Tell us your name and a little about yourself.
My name is Colin D Ellis. I was born in a small village outside Liverpool in the UK, lived in New Zealand for 6 years and now live in Melbourne, Australia. I’m often asked what the ‘D’ in my name stands for and whilst I generally leave it to people’s imagination (!) I can confirm that it stands for David. There’s a tradition where I’m from of the firstborn taking their father’s forename as their middle name and so that’s where it comes from. I chose to use it as my business name as someone had already taken the domain of my name without it!
What exactly does your company do?
I help organizations transform their workplace cultures and I do this through the books that I write, public speaking at conferences around the world and running facilitated programs for organizations that need a bit of help. As a former permanent employee of 30 years, it used to frustrate me that authors, speakers at conferences and consultants wouldn’t give away how to change the culture, so I’ve tried to build my practice to be the antithesis of that. My new book CultureFix: How to Build a Great Place to Work has been 20 years in the making. From my early days working at the frontline at a bank and selling advertising space for a newspaper I always loved being part of a team. So when I got the opportunity in the late 1990s to become a project manager I jumped at the chance to build my own. Over the 20 years that followed and through my rise up the corporate ladder in three countries, I never stopped looking for ways to build great culture. I believe in providing practical advice, delivered with humor. There just isn’t enough common sense or laughter in workplaces these days, so I see it as my role to inject it.
What were the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?
At the end of 2015, we probably came within 4-6 weeks of running out of money and having to move back to the UK to move in with one of our sets of parents. I’d quit my (safe) government job 18 months earlier and it’s an understatement to say that things hadn’t gone as I’d have liked them to. Nobody really knew me, my efforts to build a movement that challenged some of the obvious issues with projects (specifically) hadn’t really caught on and my Mum was really sick with cancer back home. The kids were 8 and 6 and had settled in their new school and we were doing what we could to earn enough to cover our rent and keep our heads above water. We had no assets, no savings, no family close by that we could call on and I had no work! Persistence, dedication and (if I’m honest) generosity got us through. I created events for people to mix and attend and for me to test my ideas. I met people and gave them ideas (or books) that they could use in the hope they would remember me and I took a contract to keep the money coming in. Eventually, I was able to win a piece of work, then a second piece that managed to keep the wolves from the door.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?
That being a good human that understands the value of courage and determination is more important than a piece of paper that says you learned a method in a book. What’s funny to me today is that parents tell their kids that with the right mindset they can be anything. Whereas when I was young I was told that I wouldn’t amount to anything unless I passed all of my high school exams! Guess what? I flunked them. In a spectacular way. There was a fair degree of arrogance on my part (hey, I was 16, give me a break) but also an acceptance that I hadn’t done enough. I didn’t enjoy school or the way I was taught and so I mainly listened to records when I should have been studying. I’m still hugely grateful that I was able to get a job quickly after leaving school as it was in work that I flourished and learned many more lessons on the way!
Who are your biggest influences and people you admire and why?
I’ve been fortunate to work with about 6-8 people who greatly influenced the way that I worked. Whilst that may not sound like many in 30 years (!), most left a lasting impression that I continue to call on today. Some passed on technical skills, some passed on emotional skills, whilst others gave me opportunities to prove others wrong. Ultimately, they all provided feedback in a way that I was able to use and that helped me continue to evolve and grow as a person.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There is no one particular person, however, there are people whose work I follow that provide practical advice that I draw inspiration from. People such as Brene Brown, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Seth Godin talk about generosity, vulnerability, simplicity and resilience, as well as providing insights into how they became successful. I avoid people with fixed mindsets or who seek to denigrate others.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
From a personal perspective and along with my wife, raising two emotionally intelligent, happy children who understand how to treat other human beings.
From a work perspective, having the courage and determination to change my career at age 46 to do something that I’d never even thought of before then. That others entrust me to help them transform the way that they work is something that I will never take for granted.