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How coaching turned around Radio 1


Working for a very well-established organisation in the public eye, undergoing significant change, Andy Parfitt's role as Controller of BBC Radio 1 presents a whole range of leadership challenges. This abridged article examines how coaching helped Andy develop his personal skills and provides an account of his own experiences.

Co-written by Andy's coach, Susan Bloch, and Philip Whiteley this abridged article taken from Complete Leadership published by Pearson examines someone who has gone through a great deal of learning, whose team is now growing with his development, and how this development is built upon his innate abilities and personality.

Andy Parfitt: ‘I discovered I was presenting all the time’

Complete leadership is about letting all your abilities shine; that development is about building on your personality, not suppressing it to conform to a managerial archetype. The experience of Andy Parfitt, Controller of BBC Radio 1 – the leading popular music station in the UK – gives a vivid illustration of this. It it is an example of someone who has gone through a great deal of learning, and whose team is now growing with his development, and how this development is built upon his innate abilities and personality.

When Andy took over in 1998, Radio 1 was struggling to maintain itself as the premier station for young listeners. The BBC is an institution with a long history and august reputation, into which a station aimed primarily at young people that may feature controversial acts like Eminem or Marilyn Manson, sometimes sits a little uneasily. Moreover competition had grown exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, with dozens of commercial music stations being set up. The BBC is in the highly unusual position of being funded by a ring-fenced tax, being accountable to politicians and required to uphold its principles of impartiality and fairness, but also expected to be thoroughly competitive, including with the youth market. Andy’s role is very much in the public eye, and some of his staff are nationally known personalities with formidable egos and a massive fan base. Any personnel difficulties he has are likely to be splashed across the popular papers as well as the business pages.

The weight of the history of the organisation; and of the responsibilities he faced, caused him to be fearful in his early days, and suppress his personal instincts. Moreover, the corporation in the 1990s had instilled many managerial controls that had been lacking earlier. While this improved financial control and accountability, there had been a tendency to put too much emphasis on management and to stifle creativity, according to many who worked in the organisation. Andy now takes up the story:
‘I knew that in the back of my mind that my personal development and confidence was going to be really important, but at the time I was at the beginning of that journey. So although I knew that it was important, I think that the prospect of the job meant that I underplayed it, because I was not confident that I could use my own personality. I was scared at the prospect of being important.

‘Probably I feel now that I am aware that everything you do is a major signal: the clothes you wear; the events you attend; the things you don’t attend, or how you react to news, for example about a competitor. The signals you send are very loud if you are Controller. An early lesson for me was that if you don’t understand your importance you can send a lot of conflicting messages, or ones not befitting a leader.

‘When I first became Controller, because my own assessment of my own performance was about audience ratings – not to an overwhelming extent but there was an issue about ratings; a feeling that they were not as robust as they might be – I quite unconsciously put the focus in team meetings on ratings performance. I started to give out the message that it was all about ratings. It just became overly reliant on concrete measures of success, and measurement and performance began to dominate forums where the accent should have been on the product and the people making the contribution; celebrating successes and reviewing in a positive way.

‘You only have a limited amount of quality time talking to all of your team, so if you unconsciously fill that quality time with the wrong sort of stuff it is not only a waste of that time but it puts a skew on what people perceive to be the overall objective of the organisation. That did happen at first and it is less motivating, because individual people could not see the connection with their own endeavours, enthusiasms and skills, and the impact on this very bald quarterly figure that comes through called a rating. That is demoralising; pressure to perform but not know the leaders or what you can do.
‘I now think that listening to your own core team; being relaxed enough in the role to be able to listen and think about what might fill those quality moments is the priority.

‘There was a “light bulb” moment. When I started I used to be a nervy public speaker. I felt the weight of the organisational history on my shoulders if faced with the responsibility of representing the BBC. It held me back from using my personality. It is short-hand and glib, but you have to learn to be yourself at work to be most effective. Someone I worked with gave me some honest feedback. He said: “Why do you change from being passionate, articulate and funny when speaking in public and become an automaton?” It was searing feedback. I think that one of my strengths is that I am a self-starter and a self-improver. It someone says something potentially useful then I take note. I didn’t have much formal education; I went to a comprehensive school and failed at A-Levels [pre-university exams at age 18 in the UK system] but since then I have been a self-improver. I could see that I could learn, and I am very good at sourcing a person who could help me. I remember going on the recommendation of someone else to do presentation training.

‘As it turned out, the individual did not just help me with presentation, but with giving me the courage of my convictions and showing me that being myself is enough. After a few sessions I was captured with the idea; that I was at my best when being me. ‘How can you be fully creative if you do not use your full personality? The Andy that plays guitar, paints, has two daughters and was in three bands. You shouldn’t leave that behind. This was linked to the matter of being able to show my weaknesses. It is incredibly powerful for others; they realize that this is not one of those managers that we have all worked with who feel they know how to do everything and are brilliant – they are demoralising to work for. You feel you can make a contribution if someone has said “I can’t do this”. To have the guts to say “Here I am; here’s my response as Andy Parfitt.” Then, when you make the discovery that everyone in these leadership positions has experiences and concerns it becomes a relief.
‘The things that I learned on the presentation course concerned matters such as relaxation; eye contact; personability; use of voice; pausing; the feeling that I could throw the light on a member of staff and give them praise. When you are frozen by nerves all those things go. I also learned little techniques to challenge people whose behaviour in meetings is rude.
‘I also realized – and this is how the impact of the training went way beyond public speaking ability – that as a leader you are presenting all the time. You are presenting when you talk to a direct report; you are presenting when you talk to your boss – and everyone has a boss.

‘I used to take notes [during the presentation training]. Every time I had to give a speech I would go through my notes; I tried to bring alive for myself again. I had to give a speech about young people at the Labour Party conference, and Prime Minister Tony Blair was in the audience, as well as the deputy chair of the BBC governors, plus 300 party people. I remember thinking that the best I could achieve was just get through it with Mr Blair being such a consummate public speaker himself. It passed well and I got some positive responses.

‘The trouble with nervousness and stage fright is that it shuts you down. You cannot listen; you cannot relax. Nerves close people’s personalities down and you become wooden.
‘Now in the office, and when I address the staff the atmosphere is conducive for people to be honest. People ask more questions. The main thing is that meetings are fun. There is laughter, with people spontaneously applauding others for their contributions. There is positiveness and ease; it is a different situation. Instead of putting something in writing on a screen [when addressing the staff] I would rather have a big image on the screen, like a picture of Mary J Blige when talking about RnB, instead of a list of bullet points.

‘There is stuff outside your control; but you cannot get het up about it. I don’t know what is going on at Capital Radio [main competitor to Radio 1 in London]. If you worry about the bottom line then you are not concentrating on the product or the people. If you think about people the rest takes care of itself. I do more and more talking about people and how to motivate them. ‘That is my job: to make it a really great place to work. If you ask most young radio presenters where they aspire to work they still say Radio 1.’

There is an interesting dynamic here: by not focusing on the bottom line, the bottom line improves. This is not the paradox it appears to be, when we remind ourselves that measurable results are simply the end result of what people do. If you simply set desired results as targets it does not work, but motivate people to deliver and you will achieve what you want and more. By early 2001/2002 Radio 1 had restored its reputation as the premier pop station in the UK. In the third quarter of 2001 it achieved a record reach of 57 per cent of 15-24 year olds; the website had 4 million page impressions, and in 2001 around 750,000 people attended live Radio 1 events.

Andy Parfitt still finds time to play guitar.


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