Cam Graham on assumptions, leadership, and change

Rohan: I met Cam on my first consulting project. The project was a massive post merger integration in the Middle East and Cam was leading the program. I knew I’d learn lots from Cam the moment I met with him. While we only managed to make time for 2 meals (i.e. 2 one-on-one conversations!), we went on to stay in close touch. I owe Cam a big thank you for many learnings over the years – the biggest of which was undertaking a journey to understand myself better and be comfortable with myself.

Cam has influenced many a point of view over these years and I’ve learnt a lot from his questions. I enjoyed this interview as it gave me an opportunity to ask him many a question!

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

About Cam

Cam Graham helps organisations lead significant change.  His expertise is helping senior leaders connect strategy, people, processes and systems in ways that deliver breakthrough results.

Using a unique blend of coaching, consulting and action learning, Cam works with clients to develop and deploy their people in leading change.  Should additional external expertise be required, Cam is adept at helping clients source and manage the right resources for the job.  His goal is to leave clients fully capable of sustained success.

Cam has partnered with some of the world’s most prestigious independent, mid-tier and global consulting firms—a-connect, BSC Balanced Scorecard Collaborative (now Palladium), BST Behavioural Science Technology, Capgemini, CSC Index, Four Communications, IMD Switzerland, Ivey School of Business, Johnston Smith International (now Oliver Wyman), KBC Advanced Technologies, Ken Blanchard Companies, KPMG, Partners in Change, PricewaterhouseCoopers, SAP and Solomon Associates.


Interview Transcript


Rohan:  Why do you do what you do now, and how did you begin doing this?  What was the back-story of you growing up?  What were the influences, and how did it lead to what you’re doing right now?

Cam:  That’s a great question, Rohan.  But before I jump into that I just want to say congratulations to you and your colleagues on the Real Leaders project.  It’s a fantastic initiative and you’ve done a spectacular job so far. Well done.

Part of what has driven my story from the very beginning is insatiable curiosity.  Even as a young boy growing up in Canada, I was always in trouble with my parents.  I was fascinated with how things worked.  I would take apart the toaster, the radio, or the television.  And of course, I could never put it back together.  I think my parents were really happy when they saw me channel my curiosity into science.  I went on to study engineering at the university.  I was really driven by wanting to understand the physical world.  How do things operate?  How do they work?  How do they fit together?  While I was fascinated with that intellectually, I found that engineering wasn’t going to be a profession for me.  It didn’t excite me enough.

When I left the university, I went to work in the oil and gas business.  I channeled my curiosity into business and finance.  How do companies work?  Like many of us in our twenties, I was obsessed with getting a career, making money, and getting started in life.  Those were all of the things that drove me.  The oil and gas industry back in that era was going through a time of major change and consolidation.  In the first ten years, during my twenties, the business was full of opportunity, excitement, and challenge.  By the time I entered my thirties, I was starting to realize that the physical world wasn’t as important as I was making it out to be.  People played a much larger role than I had realized.  No matter how many good ideas we had, or how smart we were to figure out all the right answers, it didn’t matter unless people were willing to get behind us to make it work.  It was a big change for me.  I re-assessed where I was channeling my energy and attention.

At that point in my life, and still to this day, my curiosity is channeled toward what makes us tick as people.  What motivates us?  Why do we move in a certain direction versus another?  What brings us joy?  I spent most of my thirties doing that in business.  The gas industry tends to be a scientific industry.  It’s not very people-friendly.  It’s more about assets, and molecules, and those types of things.  It was a challenge trying to get the people equation going.  Like many of us in our late thirties or early forties, I started to ask myself personal questions.  What’s my purpose?  What am I doing?  How is my life turning out?  And as I entered my forties I realized that what I had been doing for the first twenty years of my professional career was doing things that I was good at.  I wanted to accomplish things.  I wanted to be recognized.  That wasn’t always bringing me the joy that I wanted to feel in life.  I made a promise to myself as I went into my forties.  I called it my freedom fifty plan.  It wasn’t about financial freedom, like a lot of the U. S. insurance commercials, but more about freedom from doing work that I didn’t like doing, even though I was good at it.  That took me almost ten years to accomplish.   That is what started me in a career of consulting.  I was getting outside of the corporate world and changing my attention from trying to change corporations from the inside to working with more corporations and helping them change from the outside.

Then, as I entered my fifties I started to realize that I had devoted a lot my life to North America, and sometimes Europe, but I really didn’t understand much about the world and the people of the world.  I had a fantastic opportunity to work in the Middle East.  I now live in the Middle East and it has been a spectacular experience for me.  My curiosity is fed every day by new things.  Like the sandstorm surrounding us here today.  It’s another fascinating learning experience for me.



Rohan:  How did you come to pick change management, and why?  Did you always know, or was this a result of some spreadsheet analysis?  How did you come to that decision?

Cam:  A lot of people always want to label things.  That’s how we understand things, sort them, and put them in their place in the world.  A lot of people call what I do change management.  I don’t really see it that way.  I’m not even sure you can manage change.  For me, it’s more about improving things.  I’ve always been driven.  Even as a child, once I started figuring out how to put the toaster back together, I was curious about how to make the toaster better.  

As a young manager and early executive, it was always about making the organization I was responsible for better.  Later on, that changed into helping people get better.  It started out as making them better.  Today, I’m wise enough to realize that you can’t make people better, they can only choose for themselves.  It’s not new; it’s just something that’s evolved.  It’s always been about helping things get better.   My curiosity helps me understand them.  It’s about change.  It’s not new; it’s just evolved in terms of the size of the playground.  That’s the only difference.



Rohan:  You’re working with organizations to make them better.  A lot of that happens during periods of change.  When we met, it was during a post-merger integration.  With what assumptions, if any, do you go into something like this?  Do you look at organizations broadly as a manifestation of people, or is it much more complex than that?  How do you go about dealing with a monster such as a change for a ten thousand people organization? 

Cam:  The word assumption hits a hot button with me.  I try really hard not to go into any situation with assumptions.  It’s the number one tripping point for me.  That’s hard when you’ve been doing something for a long time, and you’ve seen it many times, and it starts looking and sounding exactly the same as the last one.  I’ve seen many consultants I’ve worked with do that, instantly jumping to conclusions and solutions.  While it often has a positive effect in terms of getting something happening quickly, my experience is that it doesn’t result in a meaningful and sustainable change.  I try as best as I can to go in with a clean slate.

If I change the word assumptions to beliefs, I do believe that all businesses are about people at the end of the day.  Without question, depending on the industry you’re in, you need all sorts of other things.  You need all sorts of brilliant ideas, scientific breakthroughs, marketing plans, and all those things.  There isn’t a business or an organization on the planet that is successful without people doing something.  The Real Leaders project wouldn’t be anything without you and your colleagues behind it.  It wouldn’t be anything without people like me helping you by participating.  I do believe in that very deeply.

I also believe that no matter how many times I’ve been told in my life that we’re all different, and we need to respect our differences, that we are more similar than we sometimes are willing to accept.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect the differences, but sometimes we get obsessed with them.  Eighty percent of us are essentially the same.  We’re the same people with the same motives, the same drives, and the same needs regardless of our religion, our ethnicity, or our profession.  That’s been a good guide for me as I’ve ventured into many different types of organizations to see if I can help.



Rohan:  One of the big parts of what you do is being an executive coach. You’ve obviously worked with many real leaders.   Is there anything that you’ve seen in common amongst these folks in their careers?  Has there been a consistent theme in their personalities, or character?  What has your observation been from having coached and worked with so many executives?

Cam:  Let me share with you a couple of things that other people helped me see.  I wish I could tell you I had figured them out or observed them for myself.   One of them was from a university professor who was also a part-time consultant and we were working on a project together.  It was a leadership program for a large corporation.  The senior executives decided that they wanted to bring the nineteen most talented up-and-coming risers in the company in for a week to work with them and have an educational experience, and to recognize them for being shining stars.  One late night, as we were going through all these details, he shared two things with me that have stuck with me ever since.

One was that we were about to invite the most insecure people in the company into this session, even though they’re incredibly accomplished.  At first my brain wanted to reject that notion, but before I could even open my mouth, I was convinced that it was true.  One of the things that I do believe drives many people to the so-called success and greatness that we label so strongly in the western world is incredible insecurity.  They are driven to succeed by someone else’s standard and to get an A or an A+.  I do find that’s a quality of many leaders in business that I work with.  Those that are most successful have learned to tame that and become humble in the process, and become more secure.  For many people it just takes time.  Most of us are slow learners, like me, and it takes us twenty or thirty years.  Every once in a while you run into somebody that’s remarkably talented and wise at a very young age.

The other is that, the ones who overcome adversity just refuse to accept that things can’t happen.  No many how many facts or how many people tell them that it’s impossible; they are just determined to find a solution.  Those are two simple ones, but powerful ones.



Rohan:  We come into another topic, which is insecurity and self-confidence.  It’s an interesting topic because from my observations, some of the highest elite organizations and universities in the world are often a breeding ground of extremely insecure people who are out there to prove a point.   If insecurity leads you to success, does it necessarily lead you to happiness?  And where do the self-confident people go?

Cam:  I heard from you the conclusion that insecurity leads to success.  I’m not convinced of that at all.  You asked me about the qualities of people that were successful, and I said that I find a lot of them are insecure.  There are a lot more insecure people who never see success.  Does this lead to happiness?  I don’t know the answer to that question.  I really believe deep down in my soul that happiness is something we’re all trying to figure out for our entire time here.  I’m not sure anybody ever really has the answer.  I know I don’t.  I’m not the one to give you an answer to that question.



Rohan:  Do you think all of the leaders you deal with were born leaders, or did they become leaders?  How much of it is nature, and how much of it is nurture?   And there’s another implication to this question. I’m sure in a lot of places you go, they talk about leadership development as a concept.  Do you believe in this concept?

Cam:  There are many schools of thought on this.  I’ll share with you my beliefs around it.  As much as I hate to accept it, I actually do believe that there is something innate about people who seem to succeed in leading others.  I was, and still tend to be, the type of person who always wanted to believe in everybody.  A lot of scientific investigation over my lifetime has told me the opposite.  Not everyone is equal.  Not everyone can make it.  If you give everyone a paintbrush, they won’t be Picasso.  I do believe there are innate qualities about successful people.  I don’t think there’s a formula for it, though.

I think many different people find the path to success in their own unique way.  Some leaders are bigger than life and are about inspiring people, and others, not so much.  They’re just brilliant behind the scenes like the Wizard of Oz.  They’re pulling the levers.  There are many different formulas for success.  In my work, that’s one of my first obligations to them. I try to figure out what that is about them, so we can make that the fullest and brightest in its moment.  It’s often not about overcoming weaknesses.  We spend so much time, especially in western culture, trying to fix what’s broken with us.  I think we have to manage those things.  We have to make sure we’re mitigating risks or severe damage but more and more know who we really are and what our strengths are and let those flourish.  That’s part one.

Part two of your question was about leadership development.  I absolutely do believe that we can all develop as leaders.  We can all become more effective.  I don’t believe that most of the stuff out there is all that helpful.  It’s highly programmatic, it’s mechanistic, and it’s obsessed with the concept that knowledge acquisition is the key to all success.  That’s not consistent with my experience of life.  It’s not that knowledge isn’t important, but that it’s just a very, very small part of the equation.

One of the most powerful ways of helping people develop as leaders is to put them in leadership situations.  Let them figure it out.  Let them survive.  If you can offer them some wise and helpful coaching, not instructional coaching, it’s all the more powerful.  Those have been the most significant forms of leadership development I’ve seen.   It’s not that there isn’t a place for training or programs just left to their own.  My experience and the science that I’ve read for the last years have suggested that the payback for that is minimal.



Rohan:  One thing that I find is that until we are seventeen or eighteen, we have a board of directors in our parents.  They guide us, help us along the way, and are our coaches when necessary.  And then you jump into university and you’re in a completely free world.  And that carries on until you find a boss.   What I’ve found is that having coach-like figures or wiser friends has been immensely helpful.  It’s nice to have somebody challenging your beliefs and giving you a sense of what life is like on the other side.  Is this something you have observed in the executives you’ve trained?  Are the ones who seek out coaching proactively or who have had coaches in better places?  Or is this more of a personal thing where some people need it and some people don’t?  How does coaching fit into this whole thing?  Should people seek out coaches?

Cam: My answer to all of your questions is yes.  Unfortunately, there’s not a simple answer or a simple formula in my experience.  I do find that the people who seem to be the most effective have the ability to listen or to be guided by others in some way.  Some people’s egos are just too big.  Even those people are incredibly focused on understanding what others do.  A more scientific approach might be to study other people’s research, find out their practices, and then adopt them.  For some people it’s finding wise counsel.

For many others and me, I’m not sure we grow up with the board of directors in our childhood.  While that brings some adversity, I know that has put me in search of others to provide me with guidance from a very young age.  I feel incredibly fortunate for all the incredible people I’ve met in my life who I’ve learned something from.  I think that in some ways that was opportunity, but in some ways you also have to see it as opportunity.  We have to check our ego, close our mouths, open our ears, and listen.  As I get older, I think it’s more about listening than it is about anything else.  



Rohan:   Are there are any practical things you do that help you stay productive, be organized, and live a better life?  Are there any simple things you would like to share that others could potentially implement?

Cam:  All I can do is share with you my own experience, and that hasn’t always been successful.  My approach to those things has changed a lot over my lifetime. Some of it is about wisdom and some of it is about circumstance.  As a young person, raising a young family and working as a junior person in a corporation, a lot of your life is managed for you.  It’s more about survival tactics than anything else.  It’s about getting through all the ups and downs, and keeping it all checked.  Those more basic organizational skills such as pausing to listen and acting accordingly were a big part of my early life.

One of the things I love about today’s world is the abundance of information.  Google is my best inanimate friend.  It’s amazing to me.  When I was in school we had to go get a book out of the library, and check it out, and hope it was there.  At the same time, that information can be overwhelming.  It can be distracting.  So many young, talented, intelligent people are obsessed with getting more and more information.  This makes me wonder about two things.  One is how can your brain handle it all without exploding?  Secondly, and this is just a part of my personality and psychological makeup, is what are you going to do with it all?

For me, it’s really about simplifying my life and simplifying decision making, and that usually comes down to having principles.  No matter what I am bombarded with at any given moment, I know what my principles are.  I won’t be confounded by the situation or the amount of variables.  The other is to start slowly developing a number of mental models – your beliefs with a bit of structure around them.  No matter whose new quote of the day I hear or new fantastic eight step process that somebody’s come up with, rather than trying to contain those things in my memory somewhere, it’s more about integrating those into my own set of mental models and belief systems.  I keep it simple even though it’s incredibly complex behind the scenes.  It’s kind of like an iPhone – simple to use on the touch screen, but probably very hard to understand and build on the inside.



Rohan:  Is there an idea that inspires you that you would like to share?  

Cam:  There are probably many.  The one that I run into and have to remind myself of most often is to not assume.  Don’t jump to conclusions; don’t be too quick to judge.  Just pause.  Always give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  It’s about human interaction.  There’s no need to usually rush as much as most of us do.  That one I run into every day and have to remind myself of a hundred times a day.

Thank you Cam, for that eye-opening interview. Your understanding and insights are so deep and yet so simple. We guess wisdom usually comes with experience, like you said.

Real Leaders Team