Scaling up Leadership – Conor Neill [Interview]

Conor is a Lecturer in the top-ranked Business School in the world, The IESE Business School. He is a leading keynote speaker in various global conferences including the European HR Summit and the HR directors summit.

Scaling up Leadership – Conor Neill [Interview]

About Conor Neill

Conor is a Lecturer in the top-ranked Business School in the world, The IESE Business School. He is a leading keynote speaker in various global conferences including the European HR Summit and the HR directors summit. He focuses on leadership training and the psychology of mental strength. He is also the president of Vistage, the leading CEO organization, around the world. A teacher, author, speaker, and whatnot, we are happy to welcome Conor Neill to our interview series!

Aishwarya Jain

We have the pleasure of welcoming Connor Neill today to our interview series, . I’m Aishwarya Jain of the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick introduction of peopleHum, peopleHum is an end to end, one view integrated Human Capital Management automation platform, The winner of 2019 Global Codie awards for HCM, specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel, which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around two interviews with well-known names globally every month.

Welcome Conor, we’re thrilled to have you.


Thank you very much, Ash. That’s a wonderful introduction. Someone once said that the more things you are, the shorter your introduction. When you introduce Bill Gates, you say this is Bill Gates. So, I have some work to do to reduce the length of my introduction.


No, I think you’ve done wonderful work in your TedX talks and a lot of the public speaking, you know, lectures that you’ve given are very, very interesting. And you always have that eternal smile on your face, which is such a delight to see.


You know, I think this smile is how I survived school. I remember when I was 12 years old, I just moved to secondary school. I was in Ireland and I don’t know exactly what I’ve done, but I know it was wrong. I had broken some rule of the school and the vice-principal of the school had seen me do it, he came marching over into the classroom, straight up to me and he said, “Neal” and he said something,

I mean, he said, ”Never stop smiling. If it wasn’t for that smile you would have gone into detention” and ever since then, I’ve realized it. It is for real having a reaction when you’re nervous, but it’s a wonderful reaction to have when you’re nervous that it looks like a real smile.

There’s a thing in human beings. Emotional contagion and emotional contagion is we give back the energy that we received from other people. If you walk into a room and you’re nervous and you’re shy and you’re waiting for someone to approach you, you could contaminate the room with a waiting to approach with fear.

If you come into a room with a smile and open curiosity and, truly interested in who these human beings are in the room, it’s amazing how that just contaminates the room when they come towards you.

Yeah, I’ve been working in the world of leadership as a leader in my own business. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 18 years. I’ve been teaching in a business school. Over 30,000 participants have gone through my rooms. Where I’m very interested in is how we convey emotion, convey a way of being in the world to other people.

I think we can be a resourceful state of mind or a victim state of mind. And the leader’s job is ready to recognize the state of mind in themselves, and in others be aware that and know what tools they have to be able to move from an unproductive, uncreative state off being to an open, curious, creative state of being.

There’s never been a time that it’s more important to be able to shift yourself and shift others into a positive, proactive, creative, resourceful state of mind than right now. I think right now, over three billion human beings are on lockdown of some type in India, across Europe, the United States is now beginning in Latin America.

People are in homes, They’re not able to go to their places of work unless they are working in a hospital or in the food supply chain. This question of when there’s this distance, physical distance, how, as leaders do we get people into a positive, resourceful state of mind and that you have some questions today just on leadership in general and leadership at times such as we’re living right now.


Absolutely and these are such unique times that you know mankind is going through, I think, we’ve never really been in such a situation where we’re always so remote. And we’re practicing something called social distancing, which is very, very unique, right?

And, you know, in this situation of a pandemic, it’s really a wake-up call to enhance our workplaces, and how do we really match it with the future work? So, you know, what do you think are the changes according to you, that are inevitable given the situation of Coronavirus?


I think there have been rounds of the Internet over the last 2-3 days from Simon Sinek. Simon Sinek is the author of the book called, why or “first why?” If you start with why, other things become clear. And I think this is a very powerful idea. Uh, if you get clear about why your business exists, if you get to know why you exist, it clarifies what to do, how to do it, with whom you’re gonna do it. And Simon Sinek, thinks this is not unprecedented.

The Internet changed businesses. There’s taxi drivers today. We’re fighting against Uber and their way of fighting, it is the way some of us are fighting against the COVID19, Coronavirus. But Ash, you and me have short lifetimes in regard to the total time humanity has been around. in the 14th 15th century you had a series of plagues and nobody played the black plague that moved across and wiped out anywhere from 25 to 50% of the population. And I’m sure, at times like that quarantining, seeing yourself into your home, closing off boundaries of villages and towns, are the ways that people responded.

What’s different now is back in the 14th 15th century when you closed yourself into the village, there was no news coming in from China, from India, from the US and today you get a choice of what you feed into your brain and You confuse yourself 24 hours a day of bad news about growing infection.

If that’s the choice of what you’re allowed to come into your mind, you put yourself into a certain state and unless you’re a very strong person with very clear who you are and how you want to engage with the world. If that’s what you feed into your mind, you’re gonna find yourself in a state where you’re a victim or you feel that nothing is worth doing that it’s hopeless.

I do something really as human beings, we cannot, we can’t control what we think. You can’t tell yourself to stop thinking about something, but you can begin to change where you pay attention. You can change where you look at. And, what I share a lot with leaders is while making decisions, what you focus on is a very important decision as a leader because it’s gonna influence your state of mind. It’s gonna influence what data you have to be able to take decisions while you’re thinking about when you’re evaluating the pros and cons of decisions.

And I like to say that way we have our five or six senses. And we’re matching what we see everyday. We know for a fact, that there are animals that have senses that we don’t have. Like, a sonar, dolphin have some sort of magnetics and pigeons have some sort of magnetic homing sense or for a factor, animals that perceived part of the universe that we were not physiologically capable of seeing.

You imagine that we see everything and a really important step in maturing as a conscious human being, is realizing, you’re a tiny little, part of the universe. It’s like, you know, I I see out in front of us here what we’re listening to. There’s a million things going on, there we’re not seeing and to become aware that I’m seeing things like I’m looking through a tiny keyhole And if you’re looking into a room through a keyhole you put the keyhole down, down so that you see just down As you walk on the street you’re gonna find the dog crap you’re gonna find dirt, you’re gonna find mud, you’re gonna find stuff.

If you actually hold the keyhole up with the level of faces as we walk along the street, you will see people that you know. You’re gonna see people that remind you of an old teacher or your father, and you put it up into the sky, up to their eyes, you’ll see something else. People’s experience of one street will be different, but it’s somewhere they decide to place this little keyhole and look at the world. I mean, right now, more than ever, being conscious about what information you let come into your mind and if I could get a whole world to do one thing, it would be to start every morning with what we call 10 10 10. One of my mentors taught me years ago this way of beginning a day. And he said, When you wake up in the morning before you let email or life start to flood in, get control of yourself. Get control yourself, he says. It’s 10 10 10.1st 10 minutes, Read something inspiring something uplifting at the moment, I’m reading Ryan Holidays’ books on stoicism and being These are books where you could just rip it open a page and this page has a power. You just read it, reflect on it. Sometimes in 10 10 10, 10 minutes of reading., I mean, three or four, just reminding from the look. And Some of them are from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from over 2000 years ago and he faced tough times. And how did he face it? Something that just moves me from my I’m just a little human being living in this century to I want to be a better person this week.

So the 1st 10 minutes read something uplifting. The next 10 minutes you think, this is my journal. The journal is full of writing ideas, people I’ve met. One of the things that I tried to do every morning, 10 minutes reading, 10 minutes, writing my journal, just reflections, thoughts, plans for the day. And it was just so somewhere on my head the last 10 minutes. Just sit and be grateful. Just go through some of the things that I’m grateful for. These days, one of the things that starts to happen in that last 10 minutes is switching over to who needs me. Who needs me to show up in their life in some way today.

I run a business here in Spain. On the first few days post quarantine, I was thinking a lot about me. It would affect me, how it changes my life and took quite a bit of effort and quite a few mornings of connecting to we’re not the first human population ever to face a pandemic. We’re not the first human beings who have taken up a challenge. And you can feel like that sometimes. And you have to read books and you have to speak to older people to get a sense that life has not been just this paradise. And this is the first stop of The paradise train and your life goes in cycles of up and down.

Uh, but to me, starting each day, getting consciously in control of what I feed into my mind making sure that the 1st 10 minutes are some inspiring positive things that rings me to want to be the best version of myself. Take a few minutes to get words down into this notebook to get myself, I I’ve been writing in a journal since I was 14 years old and If I can, if I’m the second thing out, all of humanity. So if the first is take control of the first moments of your day. If you could just put yourself in a good conscious state first in the morning, the whole rest of the day hits you in a slightly different way.

The second is this writing your life down and I think the greatest book that you or I could ever read our own life,well documented. Our own life written down what we expect and what turned out. What were the questions we had when we were 15, 18, 20, 25.What we were, who we were with. What filled us often wonder where that’s at each stage of our life and I was lucky that at age 14 I Had a teacher in my school, a teacher called Mr Mats and Mr Mats the last five minutes of every lesson his rule, pen touching paper in your journal. Every single day. I remember 14 year old in school being told that you’re gonna put your pen to paper every day and write first day. I don’t know why Mr Mats is asking us to do this. What’s the point? Day 2, He told us he’s not going to read our journal and you know at 14. I’d figured out school. My objective in schools to do the minimum amount of effort to get the grades I need to move to the next level. Nothing more and here Mr. Martz was asking us to write down in a book that no one else will ever read anything that we want. Uh, by day four, I started to write. My brother said that something to me today then my mother looked a bit destructive in the car on the way to school and ever since 14 years old, I’ve found a bit of time each day just to note down where I am, who I am with what’s going on in my mind, where I’m worried about what what doubts I have. Sometimes I take a lot of time and fill a few pages. Sometimes it’s just where I am, who I am with and on one line that is.

You know, I can tell you where I was who I was with what I was thinking about at 18,20, 33 and that resource right now. So you were facing tough times at 2008 was far tougher for for me Then then right now, 2008 I was an entrepreneur leading a private jet airline that I had founded. Well, we had 16 aircraft on the books and July 2008, I felt like the greatest successful entrepreneur in world targeting riches. and fame. September 2008, The bank went into bankruptcy and people stopped flying private jets and by february 2009, I had to lay off every employee who spent the previous seven years hiring, training, motivating, cultivating a set of shared mission, vision and values. It was because I had this feeling all through that process that I didn’t do anything wrong. And that was the inner dialogue all the time.

In 2008,2009 I did nothing wrong. I didn’t cheat anyone. I didn’t break my words. I didn’t break any rules. Why is this happening to me? This is not fair. This is not fair. This is cruel. Why are people doing this to me and that that was a terrible state of mind to to put myself in because there’s no resourcefulness from that state of mind. There’s no reaching out to engage with others. There’s no using where I am to create something new. It’s just anger, bitterness and shame.

I spent most of 2009 in that state of mind, and I think that the thing that has inspired me to teach was in 2009 I came to some sort of sense of lie this did happen. Um, answer for myself is this has happened to me so I can walk the rest of my life to make sure it never happens to anybody else that nobody gets as low, as I’ve got without someone out there, who can help them on that path and just stealing from getting us deep and negative as I did.

And, the way I taught prior to 2008 was like a consultant. I showed up with my 60 PowerPoint slides, and I went through them slide after slide after slide. My great fear in the years of teaching up to 2008 is What do I do if I finish my PowerPoint and there’s still some minutes of class? I’m so scared of this. I look what if I finished all the contents and there’s still time with the class. After 2008. I don’t use power points because I just thought I passed every test in school, have an MBA. How did I fail so literally, so it’s not the lesson in the power point. It’s taking responsibility for your life it’s looking what’s possible for you. It’s getting around people that want the best for you and asking good questions. And it isn’t just been nice to you. Sometimes you need around you, the people who are you to tell you the things you really don’t want to hear, that they’re painful, but the only feed back that is really touching, what you really need to change is something you really don’t want to hear .

So few human beings are skilled in giving good feedback that it’s very easy to get angry about the clumsiness with which someone has given you the feed back and ignore the gold of truth that is hidden inside the clumsily provided feedback. Uh, I don’t know if you have come across an organization called Toastmasters, but Toastmasters around World is an organization where people go along to get better at speaking in public.

It helps you become a good speaker, but I think much, much more fundamentally, every person that meant that has gone through more than a year or two of Toastmasters loves receiving feedback and the more painful and horrific and crushing your feedback, you will get more excited. Because Toastmasters, as an organization, really, instills in people that the greatest gift that you can get is feedback, that hurts, cause that’s what’s gonna mean to your next speech is better on.

Do you know, I just the spirit with which I teach my classes today. The spirit with which I run my businesses is a belief that challenge is the most important thing that we can find for our lives.

Your life is empty of challenge and for money adolescents, their life really is empty of meaningful challenge.

Which videogames become so wonderful. Video games, a meaningful challenge. It’s school is as meaningful as fortnight’s and mention how well adolescent boys in Ireland and Spain on an India will be doing. But you know what we’ve failed to do for kids at school is conveyed to them, How valuable, meaningful the subjects that we learn in school are. No one has to motivate a young boy to play for tonight.

Uh, yeah, that was a question on managing Millennials, which struck me. I have very little experience of managing millennials, my teaching and my business. My business really work with CEOs of businesses over five million euros. Here and average age of the group around me. And my business is over 60 because I’m a looking for experienced mentors, That have been through three or four crisis, they lived through something like this.

Maybe not on this scale are not caused by the same cause. But they lived through the Internet. They lived through the financial crisis. They’ve lived through a company going bankrupt. Yeah, I think I lived through a company going bankrupt. The way I take decisions now is different than it could possibly have been. Your education on going bankrupt is as powerful as living through it in your own life. So you know what I think it is, the people. The classic millennials I can’t talk too much about, but I can talk about my 13 year old daughter and my four year old daughter. And they grew up in the world of the iPad. Very often in classes, One of the speakers. Well, we’re gonna talk about how they should remove technology from the home, remove technology from their kids, remove ipads from dinner table or or through the night, but it’s it’s about influence.

An iPad a wonderful indicator that your life is boring. If your child finds more interest in playing with the iPad, rather than banning the IPad, I’d look seriously at your life. Is your life a shining light of inspiration? You have hobbies that when we do it, the people around see you growing because you’re doing something that you love or has your life becomes so empty of hobbies and meaningful work that you have to ban ipads tonight to get people to pay attention to you.

The real danger is being a looter around people who are politically correct, a meter around people that even if it’s uninspiring, what the company does, even if you don’t take the time to get to know them show up anyway.

It’s a wonderful thing that we’re starting to have generations of people that say That’s not enough for me.

I don’t want to work just to pay the bills. I want to do work with people that care about the work with people that care about each other with people that care about our clients. As a real human beings with issues, not sources of revenue.

Also one of the powerful things that I see is when I first started as a teacher, I felt that I was the one with information, and I shared information to the participants. When I realized with my daughters and what I realized in my classes, is if someone really wants to know it’s on rules on YouTube, it’s two million different places they already know. So the only reason today why someone doesn’t know how to do something is that they’re missing two things. One, belief that it’s important and two belief that they are capable. I’m a teacher in business school is to put two beliefs into every person in the room on during the progress of our time Together.

And the first is a belief that this story is important for my future. The second is a realization that if I choose to do the work, I could be a skilled than anyone around me and I couldn’t get much more skilled than I am right now. And if I finish my program and, you’re terrible at the content right now, but I can see in your eyes that you’re gonna make this a habit the rest of your life you’re gonna do practice, you’re gonna do the work. Gonna put yourself out there, You do homework. And to me, And what is the work you don’t have to do?

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