Diplomatic Feedback

Quentin HeimSeason 2Episode 8


Quentin Heim, a former chief of staff to the British Ambassador in Washington and chief of staff to the Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, joins us on Simply Feedback to share how his diplomatic background informs his approach in his consulting and coaching.


Quentin Heim

Quentin Heim

Quentin Heim’s career spans government – he started as a British diplomat – the public sector, where he worked for Pfizer and then a young innovative medical technology company, and in his own consulting company. He has worked in London, Brussels, Washington DC, New York and Silicon Valley; and he has enjoyed a wide variety of roles including public affairs, sales, business development, marketing, and corporate communications. He describes his current coaching work as an accidental by-product of being chosen as chief of staff twice: first to the British Ambassador to the U.S., and later to the Chairman and CEO of Pfizer.


Troy Blaser (00:01)
Hello! Welcome to today's episode of simply feedback. Our guest on the episode today is Quentin Heim. Quentin's career spans everything from government, where he started as a British diplomat to the public sector where he worked for Pfizer and then a young innovative medical technology company, and in his own consulting company, Quentin has worked in London, Brussels, Washington, DC, New York and Silicon Valley. And he has enjoyed a wide variety of roles, including public affairs, sales, business development, marketing, and corporate communications. He describes his current coaching work as an accidental by-product of being chosen as chief of staff twice first to the British ambassador to the United States and later to the chairman and CEO of Pfizer. Quentin, welcome to the podcast today. It's great to have you with us. Thanks for joining us.
Quentin Heim (00:59)
Thank you, Troy. And thanks so much for inviting me. I've listened to several of the podcasts, enjoyed them and learned from them.
Troy Blaser (01:05)
Wonderful! Well, we're happy and excited to have you on today. Just even reading through that quick bio I'm interested to get to know you better and to hear some of the stories and tips and things that you might have to share with us today.
Quentin Heim (01:18)
Troy Blaser (01:19)
I wonder maybe just to start one thing that, that we really love to ask each of our guests the name of the podcast is simply feedback. Could you tell us about a time that somebody gave you feedback, maybe feedback that had a significant impact on your life, or was a turning point for you that really was impactful?
Quentin Heim (01:37)
Sure. Yes. It actually came, I think when I was a young diplomat in Brussels and I was very junior at that stage, I was in the UK delegation to the EU in a central role. And I wanted to get into the fast stream for promotion, the fast track. And I, I went through this process where you, you go through a competition that has three different stages. The first stage is two days of written exams. And then you have two days where you are with your rivals in the same setting. And you have to do things like meet with a psychologist or chair a meeting with your competition um for 30 minutes after being given the notes only half an hour before--a tricky situation. And finally you go to something. If you get through those two steps, you go through a rather grueling experience where you sit down with seven experienced diplomats sitting around a round table, and they fire questions at you from all angles.
Quentin Heim (02:39)
It's a little bit like being a fish in an aquarium tank. You've got things coming from all sides and I failed the final stage. And so I slunk back to Brussels where my colleagues encouraged me, senior colleagues encouraged me and said, go for it again, try again next year. And what they did the next year was they said, we will do a version, a mock version of the final selection board, this process, where you sit down with seven people and they fire questions from all angles, and we will see how you do in that. So they took it very seriously. I took it very seriously. I went in there they fired all these different questions on any topic. And I walked out of there on a high feeling I'd really perform to my best, a great surge of adrenaline. I was very happy with myself. And meanwhile, they conferred, and I went back in and they said, you know, you are articulate.
Quentin Heim (03:37)
You are very fast in your responses, creative, only one problem. And the problem is you didn't actually answer any of our questions. You just went off at a tangent from whatever we'd mentioned. And that obviously was a problem unless you want to be a politician.
Troy Blaser (03:55)
That's what I was just thinking.
Quentin Heim (03:56)
Yeah, exactly. So I, I took it to heart. I mean, I had to, and sure enough, when I went to London and sat down with these seven formidable people, I was much better prepared. I tuned into where they were coming from and got through. And that was actually my first experience of a true team effort, because without the help of these very kind and very senior colleagues, there's no way I would've got through it.
Troy Blaser (04:21)
Yeah. And so a couple of thoughts, number one, it sounds like there's a whole lot of skill involved in diplomacy that I'm certainly not aware of in terms of that level of competition to, to advance in the field. It sounds pretty serious. It
Quentin Heim (04:40)
Is serious, and that there may be some difference in, in, across the Atlantic actually, because here in the US I think we value a great deal, you know, the going into the private sector, being very entrepreneurial in Europe, you've got sort of centuries of tradition. And in fact, the British and the French diplomatic services and are renowned for having operated for centuries and having pretty good processes and many of the best and the brightest. And then they might let someone in like me from time to time.
Troy Blaser (05:12)
Well, and the second thought that I had was that was a choice point in your career. You, you got that feedback that, Hey, you're not really answering our questions. You're diverting onto a tangent. So the choice point for us, okay from here on I'm, I'm opting out of becoming a politician because I'm choosing to answer questions directly and not on a tangent or not obfuscate or, or cover up and not give the answer that everybody wants to hear.
Quentin Heim (05:40)
Yes, yes. Great observation. I agree. Well
Troy Blaser (05:46)
So it sounds like a fascinating career that you've had in a, in a wide variety of fields, but is there a turning point that really was for you because now you're in the field of coaching and, and, you know, talent development, leadership development, things like that. Is there a turning point that led you into that area?
Quentin Heim (06:06)
Yes. there is. And if I can have sort of two into one, I think you referred earlier to the fact that I'd been chief of staff in two different organizations and.
Troy Blaser (06:18)
Quentin Heim (06:18)
That's, I think where it came from, because there were two unexpected roles, both of them. But they're ones where basically what your task is, is to ensure and enhance the smooth functioning of the organization you're in. And so I found myself much to my surprise at the age of 28, heading to Washington DC, to become British, you know, the British ambassador's chief of staff which was great. I moved straight into the heart of UK-US diplomacy. And it's a very special relationship between the two countries, as you know, and it was a very highly functioning machine. It wasn't like I had to impose my will or anything. It's more like I need to just be the oil that will grease the cogs of this magnificent machinery. And it's great machinery in that it has been designed to take the inputs of all the relevant departments, government ministries, you know, whatever and fuse them together into a synthesis of diverse, even differing points of view. I mean, if you like, it's almost like a situational 360, so that was invaluable training. And the second one just going on to that quickly is, you know, came nearly two decades later. When, out of the blue, the head of HR at Pfizer called me up and said, will you be willing to be a candidate for this new position we're creating of chiefs of staff? And so I said, yes I'm happy to be a candidate, not least because I knew it had to be done by someone who was impartial and impartiality non-partisanship is at the root of what we do in British diplomacy.
Troy Blaser (08:07)
Quentin Heim (08:08)
Um so I did it, that was a different challenge actually, because you, you've got to ensure the smooth functioning of the organization. And at the same time, there's a little bit of the conciliary role of speaking truth to power which is, is necessary at the top of a, a big organization. And on that one, I think the - yeah, go ahead, please.
Troy Blaser (08:32)
Let me say, so you're talking, you're speaking about your relationship to the CEO in that case.
Quentin Heim (08:36)
Troy Blaser (08:37)
Kind of a unique relationship.
Quentin Heim (08:39)
Yes. Almost like the docking mechanism between the CEO and the rest of the organization. And you referred to the importance of, of truth earlier and candor. Candidly, the position was created because there was an awareness that some of the processes were not quite right. Decision-Making was not as streamlined as it could be. So just using the feedback element once again when I was interviewed by each of the nine people on the leadership team at the time I took the opportunity to get their feedback, because we know that often processes can, in large institutions over time, seem to become absurd. But there's actually a reason why they became absurd. No one sets out to design a camel if they want a horse.
Troy Blaser (09:32)
Quentin Heim (09:32)
And so from that, I was able to talk to them all, get their sense of what was needed and, and do a synthesis. So it was like getting a feedback, a situational feedback, on the issue at hand. So that by the time I started the job, I was ready with a plan for how we could possibly improve it.
Troy Blaser (09:50)
So how did that experience then set you up to, to, with the desire to explore coaching more?
Quentin Heim (09:59)
So I think what it gave me was the visibility, first of all, at the highest levels of an organization. And because of that visibility, you get a sense of context and the relative importance of things. And that's the sense which lives with me to this day. Because of that sense, the senior leaders, once they saw me as a resource rather than a threat, began to partner with me on how should they present issues when they came to what was then the executive committee. What should they actually do? How should they behave? What's the preread that I insisted upon, you know, so that everyone was prepared for the discussion. And indeed, you know, afterwards, some of them would come in and say, you know, how do you think I did? And the result was I was able to help them adapt to the context into which they were going and to fit into the organization better. So in essence, what it did--and this is what led to the coaching sense--is that it taught me that you can, you can help individuals. I mean, everyone can benefit from feedback and advice. But if you do that in isolation, and you don't fit it elegantly into the context within which they're operating, you won't be quite as successful. And neither the organization nor the individual will benefit as much as they otherwise could.
Troy Blaser (11:24)
Yeah. Well, it seems like you, you brought two key things into that relationship. That coaching relationship is the ability to be unbiased. And combining that with that idea of speaking truth to power, which as an external coach, you can come in and be unbiased and also speak, you know, what needs to be spoken, what needs to be said that they may not necessarily want to hear. But because it's coming from you as an outside coach, as an unbiased person, t may be exactly what they need to hear.
Quentin Heim (11:58)
Yes. I think, I think that's absolutely right. And I think actually the diplomatic background helped in another aspect, that feedback is all about getting the perceptions of others as you know, far better than I do. But as a diplomat, what you have to do is to understand where the other person is coming from, you really need to walk in their shoes and you need to walk in their shoes, even if they don't fit, you know, even if it's not so comfortable, you have to figure out a way to--it's about receiving, them receiving the information. It's not about you transmitting it. What's all important is what do other people take away.
Troy Blaser (12:40)
What they perceive. I think that's really fascinating. I wonder, I understand that you know, as you're delivering that message, it seems like the importance of language plays a big role in, in how that message is delivered. And, you know, you've worked in a wide variety of locations from, you know, from Europe to, to the east coast, to the west coast. Can you talk a little bit about how language plays a role in, in your job as a coach and in your relationships as you work with organizations?
Quentin Heim (13:13)
Sure. I'm a, I'm a great believer in that and the importance of language as, as you've just said. And I think part of it, I mean, you can take literally, you know, people with different, from different languages and different cultures. And again, that's so important to get, right? Because if you're in a room with, for example, just take two random nations, you know Turkish people and Japanese people, you're going to get enthusiastic voluble people on one half of the room and then the other half, you know, politely listening and maybe not saying anything. So you have to sort of coax slat out of them, but more importantly, perhaps you have the language issue, the importance of calibrating the phrasiology you're using. And obviously in the area of coaching, there are things like being a leader as opposed to being a manager, because you can be a very good manager, but not a very good leader and vice versa. A leader inspires more, creates a vision, compels people to follow it sets out the strategy. And so on a manager can be extremely good, but might be more tinkering with, with the machinery of the business, just keeping things going. And that distinction can be important because a lot of people in their careers will sort of start maybe as individual contributors. Then they'll become managers and they'll go on to become leaders to, to help them to go from that step up of being a very good manager, to being a really inspiring leader is, is often something where they need to differentiate their skill sets. They need to acquire something new.
Troy Blaser (14:52)
Well, just real quick, this question about, or this distinction you're making between a manager and a leader. I really like that. You've been in the role as a chief of staff and a couple of places. And I wonder if that distinction applies where, you know, the chief of staff plays the manager role and allows that person, whether it's the British ambassador or the CEO to be more of the leader and play the vision, the visionary role.
Quentin Heim (15:15)
Right. That's a great observation. Yes. I agree with you. I think that's exactly what happens. And you, you handle, you keep the trains running on time--
Troy Blaser (15:24)
Quentin Heim (15:24)
Freeing up the leader, not to have to worry about when someone's going to come back with this, for example, or who have we got all the right people, giving the input. They want to assume that's happened and they can go off and lead and project because for them, the, the scarcest resource they have is time. So if you can save them time, they can be more effective as a leader.
Troy Blaser (15:46)
And I would, what it meant, thinking back to the importance of language, in a role as a manager, as a chief of staff or another manager, the language you use is going to be much different than the language that the leader uses in that role.
Quentin Heim (15:59)
Yes, it can be as well. I agree with that, and you can be more direct and so on. But I think there's also an element of language that I learned from the leaders and particularly the CEO of Pfizer that I was lucky enough to serve. And that is that you can achieve change through language. And actually my first example, that I can recall of this actually came much earlier in my career. My very first boss who said one day when I was at a cocktail party with him, he introduced me to someone and he said, "Here's Quentin, who works with me." And that had a profound impact on me because here's someone who's very senior and talking to someone who's, you know, wet behind the ears and talking about him and they were saying, "Wow." I'm working with them, elevated to that level. But it also has a more profound meaning. If you say you work with someone, you're not implying that you are superior to them. You are just saying, I happen to be the one who is, you know, I'm looking after you, custodian of your future for the moment; and you belong to the organization, you don't belong to me. Your vocation is greater than just reporting to me. So that's an example of language, but language can also change the way that the culture operates. You can come in, and you can turn around the situation. I was once in a situation where I was brought in as head of a very boring sounding department called, "health policy and payment," in a Silicon Valley company.
Troy Blaser (17:41)
Quentin Heim (17:41)
Which was a young company, highly innovative and amazing cancer-fighting technology. And unfortunately, the insurance system and healthcare being what it is, more and more insurers were refusing to pay for this technology, thinking it was too expensive. I think they were looking at the wrong end of the telescope when they were looking at the cost of it. But nonetheless, what I found was a, a team of eager people working away, very hard, simply updating the spreadsheets that they would give to customers to explain how the situation was worsening. And obviously we needed to change. We couldn't just be health policy. And so it was, we need to change our approach and go on offense and, and work with our customers, work with patients to demonstrate that technology can save money as well as lives. But in setting out to do that with the team which was regarded with scorn by the rest of the organization, we needed to come up with a new brand. And so we rebranded it as patient access. That's what we're about. We want to help cancer patients. And so we worked and the same team with just one change, achieved some remarkable results regionally, and then nationally. And the technology it's now I'm glad to say being used in a widespread way, but it was the change of name that symbolized the change of approach that was needed. The change of approach led to a much higher favorability rating from, you know, from customers, of course, from patients and ultimately inside the organization, where one junior member of the team coined the phrase that we'd gone from the doghouse to the penthouse. Yeah, that's very good. But my, my takeaway really is that, you know, in a lot of situations, if you choose your words very carefully, if you change the language, you can change the behaviors.
Troy Blaser (19:43)
I like that. I like that a lot.
Troy Blaser (20:31)
Thinking back to this idea of feedback, and I think that the language that we use as we give feedback, or as we receive feedback can have a great impact on, on the, you know, on potential change that happens. You know, you can, you're very well aware as a, as a diplomat, that the way that the message is delivered can have a great effect on how well it's received or not.
Quentin Heim (21:17)
Yes, I, I agree with you completely. And I think maybe having been a diplomat, one has a bit of an advantage on that. Even the phrase diplomatic helps, but there is a danger in being too diplomatic and you, again, coming back to the theme of truths or candor, you need to be candid in delivering the message and in delivering the message, it's, it's gotta be balanced. I mean, one has to be understanding, but still really to get across, it's so important to get across and not sugar coat what is really needed because it's in those moments when someone actually finds something very hurtful that if the hurtful thing didn't just come from one person, but is a widespread observation, then it needs to be addressed.
Troy Blaser (22:04)
Yep. So, and in your experience as a coach, can you share a time or an experience when you've seen feedback cause a point of inflection in someone's career or in someone's life?
Quentin Heim (22:17)
Yes. I mean, I can think of a couple, but let me go with one that's I think a particularly good one it's someone who is a manager of a team of eight or so people in a large financial services organization. And this person was actually eager to have the feedback. So when I delivered the feedback, he absorbed it all very thoughtfully and in fact began saying, "Well, you know, what I need to do is I need to thank everyone who's contributed to this." He said all the right things, Troy. I mean, he was saying, I need to thank them. I need to be very candid in sharing with them what I'm proposing to do about it. I need to, you know, ask them to help me stay on the rails when I'm doing that. It's almost as though he was reading my script for himself, and I thought, "Boy, this is impressive." But as he went on, it became more--
Troy Blaser (23:13)
Those are all the right things, for sure.
Quentin Heim (23:15)
--All The right things. But the, the danger was, it was, there was a subtlety to it, because the more he talked about it, I realized that what he was actually ultimately going to do was employ a variety of tactical coping mechanisms to neutralize the, the perceptions that he evidently had guessed were held by person A or person B or person C. So he was going to have a sort of multi-faceted approach that would gradually try and sort of act out in a way that would appeal to each of those different people while not really changing fundamentally. So then we had a very good discussion, you know. Obviously for him that was he needed to understand that he had a containment strategy, and if his full potential was to be unleashed, he needed to really listen and hear. And I can remember saying to him, crank up the volume of the feedback and make it drown out your reaction, your instinctive reaction to it, because that's the way that you can chart the path forward. And, and he did
Troy Blaser (24:28)
Interesting. So he heard that message of what you're trying to do is contain or be very targeted in, in changing the perception of some specific individuals. What you need to do instead is that fundamental change. He heard that message and he was able to achieve the fundamental change that he needed.
Quentin Heim (24:46)
Yes. And it took a little bit of time. So to give you one example of what happened after that I ultimately worked with his team at his request and then talked to them. We have this sort of baseline survey and ultimately three months later I took another survey with the same team members, and he'd really moved things forward. But the critical moment of that was the moment when he--when I'd met with the team altogether, having talked to them individually--and he was about to walk into a room with the rest of the team to get their, their presentation on what should change. And I said to him, as he went into the room, I said, "Remember what happened before. The next 60 seconds will determine if you're going to be successful or not. And he was good as gold. He just absorbed it all was very thoughtful. Didn't fight it.
Troy Blaser (25:41)
It's so rewarding as a coach to be able to see a change happen like that in someone's career, in someone's life. You know, that's where, where you, as the coach can feel like, Hey, it's, it's so great to be a part of something like that.
Quentin Heim (25:54)
Yes, yes. It absolutely is. It's a wonderful feeling. And it's also wonderful to give back. Because in my career I've been lucky enough to have several 360s and some coaches and, and it's been a fabulous experience. And I'm always going to be grateful for that.
Troy Blaser (26:11)
Well, Quentin, are there, are there other projects that you're working on right now that you're maybe that you're passionate about, that you can share with us?
Quentin Heim (26:18)
Yes. And if you don't mind I mean I have some coaching projects and with several of them, I'm reaching the fun stage when I go back and to the original people who gave feedback and talk to them. And what I like to do instead of having a very scientific and meticulous survey, I'll go back to them, to these people, you know, three months later, six months later and say, "What do you think has changed? What have you seen that's different?" And just see what, see what pattern forms from their responses. And I might even ask what you think this person's been working on without telling them. So that's always the fun part, because there's the thrill of this could be a disaster or it could work out. Generally, it seems to work out.
Troy Blaser (27:01)
Quentin Heim (27:02)
But the, the other thing is that I, I think what helps me, because I don't have the dedicated coaching background that a lot of the very impressive people you've interviewed and had conversations with do I, I like to do other things as well. So probably the other half of what I do is I'm working on things like communications or strategy. In fact the thing that really makes me passionate is the intersection point of communications and strategy because you, you communicate to the outdoor world. But it's essential to have a feedback loop--there you go again more feedback--the feedback loop, from how the external environment perceives you as a company, informs and enriches your strategy, if you do it properly. And there's this wonderful virtuous cycle that can come, if you really listen to all your stakeholders and then chart the path forward.
Troy Blaser (28:02)
That makes a lot of sense. And it sounds like something that, yeah, like you say is it's, it would be easy to be passionate about, fascinating to watch and, and hopefully watch companies be successful in that strategy communications combined with the strategy. If people want to know more, if they're interested in learning more, are you open to that? Are you open to continuing the conversations?
Quentin Heim (28:29)
Certainly, yes. I, I, I'm interested in that. I mean, as I say, I, I love the conversations that I've heard already in your series. And if I can contribute at all, yeah. I'd love people to get in touch and they can find me in case any listeners want to follow up if they write, I'd be very happy to reply.
Troy Blaser (28:56)
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I've enjoyed getting to know you a little bit. Hearing some of the fascinating stories I would love to--maybe we'll do this again sometime, and I get to hear more stories about your experiences as a diplomat, as a chief of staff, um really fascinating things that you've been able to do in your life. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Quentin Heim (29:15)
Well, Troy, thank you very much for making this conversation so easy. You know, I've learned a lot from your other conversations and it's just been a pleasure participating. Thank you.