Provocation, obtuseness and self importance

I was at a conference over the summer and heard a guy who is one of the HR Director’s at Sky. Apparently he’s very successful. He worked for Getty Images, and made so much money from them he didn’t have to work again.

He told us this after he proceeded to let us know he was going to be provocative, because apparently that’s his MO.

This was him trying to be all credible and talking from a place of authority.

I mean, you know, fuck him. Fuck him very much.

Complete apologies for the use of foul language there, dear readers. But jeez, this was such epic levels of being obtuse that I was surprised he didn’t just ask people to queue for his autograph after his bit was done.

Did he talk good stuff? Annoyingly, yes. What grated on me was how he used this platform not to share his good knowledge, but instead to sing his own praises so much that I think he is his own groupie.

Ok, enough of this guy.

Jeff Turner of Facebook. He’s doing the rounds at the minute too.

I mean here’s a guy from a cool company and he’s being asked to speak on the circuit, as is expected, and he’s not adapted his conference talk one bit. Pretty much every time I hear about his talk I could tell you what he’s going to talk about.

I get it. I do. You’ve delivered a good talk once upon a time, and suddenly every conference organiser wants you there. Why change the topic, or even why be humble about being asked to talk? Hell, we’re in a day of self-promotion, and what better way to self-promote than just be arrogant and all up yourself?

Except, you know… modern day… arrogance sucks… self importance was never important… being obtuse shows how much of a knob you are… something about authentic leadership… something about being a role model for the profession… something about the big companies not knowing their arse from their elbows…

I can be provocative with the best of them. Except the one thing I always maintain, fundamentally, is respect for the people I’m with. I quite possibly do act in a condescending way, and I do quite possibly patronise. I am heavily reliant on people to let me know. Importantly, though, I’m careful to not listen to the praises in the absence of the honest feedback. I care that people feel invited to have a discussion with me. Not just for their dignity, but because I believe I don’t know everything. I know some things, and with others I learn more.

There’s just as much responsibility in being provocative as there is in being a leader or in having money. If we don’t act responsibly, then we believe our own hype far too much.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

6 thoughts on “Provocation, obtuseness and self importance”

  1. Sukh

    I’d be interested on your perspective on a leadership book called ‘why your boss is programmed to be a dictator. It’s a good read.

    Of course you would need to buy a copy I know but I’m sure you would appreciate it.


  2. Heh heh. I know what you mean Sukh, there are some people who get stuck in a track and find it hard to bust out. Trouble is – for a while it all kinda looks OK. They get more polished through repeating the same thing over and over, and so to many, it looks and feels – somehow convincing. The speaker begins to believe the hype and hey – why change the record, people are still dancing. Except they’re not dancing – they are swaying gently in their sleep.

    I invited someone to speak at an event I helped to organise in 2010. He did a charming job. I saw him three years later and he was still giving an almost identical talk – with the same (now corny) jokes and photos. Lazy.

    I’m all for people threading themes into and around a talk – and by their nature – some of those themes, passions etc may well surface more than once. And at the same time, I personally try hard to never deliver the same talk twice, often by involving the audience and asking them to help set the direction with me.

    Cheers for writing this – Doug

  3. I always think that you can tell a mile away when someone gives the same talk all the time. It just becomes too slick. You know when they pause, they pause there every time. But some people are making a good living out of doing just that. It is as Doug says, lazy, but they have little motivation to change. I heard a talk not so long ago by someone that was in this space – and they were very keen for people not to tweet during it. It was done under the ‘be present’ banner – but I did wonder whether he just didn’t want his words tweeting widely so it wouldn’t be obvious he is just peddling the same stuff.

  4. Thanks for posting this Sukh.

    Last week I was at an event where Jeff was speaking and, according to Twitter, he gave a very similar presentation to what he’d delivered before. I say according to Twitter as I’ve never met him or seen him speak before so I heard his piece for the first time.

    I was speaking at the same event and relied on some slides that I’ve developed over a few years. After my session I received almost complete positive feedback and I felt a bit of a fraud as a result – as Gem says, it felt very slick. However, as I was pulling my session to pieces in my head and thinking about how I could develop the topic further someone tapped me on the sholuder and said:

    “It’s the first time they’ve heard it”

    That really struck a chord with me. As David D’Souza said on Twitter, some people don’t attend conferences as often as others. Some people don’t have exposure to ideas as much as others. Eg, I asked who was on Twitter and about a third of the 100 or so people there put their hand up. Where do the other 2/3 hear that content? If this is the one of only a few events they attend each year, how likely are they to hear the same speaker with the same content?

    Is it Jeff’s fault for using the same examples as he has in the past or mine for not having sought him out, watched a video of his presentation, checked his Slideshare deck, followed his Twitter feed or conference backchannels, read his blog or added him on G+; I’m not on Facebook.

    Again, thanks for raising it as a topic. As you’re curating my session at Learning Technologies in January I’ve a challenge for you:

    Should I deliver a session based on my previous content or create something entirely new for the event?

  5. Great post Sukh. It always amazes me how some speakers feel they need to reel off a ‘greatest hits’ of soundbites and visuals. I’ve met many conference speakers over the years who travel the world charging a small fortune for delivering the same (admittedly well-polished) session again and again. Like Gem says though – it’s often too slick, and people intuitively pick-up on this stuff.

    Contrast this with a guy who I saw present at the NAP CIPD conference a couple of years ago, who openly admitted that he hadn’t written his keynote session until the night before, because he wanted to attend Day 1 of the event and soak up the themes, audience reactions and session topics. It showed. I was in equal parts humbled and impressed.

  6. I’m divided on this. There’s definitely some truth in what you say and I get that there is a view that some people are turning up and doing the same thing time after time – but the audience is still paying to see them.

    If you have seen a speaker before then the chances are the content will be similar the next time you see them – just opt out and go to another session. If they have some key and polished messages then that is great news for everyone in the room seeing them for the first time.

    I try and tell a different story each time I do something and one that fits well with the event – and that means pulling together some stuff that has resonated with people before and some stuff that I think will fit the bill for the event. But I’m not a big name and probably won’t be – nobody comes to see me speak because I’m an authority on x.

    If I WAS being booked to do one thing (e.g. if I was Goleman with EQ or Buckingham with Strengths based) then I can’t help but think I’d be cheating most of the audience if I DIDN’T repeat my greatest hits.

    It’s a bit like going to see a Rolling Stones gig – if you are only going to see them once you really hope they do a great version of Start Me Up and Jumping Jack Flash. You’d be gutted if they didn’t, you’d feel cheated. That’s what they do. If you choose to see them again the next night then you might hope they mix it up – but most other people are still hoping for a great version of Start Me Up and Jumping Jack Flash.They don’t want something off the new album, they don’t want a ten minute jam or something revolutionary. For most of the audience, at most events, they want what you do best done well.

    So Jeff from Facebook mainly talks about what Jeff from Facebook has done at Facebook. That’s a bit of a no brainer isn’t it? He’s won’t vary that much as what he is talking about doesn’t vary that much -I think there is an completely valid challenge that if you book him for an event on change management it doesn’t make much sense for him to do the same event as at an L&D conference. I’m not sure your issue with his content can be in the same bracket as the Sky HRD

    I’m less worried about ‘do you change your stuff?’, I’m less worried about ‘is it new?’ – I’m more worried about does it meet the requirements for most of the audience.

    And I’m guessing the reason these folk get paid huge sums for repeat bookings isn’t because they are lazy it’s because they are very good at what they do and that works for the other people in the room – maybe not you, but for the other people in the room. I went to see Gary Hamel last week and sat next to Gareth Jones – Gareth knew what was coming next and still enjoyed it. It was relatively new to me and I enjoyed it. Yet when we tweeted some pics of the decks people were immediately criticising the bullet point approach – do you know what? It worked for most of the room. A great passionate speaker, good examples, a slick deck.

    I’ll be posting in the next few days on some interviews I did with folk at HRTech about what makes for a great conference and I guess variety and options are key…

    As for the HRD at Sky…that isn’t a content issue, that is a personality issue. I’m glad he is rich enough that he can retire early and people don’t have to put up with him rubbing their faces in his richness for too much longer…

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