Name: Peter Hyson
Organization: Academy for Chief Executives
Peter Hyson Interview
A few months ago, I interviewed Peter Hyson by telephone. He wrote the book, Live the Work You Love. I’ve done a very light edit because I want to keep the tone of the interview. There are many nuggets of wisdom in this interview, and it will inspire you to be more.
Part One: Introduction
Avil Beckford: In a couple of sentences, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Peter Hyson: You would have garnered from the accent that I’m British, and I live on the edge of Malmesbury, which is a small Cotswold town. Married, two grown up children, and two honorary children or step children if you prefer. And secondly, I love writing, I love reading, I love a great TV or film drama, and I just love being with people.
Avil Beckford: What’s a typical day like for you?
Peter Hyson: They split into two. If I’m working up in London, which is probably two or three days a week, then I’m likely to be standing on the wonderful Campbell railway station at 7:19 in the morning, and going up for either one to one or business meetings up in the city of London with potential clients. And I may well be with my wife, who is also my business partner, and between us we run something called the Academy for Chief Executives in the city of London.
Otherwise I’m at home. I’m very, very fortunate because I work from home. I have a fabulous view from the office window in the house, over the River Avon and open countryside. We partly chose the house for that reason. And I’ll probably be doing the more creative stuff in the morning, working on scripts or a novel, preparing a keynote speech, that sort of thing. And then in the afternoon, doing my administration, typing, telephone calls.
I usually take a break at some point, either for a walk or to use the rowing machine that we got in the house or just something that gives me some exercise, and somewhere within there a break for a great cup of coffee.
Avil Beckford: Tell me about your big break and who gave you.
Peter Hyson: Yeah, it’s a good question. I look back and I’m not sure if I had one big break. I think it’s been a series of smaller ones, and they’ve mostly come about because I guess, if I’m honest I get bored quite easily.
And so, I’ve probably had four or five different careers. But they were going in twelve year cycles. I kind of make my way up within a profession, and then if I can’t find some further stimulus, I tend to step into something different. And the biggest one was probably moving from being a clergyman, a vicar, Church of England priest, to setting up my own business consultancy the end of 1999.
Part Two: Career
Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?
Peter Hyson: There’ve been people I’ve admired throughout my life, but interestingly, most of them, I don’t think would recognize themselves as mentors. For example, one of the first people that I respected and tried to learn from, was a guy called Frank Cotton. Frank as it happened, led the Sunday school I went to as a child. My family were an ardent Baptist church members and took me along.
And probably when I left in my early teens, probably just being the wise person that he was couple of years later, he chose his moments and said, “I really would like you to consider coming back, how about helping to teach one of the classes.” And of course, he knew me so well that he got me, just at the point that I was going to respond to.
And then I guess others would probably include David Hemery, who was a 400-meter hurdler for Great Britain, but also set up the coaching training business called Performance Consultants. In fact, he was the first person to train me in coaching. And although I didn’t particularly qualify at that point to get on the program, he saw something in me that he thought would make a good coach, and so he sponsored me on to the training program. And I guess, probably two or three others, but interestingly in the strict business sense, I don’t think I’ve ever really had a formal mentor.
Avil Beckford: What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
Peter Hyson: It was only recently when I’ve looked back that I realized that there was a consistent message. It is quite simply to believe in yourself. There were people who saw things in me that I didn’t see at that time in myself, and were prepared to help make it happen, whether that was that first Sunday school teacher which Frank Cotton led me to my first career at school teaching, whether it was David Hemery whose training and coaching have been a feature in my life for nearly 30 years now. The message really was, believe in yourself. If you’re open to listening, learning and taking risks, then you’ll be amazed what you can achieve. I’ve certainly found that was true for me.
Avil Beckford: An invisible mentor is a unique leader you can learn from by observing him from a distance. In that capacity, what is one piece of advice that you would give to others?
Peter Hyson: I think firstly be clear about why you want that person as a mentor, what exactly are you going to learn. And then I’d say you learn from them, but never try to be them. You can’t be anybody else, you could only be the unique person you’re called to be. You can learn from others, but you can’t be them. And remember even the greatest leaders and mentors, they do have feet of clay, they will not be perfect. Two things, but I couldn’t really distill that down to one.
Avil Beckford: No, that’s fine. That’s actually a good answer.
Avil Beckford: What big steps did you take to succeed in your field? What is one step or action you have consistently taken that has contributed the most to your success?
Peter Hyson: I’ll just pick that up backwards as it were second thing first. The one step is never giving up especially of pushing doors. Because if I’d stood at the onset of any of those different careers, and a whole lot of voluntary roles that I’ve done as well. If you were to kind of look at it objectively, you would say that’s never going to work. How do they become a business consultant in the city of London, it just doesn’t happen?
But by pushing the door, being consistent and persistent, not giving up, then that has happened. And what I’ve discovered is, if it interests me, or more accurately, if it excites me, then I’ll go for it. And of course, sometimes it’s gone wrong, I’ve fallen flat on my face or I’ve gone down a rabbit hole, but far more often, I’ve really enjoyed what I’m doing and I’ve been humbled by the feedback.
And the biggest single step was that one that I’ve mentioned twice now, stepping out from being full time paid clergyman, house that goes with the job, to become an independent business consultant, full time, no salary, no housing, but a real sense of excitement in doing it.
Avil Beckford: Tell me something that you consider to be important about the work you do that others can learn from?
Peter Hyson: The one thing is that remembering that it’s my story that gives me all the authority I need. My story being all that I’ve done, all that I’ve learnt, all the places that I’d been and that’s what I’m drawing from. So, I don’t need to be ultra-slickly persuasive, I don’t need to plead, I don’t need to be sacrosanct.
The people I need to work with, they’ll get it, they will instantly get it, there’ll be that connection. And the ones who don’t, it wouldn’t be a right fit for me, and it wouldn’t work for them either. I think just that story gives me the authority, and then keep challenging myself and others, because fundamentally, we can do far more than we ever thought possible. I think I’m just living proof of that.
Related Post: Live the Work You Love by Peter Hyson – My Thoughts
Part Three: Life
Avil Beckford: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
Peter Hyson: The failure is to do with behavior. It was a job where from the outset there was some confusion of what my role was. I was constantly trying to do things I thought I should be doing, and my boss kept telling me to do other things that I didn’t actually think I was best skilled to do, or that made best use of my skills.
And I think because I’m always asking questions, because I have this real kind of need to understand and push the boundaries, she felt if I did that in meetings, I was trying to show her up and I’m afraid eventually I just became a sloppy teenager. I’m not at all proud about how I behaved over that period. When I was finally told, I wasn’t important enough to get new business cards, I think it was probably that time I left.
One of the things I’ve taken away from that over the years, was that I need to make that choice between action and reaction. I need to get better at doing that. I tend to get into things very wholeheartedly, and because of that, I don’t often step back, and that’s when I can become a cropper. And I’m probably not fair to myself or to other people either. I don’t notice the impact that I’m having on others, because I’m kind of bound up in my own enthusiasm, or just the curiosity, and just remember that not everyone wants to explain all the time and actually neither should they. It’s me, I need to learn that.
Avil Beckford: What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
Peter Hyson: I’ll take an example from a voluntary role that I performed because I think it illustrates something that stood across all of them, but it’s the one that comes to mind. I’m a magistrate, and in England that means I’m an unpaid volunteer, and I sit with two other peers, but I chair.
And in England, as some of you will know, all cases start in the magistrate’s court, no matter how serious they are. And sometimes over 90 percent of them will stay there, and only the most serious go up to the crown court with paid judges and with a jury of peers. So, one of the toughest decisions that I had to make, was the first time I had to send someone to jail. It’s sort of remembering the impact on them, on their career, on their children. It’s the whole wider ramifications of it. I was literally shaking when I had to come back into the courtroom and announce it.
I still was feeling physically sick when I came back at the end of the day, and even though I kept reminding myself of what he’d done, and believing it was the right decision, it was horrible and tough. And I think, that’s one of the toughest things that I’ve had to do continuously.
Avil Beckford: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
The first one I think was an accelerated leadership program that ran per year and had six one day sessions. It was to help people, who were at that stage were deputy heads in schools or assistant heads. But weren’t really considering going on into headship. I wanted to know why and to challenge these people who were potentially outstanding leaders to seriously consider whether they want to take on the role of a leader. And it was shaping for me, partly because I had to down and say okay, so what is leadership all about, what do we have to explore around leadership in these six sessions. And to stand in front of 30-40-50 quite skeptical and sometimes quite antagonistic professionals, and have them challenge my thinking, and me challenge theirs, and see just what comes out from it.
The second event is my second marriage. I mentioned I’ve got two wonderful step children, honorary children, as I tend to call them. And my second wife is Hillary. She is in a similar background to me, but has done that in the corporate sector. It has been so fabulous because again, she’s believed in me when I’ve come back after having a bad day. She’s been superb in just supporting and challenging me, and saying but why are you not doing that, why are you not going for that big dream? That’s been hugely shaping for me over the last 14-15 years.
And then the third one, is really about a reminder I think about, a kind of sense of perspective, because I was amongst the other things I’ve done as a volunteer, I was a volunteer at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. I remember standing on the field in the Olympic park for the closing ceremony of the Paralympics for the absolute final event, and just looking around and listening to the crowd, listening to the athletes, listening to what they were saying about the support that they’d had. And I love sport, I love competitiveness, and I just love the friendliness of it. And it just put everything into perspective. I think those were three events anyway that helped to shape me. There’d be lots more if I stopped and thought further.
Avil Beckford: What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Peter Hyson: I’m going to apologize for this one, but it’s my latest book. It’s one that was published a few months ago. But I’m proudest of it, not because of the writing of the book, but from the responses. When people tell me, it’s done for them exactly what I wrote it to do, then I’m just incredibly proud and humble because I wrote the book thinking somewhere in here, I think there’s something important. I’m not sure whether I’ve managed to explain it. And when somebody else says, do you know what, that’s exactly what I’m feeling at the moment, that’s exactly where I am at the moment, and that’s really helped me get a breakthrough, then I’m just really grateful.
I just think it’s such a privilege, and then a few years ago, I got an e-mail from one of the people who’d been on that leadership program that I described a few minutes ago, saying that he was now running his school internationally, I think in Singapore, and it’s all been triggered by something that I’d said about leadership and something that I’d prepared. We’ve got a workshop, and the atmosphere was really, really heavy. People were hugely over worked, they were somewhat resenting I think being there because they were so busy. And there were huge pressure of admin and pressure of expectation, the phone’s buzzing every time we had a break. I said right, we just need to do something different here.
I got them to stop, and I said look, get it back first morning of your teaching career. You’re newly trained, newly qualified, imagine yourself walking through that school door. What were you going to do, what was your vision, what was your drive, what was your dream at that moment in time, about how you were going to transform the education system and transform children’s lives? And spend a few moments just re-feeling that, and then I said, as a head teacher, as a leader, that’s why you have the power, the responsibility, and the leadership to make it happen. Why would you not do it?
And that was the bit that suddenly hit home for him, and three or four years later, he very kindly e-mailed me to say that was exactly what had made the difference for him. It’s those things I’m really proud of, the things that other people have achieved, where I’ve had a small part I think, in just challenging and thinking in their imagination and their stories.
Avil Beckford: What are five life lessons that you have learned so far?
- Lesson number one, I can do far more than I ever thought possible. My background is, I’m a working-class lad from very ordinary parents in the back streets of Nottingham. And I was the first person in the family to go to university. You get the picture behind that. I don’t think at any stage, I ever believed I would be writing books, writing articles, coaching and working with some amazing people. And some of the people that I work with, they’re running businesses that are £100-150 million in turnover. And it’s such a privilege, it really is, I never thought that that will be possible, but by pushing the doors, and being persistent, I just look around and think my goodness me, how on earth did I get here. That’s the first one.
- Second thing, if I can do far more than I thought possible, so can others. I seem to be able to help them do it by helping them explore their stories.
- Third thing, the world’s a wonderful place. It’s just full of wonderful interesting people. It’s a real privilege to be part of that, and most of those people have just a generous heart. There are few who don’t but that’s fine. I spend as little time with them as I need to, and I spend time with the ones who have the generous hearts.
- Number four, I’m not good on my own. I’m not good if I’m cooped up. I need a challenge, I need people, I need change and I need new stimuli.
- And then finally I’ve discovered that I love public speaking. I just love seeing the reaction on people’s faces. I love exploring with them, and it becomes a dialogue, a conversation not always out loud, but certainly through eyes and body language, and responses. I think my public speaking is most effective when there is that feedback, and it’s kind of a two-way process. Those are the five I think.
Avil Beckford: If trusted friends could introduce you to five people (living or dead) that you’ve always wanted to meet, who would you choose? And what would you say to them?
Peter Hyson: Okay, number one, Desmond Tutu. Fairly common choice probably, but my reason for choosing Desmond Tutu is slightly unusual. I love his laughter, I love his giggle. And the question would be how do you keep that going in the midst of all of the terrible things that are happening. But the reason I’d want to talk to him, be introduced to him, is because my second wife’s father was a Baptist minister. He was a missionary, and in fact, Hillary was born and brought up in Kenya. And when he retired, he’d done some years as a Church of England vicar in Cape Town, but only I think for ten years. And Desmond said to him at his retirement, so what’s happening about your pension, and how are you going to provide this. He said, well, the Baptist church didn’t provide me with a pension, so I’ve got 10 years in the Church of England. Desmond simply looked him in eyes and said, you’ve spent all of those years in the service of God, the province of South Africa will give you a full pension, for all of those years. And that was just the enormous generosity of heart that could see that and make that happen. So Desmond Tutu for that, and for the giggle, please.
Charles Dickens because I love writing stories, and for me he’s a consummate story teller, but also the one with a social conscience. And I would love to know more about what prompted him to start writing those stories, and how he drew out the characters that he explored day by day in the writing of the stories.
Philip Craven who is until the end of the current Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games, the head of the IOC and Paralympics, and purely because he just seems to be such an altogether interesting funny challenging man. I’d love to know more about his life, it’s his life story I’d want to ask him about and learn from that.
And then the next one is interesting, my mother. Particularly because she was during the war the first woman bank manager in the Trustee Savings Bank, which is one of the national banks in the UK at the time. And some of the people listening in the UK, will I’m sure be familiar with it, as it was, and as it came out again recently. And again talking to her, tell me the story about how you were invited to do that, and what you felt like when you first started doing it, but more significantly, at the end of the war, how did you feel giving it up, and going back to being a housewife and a completely different change of direction. What did you gain from doing that, and what did you lose from it? Because I think those who knew my mother outside the war years, would have had no idea that she’d ever done that. I know there’s a whole story there that sadly I never had a chance to ask her. She died thirty odd years ago, before I’d really had reached the maturity where I could stand back and say tell me those stories.
And the final one the actor Maddy (Madeline) Smith and purely because Maddy Smith is just Maddy Smith. I have no idea what I would ask her, but I just think she is so fabulous, and so skilled, so able, so warm. And I’d love to be introduced to her and have a conversation. That’s my five.
Avil Beckford: Which one book had a profound impact on your life? What was it about this book that impacted you so deeply?
Peter Hyson: I’m going to take two. There’s a bit of a theme here I think, isn’t it? Every time someone says, give me one, I’m coming back with two. The first one is on a personal level and it’s a book by an American author called Parker Palmer. It’s called Let your Life Speak. And one of the things that he talks about, that he discovers in his life journey, is his vocation. He defines vocation as many of us would define, as what you’re called to do. But he gets challenged over that. I think it’s the American Quakers, if memory serves me correctly. And he refines that, and he says your vocation, your calling, is that which you can’t help but do. And I think there’s been a little bit of times in my careers, where I’ve done things because I felt I ought to or because somebody else said I ought to, and it’s taken me away from what I should not be avoiding doing.
And that’s around storytelling and coaching and leadership I think. That was a real eye opener for me and it’s a slim book. It’s probably only 00 pages, but an absolutely, fascinating story and deep, deep wisdom.
And then on the business level, one that very few people would have come across. And it’s called the Leaders’ Guide to Storytelling and it’s by somebody called Steven Denning. And the thing that unlocked my current phase in life was at a difficult time in my life talking to a coach therapist, and she said to me, did you realize that what’s missing from your life, you’ve lost all your sense of creativity. And I thought about that and I thought right, I used to love writing, I used to love writing stories. I first got down to doing that and that’s where my novel began.
But I also became aware of the power of stories in business, and a growing awareness of the importance of those stories, because it’s the way we make sense of what is going on in our lives. In fact, both of my books, and the first one is a coaching book, a handbook for coaches. Both my books use stories very centrally as illustration and as a way of exploring meaning and learning. I think the Leaders’ Guide to Storytelling was hugely influential because in the recent, I think it was Harvard Business Review article, they said the fundamental purpose of a leader in business is to tell stories. They tell the stories that inspire the workers, they tell the stories that inspired the commitment, they tell the story to clients and it’s how they craft those stories and tell them that decide on the success, so those are the two.
Avil Beckford: What are five books you would take on a deserted island? Besides reading, how would you spend your time?
Peter Hyson: Even I couldn’t spend two years reading and doing nothing else. Books, some of them I think you probably wouldn’t find surprising. Complete works of Charles Dickens for reasons I’ve already said. I reread most of them a couple of years ago, on the centenary. I’m just struck by how interesting the characters are. And there was a fabulous series on BBC television recently in the UK. I think it’s now available worldwide with a background to many of those stories and they’re absolutely, fascinating.
Second one, would be The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker and that’s a big book, that probably would take me two years to read I think on reflection. It looks at fairy tales, it looks at folk tales and traditional stories from around the world and basically says what’s the plot behind them, and I’ll come back to that one in a moment when I come into what I’d be doing.
Third one I would say would be the Bible and I come from the Christian faith tradition, so for me that’s a really important element, and I would want to do that.
Fourth one, probably Lord of the Rings for the very good reason that I’ve never managed to be able to sit down and read it. I’ve got a couple of chapters in, and I couldn’t go any farther, and if I’m there for two years, I’m stranded for two years, it would force me to read it, and then I could go back and say, I have read Lord of the Rings.
And finally, a Steven Poliakoff script, because I think he’s a fantastic film maker. And it would either be Shooting the Past, which is about how photographs tell the story of our lives, and how resonant they are when we get back into them, and how we can hear the sounds and smell the smells, and how we can rearrange them into a different narrative if we choose to do so.
So either that one or his from two years ago, which was a Jazz story, in 1930s Britain with a West Indian band called Dancing On The Edge. And that’s partly because the person who plays the female lead in it and does the singing was originally cast as the actor, but was going to have the music dubbed. And I believe it was a child, who said to her, but you’re a singer, why are you not doing the singing as well, and persuaded her to go back and sing.
And she has the most stunning voice when she sings, and literally, it’s hair on the back of my neck. I think one or the other of those two scripts. And it leads into what I would be doing. I would learn to write stories in my mind. I think I would have to do that, it’s the creativity, the what’s possible, and the potential. I’d be creating the stories, and then I’d be telling them loud. And if you’re on your own on a desert island, and it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to yourself when there’s no one there to hear you. That and doing something physical, probably swimming, and it would drive me crazy, even with all of that, because I just need to have people around, I’d be a different person at the end of it I think.
Avil Beckford: Complete the following, I am happy when…..
Peter Hyson: I’m happy when I’m exploring new challenges with inspirational people and we’re having fun together. And if it’s my family or my friends or just people I love being around, it will be even better, absolute perfection.
Avil Beckford: Thank you, Peter, for allowing me to interview you.
Peter Hyson: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for some very thought provoking questions. They’ve made me think, and I think I’ve moved forward in some understanding as a result of those questions.