The Potential for What? Podcast: Episode 4 – Richard Sinclair MBE

Nurturing potential (like a Bonsai Tree) with Richard Sinclair MBE – The Potential for What? Podcast

This week Jo Taylor Founder & MD at Let’s Talk Talent welcomes Richard Sinclair MBE, Chief Operating Officer at Zzoomm to the show.

We talk about Richards eclectic and impressive career, how he hopes he hasn’t reached his potential yet, and how to avoid distractions.

In today’s episode we talk about:

🎓 The importance of education.

👂 Why listening is vital.

✈️ Avoiding over-promotion. All too often when you’re promoted, you’re promoted further away from the skill that you love doing.

📈 How potential can be something to help you do more, or do the things you can already do better.

❓ How it’s important to understand that people you’re working with will have different ways of solving problems.

🪴 Why we might be better to think of people’s potential like a Bonsai tree.

🛁 Relentless pursuit of improvement, and how to remove vibrant distractions.

Join us on our fourth episode of our new “The Potential for What? Podcast”. We’ve got a lot to get through, so let’s jump straight in.

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Transcript of Episode 4: The Potential for What? Podcast with Richard Sinclair MBE

Potential for What? #4

Jo Taylor  00:04

Welcome to the Potential for What podcast. On this podcast we explore how a range of business leaders unlock the potential in people. We’ll hear how they’ve done it, find out what’s worked, what hasn’t and why this is so important in getting and keeping great people. Most businesses focus on the here and now – that is, all about performance. But at Let’s Talk Talent we like to think differently, as we fundamentally believe everyone has potential. The question is for what? So let’s explore that together. I’m your host, Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent, a talent management and organisational development consultancy based in London, UK. I have a request: if you value this show, if you enjoy these stories, or find this wisdom or inspiration useful, please subscribe to the Potential for What podcast to listen to future episodes.

Jo Taylor  00:55

So welcome to the next episode of the Potential for What podcast I’m super excited that I’ve got Richard Sinclair here today. He’s the Chief Operating Officer at Zzoomm. Now don’t get excited. It’s not the zoom that we know and love, or loathe to hate – it’s much more sexy than that. But I’m super excited that I’m going to be talking to you today Richard. How are you?

Richard Sinclair  01:18

Thanks very much, Jo, and thanks for the introduction. I, of course, describe it as the “exciting” zzoomm.

Jo Taylor  01:23

I love it, not the one that sucks your soul at the end of the day, right?

Richard Sinclair  01:28

Well, we certainly spent far too many hours on Zoom and Teams during lockdown. So I’m glad to be mostly free of that burden.

Jo Taylor  01:35

Brilliant. So let’s dive into the Potential for What podcast, and I ask everybody this at the beginning. And I really want to understand your definition of potential. How do you define potential?

Richard Sinclair  01:48

For me, I think potential is about how you can do more, or do the thing you do better. So it’s very broad and that thing is really dependent on the situation, it could be about how you make more money, and you know, the trading environment. Or it could be how you get better at your skill. It’s really about how you can do more with what it is that you’ve been blessed with.

Jo Taylor  02:14

As a leader, a chief operating officer, what’s your philosophy in how you develop your talent, and how important does performance and potential play in the way that you develop and you lead your people?

Richard Sinclair  02:28

I think it’s hugely important, Jo. You know, I’m very fortunate that I see potential in everyone. I’m really lucky in Zzoomm, that I’ve got a number of people that I’ve worked with previously, at all levels in the business. You know, even now, I test them with every conversation, to see if I can give them more responsibility; if I can expose them to new challenges. But I’m also alert to my own weakness. A word of caution really, that, particularly in small businesses, over-promotion is really easy to do. And you can foist your ambition and your potential onto someone else who might not quite be ready for it. It is hugely important, but it has to be managed very, very carefully.

Jo Taylor  03:15

So how have people spotted your potential? Because you’ve had for, you know, listeners, you’ve had an eclectic career, and I’ve known you for a long time from when we worked at TalkTalk together. But before that you did other things. How have people spotted potential in you, and how has that helped you move into your leadership journey?

Richard Sinclair  03:33

That’s a great question. And who knows how they spotted potential. I’m just very flattered that you say that, and that I’ve experienced it. It’s one of these words that is often best described by others about you, rather than being vain and describing it about your self. But there’s probably you know, four or five different things that I think is really important in developing potential – and has been very important in developing my potential. Don’t underestimate the importance of education, particularly education in leadership and management. And as you say, my first career was in the military. And I was really lucky to be a student at the Joint Services Advanced Command and Staff College where I had the unbelievable luxury of two years of leadership and management education in a very safe environment, both literally and figuratively, before being exposed to the rigours of management, literally in what I describe as wartime, in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I would also say that what has been particularly important as I moved from there into financial services was this ability to listen to others. And I remember spending a lot of time listening to investment managers in the mornings, early in the mornings before the market opened, running the rule over companies selecting what they described as the wheat from the chaff which I always thought was a very brutal explanation, but it did give me a good understanding of what investors and particularly private investors, private equity investors really want to see in their companies. And therefore, what do the people need to look like, what do the people need to do, in order to drive that success?

Jo Taylor  05:19

Do you think that we can get a bit obsessed around performance and potential. So I’m seeing that a lot in organisations where they’re sort of, in a way, not being able to differentiate between the two. So you might talk to a leader in succession planning, for example, around “that person is a high performer”, but they don’t necessarily have the right credentials. It’s not necessarily about education per se, but it’s more about mindset or agility to then move into, I don’t know, a CFO position, for example. How can we stop people getting confused with the two? And what can we do to in a way, enable people to have that, as you say, “talent is universal” mindset,

Richard Sinclair  06:00

I’d definitely be guilty as charged, as being one of those people who gets hugely excited about potential and developing the potential in all of our people. So you know, I’m probably as guilty as some of the people that you’re referring to there. But it is very different to performance. I think, in my own business at the moment, of someone who is incredibly talented at the role that they do. And I would say I would describe their ability as truly exceptional. They’ve been continuously recommended and had plaudits from peers, subordinates and superiors around the business for their ability, and their performance. But actually, I know having had those detailed conversations with them, that their domestic situation is such that right now, they don’t want to take on any more. So it’s a question for me as a leader of being there, letting them know that I’m there, letting them know that I’m willing to give support to nurture their potential when they’re ready to move to the next step, but equally enjoying the performance that they are delivering. And yes, that’s just a little story, a little anecdote of someone that’s working with me in Zzoomm at the moment. But I think it applies so often in businesses that I’ve been in, in the past, and hopefully situations in the future, where actually, let’s not underestimate the importance of getting great performance today, but also let’s celebrate the opportunity that we might have tomorrow to develop people into even more demanding roles.

Jo Taylor  07:37

So how much does mentoring, coaching and ultimate sponsorship of talent, enable organisations to thrive and invest in the right people? You know, we like to say, “if you have the right people in the right roles, with the right skills, doing the right thing”, how much does that softer element, which I think some people think mentoring and coaching and sponsorship is, plays a part in, not only spotting it, but also developing and nurturing it.

Richard Sinclair  08:05

I would say, it’s vital. Coaching and mentoring in my own career has been absolutely vital, both as a participant and as a mentor. I think it’s actually the ability to reflect during those sessions, both before, during and after those sessions, where you can reflect on what it is that’s needed for your progression, for your partner’s progression in that coaching and/or mentoring relationship, and identifying whether there are the characteristics either in yourself or in the person that you’re coaching, to separate them from the good to the great. From someone who’s performing at that level in that role to someone who has the potential to move up and develop into the next level.

Jo Taylor  08:57

There’s a danger, and we saw this, you’ll remember when we both worked at TalkTalk, that there was this sort of mentality/culture of over-promotion, I always felt. Someone could get promoted in talent assessment, and then they go from hero to zero in the space of six months, and they then might get a tap on the shoulder and actually leave. How do we make sure that if we do believe that talent is universal, that we set people up for success, so that doesn’t happen? And it becomes cultures where people feel that they can say no. So your example of someone not necessarily wanting to do that or someone not wanting to move geographically isn’t something that’s like a black mark on their their record to say that they then don’t have potential for anything?

Richard Sinclair  09:41

I think that is a danger. I think we have to try and do, and I’m not proposing that I’m an absolute expert on this because I’ve had my fair shares of disappointment too. But where it has gone well is where you identify the thing that is the potential for. That might be a particular type of transactions in the financial world, or it may be a customer service skill in the broadband world, or whatever. The actual skill, identifying that, is really important. Because all too often when you’re promoted, you’re promoted further away from the skill that you’re doing. I was talking recently to someone who was involved in the aviation community and had a thoroughly enjoyable career as being aircrew. But actually, as they moved up the ranks, to use the military example, they got further and further away from the thing that they were passionate about, which was flying and aviation. And that’s the danger when you promote someone, you might not necessarily be promoting them to do more of the thing they love. In fact, the contrary, is often true, that you take them further away from it. So it’s making sure that when you promote someone to the next rung of the ladder, yes, they’re able to perhaps teach others how to do their skill that they were so good at, and delivering performance, but also making sure that they’re grounded and have the requisite experience and skill to do the other things that come with that role. And you often find those people that leave, to get the tap on the shoulder and move to other businesses, that’s because they’re going back to do more of the thing that they love, and less of the thing that you’re inviting them to do. But giving them perhaps more money, or more compensation for.

Jo Taylor  11:27

It reminds me of that book. I don’t love the book. So I’m not recommending this to my listeners, but it’s that one, “What got you here won’t get you there”. And I really believe that, you know, in my career in terms of the creative, I’ve always left organisations or in setting up LTT, I want to get back to that creative, because I know that that brings me joy. And that makes me better at what I do. Because I’ve got that balance. But I think sometimes as you say the only route that people can go is management, and therefore you are moving more away from the things that you love. If you do promote people into bigger roles, and you want to unlock their potential, what are the contingencies that you could put into place to enable that person to realise that, so that they don’t go from hero to zero?

Richard Sinclair  12:17

Well, for me, I call them handrails. And I think those handrails are investment in time; I prefer to do that through one-to-ones. And you know, those one-to-ones can be out walking the dog or you know, they can be on Teams, or whatever it is. But just upping the tempo and giving different environmental opportunities for someone to reach out and say, actually, I’ve got a problem with this particular part of my role. If you do that more frequently with someone who’s stepped up, I think you’ve got a far better chance of being able to make that intervention at the right moment, or perhaps share some of your wisdom of how you might solve a problem or you’ve seen other people solve that problem. It then gives the person that’s just been promoted a number of tools in their toolkit that they can then deal with that situation. What I think is dangerous to do is to say, well, this is the way that I would solve that problem; this is how you should do it. Because it’s not you that’s doing that role, and you aren’t that person. So it’s important to give people those skills, and ultimately to invest time, whether that’s through coaching and mentoring and those formal sessions, or whether it’s through just a one-to-one where you ask the person how they’re getting on, and if there are any issues, and provide whatever feedback you think’s appropriate.

Jo Taylor  12:22

So do you think – and this may be more of a philosophical question – you’ve reached your potential in your career?

Richard Sinclair  13:49

I really hope I haven’t. You know, for me, my life is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of improvement. And I find there are so many leadership challenges that I’ve yet to undertake. I actually find myself making time, and managing a time, to triage an opportunity. You know, I reflect with my own coach on any opportunity or idea that I’ve thought up in the bath and think, actually, is this an opportunity that will progress my potential? Or is it just a vibrant distraction that takes me away from the thing that, you know, I want to do, which is to improve my leadership skills?

Jo Taylor  14:31

Well, you touched on a really good point that ultimately potential is very personal. And actually that curiosity, that drive, the opportunity to network, the search for excellence are all real traits that you see in highly successful people. But success doesn’t necessarily mean that that is intrinsically linked to potential. Someone’s potential can be very personal, can’t it, in terms of their life rather than it just be professional?

Richard Sinclair  15:00

I don’t know where I’ve pinched it from but I really like the image of a bonsai tree. And I think potential is such a valuable commodity. You have to nurture it, like a bonsai tree, but before you set out on that journey of getting the scissors out or whatever those tools are called, you really need to define what success looks like. And you need to recognise that that bonsai tree is unique, very different to any other bonsai tree that you’ve seen before. But you know, you might be after one that’s taller, or one that’s smaller or bushier or whatever. And it’s really defining what that success looks like before you start going in there and acting at the pure potential that the tree has.

Jo Taylor  15:43

So when you’re thinking about how you develop yourself, are there any leadership podcasts, videos, books, people that you follow, that you think would be really useful for anybody that really emphasises with your story, and wants to increase their leadership potential?

Richard Sinclair  16:02

Yeah, there’s a couple; I’m not too greedy. I really enjoyed Rudy Giuliani’s book on leadership. And some of the people listening, you know, might struggle to remember that he was the mayor of New York when the 9/11 disaster happened. And he stepped up to the plate, almost with a degree of reticence, to try and bring New York back on its feet. And for those of us that’s followed his success since, he’s someone who brings out feelings, both positive and negative when you follow his story, but I did find it particularly informative. How someone who had a bunch of difficulties, who wasn’t perhaps best placed, managed in that moment to step up and really show the world that New York was not going to be defeated by the ravages of terrorism. And I thought he did tremendously well in capturing it in this book. So yes, it’s an old one, but definitely, definitely worth a read, in my opinion. And then the second thing – I’m not sure how much of it’s for pleasure or for development, but I really enjoy a podcast by a guy called Jack Carr, who is a thriller writer, but served in the Navy SEALs. And perhaps the attraction of his special forces career means that he gets some really interesting guests on the show, many of whom I don’t agree with politically, but actually I enjoy the cut and thrust of the debate and searching for that 45 minutes or whatever it is, into areas that I wouldn’t otherwise wander, in the course of my day-to-day broadband leadership,

Jo Taylor  17:41

Brilliant Richard, thank you so much. One final question, in terms of our listeners, so if they want to follow you or find out more about your leadership journey, where can they find you?

Richard Sinclair  17:53

To be fair, I’ve toned down a lot of my social media habit of late. I found that I was perhaps being a little generous with my time, with everything else going on. But I really still enjoy LinkedIn. And I post fairly regularly on there on what’s happening. And hopefully, I’ll be posting a link to this podcast in due course. But that’s where you can find me.

Jo Taylor  18:12

Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed having the conversation and as someone that has coached me and held my feet to the fire, I can absolutely atone that you walk the walk as well as talk the talk. So amazing as always, Richard, thank you so much.

Richard Sinclair  18:26

Thanks Jo, real pleasure.

Jo Taylor  18:29

Thanks for listening to the Potential for What podcast. If you’re hearing this message, you’ve listened to our new episode all the way to the end. And for that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you did, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please share this episode with others who may be interested in this topic. As always, you can head over to to check out all the links and resources in the show notes, and to sign up to our email list.