Westminster Associates is a global leadership development consultancy, founded 16 years ago and lead by the Wirral’s Paul Thompson. Here we talk to Kevin Bill, who heads up Westminster Associates in North America, about his career, life, and what it’s like to live in The City by the Bay, San Francisco.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Fargo, North Dakota where I lived for the first few years of my life, wrapped in woollen sweaters and huddled near the heating vent. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Fargo” you’ve got a pretty good idea of the climate there. We moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota when I was five. It’s a couple hundred miles south and a few degrees warmer, but the difference between North Dakota and South Dakota is shades of grey, both literally and figuratively. Chilly weather aside, it was a good childhood of excellent schools, strong values, and family all around, and the older I get the more I cherish all I learned and became there.
When I turned 18 I knew it was time to leave the nest, and so off to university I went, eventually ending up in New York City. I spent my twenties in Manhattan, loving every minute of it, before I kinda, sorta accidentally moved to San Francisco, by which I mean I came to San Francisco as a short-term assignment for my job and never went back. Someone once said “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.” I’ve ticked the first part of that sentence off my to-do list, but I can’t bring myself to tick the second. San Francisco has proved impossible to leave.
Prior to founding Westminster Associates, what did you do?
I spent many years working for investment banks as the Director of the bank’s regional offices across the US (not including the mothership in New York City, as that is an entity unto itself). It was excellent experience not only from a practical, hands-on perspective, but also from the perspective of learning how really extraordinary companies nurture and support their employees. They all share the values of teamwork, trust, and respect, and they hold one another accountable for maintaining those values.
It goes back to what I mentioned about the values I learned in childhood. Some things you learn because you’re told to. How to hold your fork. How to do basic multiplication. Those things are transactional. Other things you learn by example. What is your work ethic? How do you treat other people? Those things are transformational at the most fundamental level. We learn by example without even realizing, and that’s fascinating to me since we do it as children as well as adults. We’re transformed by other’s examples without even realizing it. I keep coming back to this idea, especially in today’s topsy-turvy, up-is-down, black-is-white world.
How did you meet your business partner Paul Thompson?
Paul was in San Francisco for client work. His client brought him to a happy hour mixer that I was attending. Paul and I got to talking, and I was fascinated by the work he did. I invited him to a barbeque my neighbours were throwing the next day, and we talked more. We kept in touch and talked frequently. Fast forward a few years and the Paul and I incorporated in North America with Westminster Associates North America, the partner company to Paul’s UK-based Westminster Associates Ltd. The response to the US launch has been terrific, as we’re now able to take care of our local clients in both locations as well as our global clients who have a presence in the UK and the US.
In a nutshell, what does Westminster Associates do?
The foundation of what we do is help people develop into the best version of themselves. We then build on that foundation to help those same people build the best teams and develop into the best and most authentic leaders they can be. The five adjectives that our clients told us define Westminster Associates are authentic, professional, respectful, supportive, and trustworthy, and we strive to bring all of those to everything we do. We know that within every organization there are great people, and within some, there are great leaders. We develop great people and great leaders. This is what we do. Every day.
To motivate and lead people successfully, what skills do you need to have?
Effective leaders need to be authentic in what they say and do, and allow their people to be the same. The best motivation comes from within, intrinsically and honestly. Nobody can force it on you. Great leaders create an environment that fosters that intrinsic motivation. The key, though, is to remember that different people are motivated by different things. For example, some people are motivated by achievement, so they’ll be motivated by achieving goals, bringing about change, and being empowered to chart a company’s future. For others it’s about how they interact with others, so things like having a positive influence over others, creating strong working relationships, or having the choice between working in groups or on their own will be strong motivators. And for others it’s about enjoyment, so they’ll be motivated by feelings of security, structure, and recognition for their achievements.
If I had to sum it up, leadership comes down to eight things: delivering results, leading change, creating a compelling vision, communicating with impact, fostering teamwork, developing others, leading with authenticity, and agile thinking. These are the things we focus on with the leaders we work with. When those are in place, leaders get the best from their people.
Are client needs different in the UK compared to the US?
Surprisingly, no. If anything, it’s the universality of what we do which I find fascinating. Paul and I recently had a conversation with a colleague in San Francisco, and we realized that our clients in the US and the UK are all asking us to help to solve four main challenges: achieving results, innovation, agility, and collaboration. The interesting thing here is that it’s not just a question of geography. It’s the commonality of all people. Many of the teams we work with have members from different countries and different backgrounds. In every situation, though, no matter what the background, our goal is to provide a shared language that everyone can use to better understand themselves and how they as a team can better function as a whole.
The first step in doing this is to have each person complete a very simple evaluator, from which a detailed and useful personal profile is generated. It’s fantastic when people read their profile for the first time and ask “How do you know all this about me? It’s really, really spot-on!” It’s those “a-ha!” moments of self-realisation that we at Westminster Associates love, since our goal is to make what we do memorable, fun, and easy-to-understand. We believe that it’s only when people better understanding themselves that they can they perform at their highest level. What we do gives people the foundation to easily adapt and connect with others, which in turn leads to workplaces where innovation, creativity and productivity thrive, and that’s something every team wants and needs, no matter where they are.
What benefits do companies experience by investing in their people and leaders?
It’s an employee’s market right now, so companies gain so much by investing in their people. They get individuals who can build better relationships, leaders who can lead more effectively, and teams that can work more harmoniously and productively. There’s an entire generation coming into the workforce right now that places great value on learning and growing in their job. Today’s workforce is not just interested in a pay cheque. That’s a given. They’re interested in development and growth and advancement. They’ll stay with an employer who offers those, but in today’s booming economy they’re more than willing to change jobs if that leads to the next step in their career. Wise employers realize this, and know these things are key drivers in motivating and maintaining their workforce.
What is your biggest personal achievement to date?
I learned French as an adult, just to see if I could do it. I’m not saying I’m fluent, but I can hold my own in a conversation. I’d describe my level of competence as somewhere between ordering a cup of coffee in a café and being able to understand all the lyrics to French hip-hop, not that either of those comes up in daily life very frequently. Functional, but not fully fluent.
Westminster Associates is a headline sponsor at the Wirral Life Awards (on 1st November 2018). Why did you decide to sponsor?
Paul Thomson, my business partner, grew up on the Wirral, and has recently moved back to the Wirral after living in other parts of England. It’s a homecoming for him, and sponsoring the Wirral Life Awards seemed like a perfect way to re-connect with the community as the journey comes full circle.
Will you be attending the awards?
Oh yes, most definitely. It’s going to be quite the evening! I do admit to a bit of trepidation, though, as it’s a black-tie event and I’ve been Googling “How to tie a bowtie” recently more than I care to admit.
Do you have any exciting plans ahead?
Perhaps a trip to Australia this winter (when it’s summer down under). I’ve been there before, in gorgeous Sydney for most of the trip, but I’d like to venture out and see more of the country and the wilderness it has to offer. The most dangerous thing I did on the last trip was a one-on-one photo op at the zoo with a very sleepy koala named Darwin. Something a bit more adventuresome than that next time, I think, but not quite at the level of one of those Australian creatures that wants to sting you into hospitalisation or eat you for lunch.
You wrote a fantastic article entitled “A San Franciscan’s View of the Wirral” in the last issue which was a really interesting read. What would you recommend as the “must” things to do if any of our readers visit San Francisco?
Oh wow. So many options. San Francisco is a city where those ubiquitous Hop On Hop Off buses really make sense because there’s so much to see in such a small geographic area. The obvious things that come to mind are a ride on the cable cars and a visit to the Painted Lady houses (also known as “Postcard Row”). I would also say don’t miss Alcatraz. It may sound touristy but it’s actually quite fascinating, not only because of its history but also because of its location in the San Francisco Bay. (By the way, book your boat trip from San Francisco to Alcatraz well in advance during the summer months. It sells out quickly.) You can also do bike tours which start at the beautiful Ferry Building in San Francisco, continue along the waterfront, continue across the Golden Gate bridge, and end in Sausalito on the other side of the bay, from which you take a ferry back across the bay to the Ferry Building where you started. It’s a big loop of gorgeous scenery. One of my personal “I would have never thought of that” favourites is the Cable Car Museum, which is part museum and part machine house that powers the cables which run under the streets and pull the cable cars. The machinery that runs the cable cars hasn’t changed since it was first built in the 1870’s.
Do you visit the Wirral often?
I do, especially over the past year or so. It’s starting to feel like a second home to me, albeit one where I get very lost very easily. I’m learning, though.
Do you have any hobbies?
Does napping count?
What are your favourite Wirral restaurants?
Another question with so many possible answers. I’m a big fan of The Refreshment Rooms, which is off the beaten path, so to speak, as well as The Benty Farm Tea Rooms for afternoon tea, which given their location is quite literally off the beaten path. Another slightly hidden gem is the Sun Lounge Café which is located in the Port Sunlight Garden Centre of all places. It’s got indoor tables as well as an open-air courtyard for fair weather days, plus the food and locally-made desserts are delicious. It feels a bit like a well-kept secret. And if I’m over in Liverpool in Bold Street I like to go to Leaf for a light snack, or Mowgli Street Food where I’m making my way through the menu one delicious meal at a time.