Interview: Atholl Duncan, executive coach
Some big questions are being asked about funding the BBC. The licence fee is up for debate. Cutbacks are coming thick and fast. Scotland can’t, and won’t escape. It’s a familiar scenario to Atholl Duncan, who’s been there before; sweated over where the axe should fall and looked people in the eye knowing the outcome won’t be pretty.
He had two spells at the corporation, the first as a young researcher and producer, rising to editor of Reporting Scotland, and the second when he was called back to become head of news and current affairs to undertake “transformational change”, euphemistic management speak for making people redundant.
Broadly speaking, it was an internal matter resolved from within. The current debate is everybody’s business, the topic of heated radio phone-ins and social media vultures, as well as being the focus of party political agendas.
A clutch of Tory MPs are said to be baying for blood with the most hostile happy to see the corporation take a severe beating, possibly broken up and at the very least end its dependency on the state and the licence fee payer. Much of it surrounds perceptions around editorial “bias” and behaviour. The reaction in defence of the corporation has been just as aggressive.
“I am not too close to it now, but we live in the age of rage,” says Duncan. “But I see that some Tory MPs are now realising that turning off the BBC is not a vote winner.
“If you believe in democracy and journalism you should be concerned about attacks on BBC journalists.
“Having said that the BBC has to change. A much smaller BBC will emerge and focus on the things it is excellent at and the things that are not available on other platforms. Netflix and Amazon have changed the game but there is a lot they do not do.
“There will be a re-definition of public service broadcasting and the new director general [Tony Hall is stepping down] is probably the most crucial appointment because they have to re-shape it. Harvard would tell you to focus squarely on your purpose.”
During a two hour chat he mentions Harvard a number of times as he’s spent much of his career since leaving the BBC in the management training and coaching business, having become fascinated with leadership and personal development.
He spent some time in Massachusetts as well as at Cranfield, funded by the BBC, and at the European business school Insead which has opened doors to numerous opportunities.
“The world’s business leaders go to Insead and I’m now one of the alumni called upon to offer advice,” he says, explaining that it has taken him to Houston and Frankfurt and that he is due to meet the Jordanian Royal Family.
He’s actively engaged in three coaching businesses. One is The Edge, his own consultancy, a second is UK Coaching, which works with the national governing bodies in sport and involved a meeting at Kensington Palace with the Princess Royal, its patron. The third is the Black Isle Group which works with the leaders of many of the world’s best-known companies to change behaviours.
“We focus on the blockers, the things that stop people maximising their potential. There are common reasons why people fail to get the top job, there is a lot of psychology in it.”
He says executive coaches have been described as “the priests of the modern business world” delivering guidance on the pressures facing the contemporary CEO: disruptive practices, the need for greater agility, all-round skills and mindfulness.
“I would not regard myself as a priest, I would compare myself to a coach in sport, trying to get the best out of people.
“But there is a limit to how far coaching can go before you wander into other personal development areas. There is a fine line between being an executive coach and a therapist, and I ain’t no therapist.
“What we are doing has to be aligned to the business objectives. The individual has to benefit, but the business has to benefit too.”
He was introduced to Black Isle Group (BIG) by Glasgow businessman Doug Sawers and its clients have included Barclays, Standard Chartered and Microsoft. As well chairing the business Duncan bought into it and it is embarking on a new phase of expansion.
He is a believer in making sure coaching is not just about gaining knowledge but delivers behavioural change.
“Too often people go on a course and return to the office and carry on doing the same thing,” he says.
The firm is developing software like a Fitbit device that will “nudge” people into taking certain actions and provide a dashboard to monitor those actions. It is being trialled with a small number of clients.
“At the end of the day companies spending £300,000 to train all their management team want to see £3m of returns.”
His experiences came into sharp focus after leaving the BBC first time around for a three and a half year spell as director of corporate affairs at Scottish Water. It was merging three regional water companies and taking out 40% of costs.
“It was Harvard in reality,” he says, “Scottish Water was the country’s most hated company until RBS came along.”
The BBC asked him to go back and undertake a similar cost-cutting campaign.
“I might have been seen as the axe-man to start with,” he admits, “but I hope people accepted that the organisation had to change.”
He says he convinced himself that he was “some sort of transformation person” and moved to ICAS to turn an analogue organisation into a digital one.
“It meant moving it from being Scottish to being more global and from being accountants to business leaders.”
There followed non-executive roles at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, and the British Horseracing Authority as chairman and which allowed him to combine a passion for the sport.
He has two horses in training with Grand National winning trainer Lucinda Russell at Kinross. It also drew him into a new type of coaching.
“One day Lucinda had to be at Haydock for One For Arthur [the stable’s Grand National winner] so I became trainer for the day for my horse Kelpies Myth who was running at Ascot.”
Can he coach his horse to better things?
“We may go to Cheltenham,” he says. “But win or lose it’s wonderful to get close to these animals.”
Occupation: Executive coach
Education: George Watson’s School; NCTJ journalism training
Career highlights: Sunday Post; BBC (researcher, producer, editor Reporting Scotland, managing editor, news and current affairs), Scottish Water (director of corporate affairs); BBC (head of news and current affairs); ICAS (executive director); The Edge Consultancy (owner); Chairman: UK Coaching, Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, British Horseracing Authority; Black Isle Group
Name a significant memory from your early BBC days?
My first shift as a producer was the day of the Piper Alpha disaster. I knew straight away there would be tough days.
What makes you angry?
I suppose because of my background in journalism it is people who attack journalists.
How do you relax?
I run and take my dog walking on the beaches at North Berwick.
If you could invite three people past or present to a meeting who would you choose?
The Queen…. to talk about horses as one of the most pre-eminent equine experts in the world.
Jack Ma of Alibaba….. to discover his world view of Asia, China and global geo-politics
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook…. on diversity, equality, employee engagement and the next big things from Silicon Valley