, hang on, I’ve got to look confident. I’ve got to be the person who was hired and that knows how to do it. I have to have all the answers, which is the worst place to come from when you’re trying to, you know…

Alison Jones: Worst possible mindset, yes, yes.

David Roche: But also, it’s not particularly popular with all the people who’ve been around for a while and sitting there supporting going… you know, in fact, it’s totally true, you no longer run your department as you used to, so in effect, you don’t really run the company. You know, you’re setting the culture, you’re setting the strategy, you’re pulling everything together like a conductor, but …

Alison Jones: Yes, I love the conductor analogy, yes.

David Roche: So I think it’s really tough.

And the evidence within the statistics is there. McKinsey estimate that, I think it was one trillion dollars, the US dollars, are lost every year in market value of Standard and Poor’s top 1,500 companies based on poorly managed transitions of CEOs and C suite people. This is a priority. And what I…

Alison Jones: Why do you think isn’t, well, I was going to say, it might be the same thing, why do you think it isn’t standard that new CEOs get a coach, get a mentor?

David Roche: That’s what I don’t get, because surely the people who are, you know, the board who appoints the CEO, I mean, nobody wants that person to fail, everybody wants that person there. There might be one direct report who thought they should have had a job, possibly wants them to fail, but in general, everyone wants them to succeed, so why wouldn’t you do everything possible to support?

 I say, I’ve got a real thing that I believe passionately, you know, a first time CEO should be a appointed, sorry, assigned an independent coach and mentor automatically, it should be compulsory. You know, you wouldn’t do that with any other job. If you brought in a new buying director, you wouldn’t just sort of go, off you go. You just wouldn’t do it.

Apparently, the only job that is the exception is President of the United States, where they’re given, well, it depends if they agree with the election result. But otherwise, they’re given about 11 weeks to to have that transition before they take up office, you know, perhaps it’s too important to fail.

I don’t know.

Alison Jones: That’s working out well, isn’t it?

I just, I’m really interested to know from your, here you are, an author, and I know you’ve written poetry before, you put out a poetry collection, we talked about that last time, but this is the first business book, I think you’ve put out, correct me if I’m wrong.

What was, I don’t know if it’s Poacher turned Gamekeeper or the other way around or what, but what was your kind of experience of becoming the person who’s writing the book that all the machinery is then selling?

David Roche: That’s a really good question. I think more than anything sort of the poetry book going first time around I mean, see episode 97, that was very much a crazy thing, you know, I’m going to put myself in a room, I’m going to write and it was…. it was just, it sort of fell over itself and landed in a bookshop. You know, it just happened.

This time was completely different and I really, absolutely learned to trust the process, the editorial process, the experts, and have done all the way right through to publishing and beyond. This time I spent a small amount of money on a PR company, and oh my god, you sort of think you know how to do it all, but bloody hell, the results you get when a professional does it, who knew?

Alison Jones: Yes, well, they probably did, but yes.

David Roche: Yes. But absolutely. I mean, do it the right way and you get the right results.

Alison Jones: What did you learn about the process of writing a business book specifically, as opposed to any other kind of writing that you’ve done before?

David Roche: I mean the process, structurally, everything was very different. I mean, it had to be absolutely… and I think going back to earlier, you say, why do first time CEOs do it? I mean, the next question is what makes you think you can write that book?

And I think there’s something there about what is your USP? What is their particular need? What problem are you trying to solve? then actually within that, what sort of book is it going to be? And I think my editor described it very well, I thought, it sounded much better than the way I described it anyway was as it’s about relationships completely, there’s no right or wrong answer.

There’s probably some wrong answers, but there’s no right answer necessarily. Because you’re playing what’s in front of you and so they described it as it’s a why to book rather than a how to book. And once they said that, I thought actually that really helps because I’m sitting there going, I don’t have enough in here saying you need to do this.

That’s why people are going to buy the book. And actually that really took the pressure off. So I went, actually it’s inappropriate.

Alison Jones: And that really plays to a story that really struck me in the book, actually, about you talking about, I don’t think you were a CEO at the time, but you were talking to your boss and you’d done something that you were really pretty proud of and they sort of hadn’t really registered the importance of and the lesson you took from it was that you knew to manage the relationship differently. So it wasn’t how you were working or performing, it was all about how the communication flowed, how you sought their input, really transformational.

David Roche: Yes. And as a coach, I mentioned that I think that often that all that managing up, a lot of that managing up element is about that, is about that translation between what the person at the top wants to hear or needs to hear. And what you’re telling them, it might be just not enough, not at the frequency maybe, and the coach’s job is to act as that sort of adapter that plugs the two together so that they are speaking the same language.

Alison Jones: It’s a leading question, but I don’t care. I’m going to ask it anyway. Did you notice as you were writing, you were sense making yourself, of your own career, your own relationships. Was it a form of coaching for yourself?

David Roche: Definitely. And there were one or two where, you know, at the time, instances at the time, there’s lots of how not to do stuff, which is in the stories, which I always find much more helpful. But there were times when I would be… you know, at the time I might have been absolutely gobsmacked about something or really disappointed or upset, or just going, it’s not fair.

And then you look back at it now and you’re going, yes, okay. I could sort of see exactly where they’re coming from, and actually that’s a really good lesson to learn. I so didn’t see it at the time. So I think that’s sort of where the mentoring bit, I think, comes in because it does help guide the questions that you might ask as a coach towards the, you know, how do you think they felt, that sort of angle, as opposed to concentrating on what you feel.

 The relationship’s always two way and the variability, the variety is just non stop. You know, you’re talking to someone today about something, you could be talking to them again tomorrow about the same thing, and it’s a totally different person there. You know, and I think one of the bits I put in the book, which actually reflected a real thing happening, you don’t know that that person, you know, in the old days, not working hard enough, need to go boot up the arse, blah, blah, blah, blah. That actually, they’ve got a, you know, their father has got Parkinson’s and has just been moved into a home and then how you deal with that as a leader with the responsibilities that you’ve had for the first time is, you know, never take for granted what the other person’s bringing to the table.

Alison Jones: That really struck me because I’ve been at the other end of that kind of management style of, if results are dropping, then there’s threats and there’s some people talking about the sack and, I’ve sort of sat in rooms where that sort of thing’s been going on and it feels very uncomfortable, but it also feels really counterproductive because actually I know what the manager doesn’t know is what they’re going through at the moment.

David Roche: Yes, I mean, it’s extraordinary to think that actual business was like that for probably centuries. And I think, hopefully, we are more enlightened now and actually people are much more productive as a result.

Alison Jones: Yes.

I’m going to ask you what was most frustrating about writing as well. What did you find hardest or least enjoyable? Misery loves company, David. People are going to really enjoy hearing this.

David Roche: I guess the bit is not knowing how good it is or whether it’s going to be good enough, you know, you sit there and actually in my process, the first draft I never ditched completely. One chapter maybe, but you know, you never went, okay, that’s nonsense, I’ll start again and approach it from a different way.

 It sort of sat there and you were going, right, I might play around with it. I might change 40% of it, of that chapter. I might… but in general, the sort of structure and the flow of it, stayed sort of fairly much the same. And then you get into the paranoia. You know, we’ve all got the imposter syndrome thing, which I spend quite a bit of time talking about in the book.

The paranoia, which says, Hmm, you know, I’m now just trying to make whatever it was better and honing it and buffing it and varnishing it. But actually was it good enough in the first place? And the answer is, I’m now too close to it that I can’t see it anymore. And that was scary.

Alison Jones: I really recognize that and there’s the temptation isn’t there to almost to sort of go back and rip it up and start again just so you can say you did, just so you’re trying it, but actually there’s no guarantee that the second attempt is going to be…

David Roche: Yes.

Alison Jones: …better than the first. It is a big dilemma and the more…

David Roche: One thing I’d really be… I’m sorry… one thing I’d be really interested in is to know the difference between a company like your own, which is really geared up to provide the perfect expertise, people who haven’t really written a business book before or may not really written anything before, to be able to tell their story, actually, is the right way of putting it.

And also I think this idea that you know, a book is there to… The author’s not there just to sell the book, the book’s there to sell the author as well, I think, which is…

Alison Jones: Daniel Priestley’s point.

David Roche: …one of the major reasons I did it as well, so good for the coaching business, compared with, I don’t know, taking it to a general publisher that sits in the middle of an imprint that does fiction, non fiction, bit of business, whatever, I suspect that expertise that has experience in hand holding and guidance to come up with that end, I suspect is incredibly valuable.

Alison Jones: Well, and I, you’re right, and I know this because several people who’ve come out the proposal challenge and got deals with traditional publishers and have been delighted with it, have then found themselves very much on their own. I mean, it is kind of what editors always used to do in a sense, they always used to be there supporting authors, it’s just that it’s such a low margin business that most of that has fallen by the wayside.

David Roche: Sure, sure, but I guess , how many major company imprints have got dedicated business book, which have that you know, business development angle as well, other than just, the publishers is much more incentivized to do one thing.

Alison Jones: Absolutely.

The publishers only make their money out of sales of the book, so all they’re worried about is, you know, and often, I mean, if the book is your product, if you’re a fiction author, absolutely, you’re in alignment with that. That’s what you want.

But if you’re a business author, not so much. Actually, it’s much more about reach and visibility and brand recognition. Yes, so it’s very different.

David Roche: Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, and I’m going to ask you, you know I always do this, and I’m going to ask you, you could probably get away with repeating it, but I’m going to bet somebody’s going to listen back to your previous edition and make sure.

So David, what’s your best tip for a first time business book author, let’s say that?

David Roche: I think a little bit is about what I mentioned on that, you know, thinking what your USP is. And then, what the target audience really needs out of it. Because I think once you’ve got that clear in your head, the structure sort of follows.

 And to me, getting the structure right was so important. And in my case, it was actually just there’s a diagram in the book, which just shows a circle, I call it the CEO’s Winner Circle. It’s very simple, there’s you, managing up, managing down, wider organization and then externally, clients and suppliers and wider industry and media.

But actually, just to get that structure in my head then, okay, so hang on, there’s three parts of the book. There’s you, which is a massive part. You’ve got to get yourself first. Then there’s internally in the company, and then there’s everything else outside the company. And again, right, okay, got that structure right. And now can shape it. And then taking structure to the next level, right?

What research do I need to support my own theories or whatever it is I do? What’s my USP? What anecdotes? And I always wanted it to be a book rich in stories and anecdotes, because I think that’s the way I operate.

You know, I think I said last time I was on here that actually I don’t read loads and loads and loads of business books. I might, I’m more of a Blinkist, dip in, get my five points in 10 minutes, rather than have to last all 400 pages to get those 10 points. So I think that as a tip.

 By the way, I loved in my book, I did get asked about business books and I quote Daniel Priestley, I went on his Dent course and I’m a real admirer of him. I think he’s fantastic. But he put a tweet up which said something like a friend of mine who works in corporate, in the corporate world was reading a fiction book the other day. I thought it must be amazing to have that sort of confidence.

Alison Jones: Remember this and you really pulled him up, didn’t you?

David Roche: Yes, I did.

But I managed to get Eleanor Catton, the Booker winner, to allow me to use a piece of Birnam Wood, her latest novel, which was about relationships and people, and say that there are other ways of learning things. And anyway, everyone’s different but that’s the way I like to learn. But yes, I couldn’t resist that one.

 So structure and the reason you’re doing it, I think. The final piece, and I actually didn’t really benefit it because it sort of happened after I’d done most of the work on the book was where AI comes into research now and you know, that you can sit there and go that my theory is, and then, you know, show me research around that topic.

I mean, what a game changer.

Alison Jones: It’s fabulous, isn’t it?

David Roche: I mean…

Alison Jones: It’s like having an infinite intern.

 Yes, brilliant. Thank you.

And I’m going to ask for a recommendation as well. You’re not allowed to recommend Become a Successful First-Time CEO. Sorry. What would you recommend that anybody listening read?

David Roche: For a business book I would. I think you’re going to ask me for someone as well. I’m going to recommend the same person who’s written the book. You are going to ask me about someone? Yes.

Alison Jones: just the recommendation for a book.

David Roche: So I was thinking about Charkin, Richard Charkin, but you’ve already had him on the show, haven’t you?

I did like My Back Pages, which told you a lot about the background of publishing and I thought was excellent. But the book I’m going to recommend is the last business book I’ve read and someone who was not a million miles from you on the IPG stand at London Book Fair.

And that’s Nadim Sadek’s Shimmer, Don’t Shake.

Alison Jones: Ah, the AI marketing. Yes, yes. Well, you couldn’t not at London Book Fair, could you?

David Roche: No, no, and Nadim is on every panel that’s going at the moment. But he’s an incredibly nice, very eloquent and affable guy who wears his massive experience and intellect lightly. And could not be more helpful to others. But it is also inspirational I found.

And it’s not a thick book but his volume is really… takes you through two things. One, the sort of changing milestones in the history of AI, changing milestones in the history of publishing, and then marries the two together and looks at… he’s a glass half full guy and it’s all going to happen anyway. So you might as well get on board, but he does cover the risks and opportunities of AI. And it’s just a nice short novella almost of how AI can work. And I think his company’s really interesting. So he’d be good

Alison Jones: Yes. So interesting. And I know quite a few of the people there. Brilliant.

Do you know what? I haven’t read it. I will dig it out. But brilliant.

 I’ll have to get him on this very podcast, won’t I?

Tell us where we can go, David, if we want to find out more about you, more about your coaching work, more about the book?

David Roche: Buy the book and…

Alison Jones: There it is.

David Roche: …and I think the best place is the coaching, it’s really what this is all about. So the coaching website I have, which is www.greyareacoaching all one word. I think it’s com as well, but co.uk to be safe. www.greyareacoaching.co.uk

Alison Jones: And that’s, for the Americans listening, that’s G R E Y, right?

David Roche: G R E Y. Very good. Yes, absolutely. yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Such fun to talk to you, David. And I’m sorry we didn’t actually hook up at London Book Fair.

David had my favourite phrase ever. He said he did swing by but I was in ‘perma-meet’. Which is absolutely a great description. It was a very intense few days but absolutely brilliant.

But such good fun to talk to you again, David. Thank you so much for your time today.

David Roche: Brilliant to be on here, and it’s great fun as usual. Thanks so much, Alison.

Alison Jones: See you soon.

David Roche: Bye.

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