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In conversation with… Phil Burgess and Felix Koch

Phil and Felix are just brilliant for a whole ton of reasons. So, it was a delight to catch up with them both recently. Fresh into their new venture, we talked about role models, new business and what inspires us.

I love what their new venture (Within) is all about. They’re working with leaders to drive results by building cultures of connection. I pride myself on being a good listener. 90 minutes later I found out how much I still have to learn.

They’ve kindly got a special offer for our loyal readers. They’re running a free 90-minute ‘video on’ interactive session where you’ll learn three powerful, practical techniques to help you meaningfully connect with the people you’re leading.

Find out more here.

What was your first ever job?

Felix 

It wasn’t a properly paid job, but I did an internship at my dad’s urology practice! So, it was me shepherding patients from one room to the next and doing some simple paperwork and admin. It was weird enough as a young person, a pupil, hanging out in my dad’s urology practice. It was intense, but it was fun. There was no pay, rather it was three or four weeks on the job, trying to understand the world of adults and doctors. 

Phil 

So, my first job was at Croydon Library. I was paid about three pounds an hour for a four-hour shift on a Saturday. Checking in books, checking out books. Putting them in alphabetical order on the shelves. There weren’t any big takeaways, I think it mainly taught me that I had to turn up to work to do a job that I didn’t particularly want to do.  

Who would you most like to share a coffee with or go for a drink with?

Felix 

I think the person I came up with is my granddad. I was five when he died. I’ve always heard these amazing stories about him being one of 13 children and being a self-made man in post-war Germany. He founded a concrete factory and travelled to Japan and the US when that totally wasn’t normal for anyone in Germany. I heard the stories that he used to keep bees and I’m a beekeeper myself. So, I’d love to meet him as an adult man and just kind of hang out with him and see what he’s like.  

Phil 

I keep banging on about this book that I’ve just finished by the US Surgeon General (link below). It’s all about his journey in America, social connectedness and the role that it can play in the world. Which obviously ties to what we’re doing. He strikes me as an interesting guy who’s got interesting ideas about what can be done to change the world for the better. And he seems to be one of the few American politicians that I have heard of that has a sense of humanity about him. 

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Felix 

It was being appointed joint MD of C Space together with Phil. It was such a rare experience because none of us knew how to be an MD – but we were able to confide in each other that neither of us had a clue. So, we made a pact to have a safe space between us and figure it out together. And we did! 

Phil 

It’s a bit it’s a bit cheesy, but I think I would say the same the same thing. I think at the time, I’d said the one job I don’t want is to be Managing Director of an agency and then within a month, we’d been put in that role. I think being able to take on that role but not be lonely doing it.   

To have Felix there to learn with was the highlight. When I look back on those years, probably with rose-tinted glasses, the four years where we were running London, where there wasn’t a strong culture, and then looking back at the team and the culture and the place that we built together. I’d say that those four years have been my highlight so far. 

Nature or nurture?

Felix 

Totally nature – I think. I’ll give you an example: my son likely has ADHD. I struggle to make allowance for that. I kind of keep expecting him to try and focus. So, while I know that his brain struggles to listen well, I also think he does have more choice than he lets on. So sometimes I think he can try harder but doesn’t want to! Don’t get me wrong – I have a strong bond with him, but the story illustrates my point of view a little bit. 

Phil

I would say nurture. Unsurprisingly, I came at it from a different angle to Felix. I think the wet answer would be it’s both, but I would say fundamentally, I think that most people can change if they’re in different environments exposed to different stimuli. People can learn new things and change their paradigm. So, I believe strongly that people can change no matter how they start. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard or been given?

Felix 

Try and surround yourself with radiators and try not to spend time with drains. Some people give off energy and some people just suck your energy in and deplete you. This sounds selfish, but I think it’s important for people in leadership, who have to get stuff done, to be mindful of their energy. It’s very wise to get to know who the radiators are and to stay away from the drains for your benefit.  

Phil 

So I think my favourite bit of advice, which I find myself telling people a lot, is no one cares how much they know until they know how much you care. That has seen me in good stead and I was taught that in my first manager position in my 20s. You can try to get people to do stuff, but until they know you trust them and feel cared for, you’re not going to be able to influence the way they are.  

What talents do you yearn for?

Felix 

Patience. I am really impatient. I could never be a teacher. I have a lot of respect for teachers and I wish I had more patience with people around me. I’d like to learn how to give everyone more time and be less like, get there now. That would be amazing. 

Phil 

I don’t know if this is a talent, but I would love not to be self-conscious and self-guessing. Like being able to dance without worrying about what people think. Being able to do improv, like crazy stuff without the self-conscious voice in my head. I think that not really caring what people think would be a talent that I would love to have, but then I probably wouldn’t be me.  

What’s your favourite brand and why?

Felix 

Easy! 3M. They make these amazing noise-protection headphones. And awesome masking tape. They make super functional products. But they always demand the price premium because they’re really just much better. I love it when brands are better than the kind of white-label nonsense that makes money.  

Phil 

I remember always being asked this in job interview questions and I always said Starbucks, because my definition of having made it back then was being able to walk to work carrying a Starbucks. But I’ve moved on now and I don’t admire Starbucks.  

I’d say at the moment the brand I admire is Strava. I was always shit at PE and I was never like athletic or sporty. But then during the pandemic, I started running and tracking myself on Strava and having a community and a sense of being held to account. It’s one of the apps that I find myself going back to and flicking back and seeing how I did last year. I think it’s helped turn me into a runner. 

What book would you recommend to others?

Felix 

Examined Life: how we lose and find ourselves by a therapist called Stephen Grosz (who’s still practicing in London). He writes about his cases and the people who come to him for therapy. It’s real-life case studies. I give it to everyone I know and my family I talk about it forever.  

Phil 

I’d say Vivek Murthy’s ‘Together. It’s a really good, very human, very accessible, read about everything that is wrong with the world today and presents some really practical solutions for what people can do to build connections in their families with themselves in their lives. That’s the one that I am currently recommending to people. 

What last impressed you at work?

Felix 

It’s one of my weak points that I’m not easily impressed. A week or so ago, we did our 90-minute workshop and a couple of people came out and said it had changed their life. I thought that was pretty neat, to impact someone by what we did in these workshops. 

Phil 

This both irritates me and I admire it. Felix leans strongly into feedback culture. He has the ability to raise things that are quite small, which others may not raise, but he raises them and it makes us better. It’s not always fun at the moment, I admire the character trait. And I admire that it’s done.  

What lesson was the hardest for you to learn?

Felix 

I think it’s a lesson I haven’t learned yet. I’ve always thought that the truth must be told and that this is the best in every situation. But that’s totally not the case. It took me a long time to realize that people don’t always want to hear what’s true. Nor do they need it all the time. 

Phil 

I think it was learning that, sometimes the best way to help other people is to help yourself first. It took me a long time to realize that, to give energy to others, I have to figure it out for myself first. I guess the cliche would be to put your own oxygen mask on first.  

I think it’s a mix of understanding that I need to exercise understanding that I need to switch off. I need to say “no” to some people to be able to say yes to other people. Instead of just saying “yes” to everything.  

What do you want to do when you retire?

Felix 

I don’t want to retire. I want to keep working and be active until I die. Not in an arrogant ‘the world needs me’ kind of way but in a, ‘I get to live this life and must use it up’ kind of way. I believe in life force. We die so soon. I can lie down when I’m dead. 

Phil 

I believe strongly in retirement! I know Sarah talks about it as if it’s gonna be like when we retire we’ll be able to do all these things that we can’t do right now because we have children. 

I think I would travel, but I wouldn’t want to stop doing everything. So, I would want to do some non-exec work and consulting and keep my hand in on things. But I think there are too many places in the world that I haven’t seen that I would like to. Before climate change destroys them all. 

 

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