Building Successful Businesses podcast: Phill Robinson, Ep2

In our second episode chatting to Phill Robinson, founder of Boardwave, the European network for the software industry, we discuss any career challenges he’s had to overcome and what it’s taught him about leadership.

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Fiona: In the second episode, chatting with software leader Phill Robinson, I ask him if there are any challenges in his career he’s had to overcome, and what it’s taught him about leadership.

Phill: I guess, you know, I had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 2017. I had literally been offered a job which would require me to move to the Netherlands to run a company called Exact, also private equity-backed. And I’d agreed to the job, I’d signed the paperwork, in fact they’d let the previous CEO go, and literally the day that happened was the day I got the diagnosis.

And so I’m sitting in the UK and thinking, oh, you know, maybe I can’t do this job, right? This is quite a serious thing. It’s a chronic disease… What am I going to do? I felt morally obligated to go in a sense, because I’d told them I would, and they’d let the person go that was leading the business. At the same time, I’m thinking well, you know, I may just not be capable of doing it. So I took advice from the consultant, and he said well, actually, there’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t do this for quite a few years to come.

So I think my perception of Parkinson’s was much like other people’s, which is whilst it’s a chronic disease, it makes you unable to do your job or less able to do your job, and that’s not the case at all. So I still went to the Netherlands, and I had a great time, and I worked there for four years, and again, we took that business and we sold it to KKR for four times the money for the investor that had it before. So it was a great outcome for them. The company had changed its strategy, and grown significantly, and I’m still on the board today. But eventually, when I’d been there for four years, and we sold it, I told the new investor I was probably not the guy for them for the very long term, and that’s when we made a transition to a new CEO, which would be my previous COO who got promoted. So we transitioned him, I moved to the board, and I came back to the UK.

Fiona: And I know that you were on the board of Cure Parkinson’s following that diagnosis in 2017 as well, and you’ve talked publicly about kind of changing the perception of the disease.

Phill: Yeah.

Fiona: Is that partly because when you had that diagnosis, your immediate reaction was, oh, I’d best stop doing anything, and actually that wasn’t the case? And actually, having gone through that, you realised that’s the same realisation most people have when they might get that diagnosis?

Phill: Yeah, I think that’s… Well, I don’t think people necessarily realise it immediately. It’s a dark tunnel that you arrive into when you get a diagnosis like that. But actually, you learn to live with the disease, and it’s not the way you think it might be. So I think a lot of people’s perception of this disease is it’s a disease for old people that shake a lot. And it is that, but there’s also a suite of 30 other symptoms which are going to affect you. It’s a life-altering disease. It’s going to affect you in many different ways, and shaking is just one. I don’t shake, but I’ve got a suite of other things that are wrong.

People’s perception of it I think is completely outdated, and actually, people fear when they get this diagnosis, that they’re going to be prejudiced against. They fear that perhaps they’ll get passed over for promotion, or they’ll basically be asked to leave, because the perception is they can’t do their job because they’re going to shake, and be maybe less mentally able than they used to be, and that’s not necessarily the case. So I think that the part of the problem is with the people who receive that diagnosis, they’ve got to change their own perception of what they can do. But then, generally, people in business need to understand that people with chronic diseases, not just Parkinson’s, any chronic disease are just as capable as other people in the workforce of doing their job.

Actually, we run a whole campaign around this in the Netherlands, around chronic diseases, because we talk about gender diversity, and we talk about ethnicity, and we talk about different sorts of equity and equality. Well, this is another one, you know, sort of around disease and chronic disease. Because there’s a group of hidden people in most workforces that come to work with something that’s wrong with them, and we don’t necessarily know what it is, but they are more than capable of doing their job. And they should be able to bring that to work and tell you they’ve got Parkinson’s, or they’ve got something else wrong with them, and not be prejudiced against. So yeah, we’ve run a campaign in the Netherlands for two years, and we really changed the perception there, and we’re trying to do the same in the UK at the moment.

Fiona: I think people are better now at talking about mental health, but probably there’s still a fear when it comes to talking kind of to your employers about, you know, other elements of health, like you say, with illnesses and disease.

Phill: I think having taken the plunge and moved to the Netherlands, I didn’t tell anybody for two years. I was really worried that people would think I was less able to do my job. But at the end of two years, we had sold the business, I told the new investor what had happened to me, and why I couldn’t be their long-term answer, and they were very understanding. Which was a huge relief, actually, and we helped work with them for another year-and-a-half, two years in a transition. But I didn’t tell any of the employees, or the management team either. So I was coming to work every day with a secret, and that’s quite a burden, to do that every day. It’s very difficult.

Fiona: Yeah.

Phill: So after telling the investors, and we had told the company, I thought, well, I have to tell my management team, and I have to tell the employees. And so I basically made this little video which is an explainer to explain what this disease is, because actually, it’s not what you think it is. And I was terrified of doing this, and terrified of telling them. We did it at a Town Hall meeting with like, 2,000 people, and there was just a huge round of applause after it happened.

And the thing that I learned, which I think is a hugely valuable lesson, which hopefully people don’t have to get Parkinson’s to learn it, is that vulnerability and authenticity is a really powerful and important tool that a CEO can use. Because I had always though, you know, that CEOs need to be…not invincible, but almost, always right, guiding the company, the leader, and infallible, I don’t know, almost untouchable, actually. And that’s part of the challenge of being that person and persona, which is that people don’t feel they can match up to you because you’re trying to be invincible. And actually, I became quite vulnerable, and I had to therefore be very authentic about how I felt, and what I was doing, and was going on with me internally and at home with people at work.

And it was the best two years of my career because suddenly, I could communicate with and have a relationship with anybody in the company, from any level, without the fear of recrimination from them or from me. And we had a great time, and I think it really helped build the relationships across the different teams, at different levels in the company. It’s actually direct anyway, but now it was clear that you could be authentic in the company, and you could tell people what’s going on with you, whether you were gay, whether you were straight, whether you were…you know, whatever was going on with you, and mentally, whether it was neurodiversity, or Parkinson’s, or what have you, and it was okay.

And so for me I learnt the power of, in terms of relationship with other people, of just being really honest about what’s going on, because that gives you this authenticity, and this trust and truth that perhaps if you’re trying to be the superhero CEO, you don’t have that. You sort of become a little bit untouchable.

Fiona: There’s a real strength in vulnerability, and lots of lessons all CEOs can learn from how to truly be open, and lead with authenticity in business. Phill mentioned his experience there in the Netherlands. In the next episode, we discuss his experience working in different regions, and his top advice for companies looking to scale overseas.

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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