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The Natural Optimist:  Professor Steven Broomhead

Steven Broomhead, the CEO of Warrington Borough Council, and the chair of entrepreneurial education at Liverpool Hope University, talked to Victor Perton, COO at The Centre for Optimism.

Victor Perton: Steven, you're a self-declared natural optimist. What makes you optimistic?

Steven Broomhead: I think I've always looked at the conditions around me. When things are miserable, when people are miserable, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So I've always wanted to be a realistic optimist.

When things get tough, you've got to think about the brighter side of life, and I've tried to carry that in my personal life, and certainly, in the organisations, I've led and worked in for the last 30 years.

Victor Perton:  People describe you as a realistic and infectiously optimistic leader. How has that optimism helped you in your work and your career?

Steven Broomhead:  Well, I mean, I remember really well the crash in the UK in 2008, 2009.

I walked through the middle of Manchester, which was a booming city, particularly for financial services at the time. Somebody had written on the wall, "The light at the end of the tunnel has now been switched off."

That just made a reaction for me around optimism and basically wanting to say, "Look, there must be some green shoots."

Economies are driven in many ways by business confidence and being very positive and being optimistic.

So I went away, and I got criticised at the time for being virtually mad to say, "Look, this economy will come back. We've got to be optimistic. We will all work together to nurture and develop green shoots in our economy."

Of course, the UK economy did come back. It didn't come back as quickly as people wanted.

That's what I see now with COVID. We hope we're entering a V, not an L for our economy, globally as well as in the UK.

I think we've just got to be as optimistic as we can and think about the other side of this, rather than think about the dark side. A lot of people, including economists, are now just talking about the dark side.

Victor Perton:  You're the chair of entrepreneurial education at Liverpool Hope University, and one of our areas of research shows the very close association between strong optimism and successful entrepreneurship. Given your professorial role, how do you see the relationship between entrepreneurship and optimism?

Steven Broomhead: You've got to look at the economic trends. Entrepreneurs cannot develop businesses and be successful without a real set of values which are basically around optimism and creativity, and to be agile in development as a business.

So as part of the curriculum offered at Liverpool Hope, I try to ensure that that is the dominant theme and values that students understand.

You're never going to build a business if you're going to adopt a miserable attitude toward building that business and building your workforce.

Victor Perton: You returned as the acting CEO of the Warrington Borough Council. So what makes you optimistic for the post-COVID future of the city?

Steven Broomhead: I've got four and a half thousand staff.

I've tried to deal with the situation of COVID, which had its dark side in terms of the health impacts and also the effects of health inequality.

But you've got to be optimistic about the future.

Our government in the UK is doing quite a good job trying to protect the economy. But some of those protections are now about to run out, and people are starting to talk about the light being switched off at the end of the tunnel again.

I mean, for me, I've always wanted to see the light at the end of the tunnel. If we can see it, as long as it's not a train coming the other way, I think that's quite important.

So it's all about leadership. It's about communication and making sure people can understand there's always a way out of things if you work hard. Where there's a will, there's often a way.

Victor Perton: Are there any stories of optimism and hope you can share?

Steven Broomhead: Well, we had to turn a thousand people to homeworking. The first issue for me around that was trusting people to perform and do their regular work and produce the same level of output at the same time as looking after the kids, doing home education, dealing with pets and animals all at the same time. And for other people, being on their own and being isolated.

I'm pleased to say that it's worked well.

The second issue is about the sustainability of IT support. I started this whole exercise of COVID 50 weeks ago here in the UK as a virtual dinosaur. Never heard of Zoom, never heard of Hangout, and never heard of Teams. But now I'm just like Buzz Lightyear, which is why I'm with you now in Melbourne at this very moment in time. So for me, it's been about addressing the positives in all this. Yeah. I've tried to make that rub off corporately within my own organisation.

Victor Perton: We've done a study on a better normal, so a thousand people over 22 countries. We were getting about 70% of people telling us how they've built a better normal. Then News Limited's Australian papers extended our poll with nearly 85% of their readers responding, looking at a "better normal" not being stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. What are you seeing, a better normal coming out of this?

Read "The Better Normal Research Project"

Steven Broomhead: Well, I mean, on the environment. I mean, there's been a great leap forward on the green economy, and we need to try and make sure we bottle that because of obviously less traffic.

Extinction Rebellion in the UK did me a favour. One weekend they came, and they put their cycle lanes down, they chalked them out and painted them, of their version of what cycle lanes should be. Actually, we've gone with that. We just turned them into permanent cycle lanes.

So people who sometimes seem to be challenging and rebellious can help us do the right things if we just follow that approach.

Interesting about the home-working. I surveyed the stuff who were home-working, and 85% of them are really enjoying it. Yeah. The other 15% worries me the most because they didn't feel they had enough support. But as I say, COVID brought a lot of good things as well as bad things, really.

Also, I think relationships in a crisis are so different. They might not have found the vaccine yet for COVID. But somebody's found a vaccine, indeed in the UK, of cooperation because people who worked in silos before are now working across silos. Communication relationships are just so different. So as long as they can keep that vaccine going, we're all going to work in a somewhat different way as a result of this, and I really value that.

Victor Perton: How do you see the UK coming out of all of this? You're still negotiating with the EU on a free trade agreement. My suggestion is you'll probably get a free trade agreement with Australia a little bit faster than the EU, but what's your take on the future of the United Kingdom separate from Europe?

Steven Broomhead: I think it's going to be challenging, but yeah. Going back to the theme of optimism, I just hope that with the right set of negotiations, things will work out all right in the end. But if you put COVID together with the impact of Brexit, it could be a difficult and challenging situation. But you have to have trust in leadership. You have to have trust in negotiators to come out with the right deal. But the delay on top of the economic implication of COVID could be significant.

Victor Perton: So, Steven, you've got a passion for rugby and rugby league and Warrington success. Tell me, what do you see as the future of rugby and the Australian, English rivalry?

Steven Broomhead:  I'm a great advocate, been involved in rugby league. I'll just give a plug for my rugby team, Warrington Wolves. We played in Australia. I was chairman of it for nine years. Only hope the NRL can continue in Australia. I hope it's going to get even stronger. We've got the World Cup here next year in the UK, and we've always had an excellent relationship.


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