Counterintuitive Advice

By Martin Tothill

Martin lives to help and grow others to be the best leaders they can and in turn inspire a future generation of followers to do the very same.

Everyone loves a good story.

Whether you’ve sat on the edge of your seat, enthralled by the twists and turns, or been able to recollect a story’s moral days, weeks or even months later, great leaders who consistently tell captivating stories are able to deliver engaging, distinctive and lasting messages.

But have you heard too many stories from too many leaders, or one particular story too many times?

We at Catseye occasionally have the pleasure of receiving visiting speakers for our skills workshops – always a great chance for leaders to share insights and stories on a given theme.

Speakers are always well received and often cover popular topics, such as ‘know your client’, ‘understand their world’, ‘clients hate talking fees’, ‘co-creating agendas’ and ‘people buy people’. They’re well trained and recount personal stories which add substance to the learning.

But one particular speaker left an impression deeper than most.

Gary Campbell had a plan! An Indirect Tax Partner at Deloitte, Gary was supporting a tax skills workshop on client relationships, business development and networking – areas in which the participants had limited experience.  His seemingly counterintuitive advice and wisdom defied logic...and has stayed with me ever since.

In a room full of young professionals, Gary offered challenging ideas – controversial, even. 

“Talk more politics and religion with clients,” he said, in his warm, Irish accent, before pausing. When seeking to attract attention or change people’s behaviour, you have to go beyond ordinary and sometimes have to do something extreme. Gary then shared the opening line he once said to a client:

“I’m a protestant atheist!”

The room took a sharp breath and fell silent. We were hooked, and physically leaned into his message wanting more, his story grabbing our attention immediately. Was he suggesting we break the golden rule of client meetings?

It transpired that his client was an atheist, too – a Catholic one. Gary went on to explain that because of this, the two of them hit it off immediately and stayed in touch. A business relationship was forged which led to opportunities for both parties.

You might say Gary’s was a risky – if calculated – strategy. It required judgement, skill and confidence.

Perhaps other professional advisors wouldn’t have dared, but that’s exactly what pioneering conversationalists do. Injecting excitement into conversation that would otherwise have been ordinary, Gary and those like him push social boundaries and plant their flag in territory where most fear to chat.

Counterintuitive advice often stops people in their tracks, as it challenges conventional thinking and preconceptions. Making others examine themselves and their view of the world is no mean feat. It can also be a fresh way of reframing stories that get your staff to adopt the change you’re looking for.

Gary demonstrated a heady blend of challenge, invention, wisdom and vision in his leadership communication style. He was able to talk from experience and share the learning. Willing leaders who actively encourage their staff to try things are an inspiration and rarely get forgotten. Gary’s actions and story-based wisdom were both counterintuitive and successful.


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