Before accepting any assignment, we always endeavour to spend 30 minutes in the reception of the potential client. There is no better investment than the time spent trying to better understand the prevailing culture and management style of a client we will need to hit the ground running with.

Just by sitting unannounced quietly in the reception, so many vital cultural indicators are there to be seen and observed.

Receptions at their best should give that affirmative emotional hit of returning home to a place you are proud to belong to. This can kick-start the positive feelings for a good day to be had by all.

It’s a bit like having home advantage at a sports event. You know and feel that most people, if not all, are on your side.

Why wouldn’t you work hard to make your reception a great place to look forward to coming back to?


There is little more informative than the arrival of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in reception. It begins to paint the rich tapestry of just how “things get done around here” – which is our definition of culture.

When the CEO arrives and only takes 15 ‘Usain Bolt’ type seconds to cross the reception, because they are staring so intensely at their mobile phone, with no time or attention for anything or anyone else. They soon disappear into the lift, and again, with no eye contact and just lost in the endless emails that they should have never have been copied on in the first place. Whilst wasting no time at all, it also sends a particularly strong message about the culture of the organisation.

There is an opposite approach from very different CEOs, it might take them a full 10 to 15 minutes to cross the reception. They tend to know everyone’s first names, they are hugely curious about all the people that work for them and they make a point of stopping for little chats with people they meet on the way to the lifts. “Margaret how was David’s graduation party?”. “Michael how was your wife’s operation?”. They seemed to have time for everyone, but it is far more than that.

Leadership is not a task, it is a mindset. And when we are thinking leadership, we are always thinking people. These CEOs are giving a very strong message on what their priorities are.

So many senior executives plea that they are just far too busy to take on the (extra) burden of leadership. This is so wrong headed. You don’t make time for leadership, you live leadership. It’s not about what you do, it’s about who you are.

Back to our user-friendly CEO’s, as they hit the lift they are still initiating conversations, and again, endlessly curious about how their people feel.

Going the Extra Smile

When Chris Pilling was the CEO of First Direct Bank, he invited me to come and spend a day with him and his team, in order to prepare me to facilitate and speak at their annual conference.

It was a long and early drive from my home in London up to the city of Leeds in Yorkshire, in the North of England. At the time, Leeds was the fastest growing city in the UK, with a concentration of financial services businesses which were tapping into the young and well-educated talent that were being produced by the local schools and first-class universities in the area.

I arrived 20 minutes early, and as I drove into the car park, the parking official came out of his cabin to greet us. As we started speaking, he looked at me squarely in the face and said, “You’re René Carayol”. This threw me, and he smiled and I smiled back, as I said “yes”. He was warm and sincere and said helpfully, “I have got a parking space for you”. I smiled in return and he beckoned the car to follow him, he raised the barrier and shouted, “follow me, I will take you there”.

He had gone out of his way to not just show me where to park, he took me there and he was very happy to have done so.

Guess what mood I was in?

This rarely happens, but was this just a really passionate employee who loves their job, or was this the corporate culture?

I walked down to the reception, and the glass sliding doors opened as I walked up to let me in from the swirling wind. As soon as I stepped inside, one of the three girls at reception smiled, “good morning René”. Again, I was speechless. She smiled, and said, “welcome to First Direct”.

Two simple unsolicited interventions had put me in the best of moods.

She came from behind the reception and said “grab a seat and I will call Chris”. I sat down, and noted that she had called the CEO, Chris. Why was I so surprised?

Within 2 – 3 minutes down came Chris. Not his PA, not an assistant, but Chris the CEO. He came straight up to me, shook my hand, gave me my security badge, and asked me to follow him upstairs.

At the time, this was not an earth-shattering experience, but it was the most welcoming of beginnings to a day. It must be over 10 years ago now, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. It said everything about the culture I was about to experience throughout the rest of my day with First Direct.

It’s Always Better to Serve

Some years ago, I was invited to give a leadership talk at Marks and Spencer (M&S), where I had worked for 10 years many years before. I had a real sense of pride and it was with great honour that I returned back to the head office, Michael House in Baker Street.

I mistakenly walked into the employee’s entrance, which I had used for many years in the past. I was politely redirected to the visitor’s entrance which was two doors down. In all the years I have worked at M&S I have never experienced the visitor’s entrance.

It was now my second visit in two weeks. We had met before for a briefing meeting but again, I had to be redirected to the visitor’s entrance – old habits die hard. There was a bit of a queue, but everyone appeared to be resigned to waiting a long time.

As every visitor was called up to the desk, nothing appeared to be straightforward, and it just seemed to take forever.

Eventually they called my name, and I stepped up just like two weeks before, they seemed to want copious detail on who I was and why I was there. It started to feel like perhaps they didn’t want me there. There was no eye contact, in fact there was nothing warm about this process whatsoever.

After my 5-minute interrogation, I was sharply informed that when I had visited 2 weeks prior, I had not returned my security pass. “Have you got your security pass with you?”. I was now made to feel very guilty when I said, “no I have not”.

To my shock the rather officious receptionist then responded curtly, “you will have to pay £10 for the replacement security pass or you can’t come in”. I was appalled and couldn’t believe how they had come to this as the appropriate outcome for either party.

I could have been a prospective employee, a valued supplier or a trusted partner, but no-one appeared to care. As I was just about to turn around and walk out, an old colleague saw me and yelled my name. I stopped, and he came over and we spoke, I told him how gobsmacked I was with what had just happened.

He calmly went over to the receptionist and asked for her to charge the £10 to his cost centre.

An unbelievable experience.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

I had just arrived at the ‘Gherkin’ building in the City of London. I was due to meet the Chairman of Aviva. It was December the 23rd and the building was bedecked with Christmas decorations and goodwill was in the air.

I came into a very busy reception and was politely given a security badge and then asked to sit down on a sofa to await the PA of the Chairman, who would come down to collect me.

I sat next to a stressed-out courier in his cycling lycra, with his helmet by his side, and a walkie talkie radio clipped on his satchel strap that wouldn’t stop garbling out loud unintelligible nonsense. He also had a pair of white headphones in his ears and was humming and nodding to the music that I was now being forced to share with him.

I couldn’t wait for the Chairman’s PA to get me away from the needless noise.
To the left of us were a huge bank of lifts, which seemed to be taking hundreds of people up and down all the time. Eventually, a very well dressed and well presented middle aged woman came out of a single lift in the far corner of the reception. She had poise and grace, as she walked purposefully but delicately towards where I sat with the loud courier.

Before long she stood in front of both of us and looked at the paper that she had in her hand and all of a sudden, she stopped and panicked.

She kept staring at the paper and kept looking back up at both of us. I have experienced this particular game before, she obviously was very new to this.

She braced herself and stood tall and upright, before looking directly at my loud colleague, who was nodding away to himself and said “Mr Carayol?” he didn’t even hear her or notice her.

I said politely “I think you’ll find that’s me”, whilst wearing my best sober pin striped suit. She could not have been more embarrassed. It was a genuine mistake, but an avoidable one.

There is nothing like a warm reception, and that was nothing like a warm reception.

Good Receptions Create Strong Connections

A few years ago, I found myself in the reception of ASDA’s HQ in Leeds. I had arrived for a meeting with David Smith, the People Director. The job title was a clue to ASDA’s fixation with people and morale.

A large, light, spacious and welcoming reception was very busy but never full. Every visitor was picked up in person and no one waited more than 5 minutes – maybe it was just a good day, maybe.

There was a large open area with escalators and a swish atrium going all the way up to the top of the building.

Right in the middle of the reception, there was a solid makeshift stage that had a young band called ‘Freefaller’ warming up, which I had unsurprisingly never heard of.

It was the last Friday of the month, this meant it was the monthly well-organised ‘Late Lunch’ gathering and a casual dress day. Most of those gathered around the stage were wearing clothes from ASDA’s spectacularly successful George everyday clothing range.

At these monthly gatherings, a senior executive assumed the ‘MC’ role. Angela Spindler (Marketing and Food Trading director) had the seemingly unenviable role. She was a natural and was self-deprecating, fun, enthusiastic and charm personified.

Anyone and everyone could book a 3-minute slot to deliver a message to all gathered in the reception and looking over from the atrium. A vicious but humorous traffic lights system assisted her in ensuring that all who chose to appear on the stage delivered their desired messages to time, in a crisp and speedy fashion before the red light automatically ended the session.

From buyers promoting new fast-moving lines, high performing stores being recognised with awards. All the recipients were from the winning stores, but no members of management were present, only highly motivated employees receiving the admiration of their colleagues. Finally, there was a hugely enthusiastic member of the finance team delivering guidance on both recent performance and upcoming targets.

The finance man was perhaps the defining moment. He was a real peek into the power of a people focused culture. When he had built up a head of steam, all present listened intently, and the target numbers were scarily aggressive and the current performance was as scarily impressive!

Throughout there were no notes, no slides, just naked passion! The band played on at intervals to a receptive and enthused audience.

Now, that is what I call a reception!

There are now many alternative first points of contact for a business or organisation. It can be via their online offering, maybe by telephone but by far the most indelible experience is still walking into their environment, and to experience how they treat their own people.

Some of the leadership questions that need answers to are:

  • How do we want our people to feel when they turn up for work?
  • How do we want people to talk about us after they have left?
  • Are we doing all we can to make ambassadors and advocates of our people for our products and services?
  • Do we believe that happy people create happy customers?
  • What do we really stand for?

This debate is best held across the organisation, and initiated at the top, but many answers will come from those who might be feeling invisible within their own company.

There are some leadership pointers that must be considered before having the open debates and discussions:

  • Walk in the shoes of your people – feel what they feel
  • Engage with people from all parts of the business, and vitally, listen to what’s on their minds
  • If all you hear is good news, great but take a pause, and then also ask those who will not varnish the truth
  • Sit in on some exit interviews and ask about the prevailing culture
  • Give the receptionists a voice and ensure they are encouraged to speak up and feel recognised for it

The best chance you get to make a good and long lasting first impression is a welcoming and warm reception, run by people that love people a little more than the process.

I write regular blog posts about SPIKE and my take on leadership issues globally. If you enter your name and email below I’ll send you my fortnightly update which also includes news of SPIKE events I’m speaking at

Originally published at