Gary Cookson – True Strength Podcast – Episode 10
As part of my True Strength project, I’m featuring interviews that dig deep into how people succeed and I was delighted to interview Gary Cookson. Gary is a HR Director, speaker, and blogger. The interview has lots of insights into how Gary succeeds, about strengths, weaknesses, mindset, and resilience. In particular, there’s loads of great insights into what is is like to be competitive and to be an introvert. To listen to the interview, simply click ‘play’ on the audio player above or you can read the transcript below. You can find previous podcasts and details of how to subscribe on our podcast page.
Gary Cookson dominant StrengthsFinder (TM) talent themes:
- Competition – People who are especially talented in the Competition theme measure their progress against the performance of others. They strive to win first place and revel in contests.
- Achiever – People who are especially talented in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.
- Focus – People who are especially talented in the Focus theme can take a direction, follow through, and make the corrections necessary to stay on track. They prioritize, then act.
- Discipline – People who are especially talented in the Discipline theme enjoy routine and structure. Their world is best described by the order they create.
- Context – People who are especially talented in the Context theme enjoy thinking about the past. They understand the present by researching its history.
- Significance – People who are especially talented in the Significance theme want to be very important in the eyes of others. They are independent and want to be recognized.
- Restorative – People who are especially talented in the Restorative theme are adept at dealing with problems. They are good at figuring out what is wrong and resolving it.
- Harmony – People who are especially talented in the Harmony theme look for consensus. They don’t enjoy conflict; rather, they seek areas of agreement.
- Deliberative – People who are especially talented in the Deliberative theme are best described by the serious care they take in making decisions or choices. They anticipate the obstacles.
- Relator – People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.
- Responsibility – People who are especially talented in the Responsibility theme take psychological ownership of what they say they will do. They are committed to stable values such as honesty and loyalty.
- Activator – People who are especially talented in the Activator theme can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. They are often impatient.
Hi, this is Ian Pettigrew. Welcome to the Kingfisher Coaching True Strength Podcast, today featuring Gary Cookson who is the HR Director at Trafford College. So, Gary, can you tell us a bit more about what you do?
I’m the HR Director at Trafford College; Trafford College is a general college of Further Education based on the outskirts of Manchester, and my HR role involves looking after the strategic people management issues of the college and managing the operational HR services and anything you can imagine that goes into HR is in my team. I have a team of 7 people and we do HR business partnering, advice and guidance to managers on a range of things. We help them to manage performance, we help them with recruitment, with talent management, inductions, health & safety, internal communications, absence management, dismissals, termination, you name it we do it.
So what’s been your journey to get you to that job; what have you done before?
I’ve been at Trafford College for 9 months and prior to that and I had a couple of roles in Golden Gates Housing Trust in Warrington which later became Torus as it came together with another housing organisation and my final role there was HR integration lead for the Torus group and bringing together two different housing organisations, looking at structures and cultures, looking at leadership, looking at the HR systems and payroll systems that we had, the HR policies and merging all those into one. It was an interesting role for 12 months. Prior to that, before the group structure came into being, I was head of HR at Golden Gates Housing Trust for 11 years doing a very similar role to what I’m doing now in Trafford College and it’s role that I enjoyed; I built the HR team from scratch I created all the policies, procedures, structures, and strategies, I was involved in some very large scale change projects and I really enjoyed that job. That has been the best job I’ve had throughout my career. Before that I worked in a number of different places, and I’ve worked in the private, public, and voluntary sectors in large, small, and in some multinational organisations. I started out my HR career in ICI in Runcorn (when there was such a thing as ICI) and I was involved in organisational change initiatives there, mainly business process reengineering and delivering the workshops that were around the process improvement methodology that they had in place there and so going through an L&D role and then moving sideways into HR from there and meeting some people you know well like Steve Munro.
(Because that’s where I started my career back in 1988, in ICI at Runcorn!)
It is a very different place now, ICI/Runcorn. But before that, I started out as a secondary school teacher, I trained as a teacher, I was a History teacher for a couple of years and taught in some very challenging schools in Blackpool and in Colne. If you’ve got, or know, teenage children then you’ll know exactly why I don’t teach anymore. I found that I liked teaching, I was good at it, I was good at standing up in front of a room, and imparting knowledge and helping people to develop skills and I got a lot of energy from that. I just didn’t like teenagers. I’ve got two of my own now, and that’s bad enough but a room-full of 30 of them was more than I could handle so I moved sideways into corporate L&D! So that’s been my journey.
One thing I want to do is explore your underlying talents, your strengths, and about the influence that they have made on your journey. We had the conversation about this podcast interview when I wrote a blog post ,and it’s because as part of my work I get to see people’s uniqueness and how different they are and I naturally value different peoples’ contribution. It really annoys me when I see people judging each other and I wrote a blog post about appreciating people for what they are rather than judging them for what they’re not and I used the example of people who are competitive. And here we are, sat with your natural talents from StrengthsFinder in front of us and you’re top several are Competition, Achiever, Focus, Discipline – a whole host of talents that are real ‘driver’ talents with Competition right at the top. Can you tell us a little bit about what competition is like for you and how it drives you?
It is a double-edged sword, competition (as I guess most of your strengths often are). Competition, for me, is about striving to be the very best that I can be but also being able to measure myself against other people and to try to beat their achievements where at all possible. So, it can be something that spurs me on to greater achievements, and often does, but it can be something that consumes me at times as well, and leads me to a lot of internal anguish. And so it is very much a double-edged sword and competition expresses itself in both my professional life and especially in my personal life as well, and all my sporting activities and it no surprise that I do a lot of sport given what my strengths are on this questionnaire.
Just tell us a bit more about the kind of sporting activities that you get involved with…
Like most people, I watch sport so I will compete vicariously through other people and it’s nice that we’re sat here in the shadow of Old Trafford today so it is nice that we’re where the ultimate competition takes place!
(As a Liverpool supporter, I might edit that bit out!)
So I watch a lot of sport and I’ve always been interested in sport but I haven’t always been very good at it and when I was a child I was absolutely rubbish at it; I was overweight, I was fat, I had image problems, and I wasn’t that interested in participating because I didn’t think I could achieve anything. And that is relevant to what we’re talking about today because if I don’t feel that I’ve got even a slight chance of succeeding in anything, then I don’t even try and that was my story with sport when I was a child. Things change as you grow up, and your body changes, and your lifestyle changes, and your energy levels change, and I got into a lot of different sports.
My family play Crown Green bowls – not very many people know that – but we all play at a fairly high level in this country and I’ve been involved in representative matches around the place and managing representative teams. So, Crown Green bowls from a very young age has been a running theme of sport through my life and it is a sport that I’ve definitely plateaued at, I can’t get any better than I currently am, and I’m nowhere near the best (probably 2nd division, if there is such a thing) and that frustrates me because I feel that I could be better but there is something within me that is just preventing me and I haven’t figured out what this is yet. So, Crown Green bowls is something that occupies me a lot during the summer and it occupies the rest of the family as well (my son and my eldest daughter) and then my other main sport, which has come on stream in the last 6 years is triathlons. I got into triathlons because I was seeking challenge; when I got divorced about 8/9 years ago, I tried to reinvent myself and become somebody different and what helped in that is I lost a lot of weight at that time, so I suddenly had a number of different things; I had a new level of fitness that I’d never had before, and I had an awful lot of time on my hands that I’d never had before, and I had this desire to change who I was. So, those three things coming together led me into doing increasingly difficult and complex challenges on my own and it was a way of proving to myself that I was worth something so there was a purpose to it. And I started off doing long-distance walks, so I did the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge and I set myself the challenge of doing that with two other people, but as fast as we can, and you’re supposed to do it inside of 12 hours and we did it on the longest day of the year and we did it in about 9.5 hours. And I realised that I can do these kind of challenges and beat my own expectations. So the next one, I did the national three peaks challenge, and I did it on my own which is against all of the health and safety advice that you can ever get and it was a dangerous undertaking, but I did that inside of the 24 hours on my own and then I decided to do the Lyke Wake walk across the North Yorks Moors (44 miles in 24 hours) and that obviously involved walking in darkness in the North Yorks Moors and that was quite dangerous and I did that in about 18 hours. And then did a walking race on the Isle of Man called the parish walk , which was 80 miles in 24 hours on roads, and got disqualified part way through (which we won’t go into, and it rankles to this day!) but I was doing OK until I got disqualified. And then I decided I was running out of these kind of challenges and decided I was going to do something different and move into sporting things rather than long-distance walking and so my next challenge was to do a triathlon. I’d never done one before, didn’t really know what it was about. I knew it was swim/bike/run but, other than that, I didn’t have a clue. I signed up for one expecting to do just the one to say that I’d done it and could tick it off my list and could do something else next time. That was 6 years ago. 45 races later, I’m already entering 7 or 8 for next year and it is a very competitive environment and it plays to all the strengths that I think I’ve got and it ticks all the boxes that I need in terms of my own internal competition and competition against other people and give me a focus and I structure to what I do as well.
It is interesting looking at your top 2 talents, competition and achiever, I can see how triathlons and that kind of sporting activity would really feed those talents and give you an opportunity to apply them.
It does. Funnily enough, I went for a job interview about 18 months ago. I didn’t get the job and I came, as you always do, 2nd and the bit of feedback I got was interesting; It was an internal promotion that I didn’t get, and the Chief Exec was on the interview panel and he gave me some feedback; We’d talked about my sporting interest during the interview, because it was relevant to one of the questions. Afterwards, he said one of the reasons you didn’t get this job was because you are very focused on yourself, and achieving for yourself, and you put your own achievements often ahead of other people – or at least that was how it came across in the interview, and we wanted somebody for this job who was a bit more collaborative in their approach, who can bring other people with them. And he said, he could see why I do triathlons, because it is very much an individual sport where you are solely responsible for your own results and you’re not relying on other people and your achievements are your own. And he was right, he was very very right. But it was interesting that that was used to kind of justify not giving me a job at that time.
So, lets dig into that for a minute; what is it like to work with you as somebody with Competition/Achiever/Focus/Discipline, somebody who is really driven?
Well, on the downside, I find it hard to hide disappointment when I don’t achieve, I find it hard to hide disappointment if other people don’t achieve as well and I sense that that can make it very difficult to be around me at such times. On the plus side, I can be quite motivating to get myself to achieve and, where there is an element of competition and I can bring other people into that, I can be quite motivating in bringing a team along as well. But it is usually to achieve, rather than to develop or something else. So, I can see that is a double-edged sword. When I’m focusing on things, to the outside world I can appear quite withdrawn. And that is because I’m quite introverted – and that is a well-known fact – and I can be very confident but I don’t always outwardly appear confident. And in order to get the best from myself and to get myself in the right mindset, I need to withdraw from the outside world and I need to either sit alone in a quiet room or put the headphones on or focus on what is going on on my tablet or phone or something and that enables me to get the space in my own head to do it. And I think if you’re sat around me in the workplace, you will see that quite differently than I intend it to be and you might see it as being withdrawn and quiet and not being engaging with other people but it’s not; it is enabling me to do what I need to do to achieve. I can also be quite disciplined, and that’s another one on my top 5 list here, so I have a need to impose and work within structure in the workplace and in my whole life too. And that works very very well when it all goes to plan. It doesn’t always go to plan and I can sometimes get a bit tetchy when it doesn’t so that’s a big downside of being around me when things aren’t going to plan.
It’s interesting you and I are almost opposites in terms of some of our talent themes as we compare them, so things like WOO (winning others over) which is my number 2; so I love networking events, I love being out there and meeting new people. And I’ve seen you on stage at the HR Directors business summit present really well and I’ve seen you at networking events working the room. But I’ve also seen you go for a run or go somewhere quiet beforehand so you can prepare, and it’s interesting that you and I are complete opposites in that regard. If we go back to this Competition, this Achiever, this drive… a lot of the evidence around strengths tells us that they form at a really early age and then they hardly change throughout our life. And you can see the emergence of lots of these talent themes, even in young children. At what stage, would we have spotted these talents in you? At what age would we have spotted Competition, and Achiever, and Focus, and Discipline?
That’s an interesting question, I didn’t realise we’re going to go back into my childhood today! I agree with you on that one. Hindsight is a wonderful thing because you can look back at your own life and you can see certain events and certain milestones and you can recognise traits and qualities that you just didn’t recognise at the time. But, I think your family (and especially your parents) have a huge role to play in emphasising certain strengths at a young age and reinforcing your beliefs that these are the strengths you need to play. My parents were no different. Both my Mum and my Dad were doing it to different degrees, I think, and you can see from when I started school aged 5 that the desire to achieve and to be better was instilled in me particularly from my Mum. This is only in hindsight as I’m reflecting on this as we go along, but my Mum will often tell us of her humble beginnings, or did when I was a child. And would tell us how she fought to better herself and was quite proud of the things that she’d achieved in her own life and the changes she had made and how she wasn’t expected to amount to much but she’d exceeded all expectations. And I heard that story – or variations of it – a lot when I was growing up. And I was also told about family history, and that nobody had been to University and that all the males in the family worked in the salt mines in Winsford and that’s where I would end up if I didn’t do anything, and how my Mum wanted me to do what she’d done and better myself and escape the local town and the local industry and go off to University. So that was instilled in me from a very early age and, looking back, I can see that. And my Dad was more by example; I don’t think he ever told me anything like my Mum did, but my Dad was very much into sport (as I am now) and he was very competitive but he didn’t tell me about it, he just did it and I would see it and want to be like him so I was inspired by him and the sort of things he did. His sport was Crown Green Bowls, like one of mine is, so I was inspired to follow him into that and try to emulate his achievements. In different ways, you can see how these traits are coming into my childhood.
It is interesting: you are somebody who intuitively gets the strengths approach and you seem to have a high level of self-awareness. You get it. You do, to me, seem to be somebody who sees themselves for what they are, sees their own talents, and plays to their strengths. When did you get that? At what point did that come, or is that something that you’ve always done?
I think your strengths evolve over time and I recognise the strengths that I have now, but if you were to ask me 10 years ago I don’t think I would have given you the same list of strengths here and I think you are shaped by events and you are shaped by the people around you, and you are shaped by experience too – and lots of the strengths that I bring to the table at the moment have really come into the fore in the last 8/9 years or so since my divorce and since I tried to reinvent myself and try to re-focus my energies. Before that I don’t think I could I would have given all of those strengths the same emphasis as I do now. In terms of self awareness I think that being an introvert helps with that because you tend to reflect more naturally and you tend to spend a lot of time thinking about yourself and thinking about things and also analysing the way things go and the way things went. One of my strengths is Context and, obviously you know I was a history teacher and I have a history degree, and I’m interested in why things happen and I’m interested in the sequence of events or the chain of circumstances that lead to certain things happening so I’m very often when I got a flash point or if something happens I will track that back to figure out “well, they did this but before that someone else did that and that led to them doing that” and I’ll try to understand the cause of a certain event. And that does lead you to dwell on your own strengths because you think about things that you did very very well and things that didn’t go so well and the things that may have caused them in the past.
I was fascinated when I saw Context high for you because, again, that’s another area where you are the opposite of me as Context is really low for me (and Futuristic is really high) so my head is similarly thinking and never switching off but… it is normally imagining futures and thinking about how a situation could be in 5, or 10, or 20 years time and I guess a blindspot for me is ‘how did it come to be like this?’. So it is interesting for me to hear you talk about Context and I giggled to myself when I first saw this, as one of the examples I’ll often use with people is that people high in Context often have a real orientation to History as it is fascination with ‘how did it get to be like this?’
And that’s true for me, and I don’t use my history knowledge in anything other than pub quizzes nowadays but it comes in handy for those but studying history was always something I always liked doing because it was the study of the past and the study of events and the study of personalities and how all those things interacted by understanding what strengths people had at the time and to make events bend to their will or how people’s failure to use their strengths enabled them to be shaped by events. So it was always very interesting to me to look backwards rather than forwards and it’s something that I still do now. It’s the analysis of what went on is quite interesting and it does help in the workplace as well as it’s very good for looking at, again, organisational flashpoints and looking at well, what’s been going on, what’s happened to lead us to this situation. So you can look at a big organisational success or an individual success or the opposite and track those back so I do enjoy looking at the context quite a lot.
And just to go back to the point you made about your strengths sort of changing, that’s really interesting because if we draw a distinction between talents which is what Strengthsfinder’s measuring, it’s measuring patterns of thought feeling and behaviour, and they’re effectively potential strengths depending on how you apply them. Each of those has potential to be a strength. The research suggests that our talents don’t really change much over time so if we got you to take the Gallup Strengthsfinder assessment every five years, we don’t see much of a change. Some can change more than others but we don’t see a lot of it. I don’t want to dig into your personal life and past and go for the therapy approach but I am interested. My hunch when you’ve talked about reinventing yourself is actually if we had been talking a few months before that and we’d have got you to do Strengthsfinder, my hunch is that we’d have been looking at a very similar set of results in terms of your underlying talents and actually your process of what you described as reinvention, was actually you getting in touch and using your natural talents and becoming the real you. Does that make any kind of sense whatsoever?
Yes, it does and I’m not saying that these strengths weren’t prevalent at times gone by but my reliance on them might not have been there as much and so you’re right, it took something happening to make me think well, I have got some strengths, I was at a very very low ebb, and I needed to understand what the good things about me were and then play to those so, yes you’re right, that’s probably what I’ve done.
So, I don’t want to dig too deep but what’s the difference in you between not playing to your strengths – as you’ve had a go at in the past – and now knowing what they are and playing to them?
Well if things go well happiness is one thing that is a big difference. If I can achieve the things that I want to achieve then I’m happy. If I can prove myself against my own internal benchmarks or even external competition, I’m happy. If I can structure myself in a way that enables me to get stuff done, then I’m happy. So if I don’t do those things, I’m not saying that I’m unhappy but I’m not as happy as I should be. Not feeling as fulfilled.
Can we talk about weaknesses for a minute and weaknesses isn’t the stuff at the bottom of the list here because I’d describe those as lesser talents or non-talents. Those are just things that you don’t find as naturally easy to do, whereas a weakness can actually be a strength, a natural talent used badly or a weakness can be a lesser talent that causes you a problem by it being a lesser talent. What do you struggle with in terms of doing stuff? What doesn’t come easily to you?
Well I agree with you that weaknesses are sometimes the other side of strengths and like you say, the lesser talents I wouldn’t see as weaknesses but they are some of the things that don’t come as easy to me. We might look at the strengths and the flipside of them is weaknesses a bit later on perhaps but looking at my lesser talents, they are the opposite of yours as you mentioned, so things like WOO and Positivity, Adaptability are down at the bottom of my list but are much higher on your list. We met at a networking event, the Connecting HR Manchester event that you run and that was I think the first time we’d met although we’d spoken beforehand, and when I walked into that room and saw you for the first time, you were like a butterfly in that room and you often are when I see you at events still. You are constantly making connections with people and I don’t know whether you track it on your Fitbit but the number of steps you do around the Rainbar at Connecting HR must be in the thousands just in that couple of hours because you’re bouncing around the room and you can see you’re getting energy from the room and you’re enjoying yourself because of the amount of people in there and because you are bouncing about! And that’s something that I have to work very very hard to do, very hard. And that doesn’t mean that I can’t do it, and I can do it ok but it takes me an awful lot of preparation and mental fortifying of myself to be able to go into that space and to even do something that approaches what you were doing and even then, it’s like when you used to play Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on the arcade games, and the little runner had an energy meter that goes down as you do the 1500 meters, and no matter how hard you tap the little buttons, it’s still going down. That’s me when I’m with other people and it sounds wrong but other people sap my energy whereas I think other people replenish your energy and that’s why I find it difficult to be natural with other people and to do so for a protracted period of time. And whilst I can do it, it’s a big effort to do it and so I’ll struggle because it’s a continual expending of energy and at some point, and it could come very quickly, I have to withdraw and replenish those batteries and then come back, whereas I think you get recharged just by doing it.
I do and it’s interesting, I guess we’re coming to the heart of why I do all the work I do and why I do this podcast because we are all different, we all have natural talents, they all show up as different strengths and we’ve got a choice, we can either value the difference in what other people bring or we can get irritated by it. So I can’t be you, I’d find it exhausting to be you in the same way that you would find it exhausting to be me, but at the same time, when I look at you, I really admire you for what you are.
Thank you but whereas a human behaviour that I see all too often is that people judge each other and I get so wound up when people talk about competition as being bad. It isn’t, that’s just judging you for who you are. It’s not always applied well by people but I really want people to value that diversity and to be inclusive and if you and I worked together, we’re a team of two, because we know what we’re good at, and we appreciate each other’s talents, we could actually work really powerfully together, it becomes a really good complementary partnership.
Yes, I agree and the same is true in any kind of relationship, not just business relationships. I look at myself and my wife who were totally different individuals, very different. If you tried to match us up on Tinder or any kind of dating app, you would never never do so because we are so different, and yet there is something about when we come together and we judge each other’s strengths or lack of, that works, really works and we’ve become the whole is better than the two parts, if you know what I mean. So the same is true in relationships. But you mention about judging and recognising that people bring different things to it and I’ve been reflecting on this recently after the American election and there’s been three recent public votes in the last 18 months, the general election, the referendum and the US election that have surprised me in terms of their outcome. I’m not saying whether I agree with the outcome or not but the results surprised me in all three. And you look at your kind of network on social media, Twitter, LinkedIn and even on Facebook and people you hang around with and it looked like the results surprised all of those people too.
Yes same here.
And I’m thinking but at least 51% of the people voted in a way that surprised me so why don’t I know any of these 51%? What does that say about me and the conclusion that a few people helped me to reach on that one is that I might be in the echo chamber that Simon Heath talks about, in that I’m unconsciously filling my networks with people that are like me and that can’t be a good thing when you reflect on it. You do need people who are like you to be able to hold that mirror up to you but you do need people who are different. So at the moment I’m consciously trying to expand my personal learning networks to bring in people who think differently to me so you’ll find me following some strange people on Twitter sometimes and don’t judge me for that obviously but it’s just maybe to expose myself to different ideas and so on! I’m putting a blog together at the moment about professionalism and the CIPD’s role in it and I tweeted a couple of times about this at the conference a few weeks ago and got some strongly negative reactions so it’s going to become the focus of a blog but it’s interesting because I want to widen that debate, I want to expose myself to those different ideas and people have got some very strong views about the things that I’m putting forward but I want to hear those just to check whether my thinking is right and to challenge my own thinking. So you’re absolutely right, to go back to the original point, you do need people around you who are different.
And I agree very much about the different perspectives. It’s easy, was it Eli Pariser that did that Ted talk about the filter bubble and looked at how even your Google search results that are presented can be influenced by what you’ve searched before? So in my personal learning network and in the people I will sit down and have strategic lattes with, I’ve deliberately got a range of perspectives and I think I’m a better person for having them. I think it’s really important.
Can I ask you a bigger picture question because we’ve been talking about your career and about what you do at the moment, what drives you, what kind of impact do you want to make on the world? Why do you get out of bed in the morning?
Well when my eldest daughter was three she asked me “what do you do at work Daddy?” and I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried explaining HR to an adult let alone a 3 yr old but it’s difficult and the answer I settled on was that my job is to make people happy at work and that’s nine years ago now and I’ve still not managed to better that definition of HR – my role is to make people happy. Interestingly she was satisfied with that answer and she went off and came back with paints and starting doing some painting and because painting makes her happy she felt that I must be involved in painting somehow and that must be what I do at work because that was all she could think of at the time that made people happy. There’s something in that I guess in that my role is to paint a picture for people of how they can contribute to organisations and how they can become the best in themselves and contribute to the organisation better than they currently do. So I get a lot of energy from working with people and understanding their motivations and unlocking their talents in many ways that you do as well. Helping them to understand the role they play in organisations and how they can do it more effectively. And there’s a range of ways in which they can do that and then by extension helping organisations to become more effective. So I can operate at the individual level but I can operate at the organisational level too and I suppose both of those are kind of OD, development work, but it’s about organisational effectiveness and the component parts of that and some of it’s about systems, some of it’s about process, some of it’s about people, some of it’s about culture and all of those things are things that I like to work on and make more effective.
And I see you doing that in your day job but I also see you doing that outside in terms of speaking at conferences and blogging and other things like that. How do they all fit together and why do you blog?
OK – I blog for a few reasons. Partly it’s my way of getting my thoughts in order and because I’m a disciplined person and I like to focus on things and put a context, and I’m reading from my list of strengths at the moment, but I’m also deliberative and so on. These are all things that lend themselves to the written word and particularly the context because I studied history and am used to writing essays and used to writing debates and counterpoint arguments and I’m used to expressing myself at length in the written word. So one thing you’ll see in my blogs is that they tend to be a lot longer than other people’s blogs simply because I’ve got a lot of thoughts and I want to get them down and I like to express them in a lot of different ways. So blogging enables me to get it out of my head which is an important thing for me and it develops my thinking simply by committing it to writing so it helps me in that regard. I blog like many of us do to raise my profile as well and you never know where that might lead and some of it leads onto conference speaking and so on and vice versa but I blog to make sense of the world and things happen and I read articles and I read journals and other people’s blogs and I’ve got a view on that and I think I need to work that through and many people would sit down and talk with other people to work it through. I’m not a good talker, I’m not someone who can handle the cut and thrust of a conversation very well and leave it feeling like I’ve done something because I’ll often then get in the car and driving home I’ll think, “do you know what, I wish I’d said that”. It’s too fast for me that kind of conversation so I need to write it down and respond that way to people. So I blog in order to play to my strengths I think.
And again I think that’s interesting because for me the way I develop my thoughts is sitting down and having a coffee with somebody else and talking and I blog for impact, I blog because I want to promote playing to your strengths and being resilient. Actually blogging is probably one of the hardest things I do. I find the process really difficult.
Whereas I don’t. All I need is the spark of inspiration, one line or one idea and I can build a whole blog around that because I’ve usually got thinking time. Thinking time for me is important and a blog doesn’t necessarily take 20 minutes to write, although some do, but it doesn’t take long, a blog will take me a couple of hours at most to do and there’s not a long editing process in that. Once it’s done I press publish and off it goes because the editing takes place in my head. It’s already done by the time I’m typing which is a different way of doing it I guess. You mentioned conference speaking as well and I do as much of that as I can and I enjoy that and that’s partly me playing to my strengths because I enjoy and I feel I’m good at standing up and talking in front of a room where I’m in control of the situation. At conference speaking you tend to be in control and you’ve pre-prepared your material, you’ve got an allocated time slot and you’re allowed to speak on a topic you’ve been allocated and done some thinking about or you’ve chosen yourself so it works very well for me because I can do all the preparation up front.
So can I ask about that then. CIPD Northern Area Partnership. There was a session of Ignite talks and I sat there ready to blog some of your thoughts and I didn’t write a single word because I was absolutely gobsmacked to hear the best Ignite presentation I’d ever heard in my life! And I told you that at the point. Just say a little bit about that because it doesn’t surprise me that if you’re going to do an Ignite presentation it’s going to be the best.
Well yes, thank you for saying that, and I still get a lot of compliments, even to this day. Yesterday I was getting some as well from people who had seen it and people said some really kind and generous things that day so I got a lot from it.
So how much work went into that?
Well it took place in June and I think I was asked to do it round about the beginning of February so I had 4 and a bit months to do it. Immediately I thought I want to do the best Ignite presentation that anybody’s ever seen. I’d never done one before so I wasn’t competing against my own benchmarks but I knew who the other people doing Ignite presentations were with me and one of them was Tim and I like Tim, he’s a great guy and a good friend, and we both know Tim, but I’d seen Tim do two Ignites at that point so I had a benchmark already and so I knew I had to equal Tim and Tim set the bar very very high, he was brilliant so I knew I had to match him and somehow go past him and then I thought well I need to see some other Ignites and I saw you do one in Birmingham and I saw you and Tim do another one in Manchester in May and Gemma as well and a couple of other people, so I was gathering the data of what other people were doing and thinking well, they’re pitching themselves at this kind of level and so I need to be at least at that level.
In fact we had a conversation by Twitter DM where you asked me about what I’d done to prepare and I shared all of my learning, thoughts and experiences and you then went and used that to do a far better Ignite presentation than I’d done!
Yes, I did because that’s me preparing, that’s me doing my research, that’s me understanding the context of how you delivered your Ignite in asking you what the background was and what led up to it, and because you’re so happy to share and everything I knew you’d give me an honest answer and Ignite’s not a competition between people. I’ve seen some Ignites that are done that way but most aren’t, most are just individuals speaking and doing their own thing, but in my own head it was a competition and so I needed to do something good. I knew straightaway I wanted to do it poetry style within minutes of being asked, I thought it would lend itself to that because you get a time slot and you’ve got to stick to it, so initially I was going to do it as a song and I thought well a song’s about 5 minutes long, but then I realised that I can’t sing so even though we talked about my strengths earlier on and saying if there’s something I’m not good at I don’t bother, well I’m not good at singing so I don’t bother doing it. But I am good at writing and I am good at writing lyrics for songs and so it’s only a short jump to make it into poetry at that point. So I thought I can use my strengths in that to develop a good presentation. So I put it together and it took a while. I probably did a couple of hours a week on it over a period of about 10-12 weeks of writing ideas down and then crafting them into lines and I had it ready about a month beforehand and did my first run through about a month beforehand and it was way too long so I had to change it and got very obsessive about particular words and I know far too many words so I can be quite clever with wordplay now and again and that is something that lots of people don’t like about me because I use some big words now and again, at home as well as in work. And people will often stop me and say “what does that actually mean, can’t you just give us the real word?” and I’m like, “OK fine”. But I got obsessed with the words and the number of syllables and I had to practise it and it was down to the second but even then I wasn’t sure, even on the day that I was confident enough to carry it through. And I was at that conference all day and there were some fantastic speakers all through that day and I’m thinking “later on today I’m going to be stood where they are talking to this group of people sat where I am right now” and I’ve spoken at conferences bigger than this so it’s not a problem about confidence of speaking per se but I’m doing something very different and it could horribly backfire on me and I’m doing a poem and a lot of it’s lighthearted although there were some serious messages in there, is it too lighthearted and too different for a conference like this? Even minutes beforehand I was having that internal debate and this is why I had not told anyone what I was doing because I thought that I might back out and I had another Ignite prepared using the same slides and that was just a standard Ignite. Even as Tim stood up and he was first and I was third, as Tim was doing his I was still making my mind up about what to do and as Tim sat down and Sam got up who was second, I just decided I’m going to go through with it, I’m going to do it. And that’s because I wanted to achieve, I wanted to do something different, I wanted to do something unique and I think it worked quite well. It seemed to go down pretty well and I enjoyed doing it.
Here’s the video of Gary reproducing the Ignite talk:
I think quite well is an understatement! And it is interesting to see how you’ve used your talents, you’ve used your strengths to achieve and to succeed. Can we talk a bit about what it’s like to be you about what goes on in your head? Because I’m always interested about mindset. Nobody ever seems to have a clue about what it’s like to be anybody else. People have really skewed perceptions. Just kind of briefly, what’s it like to be you?
Well it’s a nightmare! I have this constant internal dialogue with myself about what’s going on and about the way things are unfolding and that’s me seeking context, that’s me trying to be focussed, that’s me being deliberative over events, that’s me trying to put structure onto things and I’m constantly trying to improve the way things are and the way people are and the way I am. And I’m very self-critical, probably to excess I think, and that stems from the competition and the achiever kind of thing, that if I don’t sense I’ve given my best, I’m not happy for the rest of the day. I try, for example, to go out for a run most days at lunchtime. If I don’t go out for a run at lunchtime, like today I’ve got a lunchtime meeting so it’s impossible, I’ll be fairly grumpy for the rest of the day. I could go out tonight and that’s not a problem but inbetween times I’ll be quite grumpy because I will feel like I’ve not achieved something at lunchtime in terms of my own day to day goals and I’ll feel I’ve missed off so I’ll be grumpy. I’ll also feel it, when I do go out for a run, I’ll measure myself. We’ve all got wearable technology nowadays and I’m the same, and I’ll have my virtual pacer on and things like that, every 15 seconds or so it will beep to tell me I’m on at or behind pace and that’s like being shot every time I go behind pace! And the internal dialogue at that point is terrible. I have a lot of self talk where if other people said to me the things that I say to me, I’d punch them!
Oh that’s common in terms of self talk that we let ourselves have an inner dialogue that we’d never let anybody else get away with.
But what that does mean though is that I rarely relax, I find relaxation very difficult to do. I can do it but I need to have cleared the decks first. I can’t relax if I know I’ve got something to do and so that makes life quite stressful. I can’t compare myself to other people, I don’t know what it’s like to be other people, but it isn’t easy being me!
So you said life can be quite stressful and I didn’t mean to laugh as a response to that, it’s only because you were laughing when you said it, but how do you deal with that, how do you look after your wellbeing and your resilience? What sort of things do you do?
Physical exercise is my main outlet for dealing with stress and pressure situations so if I didn’t have my fitness regime which focusses on my triathlons, but if I didn’t have that focus and the way of expending energy, I think I would really really struggle and I don’t really want to find out. It would be easy to stop running, swimming and cycling for a couple of weeks and just see but I’m scared of doing that, I don’t want to do that, partly because of the impact on my fitness but partly because of the impact on my mental wellbeing. I need that space and time that these activities give me, particularly swimming is good for that, particularly swimming because there is a monotomy about it that helps me to switch off completely, but even then I start competing against myself and the clock and so on so it’s difficult sometimes. Yes relaxation is very very difficult for me to do and I do get quite stressed so physical activity is a big help. Home life helps me to relax as well. I like it when, particularly my wife takes the mickey out of me, because it reminds me that I’m not this big shot HR person that I sometimes portray myself to be, that I’m a real person, I’m a husband, I’m a father and I’ve got other responsibilities other than blogging and tweeting and things like that and helping organisations and it stops me getting carried away and it grounds me sometimes. So she’ll often call me on things and tell me that I’m talking rubbish and she’ll read my blogs sometimes and she’ll tell me that it’s crap and you know if I’m ever getting too self obsessed, she’ll have a go at me and I need that in my life, I need someone around me to point the finger at me and to mentally give me a slap from time to time.
And that’s a diverse support network isn’t it when we’ve got lots of different perspectives as well?
Final question, what do you wish you’d known when you were younger? What have you figured out that it would have been easier if you’d figured out a little bit earlier in your life?
Regrets? Well I always think it’s better to regret things you’ve done than things you’ve not done and you could spend a long time thinking about particular things that you did that you wish you hadn’t done and a lot of time thinking about opportunities that you wished you’d had. A lot of mine are to do with social life at a time that I’ll never get back, round about University and A levels and I wish I’d been a different person then. I discovered things like women and alcohol quite late and I think I missed out on quite a lot of fun in my early years. I also wish I’d travelled a lot more. I’ve not got the time to do it now because I’ve got too many responsibilities but I would have loved to take a year out and go travelling around the world and I still will, I’ll just be a lot older when I do it, but I wish I’d done that. I wish I’d realised what my strengths were at a much earlier stage as well so the success that I have on my sporting activity now in triathlons is really good but it’s come to me in my late 30’s early 40’s. If I’d started 20 years earlier, how good could I have been and I always wonder that. Likewise I didn’t get into HR until I was 26 and that’s not late but I feel like I’ve missed out on at least another 5 years of doing good stuff. Where could I have been in my career if I’s started 5 years earlier? So I’ve got a really clear understanding of what my strengths are now and how I can use them to best effect but I wish I’d known that 5, 10 even 20 years earlier and I just wonder where I could have been.
So if people want to connect with you and find out more about you and your blogging where can people find you online?
On Twitter is the main way of finding me, I’m @Gary_Cookson and you can connect with me on LinkedIn as well, Instagram, any social media you care to find me. But if you find me on Twitter you’ll get links to other stuff from there. Gary’s blog: http://hrtriathlete.blogspot.co.uk
So Gary Cookson, just to say thanks for being so honest and so open and it’s been a real pleasure to hear lots about competition and context and to hear some real stories about how you really have found your strengths and you get to play to them. So thanks for sharing that with us today.
Thank you Ian, thank you very much.
(Music courtesy of the very talented Isaac Indiana)