The changingman

June 8, 2017

Business coach, speaker and author Maurice Duffy is on a mission to change leaders around the world.

The reason, he says, is that the leadership traits that worked in the industrial past no longer relate to the modern world.

“The story of leadership is changing dramatically,” Maurice reflects from his Tynemouth home, which overlooks Longsands beach.

“People nowadays have to deal with much more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity and, as a result, we are looking for different types of leaders.”

Maurice believes that today’s chiefs must be masters of collaboration and building effective networks.

“They must be able to multitask, be inquisitive and have the capacity to absorb and synthesise information,” he adds. “They also have to be comfortable in discomfort, to not look for a safety net and be happy to take risks.”

The problem, Maurice says, is that education and traditional work practices have trained people to think in a certain way, making them resistant to change.

“Most people perceive change as everyone around them changing, but not themselves,” he says. “Leaders therefore approach a problem with the same level thinking that created it in the first place.”

The solution, Maurice believes, is that leaders must change their mindset and recalibrate their brains to embrace new ways of thinking that are focused on curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

This, he says, will better prepare them for demands of modern leadership.

As Chairman of Blackswan – based on a residential street in Tynemouth (the former offices of the Viz comic) – Maurice and his partner, Karen Lee, have built a world-renowned consultancy specialising in executive coaching, mindset and leadership development.

Maurice has worked with leaders in business, politics and sport from the UK, India, China and Guinea, and while he accepts that the nuances of these disparate groups may be different, the core principles of leadership remain the same.

“I’m constantly teaching people that there are five levels to leadership,” he explains. “You first have to able to lead yourself before you can to lead an individual, lead a team, lead a business and then lead a marketplace.

“A lot of people want to jump straight to the third level but it won’t work,” Maurice continues, “and that’s why a lot of the coaching I do is around self awareness. You have to be able to apply critical thinking to yourself and your circumstances before you can lead others.”

Maurice first came to the UK in the early 1980s, having previously worked in finance and HR in his native Ireland.

He began working for a cable manufacturing company based in west London and was later appointed general manager of its manufacturing site.

He moved to submarine cable specialist company STC that was later acquired by global telecommunications company Nortel Networks.

It was during his time at Nortel that Maurice says he really started to take his job and his career seriously.

As HR director for Europe, Maurice gained responsibility for 45,000 people. He worked in multiple countries across the Continent and gained a wealth of experience in building, reshaping and restructuring businesses.

In 1999, Maurice left Nortel Networks to start his own consultancy, Blackswan. The business was an immediate success as he and his growing team were caught up in the frenzy of the dot-com era.

“We thought we’d cracked the code to entrepreneurship and business management,” he reflects.

But when the dot-com bubble burst, Blackswan found it increasingly difficult to get paid. Maurice was forced to make dramatic cuts to his workforce – an experience he describes as “traumatic” – and he eventually sold the business in 2002.

Soon after, he visited the North East of England.

“I immediately fell in love with the coastline, the area and the people. I ended up marrying a Geordie and setting up a home here,” he says.

Maurice planned to spend his days playing golf, interspersed with ad hoc consultancy work, but was then approached by Manpower Inc and asked to help in a bid for £28 million worth of business. He accepted and was ultimately successful. One of the conditions of the contract, though, was that Maurice would stay on and deliver the work.

He did, and for the next four years grew the original £28 million to £970 million.

It was during this time that Maurice first met a man called Dr Bill McAneny, author of Frankenstein’s Manager, who introduced him to the idea of mindset and the power it could have on leadership.

Maurice was immediately hooked on the subject and once his work with Manpower Inc ended in 2008, he returned to the North East set on reforming his consultancy and offering business coaching that addressed people’s thoughts and behaviours.

Within months, Blackswan won the largest coaching contract of the time – with Rio Tinto.

Blackswan now runs a range of one-on-one and group coaching workshops for clients across the globe, on average, delivering 400 pieces of activity a month.

Maurice – who regularly speaks at conferences and has penned two books on the subject of mindset – works with multinational companies, political parties and major public sector bodies such as the NHS. He also recently spent time with top cricketers from the Indian Premier League.

Just one of the mindset techniques Maurice has developed is to ask his subjects to imagine them having a conversation with their seven-year-old self.

“I get them to ask their seven-year-old self what their aspirations are and what they think they will achieve in their life.

“They can then compare this with that they have achieved to see if there are any changes they want to make as a result.”

It is via a conversation with his own seven-year-old self that Maurice now has a Harley Davidson standing in his hallway.

“I was a fan of speed as a child and always imagined myself as having a motor bike. So I asked myself, ‘now that I’m an adult, why don’t I have one?’”

Although North East-based, only three per cent of Blackswan’s work is delivered in the region (and only 20 per cent in the UK).

As a result, Maurice and his team have made conscious efforts recently to grow business closer to home.

The consultancy recently opened an additional office on Cobalt Business Park in North Tyneside and established Cygnet Events to service the local market.

Blackswan has also recently developed a digital analytics arm of the business that researches organisations’ and individuals’ profiles on social media.

“For example, we used the technology with a NHS health trust and found that it had more than 200 social media accounts but that 90 per cent of traffic was between these accounts. It wasn’t engaging with the public at all.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Maurice doesn’t describe himself as a leader but instead an “aspiring leader”.

He explains: “The minute I think I have achieved the title of leader, I’ll have stopped learning. But the world doesn’t stop. In fact, the rate of change is increasing. I’m always looking to build my own knowledge, expertise and capability.

“It’s one of the reasons I’ll never retire,” Maurice adds with a smile.

“Leadership is a journey not a destination.”