At first glance, Steve Tappin, a young 42-year-old, could be just any other anonymous blond British businessman in a crowd. In fact, even though I have his photograph smiling at me from his new book’s cover, I can’t find him in the lobby of the Taj Palace hotel, bustling with foreigners there for the Global Fund meeting. After 10 minutes of walking up to the wrong men, I was the one finally discovered by Tappin—with no photograph to help in his quest.
He was probably aided by the clueless look on my face, but he’s also got an innate ability to tune in to people. A few minutes of casual chatting and I almost forget I’m there to interview him—I quickly grasp how 150 of the world’s most powerful men and women spilled all sorts of personal and professional secrets to him, even though they knew these would make it to the pages of his book The Secrets of CEOs (co-authored by Andrew Cave).
Along with writing, Tappin serves as managing partner in the global CEO and Board practice at Heidrick and Struggles, an executive search firm. After a week of meetings in India—just one stop on his global book launch—Tappin is more than happy to head for the Oriental Express bar, where he and his assistant order gin and tonics and toast the last interview of the week.
By the book: Tappin gave up his job as a CEO when he realized he was losing work-life balance. Jayachandran / Mint
We settle in and quickly fall into a conversation that jumps from US President-elect Barack Obama’s leadership skills (“corporate leaders can learn from someone like that”) to soccer (“it’s my own form of spirituality”) and the economic crisis (“it’s like a domino effect—or more like a tsunami effect”).
I quickly admit to Tappin that I know next to nothing about the world of business. Books, art, couches? Sure. But Infosys and Wipro? You’re speaking a foreign language to me.
Tappin laughs and says that more than business, he’s interested in leadership skills and how to live a full life—two factors people often fail to consider in business, to their company’s detriment.
“Business schools give people the foundation of management, but they don’t teach anything about leadership,” Tappin says. “We train people to be experts in marketing or accounting or purchasing, but not in leading. In my MBA, the people who did well did average in school, but they were the people’s persons. They were charismatic, fun to be with.”
His book identifies five types of leaders across the top CEOs in the world: Commercial executors who “have a driving focus on achieving the best results in their industry”; financial value drivers who “aggressively pursue shareholder value”; corporate entrepreneurs who “excel in spotting breakthrough opportunities and making them reality”; corporate ambassadors, which “involves operating at a geopolitical level and delivering transactions that transform industries”; and, finally, global missionaries who are “on a personal mission to make a significant difference and a corporate mission to make their companies great”.
Not surprisingly, Tappin prefers the missionary leaders, and sees himself as one.
Tappin will put his money where his mouth is by donating all profits from the book to two charitable trusts he’s set up: a cancer research trust, in honour of his mother, and a social entrepreneurship foundation, in honour of Sir John Martin Jones, a close friend. The book is dedicated to them both—they died while it was being written.
He says corporations now have the ability to push the world in a positive direction, especially since they operate beyond a country’s boundaries. To sustain their business, they naturally need to think about peace, environmental practices and world health.
Tappin cites N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman of Infosys Technologies Ltd, as representative of an Indian missionary leader who has made it part of his mission to push India forward as a country. India actually, he explains, has a strong group of leaders such as Murthy who will help see the country through the economic crisis (which he says isn’t nearly as bad yet as it will be: “The consumer confidence bubble and a business confidence bubble will burst. So the real economy will start to downturn. And then we’ll see a secondary liquidity crisis. Martin Sorrell says he’s never seen anything like it. It’s going to be as bad as 1974”).
In fact, he thinks India can use the crisis to its advantage. “In the coming year and the next, there will be fire-sale prices that we’ll never see again. If I were an Indian CEO, I would really be thinking opportunistically. Some of these assets will allow Indian companies to really grow globally.”
However, Indian companies should be wary of the upcoming talent crunch. Despite the large numbers of engineers and MBAs graduating, “Wipro accepts only one out of 115 applications. People are technically clever, but they don’t have commercial skills.”
We order a glass of wine as the conversation veers more into personal territory, and Tappin starts talking about his parents, his upbringing in Yorkshire, his marriage and his two girls. He says he knows the plight of CEOs well, as he worked as the CEO of a start-up, Edengene, for seven years. But, at the age of 35, he realized he had become a workaholic.
“I was feeling there must be more to life. I decided to retire and I travelled the world with my wife and kids... I used the time to prepare myself and really take my life to a new level.”
He also started psychoanalysis, working with a personal trainer, meeting with life coaches such as Tony Robbins, and contributing socially, by working in British jails with prisoners.
After a few months of personal development, he felt the itch to get back to work and thought he could use his background as a CEO and his personal development to create the best teams of leaders. Though he had worked with CEOs for the past seven years, he decided to expand his knowledge by interviewing at least 150 CEOs to better understand the paths to success and to see how leaders need to lead in the new business world. He thought the book would be a perfect way to share what he learnt from them.
Tappin’s current happy state of mind could be attributed to his healthy work-life balance or to his successful book launch, but he says most CEOs are usually not happy.
“Do you know how many emotions there are in a human body? We can experience 34,000 emotions. The average CEO in a week experiences 13. The most common emotions are irritation, frustration, disappointment.”
He refers to CEOs as Frodo (from Lord of the Rings) on the quest to return the ring to Mordor more than once. His colloquialisms may sound a bit goofy and his ideas a bit earnest to a cynic like me, but when a lounge singer begins her set, cutting the interview off, and Tappin heads off with some friends to enjoy the global good life of Delhi, I’m left wishing I had figured out a way to convince him to stay on as my personal life coach.
Curriculum Vitae | Steve Tappin
Born: 5 September 1966
Education: MBA from Cranfield University, UK
Designation: Managing partner, global CEO and Board practice at Heidrick and Struggles
Work Profile: Tappin began his career at ICI, then went on to work as a consultant at KPMG and PA Consulting. He was also the founding CEO of Edengene, a professional service business
Hobbies: Soccer and property development in countries as far-flung as Latvia, Turkey and Brazil
Career Crossroads: Before university, Tappin had the choice of playing professional soccer or becoming an accountant. He chose the latter: “I wanted to be the best.”