Doing it the hard way – Business Leader talks to Billy Billingham

Employment & Skills | Interview

Billy Billingham spent over 20 years as a paratrooper and in the SAS. When he left, he worked in security for some of the world’s most famous people including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sir Michael Caine, Sean Penn and many more. He’s also a philanthropist and has run his own multi-million-pound security business.

Can you tell readers about your life in the military?

I left school at 13 with no education and began working illegally in a factory on 12-hour shifts at the age of 15. I then joined the army – parachute regiment in 1983 – and I believe that joining the army put me on the right path in life.

During my nine years in the parachute regiment I was involved in several operational tours in places like Belize, Cyrpus and Northern Ireland; and in 1992 I joined the SAS and I was constantly involved in operations with them too., before I left officially in 2015.

What did you do when you left the military?

When I left the military, I became head of security for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. I was also a bodyguard for Russell Crowe, Kate Moss, Sir Michael Caine, Tom Cruise and others.

After the military, I was also involved in a business in Iraq that became very successful, so I understand the corporate world and how to scale a company and the challenges this brings.

I’m also heavily involved in philanthropy around conservation and disaster relief; and I’m an ambassador to a charity called Rebuild Globally, which is run by my wife.

Most recently I have appeared on the channel four tv show SAS Who Dares Wins.

What life lessons did you learn in the military?

When you work for the special forces you are operating at a more strategic level and you’re privy to more sensitive information. You realise straight away that what you do and say makes a difference. You’re telling the United Kingdom to turn left or right.

I learnt that I am here to do a job; and to do that well you need to tell the truth and do the best you can.

I also learnt about all the work the military carry out in disaster zones and this doesn’t often get talked about. People think that soldiers are just there to kill people and we are involved in warfare – but it’s the opposite.

Nobody asks you many lives you have saved but everybody wants to how many lives you’ve taken. It’s a horrible, stupid question.

How would you describe the mindset of the British army?

I love the way the British military thinks because it’s all about hearts and minds. We always look at an alternative way to solve a problem, whereas many other countries don’t and take the view ‘he’s got a gun, let’s get a bigger gun’.

99 per cent of people caught up in conflict don’t want to be there. To solve these complex issues, you need to understand humanity. It’s about finding a solution that causes the least collateral damage.

Sometimes you need to meet fire with fire; and we’re very good at that but it’s always the last resort.

Do you think we’re becoming too soft as a nation? 

Definitely. I’m very old fashioned and I’m not saying you need to shout at people for the sake of it – that’s bullying. But we’ve lost something in the UK – and that is the idea of the male role model and that impact that can have on leadership.

I’m a feminist too because I believe in equal rights and don’t understand pay discrepancies in the corporate world, but we must not erode the positive impact of male role models.

When I was growing up, I gravitated towards older men for advice and guidance but I’m not sure this happens too much anymore.

On the wider point, people have become very insecure. We’re petrified to say anything too because as soon as you do, somebody jumps on a bandwagon.

We need to get real and wise up.

How would you assess the current state of political leadership in the UK?

Yes there is. The problem I have now with our leaders is that it all seems to be about self-gain and not for the good of the country.

They’re looking for pats on the shoulder or to trade insults, rather than thinking about what is best for the environment? What it best for the elderly? and how do we take care of our kids?

The handling of Brexit has eroded trust too. Whether you’re for it or not, the people voted, and you need to deliver it. You can’t go back on that – it’s a huge dereliction of duty.

What advice you do have for any business leaders going for through a time of crisis?

As soon as the hairs start to stand up on the back of your neck for whatever reason – you’re losing finance or your reputation is damaged, just stop. Stop and re-calibrate. Don’t let the train roll forward because you’re too embarrassed to say that things aren’t going well.

As part of this process you need to analyse every department, find out what is going wrong and be brutal – change it. You need to stand up and be counted. Often it becomes a blame game too and people don’t take responsibility.

Just be honest – get around the table, stop blaming people and get the problem fixed. It’s important to look at why things haven’t worked and analyse this. It’s the simplest thing but companies just don’t do it. I’ve had leaders in the corporate world tell me they don’t have time to do this. Make time.

What leadership traits do you admire in people?

Honesty, integrity and experience come out at the top.

Nobody has all the answers and anybody that tells you they do is a liar. And they’re dangerous because they will take you down the wrong path.

You get lots of people in the corporate world who talk a lot but often they don’t have the answer. Often in leadership the guy who stands up and has talks a lot hasn’t really got anything to say and they get found out.

I admire people who tell it as it is and aren’t afraid to take advice from people around them and ‘below’ them. I admire the quieter leaders, who listen and give the correct advice when needed.

Good leaders listen to their team. You’re not the be all and end all and you’re nobody without your team.

A good leader really earns his money when things get tough, or there is a crisis that is out of control, and you must make a 50/50 decision. It’s easy to be a good leader when you have control.

How is the best way to deal with negative people in a team?

You need to let them know they’re standing out for the wrong reason. A good way of dealing with the loudmouth who’s seen and done it all is to punish the team around him for this behaviour and usually they sort it out amongst themselves.

But if this still doesn’t work, you just need to get rid of them.

Billy’s new book ‘The Hard Way’ is released on 31st Oct 2019. Billy is also currently on a theatre tour and is available for keynote speeches.

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