We talk to Chris Roebuck, HR Mentor.

4th Aug 2023

Professor Chris Roebuck, HR mentor chats with Jane Farnham, Director of Great British Speakers.

We talk to HR mentor Professor Chris Roebuck to find out how his unique experience and approach helps leaders, teams and organisations understand how they can reach their full potential and be successful.

Professor Chris Roebuck is a distinguished HR mentor with a unique approach that empowers leaders, teams, and organizations to unlock their full potential and achieve success through simple yet effective steps. With his innovative and inspiring style, he helps individuals recognize the elements that drive success, enabling them to quickly transform their performance and maximize their potential.

Drawing upon 35 years of invaluable experience and backed by over 250 real-life case studies, Chris has honed his successful approach, focusing on various areas:

  • Corporate Leadership: Guiding major global corporations and SMEs in developing leadership capabilities that lead to personal and organizational success.
  • Governmental Leader: Sharing insights from his work with the UK Government and public sectors, addressing major change and leadership projects.
  • Thought Leader: Recognized as one of the Most Influential HR Thinkers, Chris is a visiting professor of transformational leadership at London’s Cass Business School.
  • Military Leader: Leveraging his military officer background, Chris inspires individuals in challenging environments, drawing parallels between military and organizational leadership.
  • Executive Coach and Mentor: Assisting senior executives across diverse sectors to enhance their success and achieve their professional goals.

Chris has held senior human resource and transformational roles at renowned companies such as the NHS, London Underground, HSBC, and UBS. His expertise has been acknowledged by HR Magazine, which consistently listed him among the top 20 Most Influential HR Thinkers from 2011 to 2018, and in the top 30 in 2019 and top 40 in 2021.

As an advisor, Chris lends his expertise to esteemed organizations such as the Chartered Management Institute, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and influential business groups like the Corporate Leadership Council. Additionally, he shares his insights with prominent media outlets, including the BBC.

Contact Great British Speakers today to book HR mentor Professor Chris Roebuck for your next event.

Here’s the full transcript of HR mentor Professor Chris Roebuck‘s chat with Jane Farnham of Great British Speakers:

00:00:08:24 – 00:00:35:19

Jane Farnham

Hi, I’m Jane Farnham and today and I’m here today chatting to one of our great speakers Professor Chris Roebuck. Chris, thanks for joining us today. Lovely to see you. Now, over your career, you have quite a varied career to be honest you’ve been in the military, worked in the London Underground, International Banks, Professional Services, the National Health Service, and you go to work with SME’s and entrepreneurs and that makes for quite a unique combination experience, let’s say.

So what did you learn on that journey about organizational success and leadership?

00:00:41:36 – 00:01:06:43

Chris Roebuck

Well, it was about it was a journey of discovery which brought me to about 15 years ago, a sudden revelation like everybody else. I was for example in the Army. And I thought, well, what great leadership in the military, which is obviously really good leadership. But then I went in to work with SME’s and I went into London Underground and I thought that’s what delivers great leadership in London Underground.

00:01:07:08 – 00:01:18:18

Chris Roebuck

And then all the interesting things like leadership at UBS where we developed leaders. So thats what delivers great leadership here. And then into NHS.

00:01:19:39 – 00:01:44:07

Chris Roebuck

And if I go back through that journey, what is every success exactly? Irrespective of what job you’re doing each of them are 90% the same. And I tell you this is about not what job you do and not what job you do. It’s the fact that we’re all human beings.

00:01:46:40 – 00:02:06:05

Jane Farnham

Good point. Well made. And so when we’ve spoken in the past you’ve commented in, you know, how some people try to make leadership more complex than it actually is and actually needs to be. Which makes life really difficult for people who want to become leaders. So is it possible to make leadership really simple?

00:02:06:55 – 00:02:45:23

Chris Roebuck

Yeah, I think the problem is that organizations either don’t explain leadership clearly and simply to people, or what happens is they just don’t explain it at all. And everyone has to sort of adlibbing as they go along, you know, And trial and error is never really a very effective way of doing things. So on that journey, yeah, the conclusion I came to in all of those organizations is actually …and this was epitomized by UBS, because when UBS was created we had to develop senior leaders and we wanted to make it as simple as possible.

00:02:45:37 – 00:03:08:11

Chris Roebuck

So everybody got the message and could not possibly forget it. And there were just three things that need to happen. One, a good foundation of talent management skills, two the ability to get the best from everybody. Three, the ability to focus that based on what the organization needs to do to be successful. And it is really that simple.

00:03:08:20 – 00:03:40:12

Chris Roebuck

If leaders do those things, are able to manage the task, able to inspire people, able to focus that effort on strategic objectives, you will be successful. And that’s not complicated, because also my experience was after that, having done a part time neuroscience course that is actually embedded in our brains, that’s the way our brains work. And if you think about how you get the best from people, it’s not that we don’t know.

It’s not that we have to be told by somebody if we already know it from our own experience. And all I do is help people realize that, you know, hidden within their experience, which is like a thousand piece jigsaw throws across the table. You know, my job is to help them find the edges and then find the sky, then find the land, and suddenly the jigsaw becomes a picture.

And they realize that in their experience is the ability to do those three things. And then they can just go and do it.

00:04:14:16 – 00:04:35:25

Jane Farnham

Okay, so that does sound quite straightforward, which is great from a leadership perspective. And how do you think things have changed around that, what with COVID and what are the imperatives for organizations post-COVID? Hopefully, we will be post-COVID.

00:04:38:42 – 00:05:04:18

Chris Roebuck

Okay. So what organizations needed to do before COVID is very much what they need to do after coding. It’s the same thing. So it’s it’s effectively have a foundation of capability. It’s beat your objectives or achieve, if not meet your objectives, deal with any challenges that come up. Do we need to improve customer service? Do we need to improve risk management?

Employee engagement, which is your challenges? And then it’s about building the future because you can’t be static. Now, that’s what organizations had to do before COVID. But the challenge is that everybody who’s listening to this has changed their perspectives of what is important over COVID. We’ve been locked down. We’ve potentially been able some of us have potentially lost friends or family.

00:05:32:29 – 00:05:55:06

Chris Roebuck

So there’s been a fundamental reassessment of what is important to our lives, particularly around the balance between what is important at home and what is important at work. All the research, all the experience and not just that everything everybody who’s listening to this knows is that what is more important to many of us now is our personal lives versus our work lives.

So the the situation has changed in that pre-COVID we were prepared to put up with work impinging on our personal lives. We were prepared to put up with leaders who we didn’t really like, but we didn’t want to leave the job because it was all too much grief and we needed the money about blah, blah, blah, blah. COVID is made us rethink that.

00:06:18:50 – 00:06:53:31

Chris Roebuck

And that is what’s going on now because now we’ve gone back. People are not prepared to put up with second-rate leadership. They are not prepared to have their personal lives significantly impinged on by their work lives. And that is the challenge. So organizations still have to have their foundation, still deliver their objectives, still meet their challenges, and still build the future, but do so in a way that allows an employee to say, Actually, I still love my job.

00:06:55:04 – 00:07:28:22

Jane Farnham

Yeah, I think it’s certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons in terms of perspective, isn’t it? And we’ve been asked to think as a work-life balance. We appreciate that little bit more. And we, you know, we just we don’t want life or work to define us necessarily. So I think it’s really important for leaders to respect that in moving forward post-COVID.


So tell me what your thoughts are, because I know you talk about the great resignation. Can you explain what that is and tell me how that plays into all of this?

00:07:28:42 – 00:07:56:48

Chris Roebuck

Yeah, You say the great resignation is about that changing perspective because everyone says it’s great resignation, but it’s not just the great resignation. It’s the great. ‘Having thought about it, I’m not even going back’, which is what’s happened. I mean, the people who resigned actually went back and gave the organization a second chance, a fair number of people worked out that it wasn’t even worth going back.

00:07:56:49 – 00:08:25:58

Chris Roebuck

It’s also, you know, it’s not just the resignation, which implies perhaps there is some fault with the person who leaves. It’s it’s the great I want to get more out of my job. It’s the great I want to be shown respect. It’s the great I want to have balance between my personal life and my work life. Now, then that’s the perspective change, but also the market and facilitation change is that people can achieve that more easily.

00:08:26:11 – 00:08:53:38

Chris Roebuck

You can get onto your laptop now and if you or I don’t live in the UK anymore, are there any jobs in New York that may work straight into the Internet? So it’s that ability to change your job so easily that has facilitated this as well. And it’s also the fact that COVID has made employers realize that for a fair number of jobs, not all by any means, because some jobs, you have to be there to do it.

But for a fair number of jobs, you don’t have to go into the office. You can work remotely. So all of those factors together have meant that the ability of the individual to say, no, you know, enough is enough. I’ve done the cost-benefit around this job, and the quality of work I’m doing, the aggravation I’m getting from my boss, and the quality of the organization means that I now view the cost-benefits of this job versus the pay.

And the benefit I get is negative. Therefore I am off. The challenge for organizations is to keep that cost-benefit positive, and it’s really down to getting leaders to create an environment where people want to stay, as I say. And that’s about, you know, being a task leader to get things done to build the foundation. It’s about being an inspirational leader to get the best from people so that they give all of their effort, not hold back.

00:09:54:23 – 00:10:18:43

Chris Roebuck

It’s about being an entrepreneurial leader to develop innovation, disruptive thinking, find opportunity, and it’s being about a transformational leader to build the future, to grow diversity, to attract talent. If people can do that. The powerful thing is if an organization’s leaders can do that, it reverses the great resignation because the people in the organization are so inspired and love it.

If you need more people, they’ll go and find their friends.

00:10:23:03 – 00:10:39:41

Jane Farnham

Oh yeah. It’s about feeling inspired and value desire as well. And so, Chris, if you look back at the hundreds of organizations and thousands of leaders that you’ve helped across the world in the ten years that you’ve been speaking, what are the ones you most recall? And for what reason?

00:10:40:26 – 00:11:06:59

Chris Roebuck

Okay, most bizarre. Just before Christmas, I was supposed to be doing an award ceremony, so I went to open some envelopes or do the awards riverboat on the River Thames for a professional body gliding down the Thames. Anyway, as you know, before Christmas, new variant appears and in a weeks notice, we’re suddenly remote. So rather than being on a riverboat in the Thames, I’m in my studio at home in a dinner jacket in front of the camera.

Opening gold envelopes, saying ‘and our winner is’, and then pressing the button on my phone to play the applause.

00:11:15:19 – 00:11:18:57

Jane Farnham

No, I want one of those buttons. I think you should take it everywhere you go.

00:11:19:13 – 00:11:42:22

Chris Roebuck

It’s just it was completely surreal. I’m one that made the most impact in Myanmar. This was a pro bono at the request of the Red Cross in London, and I was doing a gig in Malaysia. So I flew up there, Myanmar Red Cross Executive Committee in Rangoon, little room in their office by the docks there, hot fans in the ceiling.

00:11:42:22 – 00:12:09:31

Chris Roebuck

A small group of about ten or 15 people introduced by the president of their Red Cross, plastic chairs. You know, and I just remember the I remember the introduction of the title. It was doing more with less for those in need. And in a country with no health care, virtually no hospitals. Dengue fever, malaria, rabies. That organization was just doing so much for the people.

00:12:09:33 – 00:12:37:04

Chris Roebuck

I spent a week with them and it was. I learned more about humility in that one week myself, than I think I taught them about leadership and going to their emergency warehouse with disaster aid packs ready to go through packs. It was just mind-blowing. I’ll never, ever forget that. Then the most nuts in terms of how I managed to get through it.

00:12:37:30 – 00:13:05:38

Chris Roebuck

Abu Dhabi, two big banks being merged. Really important event, signing of articles of a memorandum, big hotel, five-star hotel, big stage government ministers, massive screen, massive television screen at the back. I was it all this sort of big special videos, etc., literally five meters high, ten meters long. I have no much power. I had no idea how much power it was using, but I soon found out.

00:13:05:52 – 00:13:31:15

Chris Roebuck

So my brief was to talk about how you and the audience could work together to create this new bank for Abu Dhabi. I get 10 minutes into my keynote, and there’s this buzzing sound behind me and suddenly there’s a dirty great bang and I turn around and the entire screen is gone completely blank. So I’m thinking, okay, so I ad-lib anyway, and it’s much rushing about.

And 2 minutes later, 5 minutes later, it comes back on again. I start again. Then about 3 minutes later it goes again. But I’m trying to ad lib still and the audience he’s getting slightly nervous about what’s going on. The HR Director is freaking out completely and I get a voice in my ear. Somebody comes. ‘What we’ve discovered is they pop the screen into the wrong socket and it’s not powerful enough to take the screen’.

You just keep going and try and sort it out. So I get the audience to do an exercise on how we are going to work together to build a positive culture for the new bank. As I’m talking, the electricians running a cable about this big down the middle of the audience on a cable reel past me, connecting it back into the screens and suddenly all really lights up again and I’m able to deliver the rest of my keynote session.

Thankfully to rapturous applause. Absolutely not challenging!

00:14:38:31 – 00:14:42:05

Jane Farnham

Like the work though. That sounds like a bit of teamwork.

00:14:43:24 – 00:14:54:55

Chris Roebuck

I had to be. I had to walk off the stage at one point and tell the HR Director to calm down and not to think of stopping the event because he was just freaking out.

00:14:56:11 – 00:15:18:43

Chris Roebuck

So the one that was most challenging was I was run up by the UK Defense Academy, which teaches senior military officers and civil servants about defense-related and government-related matters. And they said, Can you come and do can you come and do a short masterclass for a couple of hours on leadership integrity, not leadership, but what integrity within leadership means?

00:15:19:10 – 00:15:41:58

Chris Roebuck

And I said, Yeah, okay, fine. Then they run up to I was like and said, How about the whole day? And I went, Okay, fine. And I didn’t realize how challenging that was to talk about what the leadership integrity means in different environments where military officers and civil servants might be, you know, the ambassador in Tibet, does he pay a little bit of cash to the driver to get this oil before Christmas?

And just simple things like that? So I did it and it was really, really rewarding. But what was amazing was that two years later, without any prompting, I got an email from the chief weapons officer at HMS Albion, which is the Royal Navy flagship on an operational tour in the South China Sea with Chinese warships about and all the rest of it.

And he said, Chris, I want to thank you for your inspiring masterclass at the Defense Academy, which I use to help me lead my high-performing team at sea. And he said, not only that, but I’m using what you said today to run a workshop for fellow officers and senior noncommissioned officers on leadership. We are across the other side of the world on a ten-month tour away from home, and leadership integrity could not be more important than where we are now.

And I just thought that makes speaking worthwhile, that somebody with that much leadership experience in that senior role can actually be teaching his colleagues. Some of the things I introduced him to was humbling, to say the least.

00:16:58:58 – 00:17:28:35

Jane Farnham

Yeah, three very different events there. Gosh, there’s not one event or inquiry that comes through the same and that just goes to prove it. So let’s talk about your podcast, Chris, because you do, a podcast called Perspectives from the Top. You interview successful leaders from around the world to gain their insights on how to deliver success. And you always finish up with the question, what are a couple of things that you would recommend leaders listening to make themselves?

What would they use to make themselves successful? So what do they generally say? Is there any set reply to that? And what would your answer to that question be?

00:17:39:54 – 00:18:03:48

Chris Roebuck

The podcasts are so much fun, but so revealing. And for the listeners here is https://perspectivesfromthetop.com/ and I decided to interview a group of really successful but very, very diverse leaders to see what they say. So we’ve got Peter Maher president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Stephen Green, Ex Chairman of HSBC. Silvia Acevedo NASA scientist, top woman in tech CEO, the US Girl Scouts and the Andy Byford Transport Commissioner for London. So, you know, so there you’ve got the tech, you’ve got the Red Cross, you’ve got London Transport for London, you’ve got HSBC and the Government Trade Minister and there’s more of them. A really powerful thing is that they all through talking through that story, come up with the same things that they all did to deliver success through people.

It’s about having a clear focus on what needs to be done. It’s creating a purpose, but above all, it’s the things.

That are not quantifiable. It’s about building trust. It’s about using empathy, and it’s about building partnership. And I’ll add another one because Peter O’Mara, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross through another one in the Notchless comment where he said, yes, I was talking to the Pope last week and the pope gave me a good piece of advice, which is about the importance of going for a win-win.

And I thought, yes, Peter, we all pop in to see the pope for a little bit of advice now and again. But the point was that irrespective of how broad their experience is, totally different organizations, it’s like my journey. There are fundamentally powerful things that all leaders do to get the best from people and focus on purpose, trust, empathy, partnership, win-win, they’re there.

00:19:48:03 – 00:19:52:44

Jane Farnham

Yeah. So leaders tend to have a lot of common traits.

00:19:54:01 – 00:20:15:28

Chris Roebuck

Absolutely. Absolutely. But it goes back to that journey of mine. It goes back to what we all know from our own experience. It goes back to when I’m doing keynotes, because one of the things I ask during keynotes is I get the audience to talk to me about their best leader and I flip chart it, and I’ve kept all of those over ten years. And what is amazing is every time I go up on a stage, I know what the audience will say and when they’ve given me their list, I then show them the list from the other 20,000 plus leaders that I’ve worked with. And it’s the same list. And the powerful thing is, one, they know about it because they told me to. It doesn’t cost any money. Three they can do more of it tomorrow. And it is that goes back to the point we started on, which is why leadership is so simple.

00:20:47:42 – 00:20:55:28

Jane Farnham

Okay. So final question then, very quickly on leaders phone or can you become a great leader?

00:20:56:35 – 00:20:58:58

Chris Roebuck

Oh, now that’s what I was not expecting.

00:20:59:22 – 00:21:01:22

Jane Farnham

I just thought I’d throw that in.

00:21:01:37 – 00:21:43:44

Chris Roebuck

Interesting. Interesting. There’s been this comment that leaders are bold, etc., etc.. Interesting of all people. Viscount Montgomery, the British war hero, said in 1948, There are principles of leadership, just as there are principles of war, and these can be learned. So to your comment right, yes, you can learn leadership, but the most important thing is that you learn to do task management first, prioritization of time management, delegation communication, getting feedback that then gives you bandwidth to do the leadership.

00:21:44:36 – 00:22:17:33

Chris Roebuck

If you can do those things, you will be a competent leader. If you show your people you care. Anybody can get to that level if they want to. But I believe that there are certain personality traits that help somebody move from being a competent leader to an absolute inspirational, great leader like Mandela or all of those others. And therefore, I think that I think it’s a mix of the two. So there is no argument that anybody can become a competent leader if they do the basics, but only a few people will ever reach the heights of leadership. And much of that is about personality.

00:22:32:34 – 00:22:51:39

Jane Farnham

Interesting. Well, Chris, it’s been really lovely and a pleasure chatting to you today. Thank you so much. And if you’d like to book Chris, and make a real impact at your event, then simply contact myself or Steve at Great British Speakers on 01753439289 or you can email bookings at bookings@greatbritishtalent.com.

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Prof Chris Roebuck Corporate Governmental Military leadership Thought leader keynote speaker at Great British Speakers

Professor Chris Roebuck, HR mentor at Great British Speakers

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