On a gloriously sunny afternoon in London, on 28 June, 70 leaders and managers from across the UK and a broad range of industries gathered at The Goodenough College in Bloomsbury to learn more about ‘Leading Differently’ – the title of this year’s Institute of Leadership & Management Annual Conference. 

This was not a traditional annual conference though, packed with plenary sessions where delegates race from one to another. This, as the title infers, was different.

Phil Jones, The Institute of Leadership & Management CEO, explained: “We’re really conscious of not following a well-trodden path. Conferences tend to take on a format that has come to be expected, which is about chalk and talk and plenary sessions showcasing keynote speakers.

“We’re trying to strip things back to the word ‘conference’ and what that really means – people coming together to confer. If all we’re doing is assembling at the back of the room and listening to one person talking from the front it doesn’t strike me as being a conference.

 

“When you think about your own experience as a delegate at a conference, very often it’s those conversations you have around the coffee table that you really take away. There are a couple of gems from the front that stimulate the conversation… but isn’t it interesting to focus on the bits that we all, from our own experience, find most valuable, and try to energise those rather than just construct a programme that’s led from the front.” Phil’s intention was clear:

“We’re trying to energise a discussion that can resonate in the room but continue beyond the experience of the conference itself. Put simply, we want conferences to be about conversation, not just about presentation from the front.”

Phil opened the conference by welcoming Institute members as warmly as the June sunshine that poured through the impressive room’s Georgian windows. He explained that he interpreted the title of the conference as a personal challenge: “It’s not just a throwaway title. It’s a challenge to every one of us personally to think about what it really means, ‘Leading Differently’.

“Modern leadership presents big challenges - the expectations of different generations in the workforce, increased volatility, the complexity of the business world, global diversification of markets – but ultimately, as individual human beings, if we’re going to lead differently, it comes down to a very personal challenge.”

He continued, focusing on what this means in day-to-day activity. “These are really very ordinary things, so if we’re going to lead differently, that has to manifest itself in these daily actions. It comes down to the way that I conduct myself in conversations with people, the sort of language that I use, my body language, my eye contact. That’s where the challenge lies. What am I going to do every day, tomorrow, to actually lead differently?”

Phil put this challenge to the conference floor and asked delegates how leading differently might translate into what they actually do in their daily lives.

Delegate, Leadership Development and Leadership Excellence Consultant, Inemo UK, and Trustee of The Institute of Leadership & Management Joy Maitland, affirmed the importance of these basic human communication skills in a leader: “One of the key aspects of my role is listening and observing. It’s a quality that leaders very often forget. It’s so important – listening, observing and then making a decision about what path to take.”

Phil introduced the afternoon’s first speaker, Carole Gaskell, CEO of Full Potential Group, who focused on how leaders can become more neuro-agile and help their teams to unleash their neuro-agility.

Carole explained that there are seven factors that impact our unique neurological design, such as right or left brain dominance, and there are six drivers that optimise our brain performance, such as sleep, movement, attitude and what Carole calls ‘brain fitness’.

Brain fitness is the ability to flex between the right and left and back and front quadrants of the brain, and engage all of these areas. Delegates were surprised to discover that the norm for brain fitness is only 48% - but we can improve this by activities such as taking breaks, going for a walk, pilates, chess or dancing. Carole also emphasised the importance of hours of sleep before midnight.

Delegates seemed to relate to Carole’s theory and it sparked much interest. Joy Maitland said: “I just had to text my business partner about Carole Gaskell’s message about the importance of the hours of sleep before midnight! The message about brain fitness is really important. When you run your own business you can become quite undisciplined about that.”

Kate Bentley, Manchester University Library, Front of House and Services and Space Manager said: “I loved Carole Gaskell talking about neuro-agility. I found that fascinating. That’s something I really want to look at in more detail.”

The Institute of Leadership & Management Head of Research, Policy and Standards Kate Cooper then interviewed Simone Roche, CEO and Founder of Northern Power Women, a campaign to accelerate gender equality from the North. Simone energised the room with her passion and enthusiasm for change.

 

She feels that change is not accelerating as fast as it should be, but leaders are crucial in enabling this. She outlined how her campaign gives senior people a platform as role models, to inspire and inform. Delegates found her inclusive approach, in that the campaign does not exclude men from the conversation, refreshing.

“I don’t want to create an echo chamber,” she said. “I collect men – in a legal manner – I find the good guys, the great male leaders who can influence others to do the same. Everyone can do something to make a change.”

One delegate commented before she asked Simone a question: “I think your whole approach is fantastic. The gender agenda is absolutely for men and women.”

The third of four speakers was Professor John Neale, Professor of Practice, Sports Business Performance, Ashridge Business School, who spoke about improving mental resilience and performance.

 

Many delegates were looking forward to John’s session. John Tansley, Consultant Anaesthetist, Sherwood Forest Hospital, said: “I’m waiting to hear Professor Neal. That is very important. I work with a group of individuals who all want to be the boss and have never been taught to follow so you have to be resilient to lead people who don’t think they need to be led.” 

John Neal did not use any slides and delivered a really engaging and entertaining session. Sonya Kimpton de Ville, Director Partnership and Transformation Europe commented on LinkedIn after the conference: “John was an excellent speaker, to the point, enlightening, but also very funny.”

John emphasised that pressure is internal, not external, and has developed a ‘three-brain’ model to improve performance outcomes in leaders and coaches in high-pressure situations. His method focuses on how we can change the messages we receive from our limbic brain, which defines our perception of the world, through powerful emotional experiences. John emphasised this requires people to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”. He certainly made people feel a little uncomfortable during some interesting audience participation!

Joel Blake, OBE, business growth strategist and founder and managing director of Cultiv8 Solutions, an award-winning corporate entrepreneurship consultancy for the professional services and education sectors, followed John. Joel admitted John was a hard act to follow, but he did so with aplomb by being his authentic self: “I’m going to follow John by being me and saying things as they are,” he said. 

Joel highlighted 12 ways in which leaders and managers can apply entrepreneurial leadership to create inclusion. These comprise behaviours such as embracing fear and vulnerability, having a clear purpose and a clarified vision and finding commonalities between ourselves and our diverse teams.

After all four sessions, Phil Jones asked: “Well I know I’m certainly wondering how brain fit am I?” The afternoon had posed many questions, and set many challenges for delegates in their everyday practice of leadership.

Phil summed up by saying: “I think the word ‘human’ summarises the focus of the afternoon – how we are human leaders. We’ve heard much about the human brain, psychology, the physical body and how it affects our thoughts and behaviours, yet in business we de-personalise. We forget that we are fundamentally talking about the interaction of human beings.  When we pay attention to ourselves and how we interact with others, we can go about leading differently.”

At the end, delegates stayed, despite a pressing England World Cup football match, after the presentations, to mingle and discuss the theories, topics and questions the speakers had raised – indeed, to confer.