- a global strategist, coach and mentor - worked in the top management of Microsoft for 22 years - lectures on development of human potential and positive leadership - holds seminars and courses for adults and children
How did you get the idea to start courses in Unlocking human potential? And how did you get the idea to work with children?
Traditional teaching methods force us to keep up the things we are good at, but also force us to concentrate on our weaknesses and improve on them. The idea behind the courses in Unlocking human potential devoted to children came from collaboration with Katka Novotná. Katka loves working with children, a field she has devoted her efforts to since the age of ten. She started looking after the children of her friends and relatives, that grew into a permanent part-time job and she finally ended up with a family that had three children of preschool age and she devoted her time to them intensively for 6 years. She enjoyed taking a different approach to every child and allowing them to develop in their own way. Over time, she started to train in the field of pedagogy and personal development, and that is also when we met. Katka helped me to organise courses for adults and from there, it was only one small step to preparing specially modified courses for children. She started to take my training and information for adults and use if for the children’s world. That is how the first course was created for children from roughly the second stage of primary school, i.e. from the age of 8 to 14 accompanied by the children’s parents. This was followed by a course for secondary school pupils and we now also have a course for parents only. We are also working on other projects – for example on-line courses.
What do you talk about on the courses with children? How does the whole process work?
We work in a really interactive way. We transformed the comparison which I use during lectures for adults in such a way that children would understand it. We work with a short story about a rabbit, the fairy tale about Cinderella, about a doll or for example about a monkey which pulls adults and children from the “flow” and interferes with their concentration. We do various visual exercises with children, create riddles and follow how the individual children think. Each child is unique and thinks in a different way. The do frequently guess the answer, but they reach it in different ways. We want children to realise that their mind and their imaginativeness is linked to the body. We use various interactive and visual exercises for this. This usually lasts the whole morning and the children’s parents are also present during the exercises. In the afternoon, the children get the results of the psychometric talent tests which they took earlier. We then discuss the children’s results with them in small groups, where three of the main areas of the child’s talent are always evaluated. We then work with the child’s results all afternoon. We then split up the children and the parents to allow us the opportunity to first discuss the results with the children before the parents have a chance to influence them. Katka sits down with a small group of children and discusses their results, whether they are using their talents and how they could possibly use them. I in the meanwhile discuss the results of the tests with the parents. We then sit down with each child and parent individually and discuss how to use their talents at school or in their future life. At the end of the seminar, we then teach the children to work together and set them team assignments which they use their top talents to resolve.
Do you remember the children which took your courses?
Yes, I remember a lot of them. I mostly remember children who are more distinctive in the group and who express themselves in an interesting manner. Each child is unique in their own way.
What do you regard your greatest success to be?
That is quite an interesting question. It is not just one specific type of success, but a method I came up with. This concerns positive leadership, i.e. searching for what is good in people, looking for their talent and searching for synergy, allowing them to reach their state of “flow”, this means a state when people are not only successful, but also happy doing something difficult and at the same time utilising their talent to the maximum possible extent. That is something unique. This method is for the most part built on well-known models, but as opposed to the majority of other coaches, I learnt through my own experiences. That was when I was practically at the pinnacle of the global economy, and I also underwent a period of serious depression in 2011 and 2012 which almost cost me my life. I learnt a lot about how the brain works and how people think, even though I was at the top, but also when I spent two months in a psychiatric hospital looking forward to dying. So I see my method as a success, rather than the specific results of its use. The fact that I was voted top manager in Microsoft four times in a row is precisely one of the results of its use. Although I am doing something different now, the situation is the same. I love what I do. I love my work with adults and with children. I am working with Katka Novotná on a unique method of uncovering personal talents. Our collaboration is based on our life stories which are completely different. There is also a great age difference between us, but we work superbly together.
What things are expected (e.g in terms of character) of a good leader?
Firstly, a leader should understand himself well. A person can only understand himself if he really is true to himself, if he is authentic and there is no pretence. Only if you understand yourself can you understand others. Now I will be making this sound a little vulgar, but basically you first need to “fool” yourself with some vision or other and believe in it. Then you have to “fool” the others. People will then start to believe in that vision too, at that point when the leader uses the best there is in people, i.e. their talents. A leader has to create a team of people around himself in such a way as to create synergy in the team or between teams. Synergy is created by the weaknesses of one of the individuals being covered by the strengths of another and vice-versa. The same way a strong team of five is created in ice hockey and a team of eleven in football, a winning team is compiled in the exactly the same way in business. Another thing is that the leader must be able to inspire those around him. Inspiration from the Latin “In spirare” is all about vision. Inspiration is an image of the world which does not exist at this moment in time, but you as the bearer of the vision believe in it. When the people around you also start to believe in that image, incredible things start to happen. I very often speak of the so-called “team flow”. Team flow is putting people together in a synergic way. If people believe in that which the leader believes in then they move forward and achieve much better results. That applies to any field.
You have dealt not only with top leaders, but also Olympic athletes or artists. Do you see any great differences between these people? Is the key to success different in these fields?
There is no difference. Just like business has its “Olympic Games”, singers have their Golden Nightingales or MTV awards, actors have the Oscars… There is however one important link here. You could get there once by chance. But only people who know themselves really well repeatedly make it to the top. They understand their strengths and their weaknesses. They understand their emotions. They know what gets them into the “flow” and they know how to keep themselves there. Unfortunately our traditional concept of school and work teach us to recognise that which is around us, not that which is inside us – our talents and our emotions.
Who did you enjoy the best cooperation with?
I enjoyed some great cooperation with David Svoboda. We are the same “blood type” and we get on really well and have similar talents. David is really goal-orientated. If I had to name some other personalities, then this would for example concern Adéla Banášová, or for example Michal Jurka, statutory director of Skanska. All of these people are really committed. They do what they do from the heart and you can see it in their work.
What do you regard the most important human trait to be?
If I could choose only one, then it would be authenticity. You must always be yourself. All of the important things stem from that.
What is your main credo?
Probably the thing I always say. Rational people are usually right, but only the crazy people change the world. It’s true. I’ve got the papers to prove if from Doctor Cyril Höschl, because I really did spend time in a lunatic asylum (laughs). That is the way it is, because the world is moved forward by the question: “is there by any chance a way to do that differently”, and the rational thinkers unfortunately ask that question rarely. Let’s turn the clock back a little. There were no coaches or mentors here under communism. After the revolution the occasional person would pop up, but it was not until recently that we registered a boom in personality coaching. Lots of people have established a business based on coaching.
Has the Czech Republic in your opinion caught up with Western Europe and the USA in that respect in recent years?
We haven’t caught up with the West very much. I believe that if people want to coach, they should experience and achieve something first. In the Czech Republic however, people are just calling themselves coaches and starting to coach. I am still learning from the very best. My supervisor is Carol Kauffman, Director of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard. I want somebody to keep giving me advice and to keep inspiring me. As opposed to the majority of Czech “coaches”, I also work on the basis of personal experience – be this my depression and stay in the lunatic asylum, or my most successful period at Microsoft.
What is your favourite memory of your years at Microsoft?
I remember some difficult times, in 1998 I think. We were half way through the year and about 4 million behind plan. At that time, I was a relatively new CEO. We had a meeting with everyone and I told them that they were great, but that if we don’t catch up, there could soon be a new CEO. At which the then marketing director Petr Říha stood up and declared: “Jack, that is not going to happen.” He called me Jack at that time, and continued: “Everyone down on the mats*.” In two months, everything had turned around and our subsequent success allowed me to manage the whole region in two years’ time. One other moment which I remember fondly does come to mind. I was working as executive director at that time and I didn’t have a permanent contract. Microsoft was at that time holding a selection process to find a new CEO. I remember that I was supposed to be having some final interviews in Paris one Monday and the Saturday before, I flew to Rome to have dinner with representatives of the Czech branch and another three European branches because we were supposed to be receiving some sort of company award then. When I went into the room, first of all the Czechs stood up and started clapping, then the others and everybody gave me a standing ovation for two minutes without anybody saying a word. The European management in Paris subsequently decided that I wouldn’t even be doing any further interviews. I had such support from the people that nothing else was needed. The people chose me.
You received the prestigious “Presidential Award for Excellence” from Microsoft. What value does it have for you now in hindsight?
It was strange. That award was only awarded after a person had worked at Microsoft for twelve months. They gave it to me after nine months and had to change to rules because of me. It was presented to me by Steven Ballmer in Seville, right in an arena where bull fights are held. I didn’t expect that award and I was the first person ever from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to get it. At that time, Microsoft judged the 7 best marketing ideas and three of them were from Prague. That award most definitely kick-started my career and most definitely started it and also speeded it up. I have it on my shelf to this very day, next to a statue of Buddha and my release papers from the lunatic asylum. (laughs)
You speak very openly about your health. You opened up to the public about your life story including your burn-out and health problems. You make no secret of the fact that you spent time in a psychiatric ward. Why did you decide to do so?
Everybody told me not to do it. The only person who told me to do it and who said that in doing so, I would help Czech psychiatry more than all of the psychiatrists put together, was my doctor Cyril Höschl. I was in fact myself to blame for my health problems. I did not rest mentally and that was where it all started. So I decided to use my own example to warn all those who my personal experience could help. I in fact became an ambassador for destigmatisation of mental illness. You wrote the book The Positive Leader where you describe 4 steps to become a happier and more inspirational leader. It was published in several languages and is now even being distributed in China, in Vietnam and in Russia.
How difficult was writing for you?
I teamed up with someone who knows how to write, or edit much better than me. I narrated 90% of the text, had it automatically transcribed and subsequently edited by Melina Costi, who is in my opinion one of the cleverest women I have ever collaborated with. She has written several other business publications and I think that together we have created a team of two which really works. We are talking about writing more books at the moment. Your schedule is very packed, but despite that, I have read that you find time to run ten kilometres every day.
Do you also do other sports?
Yes, I have been running since my time at Microsoft and I still run now. And then I also do Tabata training. I do 5 sets outside. It is based on interval training. I also work out with weights. I usually spend 2 hours a day doing sports.
What motivates you? Do you have a dream which you have still not achieved?
I am enjoying the journey. I think I am changing the world. My dream is for people to understand that they can only do things they enjoy and which have some meaning for them in life. ☐
*Editor’s note: “Get down on the mats” is a mafia term for battle.