· 7 min read · Features

Internal events: Speakers from outside the business world are in great demand

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Speakers from walks of life other than business are in great demand. There are many parallels between corporate life and the natural world, Peter Crush finds.

In Douglas Gordon's book, The Buck Stops in the Boardroom, the central character is the lone wolf, a primeval, aggressive alpha male that stalks the corridors of power, its teeth bared and limbs tensed ready to metaphorically pounce on any underperforming prey.

Allegories of boardrooms resembling marauding packs of wolves are not new. Multi-million pound playboy stockbroker Jordan Belfort now writes under the moniker, the Wolf of Wall Street, and many a bloody company coup has been described as the night the 'wolves came out'.

But talk to one man - Shaun Ellis - and he won't recognise any of the negative, big, bad wolf associations many of us have been brought up believing. This is despite having been attacked and mauled by numerous members of the species, canis lupus, in his time. For Ellis, in case you did not see February's two-part C5 TV series on him, is better known as The Wolf Man. He is a former gamekeeper and Royal Marine but since 1990 his full-time pastime has been the study of these canine creatures. He has spent seven years directly with wolves in a reserve in northern Idaho, and he currently lives on a part-time basis with a wolf community in Combe Martin, Devon, an activity that needs near daily interaction to remain an 'accepted' part of the pack.

"Wolves have had a bad name," says Ellis who regularly feasts with them on raw meat. "The reality is that everything about how wolf packs operate is for mutual growth. A pack operates on shared, learned knowledge and for longevity. It is a perfect social system and it works without challenge. The leader is never violent, and everyone below has a say about where they fit in the overall structure."

According to Ellis, a wolf pack is the perfect way for a business to organise itself, and HR departments and businesses under pressure should take heed of what he has to say about it. So convinced is Ellis of the parallels - packs have clearly defined goals, expansion strategies, crisis management solutions and clearly defined procedures for internal and external takeovers and change management - that he is one of the newest additions to the lucrative business speaker circuit.

Internal speaking events bringing celebrities or academics into the world of business have been a regular feature of the business landscape for years. Indeed, according to a poll in February by the Yorkshire Tourist Board, it is celebs that still rule the corporate roost. The top five speakers employees said they would want to appear at their place of work would be the money saving expert Martin Lewis (34%), followed by Gordon Ramsay (14%), Sir Trevor McDonald (13%), Simon Cowell (8%) and Victoria Beckham (1%).

But with budgets being studied more closely and real, long-term return on investment needing to be made, experts believe the job of the internal event speaker must change to deliver even more of a value-adding component.

"Businesses don't just want a speaker who will come in to talk for 45 minutes," says Tom Kenyon-Slaney, co-founder of The London Speaker Bureau. "Sometimes clients can remain unconvinced of the benefit a speaker will give, which means we're seeing a far more consultative solution being fostered."

According to Kenyon-Slaney, who manages the likes of Al Gore and Neil Armstrong, performers are increasingly being asked to act more as consultants than entertaining speakers. "If you're offering Sir Christopher Bland (former chairman of the BBC and BT) or The Work Foundation's Will Hutton (both of whom The London Speaker Bureau is the sole agent for), clients want a much bigger slice of them. Companies realise these people have an immense amount of knowledge. We're seeing speakers being booked for half-day sessions. There's a much greater demand for value for money, and the speakers we represent seem to be willing to supply this."

But while economic uncertainty has focused attention on ROI, it has not yet succeeded in dampening demand for speakers, according to Cosimo Turroturro, managing director at Speakers Associates. "The industry is actually growing," he says. "It's entering the territory of executive education, and that's a growth area. Any speakers specialising in management, change and leadership are in huge demand right now. Most businesses are scared, and they need people like ours to help them through what's going on." According to Turroturro, top HR guru David Ulrich has consulted/spoken to 60% of the Fortune 200 in the past two years alone. The good news, though, is that he also believes business wants variety, and speakers with clear and meaningful experiences should be equally valued. Last year, for instance, John McCarthy, who was held hostage by the militant group, Islamic Jihad, from 1986 to 1991, spoke at a special employee conference for Nottingham University Hospital's 4,000 support staff. For them, the focus was on how he coped with physical and mental deprivation.

Measuring ROI of more traditional motivational speakers has always been hard, although, according to Matthew Brearley, HR director of Vodafone, having Lewis Hamilton speak to staff (Vodafone is a sponsor of the McLaren Formula 1 team) was "exceptionally motivating, an event that packed the room, and which people were talking about for ages".

And, where there is a niche, it is being exploited. Everest Speaker Bureau specialises purely in managing explorers who have climbed Mount Everest, representing the likes of emerging speaker Pat Falvey, who has built a suite of business sessions around stress, damage limitation, team-building, conquering fear and change. "These courses are all about team structure, culture, and the commitment required to create working teams and the likely human resource issues that may arise," he says.

All of which means people who have something interesting or different to say continue to be a draw. The Wolf Man could still have his chance to be the leader of the pack.

IN COMPANY OF WOLVES

"Wolves allow every member of the pack to have their say," says Shaun Ellis. "In the natural world it's information, not division, that members of a pack want. If only business could look at their own arrangements in this way."

According to Ellis: "Everything wolves do is for the growth and promotion of the pack. From a leadership point of view there is the alpha wolf. But he is not the oldest, nor the one with the most experience. The important thing is that every one knows wolves have a role, and each regards the other as vital to their survival."

From his study of wolves Ellis has deduced each wolf's role is set for life from birth, possibly in the womb; female wolves know in advance how many young they will have, what sex they will be, and will organise the rest of the pack around this. While Ellis does not advocate wolf-like acceptance of job roles from birth, or that there should be no possibility of advancement, he believes a lot can be learned about how businesses should conduct themselves.

"Leadership is not based on strength or aggression, but as decision makers they have responsibility to look after themselves." (That's why, for instance, they will be allowed by the rest of the pack to eat the best meat of a kill). "Even when they cease being leaders, they are revered as the elder that will teach the young their ways." He adds: "The reason wolves survive - and the reason businesses do not - is that they react and adapt each of their characters to a job, and do it."

Modern business, he argues, has lost touch with people's character-sets, and tries to put them into scenarios they don't feel comfortable in. This is why he believes psychometric testing is enjoying a renaissance. "Wolves don't have the divide that job roles created by business seem to foster," he says. "Too often business is about the description rather than the person. Wolves do not recognise this."

Wolf packs have betas purely to resolve conflict and Ellis argues HR professionals are like the next tier - testers - the members whose role is exclusively to make sure the rest of the wolves do their own jobs. "A tester is the HR manager who never rests," he says. "He gives the impression of nervousness and distrust, but is really always on top of things. Below him are the mid-ranks - what we call middle management - who are there to lend weight to conversations. Often they'll have multiple personalities, and are difficult to gauge, but they always have to be directed to where they need to be." By also having 'omega' ranked wolves - the diffusers of tension - the wolf pack is perfectly poised to deal with all scenarios. Is business so strategically organised?

Not at all, believes Ellis. "Wolves even respect their enemies," he says. "All wolves know they will only achieve their true status when they are under threat. If you're strong, an enemy is a valuable asset to make you even stronger."

Hear Shaun Ellis at the HR Leaders Forum 21-22 September. For more information, visit www.haymarketevents.com/forum

WHO CUTS THE SPEAKING MUSTARD?

More HR professionals are using their talents to enthuse others about the ever more strategic role of the HR function. Why not try:

1. LYNDA GRATTON

Who is she? Associate professor of management practice, London Business School; author of Living Strategy: Putting People at the Heart of Corporate Purpose, voted one of the most 20 influential books by American CEOs

What she talks about: Why some companies buzz with energy while others do not; HR theory and management in practice; transforming organisations; and building collaborative teams

Where to book her: www.speakersassociates.com;

What she costs: £10,000-20,000 for up to half a day

2. GARETH JONES

Who is he? Visiting professor at INSEAD, former HR director, BBC and HR director Polygram; co-author of The Character of a Corporation with research partner, Rob Goffee

What he talks about: Business leadership and business authenticity; leadership in a knowledge economy

Where to book him: www.speakerscorner.co.uk

What does he cost? £7,000-£10,000 for up to half a day

COMING UP FAST

The names you won't have heard of that are poised to make a breakthrough:

1. DAVID TAYLOR

Who is he? Famed author of The Naked Leader, which he has recently followed up with a new book, The Naked Coach. Taylor was European business speaker of the year, 2004, and is honorary professor of leadership at Warwick Business School and the business ambassador for the Prince's Trust.

How to get hold of him: Speakers for Business: www.sfb.co.uk

2. MARCUS BUCKINGHAM

Who is he? A member of the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Leadership and Management; formerly spent 17 years at Gallup researching best managers, leaders and workplaces; ranked in 2007's Thinkers 50 list and often quoted in Fast Company, The New York Times and Fortune magazine; co-authored with Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently

How to get hold of him: Celebrity Speakers: www.speakers.co.uk.