Podcast: Samuel Robberts, Chief Product Officer of Leadership Dynamics at Drax Executive

February 15, 2022 Sophie Colquhoun

For the latest episode of our Industry Leaders podcast, we spoke to Samuel Robberts, Chief Product Officer of Leadership Dynamics at Drax Executive, about the common traits of successful business leaders and leadership teams.

Leadership Dynamics have undertaken the largest study of its kind across Europe to identify a framework of behaviours that the most successful high-growth businesses possess in their leadership teams. At more2, we have seen a pattern amongst those who attend our CEO Teach-In events - they all share an innate curiosity about business and how to improve. It turns out that this is one of the key traits that Drax have identified.

In this episode, Samuel presents a fascinating perspective on leadership informed by hard data. You'll hear more about the importance of curiosity as well as the other key behaviours and traits, team dynamics, and lots more. 

Samuel's work focuses on helping leaders and teams of private-equity backed businesses maximise their strengths, minimise their weaknesses, and achieve their strategic goals. We hope you enjoy hearing about it as much as we did!

Listen to the full episode below:

Scroll down to read the full transcript

Sorcha O’Boyle: Hello and welcome to season two of the Industry Leaders podcast, brought to you by more2, the Marketing Science People. I'm Sorcha O’Boyle and we're doing something a little bit different this season. We've chosen a theme for each episode and this week we’re going to be talking about curiosity. Now if you've been listening to the podcast for a while, you'll know that we're really interested in finding out what sets the best leaders apart and how the best businesses and brands can organise their leadership teams and set themselves up for success. So, bearing all that in mind it's time to introduce my guest. On the show this week is Samuel Roberts, Chief Product Officer of Leadership Dynamics at Drax Executive. Now Samuels's work is fascinating, he's focused on evaluating and understanding leadership capability and impact to unlock the value creation. In more simple terms his work helps leaders and teams of private equity back businesses to maximise their strengths, minimise their weaknesses and achieve their strategic goals. So, Samuel, thank you for coming on the podcast. I'm really excited to have you, how are you doing?

Samuel Roberts: I'm good thank you. Yourself?

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yes, good great. To get us started could you tell me a little bit about the PACE framework that you've developed? What is it and what does it do for businesses?

Samuel Roberts: Yes, sure. Absolutely. So, the PACE framework that we've developed, so PACE stands for Pragmatism, Agility, Curiosity and Execution. What it basically is, is a framework of behaviors that we've identified that the most successful high growth businesses usually possess amongst their leadership teams. We've done that by evaluating the successful leadership teams of businesses since 2010 and then engaging with those leadership teams to understand actually what are the behaviours that really differentiate the most successful business from their peers. Actually, we've run the largest study of its kind across Europe in order to identify those different sets of behaviours and when we ran that study what we identified was four broad categories of behaviours that emerged and those were Pragmatism, Agility, Curiosity and Execution. And so fairly uniquely compared to say most other sorts of psychometric assessment or framework that exist out there, this is one that is specifically measuring those behaviours that we can really prove and demonstrate, really drive and contribute towards successful value creation by businesses in their leadership teams, rather than being rather an abstract theory that might reveal the broad traits of humanity but actually is harder to apply to the boardroom and to the business environment in which we know day to day leaders have to operate and execute.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay, fantastic. As curiosity is the theme for this week’s episode, I think it will be helpful for our listeners to hear more about the different types of curiosity that you've identified and maybe how they differ to one another and how they can work together. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Samuel Roberts: Yes sure. So, within the framework that we use, curiosity has four sub facets that help contribute to that overall trait of curiosity and we juxtaposed curiosity as an idea against this concept of what we call a functionalist. A functionalist is an individual who is always seeking to get certainty, wanting to have a concrete plan and really be able to bring everything together into a single way of looking at the world and proceeding from there. Whereas overarchingly, curiosity first of all, it’s a dispositional thing, a willingness to engage with different ideas and different concepts but also a method and a style of how you go about thinking. So, within those sub facets for example one of them is a comfort with ambiguity or a tolerance for ambiguity which is indicative of actually how comfortable are you with uncertain territory, new ideas, of things in the future not being absolutely clear on how they'll play out. How comfortable are you with that? And then within that there are other ways of going about problem solving or thinking about ideas that are things from are you an intuitive thinker or a concrete thinker. Intuitive thinkers are people who are very comfortable off the cuff coming up with ideas and seeing how things play out, whereas the concrete one is a definite plan. Then there are disruptive thinkers who are really trying to come up with brand new ideas, whereas you juxtaposed that often with an adapter who is much more focused on taking what already exists and adapting and applying that and working within the envelope. And then similarly another trait within that that we use is a divergent thinker. So divergent thinkers will take a stimulus and you cannot really anticipate where that stimulus will take you, whereas a convergent thinker by contrast is someone who you could give them that stimulus and reasonably, effectively anticipate that the direction of travel in which their thought processes are likely to go and they're going to try and reconcile everything together and bring it together. So that overall trait of curiosity actually has multiple facets to it including a motivation piece, but also actually how when presented with an idea, a concept, an opportunity, do you go about thinking and breaking that down?

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yes fantastic and can you tell me a little bit in your experience what role do the different types of curiosity play in high performing teams. Particularly if you have maybe a functionalist thinker who’s in an environment where there are a lots of divergent thinkers. How does that work out?

Samuel Roberts: Yes. I think it's a really interesting question. it's not always an intuitive one, to use one of the traits, but often times high curiosity is seen as a bit of a wayward trait within a successful leadership team in that it can be distracting or lead people not to focus, and actually what our research which is mostly, well it's very clear that it's teams that ultimately drives successful outcomes rather than individuals. There is this balancing act to be achieved between say a more functionalist concrete thinker who is willing to translate those big ideas and concepts into a clear plan that helps them drive forward and there might be particular roles that lend themselves to that. We for example have had thousands of people take our assessment now and the framework or what we call an archetype for say a CFO is often that they might be more functionalists than curious because that role drives a tendency to want to plan and have a concrete set of actions, whereas other say the Chief Technology Officer might be a good example of where you will often expect there to be a degree of or a greater degree of curiosity because they really are taking those new ideas and believe in them. And actually it's the successful teams that can capture the breadth across the whole spectrum there, that will really enable them to succeed.

When we started our work on PACE we thought there might be a real simple solution here, you might just find that everyone needs to be high on this set of behaviours in a team and you've cracked it. If only it were that simple.

Actually, what our research shows is that it's all about the balance and complementarity of the team coming together and driving that really effectively, so that the team can come together to focus on that value creation. That is ultimately what the leadership team is there to provide, and we're pretty clear and our research is clear, that it's the leadership team that is the lever for successful value creation in businesses, but curiosity has a really important role to play in that because you need to be able to lean into new ideas and build upon them and develop them in order to have an advantage in the market place, but also then a plan to execute it which will be that more a functionalist approach to that.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And how can someone, say if you a CEO whose role is really to help that team work together how can a CEO help each individual team member to firstly identify their strengths but then also identify where the strengths of the other team members are? That is quite a tricky thing to do I would say.

Samuel Roberts: Yes. Absolutely. Then the dynamics within those teams is always the key consideration when you get into the behaviours and what's quite interesting with the role of the CEO is what we found in our research, actually I'm doing a bit of work at the moment for a ecommerce business where the CEO there, the key thing that we're trying to find, pull out, is that usually the best successful teams, the CEO will sit at the heart of the team behaviourally and will be able to have the breadth and the stretch to reach across to the rest of the team and actually often times CEO's can end up becoming very frustrated in environments where they are the outlier to the rest of the team and then they struggle to drive the team or see the behavioural response from the team that they themselves would have to a particular scenario or opportunity and it's by sitting at the heart of the team that we've found that the CEO's are then able to really have the impact and consolidate what is otherwise a set of senior leaders, into a team that is driving something. The role of the CEO ultimately is one of the most important. So, there's this example that we've been working on. The CEO there on our behavioural analysis is the most curious person in the room by a long, long way and the rest of the team are much more functionalists, even though they've come from backgrounds where perhaps you wouldn't expect that within, and that's leading to this frustration where this business has a whole host of opportunities, but they need to develop a new strategy to take advantage of them.

But the CEO can see how they exist there and come up with these ideas but because he's so distant from the rest of the team who are these functionalisers and less tolerant than the ambiguity, there’s just this discord there that really needs to be teased out. So, it’s a really interesting one with the CEO and how they play back into the business and can work across the team.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Is that a common thing that you find? Because I'm sure that in high performing teams where there's a really big focus on delivery and performance I would imagine you do end up with a high proportion of functionalist thinkers who really are good at getting the job done, and do you maybe then end up with fewer people who are divergent or more intuitive? Is that a common thing that you've found?

Samuel Roberts: So, it's reasonably common. So within the framework we've got you've also got pragmatism and in particular execution and the execution trait is a willingness to engage with the work you've got and get on and make things happen and it's probably not hugely common in individuals to find individuals who balance very high curiosity and very high execution, that's a reasonably unusual set of traits, but within a team you can construct a team where those things can complement one another but definitely I think there is this balancing act within it where probably what we do find most often is that teams will often develop organically and can end up particularly in say founder lead organisations which are sort of like the most common businesses that we work with, where these leadership teams have developed organically around a founder who has built the team around them and therefore the behaviors will often mimic that individual so you can end up with them all being very curious or being very functionalist and that often works for a period of time but the question for us is, is that sustainable into the long term? Does it enable the team to go from where it is today to what the ambition is in a few year’s time and how do you introduce those new elements to balance that out? And that's probably, the most common scenario that we encounter is that you've got a what has to date to have been a very successful team perhaps but are the changes going to occur or you know that change is needed because of what your ambition is for the business and how do you navigate that whilst capturing PACE and in particular curiosity, within that to really help drive it? That's one of the big challenges definitely to any leadership team.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Brilliant and if you were speaking to a leadership team who’s in that position who maybe is going, "I know I need to change; I don't know what needs to change", what advice would you give them?

Samuel Roberts: So first of all, I think the starting point, that has to be at least you're on the page of recognising that you need to think about what the shape structure of a leadership team is and how they're coming together as a team to drive that. Often, I think that one of the things we find is that most leaders in business will only construct one leadership team in their lifetime probably and there's no reason for them to know the best way to go about doing that or really have any pre-destined way in which that should be perfectly executed. So, the starting point has to be I think a recognition that actually for all the ambition, and maybe the business fundamentals look great, if you haven't got a leadership team that's there and able to drive that then you're not going to pass go and you actually are introducing a high degree of risk. It's interesting as this is where curiosity goes full circle. So, if you're aware of that and then are able to recognise that as a problem you can begin to start with… You know, we always talk in what we do as an analysis about what the structure is, there's an understanding about what the experience that you need in the team is to stack the odds in your favour and then there has to be this focus on behavioural complementarity and knowing what is it that the team needs to be able to do to come together as a team that really helps drive value creation from that leadership team and enable the performance that you're seeking in that context.

Sorcha O’Boyle: From the teams that you've seen, and you've worked with and who maybe have taken part in your research what did most high performing teams have in common?

Samuel Roberts: It's a good question. I think one thing that's definitely true amongst the most high performing teams is that they have, first of all they definitely capture a method or experience in how to create value and I think that’s quite important. Often times when, say you're looking to introduce a new leader or you know you've got a problem and you're trying to bring someone into the business or solve a problem, you might think about it in an industry specific way. I operate a sandwich manufacturer, factoring business and I therefore need someone who understands FMCG, Fast Moving Consumer Goods, retail and distribution, but actually the experience that is going to really differentiate the leadership team in our analysis is not that domain expertise, it's the much more situational experience around how is a business going to change and how are you going to go about creating value? What are the methods you are going to go through in order to create that? So that's things like if we're going to go and create value by acquiring another businesses or transforming our sales model or digitising our proposition, we need to bring in individuals who have that experience and that's the starting point I think, but then you've got to layer onto that a dispositional interest in that value creation which I think was where curiosity really comes through because the method and means of value creation are always different in every business. There are some broad levers that you can pull upon but when they get applied into a particular industry I think it is the behavioural traits of individuals as they come into a team and their ability to work with one another but also work towards the outcome that you're seeking, that becomes really important and particularly if your business that is in any way pivoting or changing, both if I was picking amongst the PACE attributes there, agility and the ability to pivot is hugely important and treating circumstances as opportunities and as learning opportunities to take the lesson from and apply but also then the curiosity to actually engage with those and come up with new ideas and harness those and apply them into the commercial context, that situational context I think is probably where as you're applying it those two things. So that behavioural trait and those what we would call situational experiences, the value creation experience, are probably the two things that most come together to really enable a leadership team to drive value creation and be that primary lever for value creation.

Sorcha O’Boyle: How do you find that team dynamics - obviously anyone whose worked in a team knows that team dynamics can make or break a project - but how can team dynamics enable or stifle value creation?

Samuel Roberts: Good question. So, one of the things that we do with our PACE assessment is we measure both the basic PACE behaviors but we also measure what we call amplifiers and this concept, the amplifiers are essentially the ways in which individuals moderate or change their behaviour when they are interacting with one another. So, PACE will reveal your pragmatism, your agility, curiosity, and execution, but the amplifiers will tell me, if you and I for example were locked in a room I might be very highly curious but if I have a certain set of amplifiers I might dampen that curiosity because you're in the room and you may be less curious than I am. So definitely there are these sets of traits and that includes some really interesting behaviors like self-monitoring which is the tendency to monitor or modify your behaviours according to the circumstances you find yourself in. Excellent networkers, excellent salespeople are often very high self-monitorers, whereas you'll find that those who perhaps are a little less extrovert or tend to always be who they are regardless of the context will be low self-monitorers and you can rely on those people to always be as curious as they naturally are regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in.

Sorcha O’Boyle: That's really interesting. I would have thought it was the other way. I would have thought that if you were more introverted you would be more trying to adapt to the situation.

Samuel Roberts: No, it’s quite, it's an interesting one. So, there's the introversion/extroversion thing. I'm not sure that we've really found that there's much of a correlation, certainly to business outcomes between those behaviors. But it is this self-monitoring and then there are another set of behaviors we measure in there which are called the dark triads so it's the psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism - everyone loves those traits - that really get into how you're treating those individual encounters with one another and then you layer on top of that the base level of curiosity or functionalist that the individuals have and that’s how a team really comes together to drive at something. Is it that the highly curious people are the people who are moderating their behaviour, in which case you will stifle that dynamic and find that everyone tends towards the functionalist or vice versa? Is it actually that everyone is being super curious and the functionalists are being frustrated because they're moderating their own behaviour according to the norms. And in some ways, actually that comes back to our earlier question about CEOs, because in that senior leadership team the CEO is very often the ‘big beast’ in that regard. Their behaviour can often have culture setting and trend setting dynamic and become something that really sets how that team then drives and works around one another in that environment.

Sorcha O’Boyle: That's fascinating. I'd love to go into the darc traits but maybe this isn't the podcast for that.

Samuel Roberts: I could go for a long time about dark triad, it's fascinating, isn't it?

Sorcha O’Boyle: I'm sure you really could. To go back to that point about the CEO, say if you have a CEO who is quite aware that they are very curious for example, and they're very agile, let's say for arguments sake and perhaps those traits are slightly dominating the leadership team in a negative way. Say they're jumping around and they've loads of greats ideas but they don't execute anything and nothing actually gets done. How can the leader of the team manage that behaviour and foster an environment in which maybe they themselves aren't particularly comfortable, or experienced or don't like it that much?

Samuel Roberts: That's a really good question. I think one big thing there is, so one of the traits that we measure in PACE is agility and part of agility is a a growth mindset, a willingness to learn from another environment and often actually the mere fact that you're willing to moderate and change your behaviour and drive those things, and that the rest of the team are willing to as well, can be indicated through what we would call that agility score where you are willing to and open to developing how you go about things. Whereas if you have a fixed mindset, a very what we call mastery, so have a clear method and means, then you're much less likely to be open and curious about other things that are out there and potential. So, I think there is a starting point there where the agility and the openness of the team to new ideas gets you at the table where you might be willing to actually engage with that and then once you’re there it's about recognising the breadth across the team. So, it's not the case that everybody needs to complement with absolutely everybody in the team. It's that there's this interaction [Inaudible 00:24:09.12] people between the roles people have and the responsibilities they play and the behaviours they need that really help them to drive. And so it's about probably, if I was the CEO who was highly curious and knew that fact and was willing to make sure that the business benefited from that but didn’t stifle as well, it would be about recognising where is that curiosity actually valuable to the value creation plan that we're trying to drive and where is a much more functionalist approach appropriate. It could be, back to my CFO archetype, it could be that we say that actually the CFO needs to be given the space to be a functionalist to turn things into concrete plans and make sure that's happening but therefore those environments, those forums that we use that help us or in which the CEO engages in that curious behaviour and is writing on a white board all over the room about the new potential opportunities for huge value creation, you might recognise that actually the CFO isn't the best person to bring into the room to drive that, he's the person you bring in at end of the room to rationalise it into a sensible plan and help make a concrete functional roadmap out of what has been a highly curious session and therefore it's just this like recognition of the interaction there between these people and how there are these hand off points between each of these functionalist, curious individuals. It's just making sure that you are doing them in the right way that really helps to drive success and value creation rather than frustrate and lead to a poor team dynamic where the poor CFO's been trapped in a room for the last six hours and feels like he can't get on with the things or go about things in the way he or she would chose to. It's about recognising that and trying to play to that and moderate accordingly.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yes, absolutely. I wonder if you could give us maybe some examples of businesses that maybe you've worked with where they had a, say they had a problem, maybe the value of curiosity wasn't appreciated maybe as well as it could be and ways that they've overcame that. Because I think we've talked quite a lot about people who are very, very curious but we maybe haven't talked about people who aren't so much.

Samuel Roberts: Yes sure. So, we were working last year actually with a consumer goods business and that was an environment in which the team overall was a very low curiosity business. It had actually it had recently taken backing from a private equity investor and was looking to introduce a CEO to help it set a new agenda, come up with a new strategy and go about creating more value, but it was a team that had been very successful to date but collectively it didn't have much curiosity and didn't seem too interested or too inclined to really engage with actually what is the new opportunities out there for this business to grow again and create more value. In that sort of circumstances there are a few things. First of all obviously there was that CEO change going on which was an opportunity to introduce someone with greater curiosity, who could bring that situational experience as well but also bring a mindset that meant that they were going to engage with the opportunities and come up with something and be able to fashion a new direction for that organisation, but also within the existing team, whilst you had a relatively low curiosity team you did have some variants within that and you also had a willingness to develop amongst some of those individuals. So, it's about trying in that context to really peel out. From memory I think it was the Chief Commercial Officer was what we would deem like high potential individual with a great curiosity who could become someone that a CEO who might be more curious stepping into that business could really lean on in order to help drive that team and there is, you can get these situations where there is this tension between what's the behaviour that we think we need to introduce to help drive this business in the right direction but we also need them to come in and work with the team and try to bridge that gap because it's a fairly complex process but it is, it does step back to actually what are we trying to achieve and how can we bridge that gap with an incoming team who has that willingness and that curiosity to go on and develop and process and change perhaps the way they're working in order to adapt the team to the team and to the business and help really drive that. So, it's definitely, it's not uncommon that you find that there are those businesses where particularly if you've been successful to date some leadership teams end up with a method and a way of operating that they're very comfortable with and that they know but in fast changing markets that curiosity is always going to be a competitive advantage if you are able to harness it back into the team and drive something from it.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yes, that's fascinating. I think particularly when you get maybe businesses that have a really long heritage that’s probably more common there than say a ecommerce that only started two years.

Samuel Roberts: And we've worked with family-owned businesses where you've got two maybe three generations in the business working today and running it and in those circumstances in particular what can change can often become really emotional but actually part of our approach is that we try to make these things not emotional. It’s about a really objective perspective as to what is going to help a business achieve the aims that it's trying to and how with the incumbent leadership team that we've got and all of the experience that they bring and behaviors they bring how do we maximise the value that that can really deliver? We've definitely had success with family owned businesses where previously like trying to navigate those family dynamics as well as those business dynamics can just become a real minefield and it's not always the easiest environment to work in but by using something like this objective tool around which everyone can just gather and say "Yes we understand actually this is the structure of this business and how this leadership team is structured and works, this is the experience that we have and this is the set of behaviors that we bring," and then an understanding of what could change and what would that change mean and how would that impact value creation, you're able to just have an entirely different conversation about what is otherwise a really emotional issue often particularly in that founder or family business dynamic.

Sorcha O’Boyle: I'm sure that's really, really helpful for those teams. I'm interested - you touched on it briefly a minute or two ago. because I think what is probably important to say is that obviously you can have a dispensation towards functionalism, agility, curiosity, execution that doesn't mean that it's set in stone and you said that the CCO I think in your last example was willing to develop and was a high potential individual. Could you tell me a little bit about maybe how you've helped individual people to develop those areas where maybe they're a little bit weaker?

Samuel Roberts: Yes sure. So actually the development areas a really interesting one because there are a lot of traditional methods of personal career development that are out there like coaching and mentoring but one of the ones that we try and focus in on is actually, so whilst also using those that we think they definitely have a role to play in the mix, is actually what are the experiences that are going to be additive and how can you develop those experiences without necessarily going through them? So, what's the type of change that's needed and then there is certainly areas that we're really interested in and are working around today, are to do with what are the constant nudges and developments that can really help individuals change their behaviour. One of the key things to do with our model is that we focus on behaviour not personality traits. So, personalities are reasonably static and don't change; behaviors are much more open to shifting according to things like how well we slept last night, but also what’s my role and the expectations around it? So often the development in there is actually about shaping and understanding the expectations of a role and then reinforcing those within an environment rather than treating behaviors as a monolithic thing which often doesn't really achieve what you want and if I was critiquing some developmental methods I would say that's the one that they take instead it's got to be much more focused on what is the common ground between the individual and their objective and the business and its objective and within that there will be a set of developmental opportunities that drive behaviour and reinforce behaviour and in which you can nudge behaviour in the right direction. It's about identifying that seam of behaviours that is going to either key to unlocking that, so that's our approach in some ways.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay, yes, that's absolutely fantastic. I'm just conscious we're slightly running out of time. I wonder before we go, could you share any just short bits of common advice that you find yourself giving to leadership teams?

Samuel Roberts: I think the one that I would always pick out which is that no one goes into business in order to build a leadership team. It's a consequence of having a successful business and creating value in it becomes this burden that you have to face. The bit of advice I would give is focus on the things that will actually differentiate successful teams from their peers and in our analysis that's the behaviors that they bring and how they get to come together as a team to drive that and making sure that the behaviors - yes within the team everyone is aware of them and that they drive - but also that the behaviors align to the value creation priorities you've got. So, what is the value creation plan you've got? What is the ambition you've got for the business and how should those behaviours align to that? And then also that situational component that I mentioned earlier is to make sure you're bringing in and focusing in on experience or finding ways to bring in experience, that is experience of the journey you're going to take the business on instead of just the market place in which it operates.Behaviours and that situational experience component are the two things that, most aren't intuitive when you're looking to create leadership teams and most of the time get missed and are the most value add in our analysis.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay. Brilliant. Samuel I loved that chat, that was great. I really, really enjoyed it and absolutely fascinating stuff and I'm sure that our listeners would have learnt heaps out of that one so thank you so much.

Samuel Robert: Not a problem, it's a pleasure to speak to you.

Sorcha O’Boyle: That was my pleasure, thank you. That was Samuel Roberts Chief Product Officer, Leadership Dynamics at Drax Executive. I hope you enjoy this podcast.

If you'd like to get in touch with Samuel to learn more about anything we spoke about you can find him on LinkedIn or just drop us an email at hello@more2.com. Don't forget that you can listen to all the previous episodes of the Industry Leaders Podcasts on Spotify, Apple podcasts or wherever you usually listen to your Podcasts. We'll be back again soon and until then take care and bye, bye.






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