We talk to Andrew McNeill, mindfulness speaker.

23rd Jun 2023

Andrew McNeill, mindfulness speaker chats with Jane Farnham, Director of Great British Speakers.

We talk to mindfulness speaker Andrew McNeill to find out how mindfulness can help improve both performance and wellbeing.

Andrew McNeill, a former senior leader with over 20 years of experience, has recognized the need for a shift in leadership approaches to align with the principles of mindfulness, compassion, and empathy prevalent in today’s world.

In addition to his extensive leadership background, Andrew is a certified mindfulness teacher, blending his expertise in leadership with the practices of mindfulness. This fusion of disciplines culminated in his acclaimed book, “Organisational Mindfulness: a How-To Guide,” which has gained popularity across four continents.

Presently, Andrew delivers leadership training to diverse organizations, both small and large. His programs are designed to enhance individual and team performance while prioritizing well-being. By integrating mindfulness principles into leadership practices, Andrew equips individuals and teams with the tools they need to thrive in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing landscape.

Contact Great British Speakers today to book mindfulness speaker Andrew McNeill for your next event.

Here’s the full transcript of mindfulness speaker Andrew McNeill‘s chat with Jane Farnham of Great British Speakers:

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00:00:08:25 – 00:00:14:27
Jane Farnham
Hi, I’m Jane Farnham from Great British Speakers, and I’m here today chatting to mindfulness speaker Andrew MacNeil. Andrew, thanks for joining us today.

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00:00:14:45 – 00:00:16:15

Andrew McNeill

Absolute pleasure. Great to be here.

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00:00:16:55 – 00:00:42:07
Jane Farnham
Now, by way of a quick introduction, Andrew spent 20 years in senior leadership, most recently as a director in the UK Civil Service. He’s also an accredited mindfulness teacher and he’s been totally immersed in this area of wellness, having written, mentored and trained organizations, helping individuals and teams improve their performance and their wellbeing. So firstly, Andrew, perhaps we’ll start with a little bit about your life prior to this.

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00:00:43:31 – 00:01:13:48

Andrew McNeill

Yeah, sure. Happy to. So I studied law and got a training contract and after a few years of working in law, found that that really wasn’t for me and then stumbled into project management and found that that really worked for me. It was fascinating, I know it sounds a bit weird, but for me it was very fascinating and the clarity of working through problems and breaking them down to their constituent parts really I found fascinating.

00:01:13:48 – 00:01:46:31

Andrew McNeill

And that led on to leadership very quickly. And that was even more fascinating because it was people and breaking things down into constituent parts. And so I trundled along very happily working in various different projects, major projects in different points. Highlights were being, working as the head of program, head of projects for the criminal justice team over at the Ministry of Justice and also working on the Olympic Games, where I was the head of Program Assurance for the Olympic and Paralympic torches for the UK Government.

00:01:46:32 – 00:02:12:27

Andrew McNeill

So lots of really exciting roles and opportunities. And then like lots and lots of leaders, I hit a point where I just wasn’t in great shape. I wasn’t wasn’t looking after myself, wasn’t very present, was very yeah, just, just not in a good way. And I reached out to a friend of mine who I’d been to school with, who I knew had a mindfulness practice, and I just said to him, Do you, do you have any suggestions?

00:02:12:28 – 00:02:32:49

Andrew McNeill

I was pretty desperate at the time, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he said, Have you tried mindfulness? And I approached it with complete skepticism. To be honest with you, I wasn’t I wasn’t interested, didn’t really want it to work. I thought, this is all a bit, you know, esoteric, a bit hippie.

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00:02:32:49 – 00:02:39:37
Jane Farnham
Can I say something a bit sexist here? Yeah, that’s very bloke approach, isn’t it, to anything holistic I think.

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00:02:39:54 – 00:03:06:03

Andrew McNeill

Well it’s possibly, I think, I think my resistance to it was I didn’t think it was science based, I thought it was religious based and I wasn’t interested in that. So I went along thinking I only did it because I was, I was really pretty broken. And in that first weekend I went on a weekend retreat. And what I discovered was if I was being overwhelmed by my thoughts, perhaps having a different relationship to my thoughts could unlock that answer.

00:03:06:30 – 00:03:29:29

Andrew McNeill

And, and that’s what I found. It did. So I, from that weekend onwards, I just got a book. I started practicing and I continued to practice for three years without telling anybody, Jane, because I thought it was weird. I had, I thought people, I thought people, yeah, I thought people would think I was weird and I didn’t tell anybody about it because I thought it would genuinely impact on my leadership prospects.

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00:03:29:36 – 00:03:30:39
Jane Farnham
That’s fascinating.

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00:03:31:03 – 00:03:48:46

Andrew McNeill

Yeah. And I just, you know, and again, it was this, it was ten years ago. I think things have changed quite a lot in that time. But there was still a massive resistance to talk about anything to do with mental wellbeing and certainly to sort of suggest that you needed help with your leadership rather than just plowing on.

00:03:48:46 – 00:03:51:46

Andrew McNeill

And that was probably quite macho, or male-orientated as well.

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00:03:52:24 – 00:03:54:32
Jane Farnham
So you treated it almost as your dirty little secret.

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00:03:54:34 – 00:04:16:28

Andrew McNeill

Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, it was well, or it was a secret superpower that I wasn’t gonna let anybody else have, one of the two. But, but yeah, totally didn’t tell anyone and then went to, I was on a basically sort of an MA for project management, which sounds a bit weird, but it was a program called the Major Project Leaders Academy run by Oxford, and it had three residential weeks.

00:04:16:28 – 00:04:32:04

Andrew McNeill

And you know what these sort of courses are like. It’s very hard to keep yourself completely to yourself, if you like. You know, people do start opening up a bit and people are talking about leadership stress. And I mentioned that I use mindfulness and I thought they were going to pick up their dinner tray and sort of move to the next table.

00:04:32:04 – 00:04:50:40

Andrew McNeill

But instead they actually, most of them bit my arm off wanting to know more. And by the end of those three weeks we, they actually asked me that we had some blank canvas time on the third week. And so at the end of the second week they said, Could you do something? And I was like, No, because I’m not qualified, but I know somebody who is, asked that friend of mine.

00:04:50:40 – 00:05:01:37

Andrew McNeill

And he said, No, but he put me in touch with somebody else who, who kindly came along and did the session. And when we were doing that bit at the end of every course, when they say which bit resonates with you? Everyone was putting out mindfulness. It was incredible.

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00:05:02:18 – 00:05:13:26
Jane Farnham
That’s fascinating. So, so obviously it was a personal interest and you benefited from that. And so now you go out to discuss it. When did it all then start to become a speaking career?
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00:05:14:22 – 00:05:41:00

Andrew McNeill

Yeah. So this, this really started when I was working on the building safety program, which was a program set up to look at building safety in the UK after the Grenfell fire tragedy where 72 people tragically lost their lives. And I was working in this very intense environment. It was very high pressure as it should have been, and I was again using the mindfulness for myself for the first few months.

00:05:41:00 – 00:06:00:23

Andrew McNeill

It got me through really. And then at the end of that I realized that I needed to bring this capacity into the rest of the team. And that’s where I started. I spoke to the boss, I was one of the directors and I spoke to the boss there and I said, I want this to be a mindful program.

00:06:00:23 – 00:06:20:02

Andrew McNeill

And they said, What does that mean? Which was a great question, and it kind of forced me to work out, How does this apply to program management? How does it apply to businesses? And so I then started speaking by introducing it to this new team that we built and and, and then I started talking to other parts of the department, to other leaders.

00:06:20:16 – 00:06:48:12

Andrew McNeill

And so it became this, having a very clear message about how this can be applied in the workplace context and moving away from the idea of it being that esoteric journey. And so it became a personal sort of aspiration of mine that we, I could break down some of those barriers by being very honest about my journey into mindfulness and being very honest about how I see it as being a very pragmatic and practical set of tools and not an esoteric journey.

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00:06:48:46 – 00:07:19:57
Jane Farnham
Okay, so I know quite a bit about mindfulness. I have read a lot about it, now, physically, what is it? I mean, is it just sitting and talking and spending more time being at peace with oneself and being in the moment? Or is it meditating or is there something physical or is it a process? I’m not quite sure. I’m still unaware of what that term, what that phrase means physically.

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00:07:20:15 – 00:07:45:55

Andrew McNeill

Well, I’m not surprised because I think if you wanted to give an award to the worst marketing campaign, you would give it to mindfulness, whatever that body would be who would receive the award. But yeah, I don’t think we do a great job of explaining what it is. In essence, it is about intentionally bringing our attention to what’s happening now without judgment.

00:07:46:48 – 00:08:10:33

Andrew McNeill

So just to unpick that a bit, and I’m paraphrasing Jon Kabat-Zinn, who’s the American psychologist who did the early work in the clinical setting around mindfulness in the 1980s, But he, he, he talks about this very clearly. And what we’re talking about is not actually wanting our mind to go completely quiet. I’ll be honest with you, after ten years of doing this, I’ve had very few moments of complete serenity.

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00:08:10:33 – 00:08:12:27
Jane Farnham
Yeah, I really struggle with it.

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00:08:13:06 – 00:08:30:25

Andrew McNeill

And that’s one of the great misunderstandings, and I think people get very frustrated, because I’ve got thoughts. Really? There’s a surprise, you know? Of course we do. But we kind of got this idea that we’re going to sit in perfect, like the panda, you know, in Kung Fu Panda that we’re going to sit in perfect serenity. Well, I rarely do.

00:08:31:01 – 00:08:47:38

Andrew McNeill

And if it is, is fleeting, because our minds are very busy. So what we’re doing is we’re sitting, we’re sitting and we’re noticing what’s happening for us in this moment so we can choose to bring our attention. Often people use the breath or they might use the sounds around them, or they might use the contact points with the chair.

00:08:48:09 – 00:09:03:50

Andrew McNeill

And all we’re doing is we’re just bringing attention to what we sense and what we notice in that moment and the non judgment bit is to then notice the temptation to go and I want this to be different. I’m bringing our attention back to it just is what it is at the moment.

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00:09:03:52 – 00:09:05:09
Jane Farnham
Okay, All right.

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00:09:05:34 – 00:09:06:23

Andrew McNeill

We can try some if you like.

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00:09:06:45 – 00:09:25:44
Jane Farnham
No, well, actually, I will once we finish this chat, it’s like I could do with a bit of that in my life at the moment. Now, given, of course, the well-documented upheaval with COVID, lockdown and working from home, I presume that you’re seeing even more demand around the wellness of employees.

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00:09:26:54 – 00:09:45:21

Andrew McNeill

Oh, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s just about wellness. So one of the problems with the perspective of mindfulness, I think, is that it’s just seen as things have broken people like I was ten years ago. And I think it’s, I think it’s increasingly being seen as something which is, a lot of people talk about a gym analogy.

00:09:45:43 – 00:10:13:21

Andrew McNeill

So we know that we need to look after our bodies for them to last and to work well. So why wouldn’t we do something to help our minds as well? And I think there’s something about, particularly for leaders, but also for anybody in any workplace setting, the opportunity is to have this toolkit which can help us both in the moment to navigate stressful situations, but also give us a, a different perspective on some of the highly challenging situations that we face in everyday working life.

00:10:14:00 – 00:10:34:40

Andrew McNeill

And I think that’s definitely come to the fore. I think the, the pandemic and the lockdowns have made it easier for us to easy for us to talk about this stuff, because if anybody said to me, Oh, COVID was fine for me, I’d be really quite worried about them because I don’t think it was fine for anybody that I know, and it certainly wasn’t fine for me.

00:10:35:06 – 00:10:42:05

Andrew McNeill

So I think there’s a, there’s a willingness to sort of admit, yeah, that was tough. And it’s a shared experience, so we can’t pretend it didn’t happen.

00:10:44:16 – 00:10:50:24

Andrew McNeill

So that’s important. And I think there’s greater attention on, well, how do we stay well as we face challenging situations?

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00:10:50:52 – 00:11:25:15
Jane Farnham
Yeah, I think your analogy about, you know, going to the gym, I mean, it’s physically and mentally, these things, you know, matter. We take our car to be serviced once a year. You know, we just expect our bodies and our minds to continue as normal. And when you’re, you know, some of the issues that you face are really tricky day to day. So I do honestly believe that, you know, anything that you can do proactively to improve your physical or mental state is just so important before you get to the point of no return. Almost. Sorry.

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00:11:25:44 – 00:11:49:42

Andrew McNeill

No, I was just going to say. Exactly. And also just to embellish on something that I said before about what mindfulness is, it doesn’t have to be exclusively sitting on a cushion. It certainly doesn’t need to involve incense. We can bring mindfulness into our daily lives. Yes. And indeed, walking, noticing nature, sitting on a park bench, if we’re bringing our attention to what’s happening for us in that moment, that can be a mindfulness practice.

00:11:49:42 – 00:11:52:24

Andrew McNeill

It doesn’t have to be a formal seated practice for 20 minutes.

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00:11:52:44 – 00:12:06:46
Jane Farnham
I mean, said, Well, I’m going to take away from this when I go for a walk with my dog this afternoon, I’m going to leave my phone at home and I’m just going to be in the moment. So that would be an example of just stepping away and stepping into, inside a mindful moment.

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00:12:07:03 – 00:12:26:34

Andrew McNeill

Absolutely. So the practice would be when your mind then goes to this conversation, was this interview good enough? Did this, how how are people going to receive it or to your next role? So when you’re thinking, Oh, I’ve got all these emails to do, when your mind goes to those, just bring your attention back to the path, to the dog, to the trees.

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00:12:27:15 – 00:12:51:52
Jane Farnham
Yeah, yeah. I will do. I will do that this afternoon. Now we’re always, and more and more so we’re going to be being asked about mental health subjects. And increasingly the word mindfulness is thrown about and we’ve already discussed it quite a bit. But it is more than just being considerate, isn’t it? It’s to others, because also it’s being kind to oneself, I would imagine.

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00:12:51:52 – 00:13:19:58

Andrew McNeill

Massively. And in fact already what we’ve described is a really nice illustration of that. So we can be really unkind to ourselves with the fact that my mind’s not quiet, this isn’t good enough. I’m rubbish at mindfulness and we can suddenly sort of beat ourselves up while we’re trying to be, you know, enjoying something for ourselves. And so the way one of the interesting practices is to look at how do we talk to ourselves as we’re practicing, what do we notice?

00:13:19:58 – 00:13:38:51

Andrew McNeill

So when you’re out with your dog, are you, are you there thinking, Oh, I haven’t done this. I should do that. What am I going to do? I need to hurry up this walk or are you saying, okay, that’s all fine. And even worse, when we think I shouldn’t be thinking this, I should be. I should be just here so we can really be tough on ourselves.

00:13:38:51 – 00:13:47:07

Andrew McNeill

Absolutely. Mindfulness is a huge strand of compassion. Compassion to self-compassion to others, which comes through this very absolutely foundational. Yeah.

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00:13:47:43 – 00:13:55:57
Jane Farnham
So have you’ve got any examples, specific examples where you’ve spoken to an organization or business and they’ve moved forward with change as a consequence of your talk.

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00:13:56:43 – 00:14:27:21

Andrew McNeill

Absolutely. So the, a nice recent one was working with [inaudible] in Chelsea, where I was asked to speak initially to their, one of their directors and came in and did a session for them, I did a public event for them, if you like. I spoke to the team and then worked with them to encourage them in mindfulness practice, then did some work around how they connect to each other using mindfulness in those exercises and the transformation.

00:14:27:39 – 00:14:35:58

Andrew McNeill

I was talking to the director just the other week was quite profound, actually, the way that people both navigated the stress of their work, but also that they held together as a team under intense pressure.

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00:14:36:46 – 00:14:45:46
Jane Farnham
It’s really good to hear. And then on a personal level, what gives you the biggest buzz about speaking?

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00:14:45:46 – 00:15:15:07

Andrew McNeill

Well, somebody on one occasion came up to me at a large event which had been full of sales people. And it’s not nothing against sales people, but exactly the kind of reaction to the subject that I had ten years ago was what I was feeling, not across the room, but in certain parts of the room. Yeah. By the end of the session, it was a two hour session, about 250 people, large pharmaceutical company in, in West London.

00:15:16:28 – 00:15:37:42

Andrew McNeill

And it was a fantastic session. It went really well and we navigated some of the skepticism. And at the coffee break afterwards, a lady came up to me and she was quite emotional and she said, I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing. And I was, I was absolutely fine. And she said, I nearly lost my dad through depression and he found mindfulness.

00:15:38:06 – 00:15:48:21

Andrew McNeill

And because of that, he’s still here. And I found my mindfulness. And what you’re doing, bringing it into the workplace is important, and that for me was a bit of a turning point.

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00:15:49:01 – 00:16:30:43
Jane Farnham
Yeah, Yeah. It’s, it’s good because you’re not only enjoying it, you know that you’re helping other people to navigate the world because let’s face it, it’s tricky. And the last two years have been more tricky than most to navigate. So yeah, so I really feel that as well. I think a lot of people just don’t go there with their emotions and they don’t have the ability to. You know, a lot of people are brought up, you know, again, of being maybe quite generalistic here, but a lot of men are brought up not to really, you know, suck it up, be a man, be strong, and, you know, and and digging a bit deeper and being kind and being emotional is is can be a good thing.

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00:16:32:11 – 00:17:03:18

Andrew McNeill

Thank you. Yeah, I agree 100%. And I think also making it normal, so you know for me trying to demystify it so that is pragmatic, practical, reachable, something that you could bring into your life not something which isn’t off putting and knowing the profound change that it’s had on my life, knowing the profound change it’s had on so many people’s lives, making it accessible and not just weird is is perhaps the biggest buzz in.

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00:17:03:46 – 00:17:22:58
Jane Farnham
I think it’s it’s a lot of being grateful as well. I think it’s a sort of, you know, when you are out and about, and you’re going out walking the dog or you’re having this 10 minutes by yourself just to kind of sit and be grateful of what you do have and not think about what you want. So I think once you get to that stage, it’s, you know, things become a little bit easier.

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00:17:23:02 – 00:17:25:20

Andrew McNeill

I couldn’t agree with you more. Yeah.

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00:17:25:51 – 00:17:36:03
Jane Farnham
But it’s not just speaking, is it? You’re kind of quite multi-talented, Andrew, give us a taste of some of the value activities that you provide to businesses and corporations.

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00:17:36:10 – 00:18:22:22

Andrew McNeill

Yeah, Thank you. So, as I said, I am nerdably fascinated by program management. So I do offer sort of program leadership consultancy to larger organizations, small organizations, people who need help in that sort of way of establishing or testing a program team. But mindfulness is always weaved within that. So leadership consultancies the way i’d describe it, as leadership in program management, consultancy, the mindfulness training for executives of sort of six week programs for leaders, particularly where it’s sort of one on one mindfulness training, because I know for a lot of leaders it’s very difficult, particularly to be with your team and share that kind of vulnerability that might might emerge in that sort of those sort

00:18:22:22 – 00:18:46:04

Andrew McNeill

of sessions. So they’ve been really effective for senior leaders to have that sort of one on one online approach. So it’s minimal impact on your day, but maximum impact on your life potentially. And, and then, of course, I have written the book Organizational Mindfulness: A How To Guide. as well as public speaking around that. That looks at how do you integrate mindfulness into a business.

00:18:46:28 – 00:19:23:47

Andrew McNeill

So I’ve provided advice to a number of organizations, including Lloyds Bank and others, about how do you, how do you make it more than providing mindfulness training for a few individuals? How do you actually embed into the way that you run your meetings, in the way that you hold your one to ones and the way that you even design your highlight reports or project plans, which is what I think is going to be the next phase of mindfulness where we look at not just it being a mechanism to to survive in a stressful world, but how do we look at changing our organizations to embed mindfulness, to support that practice so that we are genuinely

00:19:23:47 – 00:19:46:46

Andrew McNeill

more aware as we’re making these decisions? One of the things which I find fascinating is if you look at a program board, a program board is an exercise in mindfulness. If you break it down, what you got is a group of people. So it’s shared mindfulness. It’s a group of people who are trying to bring their attention intentionally to information in order to make decisions non-judgmental.

00:19:47:02 – 00:20:07:10

Andrew McNeill

So that would be the ideal state. Everybody’s present. They’re aware, they’re conscious in that moment, and they come to that information without judgment and they come to the best decisions that they can take collectively. So shared practice, almost what I defined as mindfulness early on in the, in the conversation, what actually happens is everybody comes in thinking about the meeting.

00:20:07:10 – 00:20:33:36

Andrew McNeill

They’ve just been there on their phone. They’re thinking about the next meeting. Nobody’s read the papers. Nobody can understand the papers because they’re so dense and impenetrable, so nobody’s present at all and everybody goes away having tried to make things up based on the judgment they had before they came in the room. Now, that’s obviously a sweeping generalization, but if you look at the way that mindfulness can play a part in organizations which have adopted this kind of approach, that same group of people can leave their phones either outside or switched off.

00:20:33:59 – 00:20:54:32

Andrew McNeill

You could do a short practice at the start of the meeting, so people are actually present, the papers can be designed in a way that they support your awareness, not that you have to bury through them to try to find the detail. And at the end you can actually come out with some decisions which are more around what people’s present views were rather than on prejudgment or on misunderstandings.

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00:20:55:10 – 00:21:21:21
Jane Farnham
Yeah, no, I get that. I see that. I think in a lot of those environments, a lot of people feel very self-conscious about making suggestions or putting ideas forward. And so if you leave the judgment to one side and everybody is on the same page, then I think that could really be very productive for any industry. Well, Andrew, it’s been fascinating chatting to you. I have absolutely loved it. And I’m going to go out this afternoon and walk my dog and be very mindful in the process. Thank you so much for your time.

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00:21:21:45 – 00:21:23:18

Andrew McNeill

Absolute pleasure. It’s been great for me.

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00:21:23:51 – 00:21:33:14
Jane Farnham
Now, if you’d like to book Andrew, simply get in touch with myself or Steve at Great British Speakers on 01753439289 or you can email bookings at  bookings@greatbritishtalent.com.

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