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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Community blogger, Peter Cook


“If I had to reduce my life to three words, they would be science, music and business,” says Peter Cook, management consultant, speaker, author, blogger, music lover and former scientist.

Cook is actually managing director of two management consultancies, which he jokingly refers to as his day job and his night job.

The day job involves heading up Human Dynamics, a management consultancy that trains and coaches corporates in how to develop creativity, innovation, strategy and change by “mixing up reasonable business concepts with pragmatism,” says Cook.
The night job entails leading The Academy of Rock, also a management consultancy, which runs conferences and events that fuse “business and personal excellence with music”.

While acknowledging that it doesn’t fit every scenario, Cook sees music as a brilliant metaphor for business. For instance, music groups often comprise dysfunctional teams, yet they find ways to make things work. So the bass player will hate the drummer, but they can’t play anything useful without each other.

In the same way, he believes that: “Lectures don’t engage people, but experiential training does.”

But music also has the advantage of being pretty much universally liked. “If you go to the average management audience, they’ll have no idea about what Gary Hamel says about core competencies. But ask them to sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and they know all the bloody words – and it’s the wrong way round!” Cook says.

His approach is that, if music can help people understand and apply some often quite difficult or dry subjects, so much the better. It has to be preferable to an audience propping their eyes open with matchsticks while they sit through innumerable PowerPoint slides.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll
But because some people don’t understand his approach, it means that he also has to spend time explaining that his business has a serious message. Does this mean that he regrets using music as a metaphor?
Cook cites his comedic namesake when he countered a similar question about making mistakes: “Yes, I would repeat them exactly.”

But he is certainly not a man to flit between employers and jobs. “My career runs in 18 year cycles,” Cook explains. “For the first 18 years, I was a scientist, the next 18 years in self-employment and I’ve another 18 years to go.”

As a result, he describes it as a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll career. “The science was the drugs, the consultancy has to be the sex and the future is all about the rock ‘n’ roll,” he jokes.

Certainly the first 18-year phase of Cook’s working life was rather a contrast to his current path. With a solid career in science working for the Wellcome Foundation, he depicts his role as being some kind of pharmaceutical cook.

Just as baking thousands of loaves of bread on a production line compared with making a single one at home is more complex than just scaling up the amount of water or yeast used, the same is true of the mass production of drugs.
But Cook’s job was to try and work out how to scale up that production. The role enabled him to travel the world – at the company’s expense – and he took on tremendous responsibility at a young age, setting up factories in far-flung territories, ensuring that facilities met health and safety standards and training people.
He describes it as a “university of life” experience and could not have wished for a better education. But although Cook loved it, eventually his career hit a road block. “I had a boss who wouldn’t die. I really liked my boss, but he was in the way vertically to my next move,” he explains.

Rather than wait to jump into a dead man’s shoes or leave the company, Cook carved out a third path for himself. He decided that he wanted to work more on the business side of things, and specifically in HR. His interest in business had been sparked partly by completing an MBA at the Open University, which he ended up teaching.

Knocking on HR’s door
Cook knocked three times on HR’s door before being given entry, however. The first time he was told that he wasn’t qualified enough and so he went off and completed an Institute of Personnel Management qualification.
The second time, he was told that he wasn’t experienced enough, while the third time, he was given a job but had to take a big pay cut in the process. “Careers at that time were ladders, not climbing frames,” he says of the 1970s and 1980s, an era before career hopping became all the rage.

Nonetheless, he enjoyed his time in HR. “I found some really great people working in the HR department, but there were others who were scared stiff of ‘the business’ and of numbers,” he remembers.

Although the latter were worried about not being liked, Cook points out that: “the business doesn’t hate HR for not understanding the business, but for not finding out what they need”.

In the end though, he left Wellcome due to ‘survivor syndrome’, after a massive corporate restructure saw many of his friends leave the company. But just as importantly, Cook had also been toying with the idea of setting up his own company and, buoyed by his four years in HR and the MBA, he decided to go for it.

However, the already risky venture was made even more so by the fact that his wife was having their first baby at the time. His plan was to start the business and be around to spend more time with his son. Although his HR colleagues told him that he was mad, Cook’s view was: “If you’re going to have a crisis, have a big one!”

It was a calculated risk. He set himself an 18-month deadline to make it work or get a ‘proper’ job again. Not surprisingly, the first year of business in 1994 was sluggish, to say the least.

All of the people who had promised him work failed to deliver: like Cook, they were in their mid-30s and simply didn’t have the management clout to purchase his services.
As he puts it wryly: “At 36, you haven’t got mates that are running IBM.” So the work that did come in tended to be totally leftfield. Year two and three saw turnover double, however, before doubling again.
Combining work and pleasure
But Cook believes that his scientific background has stood him in good stead, both in HR terms and in doing management consultancy. “I’m quite good at fixing complex problems and a lot of business problems are problems because people don’t understand complexity,” he says.

Creativity and innovation – and how to turn creativity into innovation – are other key areas on which he focuses.

“I sometimes teach how to do better brainstorming, which is easy, but helping companies discover what they are already doing that is creative is more interesting,” Cook points out. “But most often, it’s not creativity that’s the problem – they have lots of ideas but haven’t executed them.”

Execution involves tackling the ‘boring’ things such as project management and investigating the commercial implications of new ideas. “I get hacked off with people who say they’re creative because they use it as an excuse not to do anything,” he charges.

But innovation is another word that Cook believes is overused. “If you get a new yogurt, it’s described as innovative. But science has given me a sceptical gene,” he says.

While the “Happy Valley” approach to creativity is fine, Cook points out, it must also be backed up by a hefty dose of hard graft and an understanding of whether a given notion going to make any money or not.

So with his 18-year cycle in mind, what does he expect the next 18 years bring? Cook’s answer is that he has already made a start on his rock ‘n’ roll years.

Deeming himself too old to be Ozzy Osborne or join the likes of Iron Maiden, he is doing the next best thing. “I can’t fake being in the Rolling Stones – the best I can do is get real musicians there. So if people need a real rock star, I will bring one along,” he says.

His ‘rock’ associates include Berne Torme, who is a guitarist with Ozzy, and “two hit wonder” John Otway, both of whom he uses at corporate events. So while it may not always be easy to combine a hobby and work, Cook appears to be doing just fine.

And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?
Madonna. She is vilified by some people for who she is, but she’s the first woman who turned round to the music industry and said: “I’m running you”. She’s a brilliant business woman.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

My most hated buzzword is ‘360 degree feedback’. It should be replaced with heckling.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was deciding whether to leave the Wellcome Foundation to set up my own business, I remember what the career counsellor said: “I can’t see what your problem is with going into self-employment as you’ve always done exactly what you want.” Which links to those wise words from the song, Wham Rap: “Enjoy what you do!”

How do you relax?

I don’t. For me, relaxation is work. I work all the time and that includes music.