What does it take to inspire leadership, spark curiosity and lead charismatically; regardless of role or situation? Kevin Murray has made it his life’s mission to find out. As a globally recognised leadership coach and communications specialist, Kevin has years of experience across multiple roles and environments. The author of two best-selling books, Kevin helps top leaders communicate to inspire, influence and achieve world-class results. Having advised the CEOs of some of the largest companies in the world, and worked with brands such as Lloyds, British Airways, Emirates, he is now Chairman of Public Relations for Chime Communications. We sat down with Kevin to learn what it takes to inspire some of the world’s greatest leaders to lead successfully.
Getting to know Kevin
What values were instilled in you growing up?
“It’s not about the destination, it’s about that journey; constantly looking for ways to win and improve.”
Competition and curiosity were two key themes in my childhood. My Dad was very competitive; he played provincial cricket in South Africa, and instilled in me the value of striving to practice, to get better and win. My Mum on the other hand loved stories and reading, and gave free range to my curiosity and exploration.
The two combined gave me a sense that anything was possible if you just tried. I recognised early on that I was on a journey to learn how to win and improve. Saying that; winning isn’t everything. Resilience in the face of failure is hugely important. You need to know how you can improve when things go wrong, to try again and be successful in future.
“I hate failing. But it isn’t about beating myself and becoming depressed. It’s about asking ‘what could I have done better?”
Do you ever get nervous when you stand up to advise some of the biggest CEOs on the planet?
Every single time. If you’d said to me five years ago that I’d constantly be on stage, speaking to large audiences and going into situations where I’m not certain of the outcome, I’d have said ‘Mmm, no thank you, I don’t want that!” But I know how to listen. I know how to integrate. I know how to facilitate leadership teams even when I don’t know a subject as well as they do. The most important skill you can posses is the ability to ask good questions, and truly listen to the answers. So I’ve learned to rely on my skills, instinct and experience to fashion a good outcome. But that doesn’t stop me from being nervous.
What was your earliest memory of self expression?
I had an adventurous childhood, with an extraordinary sense of freedom, fun and possibilities. I was born in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), before moving to Zambia aged 6 or 7. So initially, I had more of a sense of adventure than a sense of self. Then when I was 11 I wrote my first novel, all about the Formula 1 championships, and all scribbled down in multiple textbooks. But really I’d say my full sense of self came later, once I realised that journalism was what I was about, aged 19 or 20.
Why, out of all the specialisms you could have chosen, did you choose leadership?
All my life I’ve been interested in giving free range to my curiosity; writing and sharing what I learn. So I became a journalist and from there moved into corporate PR and consultancy; working with leaders who had a huge range of change-based challenges to address.
A common theme between all of those leaders was that they required help and support; a lot of the time, these incredibly smart leaders were failing to lead, and I wanted to know why. It’s from there that I first touched on the subject of inspiring leadership. I believe being able to inspire is not necessarily something you are born with, but something you can learn.
It’s such an important subject. Leadership is a focus and a skill that really that matters, as it can make a huge difference at an individual level, to teams, to companies, to countries, to whole economies.
“This concept of what it is to be a leader who inspires others is one that I’m now enthralled about, and am on a constant journey of discovery about.”
So your curious nature led you journalism. How did that come to be?
When I was growing up, I chose medical subjects because I loved animals and wanted to become a vet. And while writing was really my earliest form of self expression, I kept burying it away. Then, after doing my national service in South Africa I went to a weekend of aptitude and IQ testing. The results came back that I should really stop focusing on animals, and would do much better to express myself in the form of writing.
My Dad worked in newspaper advertising at the time, and he got me a cadet role on the ‘The Star’ newspaper in Johannesburg. Before long I found myself as a Crime Reporter, then Chief Crime Reporter in one of the crime capitals of the universe.
I relished the uncertainty of reporting; having to go out, talk to strangers, find the story and phone it in (this was 1973). You had to develop a courage and resilience to go and speak with people who often didn’t want to talk to you. I’m by no means extrovert, but now I’ve learnt to do that very easily.
How did it feel when you got the call saying you had the role of Director of Comms at British Airways, and how did you deal with the public challenges that came with it?
It was a wonderful feeling getting that role. For me, there was pride in being the first non-British person to hold the role, and excitement in facing up to the challenge as the company was going through turbulent changes; I was hurtled head-on into a threatened pilot’s strike from the moment I arrived. Then of course at the end of it all, I was fired in the most public way; headline news on the front pages of all the papers.
What led the CEO of BA to that decision to fire you?
We had a disagreement about what needed to happen after a particularly difficult time for British Airways.
BA had introduced multiple changes and a new strategy that resulted in substantial cuts. This plus other changes, created friction between BA, the unions and staff, which led to cabin crew strikes. This put the crew in a very awkward position, stuck between the airline and the unions; and not helped when BA retorted with the threat to sack or sue striking staff.
I really didn’t agree that that was the right course of action. But the strike went ahead, and was lengthened when one member of cabin crew received a doctor’s note for 12 days off due to stress. Within a few days, 70 or 80% of the crew also had these notes, meaning we turned a 3 day strike into a 12 day sickie for staff. This cost the airline tens of millions of pounds and destroyed our reputation. To repair things, I knew we had to start by fixing relationships with staff. But that was not the view of the CEO, who believed I should focus on handling the media. So he asked me to leave, and I was given quite a substantial sum to go; enough to buy a flat in London.
I think this was the making of me. It didn’t feel like it at the time, it felt like the end of my career. But it gave me the chance to rethink and revisit what I wanted to do.
Tell us about your book ‘The Language of Leaders’. What led you to write it, and what did you learn from it?
It was my experience with BA that triggered the question ‘why do smart leaders fail’ and led to my speaking with 70 of the world’s most powerful and successful CEOs and leaders to find out. I didn’t initially see the project as a book, more a report exploring the concept of leadership communication.
Throughout the process I learned that you don’t have to be a great orator or be charismatic to be an inspiring leader. Essentially, I was writing about the system that leaders use to inspire; picking out common themes of leadership through all the interviews and reviewing their successes and failures, before settling on twelve common principles that enable leaders to inspire.
You’ve had so many large and exciting roles: Director of Comms for British Airways, Crime Reporter, three times bestselling author, now Chairman of Chime PR. How have you managed to achieve all the lofty goals you set yourself?
The fundamental moment of transition for me was here in London. I was working on Fleet Street with a newspaper and was on my way to Belgium, when in the queue to catch the train, there was this beautiful brunette standing in front of me. Of course I absolutely, immediately had to talk to her. And eight months later, we were married.
Initially after marrying Liz, we moved to South Africa for 7 years, with me switching from newspapers to Managing Editor for a leadership magazine. But eventually we decided to move back to the UK, and it was that journey back that led to complete transformation. We had to start again, arriving with two kids, no money, no reputation and no prospects. It was just the belief that if I applied myself I would do well and thrive, that got me through what was a very challenging time.
Then one day I saw the then-Director of Comms for British Airways speaking at a conference. I thought “I want to be that guy.” and mentally placed myself in that role. It was about 10 years later that I got the phone call asking if I would do it. In between those two events I had a clear picture of what I was striving for, and ensured that every decision I made was a step towards achieving that goal. For example, I got onto the public speaking circuit, and developed the viewpoints and knowledge needed for that area.
“I had a clear picture of what I was striving for, and ensured that every decision I made was a step towards achieving that goal.”
What has manoeuvring between all your roles taught you?
One decision I took was to always advance and be unafraid.
That meant for example, taking a job as the UK Head of PR for Bayer, the chemical pharmaceutical company. I knew nothing about it. I knew it was a big job, in a controversial industry. But that excited rather than deterred me. Then a few years later, a headhunter called, with the job of Head of Comms for the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which again I knew nothing about, but which excited me. It was those two roles that created the ground in which I could plant the seeds for my role with British Airways in 1996.
“Always go for it, don’t be afraid of things you don’t know, If you feel confident in your own skills, you’ll find out. You’ll find a way.”
When you’re offered a role in an industry you know nothing about, you use it as a catalyst, a driving force. How do you overcome the self-doubt that is so often felt in those situations?
Let me be clear. I am plagued by self-doubt all the time. I don’t free myself from it ever, but I’m not debilitated by that. I recognise that it’s a part of human nature, then put it aside. I don’t think you can progress if you’re constantly looking for reasons that you might fail.
“I don’t think you can progress if you’re constantly looking for reasons that you might fail.”
Rebel wrap up
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, who gave it to you, and how has it positively affected your life and career?
An old boss who would buck the appraisal trend. He was supposed to use a 4 page appraisal form to mark and assess your performance. But what would happen there is you would look at the bad marks and think ‘you bastard!’. However, he believed that life was about assessing yourself, so he would get me to fill out the form and score myself. I would then take it to him, and he would inevitably scored me higher than I scored myself. It was the most inspirational thing that happened to me because he believed more, he saw more in me than I saw in myself. He wasn’t there to be critical he was there to draw out the best.
If you could go back to any point in your life and have one hour with yourself, where would you go, and what would you say?
There’s nothing I regret doing. I would go back to those moments when I was feeling the most doubt, the most insecurity and say “don’t worry, you’ll be alright, just keep trying”. I would have stopped a lot of pain that was actually unnecessary.
“Don’t worry, just press on, it will be alright!”