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The big thinker on a mission to change the future of work

John Amaechi

I don’t think there are many organisational psychologists in this world that can claim to be endorsed as a Jedi by Mark Hamill. Professor John Amaechi OBE can. On top of this, John is also an award-winning, international best-selling author, a sought-after public speaker, an executive coach, and the Founder of APS Intelligence.

John’s CV and list of achievements is a fitting testament to this big thinker (and that’s not a reference to his 6 ft. 10 in. stature). Often outspoken, and frequently driven crazy by people who think facts and evidence should bow to opinion, John Amaechi’s talks have garnered millions of views online. His passion for topics including building high-performing teams and effective organisational design that maximises productivity have seen him become a frequently cited LinkedIn influencer and bestowed with the accolade of being a LinkedIn Top Voice since 2020.

We talk to John about being an introvert, securing talent for his business, his passion for winning, and much more.

Watch our exclusive interview with John Amaechi

Could you tell us what led you to create your business, APS Intelligence?

Originally, it was simply a vehicle for me to do stuff with businesses. In the beginning, this stuff was me doing advisory services, comms advisory, as well as the regular business, leadership, and culture advisory, followed by a bit of analytics, speaking, and coaching. I enjoyed it, but when I’d leave, it felt like I should have done something more substantive, something that meant we could ensure the penetration of this intervention.

I’ve spoken, you’ve been inspired, but you don’t have access to me after that. So, what about if I had a team of truly brilliant people who could do some amazing stuff, who could come in and do additional training, additional advisory, additional coaching, and at a price point that would make the entire intervention more long-lasting, with a better ROI, but not break the bank. That’s what built this new idea.

However, nothing really changed with the organisation until I stepped out of the way as CEO. I was CEO by name, but in reality, I’ve got no business being a CEO. I’m smart when it comes to governance and in a lot of other areas, but the current CEO is the one who’s really made the transformative difference. It’s one of those hard things that some people in business go through. I knew what I wanted it to look like in the future, but I also knew that I was not at the head of the company if it was going to look like that. Now, I am no longer doing the logistical, day-to-day stuff but instead, focusing on R&D, oversight, and strategy. This means that my ability to focus on that has risen exponentially because I’m out of the way.

Some people believe that you need to be an extrovert to be successful in business. You’ve described yourself as an introvert, so what would you say to this belief?

I think this is such an important topic, especially when it comes to people’s perceptions of introversion and extraversion. Personality inventories are bollocks, and we simply shouldn’t be using them. It doesn’t matter how many ‘reds’ or ‘blues’ or ‘greens’ you have on your team, that is not the relevant factor. However, it does matter if you only have one type of person with one perspective; homogeny is bad. The idea that you can assess people’s personalities on the basis of colours… I liken these tests to those online surveys that say, “Which Jedi would I be?”

Introversion is not a statement about the capability of a person to deliver in front of crowds or to be assertive when the time comes. It is a statement about the energy that is required for that to happen, and even that’s a broad generalisation. For me, introversion means that I find human beings’ energy expensive, but entirely worth it.

What it means is, at the end of the day, when everybody else might be like, “Oh, you’ve had a great day. We’ve done some amazing collaboration. Let’s go out for a drink,” for me that is akin to asking me to wander to Mordor. It’s not because I don’t like the people. At APS Intelligence, we always talk about refilling your cup, and I need to refill my cup so I can be really good again tomorrow.

I coached somebody who almost didn’t get a C-Suite job that they are perfect for because their Hogan Personality Inventory said that they were an introvert. This is such a disservice to leadership and it’s such a disservice to the organisations that we’re trying to build.

Along with being an introvert, you’ve also described yourself as a lazy person. Could you tell us a little more about your self-diagnosis as a lazy person?

I am definitely lazy. Given a choice of an easy path or a hard path, I’ll invariably pick the easy path. But I like to win and most of the time, only the hard path will get you through to victory, whatever that is in your context. The acknowledgement of laziness was really important for me, because otherwise, you blunder into poor decisions, not knowing why you’re making them. Whereas when you know that fundamentally, you’re lazy, and if given the easy out, you’ll take it, so you need to build structures to stop that from happening.

My diary is a marvel of engineering and it’s almost daily Tetris for my team, I make sure that what it tells me to do is what I will do, I will show up and get it done.

This structure, paired with the fact that I know how I’m contributing to the bottom line, is very important. When I’m QAing a document, because it requires my expertise – for the best of us, that can feel like that’s a bit beneath you – but then you realise how you are supporting your team. How your insights will polish the piece and make it perfect. That team has put in massive amounts of time, and I’ve just got this tiny contribution, but it will help us have a better chance of winning. That’s really important to me; how does this meeting or task in my diary collectively help us win?

How have you found the experience of securing those key people for your business?

I should probably start off by saying, the first thing is that, how bad we’ve been at times. I’m very plain and direct about my demands, and I think thoughtless errors are unacceptable. As an organisation, we talk about having a very small ‘say-do gap’; if you say you’re going to do this, it’s going to get done. If you say it’ll be done at this quality and by this time, I won’t have to check with you because it’ll get done.

We had a stage where we grew very, very quickly and we brought in five new people and we were telling them this, and they would nod vociferously and say, “Yeah, that’s what I’m into.” But these guys churned in and churned out in like six months, saying, “This is the worst place, it’s too demanding, we worked 1,000 hours…”

The 1,000 hours part certainly wasn’t true, but the demanding part was. The frustrating thing for us was that we told people that attention to detail really is a dividend here, and we demand that. So, we started to talk about the precursor qualities that were required from the very beginning; attention-to-detail, diligence, and describing exactly what that meant in the context of our organisation and putting a premium on accountability. We found doing so has paid dividends in the kind of people we’ve got.

You deal with a number of business clients at APS Intelligence. Is there a trend that you’ve noticed among your clients that gets you really excited about the future?

I’m very interested in the future world of work. I did an exercise about six or seven years ago where I looked at how organisations are going to shift and change over time. The idea was that workplaces are shifting and they’re moving from transactional resource management to authentic people leadership. They’re moving from hub working with everybody heading from the outskirts of a major city into the centre of a major city to work five days a week and 10 hours a day, to remote bespoke working. This was a movement that was happening before COVID-19 because it’s expensive and impractical for families to live within two hours of where they’re going to work.

We’re moving from homogenous cultures; big corporates with 100 to 2,000 people who think that everywhere they are, in every jurisdiction, in every geography, they’re going to have the same culture. Instead, moving to a more dynamic and adaptable culture; I likened it more to dialects of the same language, as opposed to different languages entirely.

One of the biggest shifts is the movement from a utilisation culture to a learning culture. You may be familiar with a 2017 McKinsey study that said between 75 to 375 million job roles globally will shift by 2030. People having their heads down doing billable hours in the face of a workplace, and a world, that is going to require some fairly radical shifts in almost every sector, is short-sighted. Your cultures have to move with this dynamic, agile learning culture. That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s the future world of work, not a new normal. There are a lot of people doing really exciting work in this area.

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