Blog - Management speak

Coffee with Bjarne Tellmann

From Marie Kondo to Simon Sinek, Pearson's general counsel Bjarne Tellmann muses over life, business and joy with leadership and behavioural change consultant Ciarán Fenton.

Bjarne Tellman is the general counsel of Pearson

We met at Pearson’s HQ on The Strand in London. I had warned him that I’m a leadership and behavioural change consultant, not a journalist, so it would be more chat than interview. I was struck by his intensity. Not that he was tense. He was relaxed but spoke intently. I had read about his stellar education, legal career and innovative change programmes, his views on everything from metrics to leadership and “new law”, his Black Belt in karate and his stint as a film actor. I wondered what drove him. 

Son of a diplomat, Bjarne had to change schools frequently. How did he deal with losing school friends? “There were many nights of crying but my Mother told me the story of Lot’s wife who turned to a pillar of salt after she looked back at Sodom. I learned the danger of looking back. So I focus on the positive. There’s a lot to be said for the British stiff upper lip." And in that was the answer to my question. I referred to the principle of Decision and Re-decision in psychology. He said he hadn’t made that link but is interested, to put it mildly, in leadership and management theory. 

We traded book recommendations. I suggested Reinventing Organisations by Frederick Laloux and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown both recommended to me by client lawyers turned leaders. Also The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, my gold standard recommendation. He raved about Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk Why Leaders Eat Last and after our meeting he kindly emailed me a fascinating long list of books, which included Tomorrow's Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future by Richard Susskind. But it was the last one that caught my eye:  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. He was apologetic about it. “I have no idea why I picked it up or found it interesting. There is something amazing about her philosophy of throwing away everything that does not spark joy in your heart." So I asked him why he cares about his work.  “First I have always tried to pursue what is fun for me and when I do, I do it 100 per cent. Maybe there’s a bit of Marie Kondo in my soul and that is why I like her book. Second, two hundred people look to me and it is a huge responsibility. I take very seriously." And Pearson is a serious business: a FTSE 40 company, with 40,000 employees across 80 countries and annual revenues of c. £5bn. 

Technical “harvesting”, time management, and data privacy are top of mind at the moment. But “efficacy” is clearly his favourite word. “I feel Pearson really gets change because it has adopted efficacy as core to its strategy." I looked up synonyms for efficacy: efficiency, usefulness, worth, value, ability. Bjarne sees the GC “at the centre of the spider’s web, with an unique view of the organisation." He has no truck with asking the CEO’s permission to talk about issues outside legal  - “just seize it, with an avid curiosity and that way risk evaluation is optimised." The GC should be a  “consigliere, a weather vane” for the CEO. I ask him about lawyer leaders (my term) and he’s clear that there are “servant leaders” to support their teams and then “leaders of self” who need to “develop themselves, take the initiative and develop client relationships."

I don’t quite buy the “servant leaders” model and I wonder to what extent his team feels that he is their servant. I’m not saying they don’t. I’m just wondering. He is acutely aware of the different positions of power: “positional, expert and personal.” I suspect he uses all three. I wonder if his passion for “relentless measurement” has something to do with a need to pin things down, to control them. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t care about it." I was about to say that the danger of obsessing about measurement is that people will deliver only what’s measured. But I didn’t. Not because I felt he wouldn’t have listened but that metrics are so core to his modus operandi that I felt it would be pointless. He is implementing technology solutions that use data to help drive focus on high value matters. “Don’t tell the business about options; give them the upside and downside in numbers. That will bring the options alive for them. We need to be proactive and pragmatic." He certainly appears to live that mantra, even if he doesn’t entirely know what drives him. The meeting ran over time. He seemed to enjoy reflecting. My next conversation is with Jeremy Barton, Boston Consulting Group’s GC. 

Ciaran Fenton is a Leadership and Behavioural Change Consultant.

Ciaran Fenton

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16 October 2015

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