Chris Roebuck| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Business Leader and expert on Transformational & Entrepreneurial Leadership for Success, Chris Roebuck

Maria’s guest on the show is Chris Roebuck. Chris has vast experience as a leader. He was Global Head of Leadership at UBS during the implementation of one of the most successful corporate transformations. This period now forms a Harvard Business School case study on transforming organisational performance. Chris has also worked in government and public sector on major change and leadership projects, from UK National Health Service and local government to London Underground PFI partnership. Chris is currently visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School in London. In addition, he has served as a military officer and now works as an executive coach and mentor across a range of different sectors, helping senior executives to be more successful.


Chris, welcome to the Speaking Business podcast. Thank you very much for joining me. So let’s go back in time, and let’s start and review. Because you’ve done a lot of things, you’ve worn lots of hats, you’ve been a military leader, a professor, a corporate leader. What were you thinking when you were child, what was it that you wanted to be? What was the plan?

Chris Roebuck: 

There wasn’t a plan, I just wanted to do something that I found interesting. I suppose at that point in time, in the very early stages, I wanted to be a train driver because everybody in those days wanted to be a train driver. So boys anyway. So go to school, off to university, Economics degree, University College London. The plan was to go into some profession, probably accountancy with an economics degree, but I got persuaded in my second year to join a students’ union committee. That ran all the catering services, including the bars for about 8000 undergraduates, by a friend of mine who was chairing the committee.

I was on that for nine months, then he resigned because he actually needed to go and do some academic work, to get a degree. I ended up chairing the thing, and it was very, very strange that suddenly at the age of 20 I discovered that I was running what was a … in those days, a commercial organisation with a purchasing consortium, albeit with professional full-time advisors, I should add. But turning over about a million pounds a year and doing all sorts of stuff.

So suddenly at the age of 20, there was this academic world I was in but also there was this real world business. We have to make sure these bars, these food outlets produce food for 8000 undergraduates and postgraduates, should that be required, at a price that is beneficial to them as students. So that injected the world of business. I then went on to sort of study accountancy, but that same friend was also an officer in the British Army at the same time and I was an officer in the reserve army, so I was having a schizophrenic lifestyle with one part during my working day, I was the lowest of the low within the accountancy profession, photocopying everything that could possibly be photocopied and then on the other side in the evenings and at other times, I was actually in charge of about 20 people in the reserve army. So, this schizophrenic lifestyle got to the point where in the end I just said, “OK.”

My friend actually took me out for a drink and said, “Look, you need to join the regular army because you’re obviously not happy photocopying.” I know it was a wild move but actually five years in the regular army was preferable to three years photocopying.


Amazing. Your friend has got a lot to answer for. He sort of led you, didn’t he really?

Chris Roebuck: 

Yes, he plied me with large amounts of alcohol before asking the critical question. To be honest, I’m being flippant here but the other decisions I’ve made in my life, it’s something where an opportunity appears to do something that you haven’t done before, to do something that is a challenge, and to do something that would add to your experience in a different way to the things you’ve done before.

Clearly, the Army itself had a significant impact on me personally. It also gave me some skills and abilities that I now use naturally on a day-to-day basis, that I don’t even attribute to the Army. For example, one of the things that is absolutely rammed into your head is the ability to time manage, prioritise, delegate, communicate, and give feedback in your sleep under extreme stress.

So, within the world I work in now, outside the army, I can look at other leaders and I can instantly see whether there are weaknesses that they have in how they implement that in their organisations. At the most basic level of being a leader, because the benchmark to which I was developed in that is probably one of the highest bench marks you can have. So, it was really interesting that many of the things that I was taught in the military, I didn’t realise how valuable they were until years later.


Although it is interesting because people do believe that the military is one of the best places to learn about leadership. So when you left the military, how did you get back into the corporate world?

Chris Roebuck:  

What was interesting was I was offered a number of roles. I was moving from a world where I was responsible for the life and death decisions for 50 soldiers. Most people don’t also realise that I was in Germany and their families were with many of them. Therefore, I was personally responsible for the well-being of not only them but the well-being of their families as well. That’s a pretty significant responsibility at the age of 24/25.

Therefore, to then come out of that environment and go into a world where you’re doing a standard eight-hour day and you don’t have that level of responsibility, and it isn’t that challenging. You suddenly think, “This is rather boring to be perfectly honest, compared to what I was doing before.” So interestingly, I ended up advising SMEs on how to develop leadership and how to perform better. I found that really stimulating. The problem with SMEs is you can look at the big corporates.

You know, large organisations have money, therefore, they have HR directors, they have finance directors, they have marketing directors. They have all of these things that make life easier. But the SME, as the entrepreneur grows and develops, does not have an HR director, does not often have a finance director, does not have a marketing director. They’re entrepreneurs because they thought up a great idea, but they’re not necessarily great leaders because that’s one of the challenges of SMEs as they grow and develop.

So I found it really rewarding working with SMEs, helping those leaders start to understand what leadership is about. Because you get to a point as an SME grows, that the original entrepreneur either has to become a good leader or they have to hand over to a manager who can do the managing for them. For many of them, that’s very, very difficult because it’s their baby, so to speak. That was really rewarding.

I work with people, everything from small publishing companies with 10, 20 people, to a film, promotion companies in Soho, who promoted blockbuster films with posters and radio ads. So it was a complete spectrum. I think it was a really interesting sort of seven or eight years. What it taught me above all else was that actually the country runs on SMEs. Actually, we know that 70 to 80% of people are employed by SMEs. It’s these organisations that are working hard against a background of many people within those organisations not actually having the critical skills to be successful.  So, giving them some of those critical skills was really rewarding and I could actually see a difference in people’s ability to perform. The publishing company with 20/25 people in, the Managing Director became better at dealing with people. He wasn’t just focused on the task, he understood that dealing with the people then enabled them to be more motivated to do the task. So, that was really interesting but then again, I got to the stage, “I think I’ll do a change. I’ve done this, this is really interesting, let’s move on.”

So, I did an MBA, and that introduced me to all the other elements of how a business works in terms of finance, operations, marketing, strategy, etc. That then moved me into what could be described as the more corporate world of the bigger organisation. I did some consultancy work for various organisations, but I think the move again that was critical was when I was approached by somebody who said, “Look, would you be interested in working with London Underground on the Public-Private Partnership because of your military background?” Because I’m a military engineer, etc.

So, I got involved with the Public-Private Partnership setup for London Underground as it now is. Which was effectively taking a 50-year public sector organisation, chopping it into four parts, privatising three parts and keeping one part under public sector control. Now, if you think about that, that is a very drastic thing to do. Particularly when it’s also being done with the government interfering because it’s London Underground, against completely determined union opposition and that then taught me a lot about how an organisation works on a bigger scale, highly unionised environment, public surface ethos.

Having to transform into a customer service ethos, the movement from, “We have passengers, we run our trains, the passengers use our trains.” To, “We actually have customers and we need to provide customer service rather than basically treat them like cattle and they sort of get on, get off and that’s all. We just run the trains.”

That was another example of something really interesting that I was offered unexpectedly but I thought, “Wow, this could be fun.” It was challenging and it was fun, and it taught me a lot about that particular type of organisation.


Excellent, thank you for sharing that. Can you tell us a little bit about the UBS and the Harvard case study? That’s quite sensational that you have a case study about some work you’ve done there?

Chris Roebuck:  

Yes, that was interesting. So, after London Underground, I was then approached by KPMG to help them setup an outsourcing business around the development of the Financial Services Authority, who then went to financial institutions and said, “Hey guys, we want training records to make sure you’ve got trainers who are actually capable and qualified to do training.” So there was a panic amongst the financial services community saying, “How can we get all these record together quickly?” So KPMG set up a business to do that.

I did that for a year, which introduced me to professional services, introduced me to the financial services’ sector. Then KPMG was approached by HSBC to get me to go into HSBC’s Investment bank to help that investment bank, which was a small and new part of HSBC. Because HSBC is basically a large, global, retail bank. But that introduced me to the challenges of highly-focused, highly-intelligent people who want to make money and how do you get them to actually think about what’s going on around them, not just the cash that’s coming in? Now, I did that for a year.

The reason I mentioned that was critical setup for the UBS. Because a couple of people at UBS had heard what I’d been doing at HSBC and they approached and said, “We have a completely new world at UBS.” UBS was created by actually putting together about six or seven separate organisations. So, in 2002, UBS wasn’t really one organisation. It was actually five, six, maybe seven organisations. All of which, to some degree were doing their own thing. They were making money but the concept was that actually if we utilise the knowledge of all of the people across all of these seven organisations, we must be able to make even more money. Because there must be people who are customers of this part, who could be customers of this part.

One of the other things that most people don’t know is that financial services institutions, often, some of their people, just to give customers what the customers want, will occasionally use products from a competitor. That sounds completely mad but it does happen. So, the UBS idea was to create an organisation where everything happened within it. It was called the integrated business model, the creation of one UBS. So you can see what the challenge was. Six separate organisations that never talked to each other before, had always done their own thing. The brief is to make them all work together in harmony to achieve a greater whole rather than having the individual parts.

So, the reason I went there was because the HR director at HSBC said, “You must go. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to build something where there is nothing.” That’s what I and my colleagues on the sort of leadership team of that project did. Which was effectively to take the top 500 leaders of that institution, get them together on a regular basis and turn them into one team of people who were all aligned to what the wider organisation wanted as well as to their own success. So, that they were networked such as that they trusted each other, they would pick up the phone to each other, they would refer business to each other.

Now that sounds a reasonably logical thing to do, but getting 500 people to want to do that, rather than just focus on making money for themselves, has an element of complexity in it. You can’t just tell them to do it. You have to effectively create a complete ecosystem where everything they see around them, every experience they have is pointing them in the same direction. So, it’s about consistency of messaging, it’s about hitting the right buttons mentally, emotionally and rationally for the right people. We spent five years doing this.

Because it went so well, the organisation’s performance increased, example, 235% increase in profit in two years, brand value up over 50% in two years. But what was interesting was that the headcount went down. So, we actually were getting higher performance from fewer people to make more money. That’s the point at which Harvard approached us and said, “Look, no one has done this before. This is an example of excellence and we’d like to make it a case study.”


That’s fantastic. Fantastic, brilliant, thank you for sharing that. I love that. I’m going to talk about a little bit about some of the things you’ve shared with your audience. I know that when you’re talking and speaking to audiences, you often ask them to reflect on who their best boss was and what their attributes were, Who the best leader they have experienced?

Chris Roebuck:  



Who was your best boss?

Chris Roebuck:  

I think one off my best bosses was in the Army but to some degree, I think that that’s an exception in that it’s not fair for me to say I had a best boss in the Army because obviously, the people in the army are pretty well-trained to be pretty good bosses, that’s the idea. I think one of the best bosses I certainly had was the HR director at HSBC’s Investment Bank. When I say that, that particular person had a reputation for being very tough. But the interesting thing was that there was a clarity about what was required, that what was required wasn’t imposed, it was agreed. But once you’d agreed it, you had to deliver it.

The reason within that world that it was important to be tough to get it right is that pretty much in all the areas that I’ve ever worked, probably I would say one of the ones where perfection has to be delivered every time, on time, is the world of investment banking. In that world, there are no second chances. OK, you might be able to make a small mistake once but your reputation can be destroyed. The degree of perfection might sound perhaps going over the top, but I’ll just give you an example.

In a 10 slide presentation, if one of the bullet points is one font size out from the other bullet points, somebody will spot it and they will take it as an example of failure to have attention to detail, failure to deliver excellence. The difference between 11 points and 12 points is minimal but the people within those sort of institutions, because of their own total focus on success, expect total focus on success from everybody else. It is a very, very tough, you either sink or swim environment.

Now, for me that was good because adding to the military experience, it gave me a level of clarity about, “You need to get this right.” The other thing it did was as an HR type person, what it also does is it makes you totally clearly about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what you want from the audience, so to speak. So that meant that if you went in and had a meeting with a really senior leader within that context, you had to get their attention in terms of what the benefit was to them of their conversation with you in under the first minute. Otherwise, they would lose interest and you might as well walk out the door.

So you had to have complete clarity, consistency, simplicity in terms of what you are saying. “So, this is what I’m proposing, this is why I’m proposing it, this is how much it’s going to cost, this is how long it’s going to take, these are going to be the benefits, do you want to do it?” None of these fluffy, over-egg language. Anything more than five slides would be thrown in the bin.


I like that, I like clarity, I like getting straight to the point, I like things that are direct. So you’re talking my language. Now, you say also that being an effective leader isn’t complicated or time consuming. You say it’s quite simple. Is there anything that you can share about making leadership more simple?

Chris Roebuck: 

Yes. We over complicate it, I mean, we introduce leadership model. What does a leadership model do? A leadership mode analyses people’s behaviour, puts it into a model, then the models are given to people to say, “If you follow this model your behaviour will be right.” My feel is, why not take out the middleman, take out the models, just tell them what the behaviour is?


Very simple.

Chris Roebuck:     

Yes, exactly. But then also, that’s about you telling people what the behaviour is to be successful. The simple point, going back to your previous question is that anyone that’s been in a job for more than a couple of years knows what being a successful leader is about. Because they’ve had good bosses, and they’ve had bad bosses. One of the things I will do with an audience and in fact I did this yesterday. I will stand up in front of, I don’t know, 300 people, and I’ll say, “Look, think of the best boss you ever had. What did that person do on a day to day basis that made them so special, that made you give your best?”

You say, “OK, fine. How long do you give them?” I give them one minute. I don’t give them five minutes, they get one minute maximum to think of two or three things that that person did. Then I ask them what they’ve either thought about or written on their piece of paper in just one minute. I will then flip chart what they say for a maximum of two to three minutes. Within that time, I guarantee I will get 12 to 14 things from that audience. I will them ask the audience if they all agree that if they get that, they give super performance and everybody does. What I know is that the list they’re going to give me, I know what’s on it, because I’ve been doing this for years.

What every single audience I have dealt with around the world in the last seven, eight years has given me, has been the same list. It doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter the culture, it doesn’t matter the sector, it doesn’t matter the level in the organisation. The list is always the same to the degree that I then actually have a slide of my consolidated list, which will completely match the list that the audience gives me on the flip chart. The reason it’s so powerful is that it’s things like lets me get on with things, ask me for my ideas, develops my career, builds trust, acts with integrity, helps me develop as an individual, backs me up, understands I make genuine mistakes, shows they care about me.

When you analyse that list, what is amazing is that, A, everybody knows it and probably most leaders are already doing some of it already. B, that doing more that list, costs nothing. Doing more of that list can be done more of tomorrow because it doesn’t require a course. What is really interesting, the people then realise that when you analyse that list consistently, if we have a list of 12, 13 things, probably only one of those actually relates to the practicalities of delivering the task specifically.

80% consistently relate to the emotional relationship between that individual and that boss. It suddenly dawns on people that getting the best of people is not about telling them what to do, it’s about creating an environment where they’re inspired to do the job.


Yes, beautiful, love that. It’s interesting because you’ve joined a company and you leave a boss. It’s what I would say.

Chris Roebuck:  

That’s true. It’s true. What is also interesting is that that list confirms all the data. The data is, for example, that an employee’s decision to give high performance is 60% rational, 40% emotional and in organisations, we shy away from talking about the emotional because it can’t be quantified, it’s just there. One of the things I now get audiences to accept and to think about is quite simply this, the human brain has not changed significantly in the last 250,000 years.

There is a quote that I often use which is ‘pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work’. I ask people where they think that quote came from because that’s about employee engagement. That’s about the modern world of work, that’s about creating an environment where people are enjoying themselves to produce perfect work. Everybody in the audience says, “Oh, that must have been Steve Jobs or that must have been Richard Branson.” No, it’s Aristotle 500 BC. The simple fact is that what human beings want from work, what is going on up here is not time related, it is consistent.

The comments about what will people want from their leaders in five years. Everyone will still want praise and recognition, everyone will still want to know their boss genuinely cares about them, everyone will still want their boss to ask them for ideas. Now, the technology that supports that, the culture within the organisation and how it operates may be different. But those things are consistent and that’s what people want. I think it’s really powerful to get people to understand that what drives behaviour at work is quite interesting.

Before we started understanding more about what’s going on up here, the idea was, “We are an organisation, this is the way we like work to be done. You are an employee, you will do the work this way because this is how we want it done.” Over the last 25, 30 years, since the Second World War in terms of certain things, but certainly with the understanding of neuroscience and the brain and all the rest of it. We’ve now got ourselves to the point where we can say, “Actually, organisations like to work like this but the brain works like this.”

So, you have to choices, you either say, “Right, let’s ignore how the brain works and force people to work in a way that their brain doesn’t like or let’s adapt how we work to leverage how the brain works best.” Now, I say to people, “Look, which of those are you going to do? So what do you think? Do you think your great strategy is going to beat 250,000 years of human evolution? Because to be blunt, it’s not.” So accepting just the most simple thing.

Example, there’s a neuroscience response about reciprocation. We as human beings, if somebody says something nice to us, there’s a switch that floods our brain with dopamine and we go, “Oh, that’s nice.” You think, ” That person said something nice to me, now therefore, they must be a nice person. So I’m going to react in a positive way.” You then react in a positive way. They think, “Oh, this person has reacted positively to me, therefore …” You start this chemical-driven, virtuous circle.

Equally, if what he said is threatening, cortisol comes in it and the reverse happens. Now, it’s not just about what your boss says, going to your point about people leave bosses, not organisations. But, it’s also about what the organisation does in terms of presenting, “This is why we want you to do it, this is why we need to transform and change.” The fundamental thing that people need to understand therefore, is that if people are not fully on board with what you’re asking them to do as a leader, it is probably not a conscious decision. It is probably a subconscious response to them perceiving something negative.

When leaders have that fundamental understanding that that person is not responding positively not because they’re a bad person, but potentially because you haven’t presented what you’re asking them to do in a way that causes the subconscious to be positive about it. The responsive leader is really interesting because senior transformation leaders and change leaders I’ve presented it to and really senior people have come up to me afterwards and said, “You know what, I never knew that much of that reaction was powered subconsciously. That explains why this worked and this didn’t work back in my career.”

So, that’s what I try and do. I try and give even the most senior leaders a different perspective on how to make themselves successful. It’s interesting that all of those things that are assumed are not necessarily by leaders, are not necessarily the reality of how life works. It’s not bad people, it’s your bad presentation of what you want them to do that triggers a natural defence mechanism that they can’t even stop.


Chris, listen, I could talk to you all day and we’re gone overtime but I’m going to ask you one last question.

Chris Roebuck: 

Go on.


I might have to have you back again, but I want to ask you one last question. Can anybody become a leader?

Chris Roebuck: 



That’s a really positive note to leave it on.

Chris Roebuck:

The reason is this, right, I will caveat that.


Thank you.

Chris Roebuck:  

Everybody can become a competent leader and get stuff done. There are the basics of time management, delegation, communication and giving feedback that from my experience of the military, can be systematised. You can train people to do that in a structured way. They can then do that for their teams, which means they’ll be able to get tasks done. They might not be a great leader, they might not be an inspiring leader but they will get stuff done. Then, those that are going to be the brilliant leaders will also have that emotional intelligence. That ability to react with people that then makes the inspiration that you have to add on the top of that mechanical process easier.

So, in fact, yes. Everybody, because I’ve seen it done and done it myself, everybody even if you think they have no emotional intelligence whatsoever can actually, if given the mechanics to get the task under control, then have the bandwidth to start developing their emotional capability as well. So everybody can be a leader. We have to remember, the reason most leaders are ineffective at work is because their organisations haven’t given them the basic skills of time management, prioritisation, delegation and giving feedback that the Army gave me. So, those leaders are constantly firefighting to try and get control of tasks they’re losing control of. That means they’re not spending time with people.

So, the people think, “Oh, this leader just wants to concentrate on the task, they’re not interested in me.” So it creates a vicious circle. What is really annoying for me, when I ask audiences, “How many of you have been given any training at any point in your career on how to delegate effectively?” I promise you, never have I seen more than 30% of the hands go up. So, we’re in a situation where 70% of the leaders out there have not been taught how to delegate effectively day to day, when that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do for their job. It is complete madness. Training someone to delegate effectively takes no more than two hours.


Fantastic. Well, that’s good news. It’s good to know that anybody can be a leader. So I’m going to go off now and talk nicely to someone. Thank you very much.

Chris Roebuck:   

My pleasure Maria, my pleasure

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