Roger Philby, CEO, The Chemistry Group

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When I interviewed Roger, I was expecting another interview along the lines of Salim Earle, which I had greatly enjoyed – a data-led conversation of the work which Chemistry does with its clients in helping them identify and hire the best possible talent for their situation and organization. Instead, I got a wide-ranging, story-filled exploration of Roger’s own strengths, and a nuanced view on what it takes to truly succeed in sales.

Roger’s interview was the only on regulated by a marketing department (as benefits a sitting CEO!) but his personality and beliefs come through clearly in this punchy, candid interview.

You can read Roger’s full biography here



Jamie: Roger, what have you found most fulfilling about your career thus far?

Roger: There have been two things throughout my career that have been the most fulfilling. One is helping people who have joined Chemistry. Both types of people, those who have stayed in Chemistry like Salim Earle (fellow interviewee) or have left Chemistry and gone on to build their careers elsewhere. Pretty much everyone who has worked at Chemistry has gone off and done great things. That is the first thing that is immensely fulfilling.

Then the second thing is the same, but it relates to my clients. The reason that selling comes easy to me nowadays – and it didn’t previously – is that I have an amazing network of individuals. Over the years, we have had a mutually beneficial relationship. They are in positions as a result of the work that I have done, and their careers have developed in part as a result of the work Chemistry has done.

Ultimately, it is about building careers, whether it be careers for the people who work for Chemistry or careers for the people who we serve as our clients.

People sometimes ask me, ‘What is the most rewarding project that you have done?’ There have been tons, but I think the single most rewarding one was being able to put the first all-black National Caribbean executive team into the largest Telecom player in the Caribbean – the first time in its hundred and eighty year history because it had been run totally by white men until then. That has probably been the project that I am most proud of because we changed a nation; we did not just change an organisation. The company in question is the largest employer in the Caribbean. We changed the lives of everyone across those islands because their business was being run by people who looked like them, thought like them, and had empathy for them for the first time in a hundred and eighty years, which I thought was pretty cool.


Jamie: Was that a data-led decision?

Roger: They said, “The reason why we cannot put Caribbean Nationals into the executive team is that there are no Caribbean Nationals who can run a complicated business of that scale,” – while, of course, there are. The first problem was that there were no businesses of a similar scale and complexity to my client’s in the Caribbean! The lazy response is, “Oh, yeah, you are probably right.”

The decision we took was that we needed first use data to find what it is that these executives need to do. The truth is that there was only one other company that would have had the complexity in the Caribbean. But we worked with their search partners and said, “Look, these people exist. They’ve just left the islands.”

What we needed to do was to use data to identify where they have gone. We initiated a piece of work using both data and research and identified people who were running big complicated businesses in the US globally and said to them, “Do you fancy coming back and changing your nation for the better?” Lo and behold, we found ten executives who are awesome, and who are all from the Caribbean, who came back and turned that business around and eventually sold it and made a lot of money for themselves.

That was incredibly rewarding. These individuals are the same or better quality than what you could find in your expatriate community, and using data was a key part of the engagement.


Jamie: Do you think coming from a sales background yourself has made you a better CEO?

Roger: No. I think the CEO could come from anywhere. I have met great CEOs at technology firms from all backgrounds. So, I do not think so. I think being a CEO is about leadership and leadership can literally come from anywhere and any function.

 I think what my sales background has done is slightly skewed the emphasis towards sales in Chemistry. I think you find that with CEOs, they come from a particular functional background, and they tend to lean into it.

If you are a CEO from a product background, then the heavyweight opinion in the business might be the product opinion.

I think that what me coming from sales means is that I am quite adamant that everyone should understand the value of selling. Everyone should be selling.

Has it made me a better CEO? No. Has it flavoured the type of CEO I am? Almost certainly.

I think what informs your CEO qualities is your experience of being led yourself. I’ve had some incredible leaders who have been deeply flawed, and I would describe myself in that category. I am a deeply flawed leader, rather than incredible. I genuinely think all of the great CEOs I have worked for have flaws or are what I call “spiky” and actually all the best salespeople like me are “spiky” too. We are incredibly good on a narrow set of things and equally appalling at another narrow set of things. I think that spiky people are more interesting to other people, which is important in selling.

I think if you are going to be able to build a trusted relationship with a client, it has to be built on some value that you exchange, and the value I exchange with my clients is my spikiness.

It is not the fact that I am average at everything. It is the fact that I excel in one or two or three things that they really value, and frankly, they would not call me for all the other stuff because, why would they?


Jamie: Does that suggest that you are better off further developing your strengths throughout your career, rather than spending a disproportionate time addressing your weaknesses?

Roger: I think it is about the priority of focus. I have a severe lack of empathy, but I am incredibly emotionally intelligent. One of my narrow strengths in selling is my ability to interpret how you are feeling in my interactions with you, observing you is a really key part of my ability to sell and engage. However, my high degree of emotional intelligence does not really equate to empathy, and that means I am highly able to influence you, because I innately comprehend how you are feeling and what you are positively responding to, and what you are negatively responding to, without you having to say a word. I am very good, therefore, at adapting my messaging. My lack of empathy in sales has pretty much zero ramifications.

As a CEO, it has huge ramifications because to be leading people from all different backgrounds and my ability to stop, think and try and understand where they may be coming from and care about that, is something I have worked on, knowing it will never be a ‘spike’ for me. It will never be the thing that I am famous for.

No one will ever say ‘Roger, he really deeply cares’ because I do not exhibit that behaviour consistently. I am sympathetic, but I am not empathetic. So no, I do not think it is as straightforward as sharpening your strengths and just ignoring the things you’re rubbish at. It’s not as simple as that, but what I am saying is ‘celebrate your spikes.’


Jamie: For people going into the sales profession specifically, what are the most important spikes to sharpen?

Roger: When you look at sales, what we are actually doing is solving problems. I always think that salespeople really complicate things, when it is really simple – your job is to understand what the problem is and therefore what the opportunity is. You have to understand the problem you are trying to solve for your customer and engage the customer in that conversation. You explore it appropriately and then come back to them with a solution that meets the opportunity or problem that you have agreed with the customer, the one you are trying to address and then engage them in then in the process of closing that.

To break that down – what do you need? What behaviour do you need to be able to identify opportunities or problems? You need to be able to have a really great conversation.

I’m not talking about a conversation about your product or what you are doing. One of my spikes is my curiosity. Salespeople often think, “I need to really understand the customers’ business, and I really need to understand my business,” and I say, “No, you have missed the point.”

Anyone can understand the customers’ business, and anyone can understand your business. One of my spikes is that I am insatiably curious. If I see a magazine lying around, I would pick it up and read it, but I am not picking up and flicking through it; I want to read it. All through the day, I am taking in information on board. I was once in a dentist’s waiting room reading an old magazine about weight loss which led to us developing an amazing solution on behavioural change. Most of this stuff, most of the time, is irrelevant to my conversations with my customers. But I can tell you that in every customer interaction, there comes a moment where because I have read something or I have watched something or because I have listened to something, I can relate to the customer on something that is going to add value to the conversation. The first thing I would say is if you are not interested in reading or listening just do not go in sales because you will just be an average salesperson. It is not about, “What do I know about the client, and what do I know about me?” It is, “What do I know in general?”

The other trait I think that is super important for me is that I do not care if I am wrong. That allows me to explore ideas with a client because I am not embarrassed if what I just said thirty seconds ago was wrong, and I am now revising it. I do not care because what I am trying to do is explore with the client their thoughts, and what they are thinking, what they know.

My innate curiosity drives this desire to understand the problem, and I think sometimes salespeople get this confused. They think that they understand the client when they can say, “I know the guys got three kids and I have been on lunch with him, or dinner with him,” But in terms of a sales relationship that stuff is just BS.

In my career, I’ve sold a lot of stuff across different industries in different areas, but I do not have any social relationships with my clients. It is very rare that I have been to dinner with them or that I’ve golfed with them. That is not why we have a relationship. We are sociable, but we don’t socialise. The reason I can develop strategic partner relationships is that I do not waste time developing “weak social ties”. That is a different type of relationship, and I am really clear about which relationships I want, and which ones are for me. It is not manipulation. It is deliberation. It is purposeful.

It all comes back to curiosity and exploration. Explore the problem. Do not try to sell something. Let the client be, and do not rush it. Their agenda is not your agenda. What you need to find is the ground between your agenda and their agenda.

The fact that you need to meet your sales target this month is not their problem and one of the things I noticed about some salespeople is they come at it from their perspective, only thinking about what they want and that is a massive mistake.

A trick I was taught very early in my career and I teach it to everyone at Chemistry; some pick it up, and some do not. The ones that pick it up are the ones that should be salespeople. There was one thing I was going to teach a salesperson, it would be this: I would ask them to get a notebook and open it to the first page. It could be A5 or A4, I do not care. Write the months of the year along the top and leave on the right-hand side two inches of rows, and then down in those rows anyone interesting you meet, and that is of a similar age to you and that you think, “You are brilliant. I really like you. You seem great,” and write their name down on the left-hand side and make a commitment to call them every three months and say hi.

If you cannot get hold of them for two cycles, strike their name off the list and keep the ones that you can. People ask, “What am I going to talk about?” and I always reply, “Nothing.” Ring them and say, “Hi. How was your day?” You do not have to say anything else. You will have an amazing conversation with that individual.

“Hi, how was your day? Do you remember we met at that meeting when your boss was ranting about my firm? Yeah, I do. Yeah, that was funny, wasn’t it? Yeah. It was anyway like I was just calling to see how your day was.”.

You will have a fifteen-minute conversation off that one question because then they will ask you how your day was and bingo you are now starting to form a strategic relationship because they have asked you how you are. You should be honest.

“I have had a shitty day. My boss is nailing me on my target. I am behind. I am quite worried about it.” I did that from the age of 21 when it was first taught to me by Steve Ingham, who is now the CEO of Michael Page and I kept doing that in that one book for ten years.

I do not have the book anymore, but it is now innate in me. What people say now is, “How do you win these clients?” I say, “It has been a twenty-five-years sales cycle.”

Take the global head of talent at a major financial services client. I first met her when I was 21. She was a junior HR business partner at a global soft drinks company, and I was a nervous junior recruiter at Michael Page. My first proper client gig, we met, and I really liked her. She was a foul-mouthed, really aggressive person from the Midlands but I really liked her and I put her in my book. That one lady has spent upwards of two and a half million pounds with Chemistry over the last twenty years, and she has taken us with her to hospitality, banking, and now financial services. I still phone her every three months and say, “Hi, how was your day,” then she would share her day or how great her day was and then she will say, “Oh, by the way, I need to introduce you to someone.” Thank you.

We haven’t got the time, but I can probably take you through at least fifteen individuals who were in that book twenty years ago that are Chemistry’s biggest clients. I do not stop refreshing my book; whilst many names stay the same, they do evolve. Some of them drop off because I lose touch with them or they lose touch with me for a variety of reasons, but I have never had someone say to me, “Stop calling me,” ever. I have never had that in twenty years of doing that.

The thing is that as a salesperson, you need to see yourself as an independent business, and your value is who you know because what you know will change.

I find this amazing that we hire client partners who have been in the corporate world for twenty-five or thirty years and they say, “Yeah. I’ve got a great network.”

Then they come in, and I say, “Right.  If you have a great network, this is your fourth week, then you should have brought a client in by now.” 

They do not have great networks. They have lots of people on LinkedIn that they kind of know, but because they have not been purposeful about building their network and the value of their network, it does not work.

This is a really good example. There is a really influential guy in an investment banking client, and everyone was nervous around him because he is a major player in this world. I went to meet him, and he has got a brain the size of a planet. I do not. One of my flaws is that I am not academically bright. But I go see him, and everyone else is nervous, but I am not nervous because I know more about my subject matter than he knows about my subject matter. I do not know anything about investment banking and frankly, if he is hiring me because I know more about investment banking than him, then we have both got a real problem. But I know more about talent so we can go anywhere on talent and I can add real value. That is my confidence as we go in.

He has already mentioned once that he is Israeli and he is really interested in psychology, so we are in the meeting, and I am trawling through everything I know about Israel and psychology. What comes up in my head is that he is going to talk about Daniel Kahneman. He goes, “My favourite book is ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’” which is Daniel Kahneman. I have read that book, so I know it is a fascinating book.

I say, “Yeah. have you read the “Undoing Project”?” He goes, “No. What is the relevance?”

And I reply, “Well, it is a book by Michael Lewis. He wrote ‘The Big Short’ and ‘Flash Boys’, and it is about the life of Daniel Kahneman.” At that moment, we are now connected.

“Tell me about that.” I tell him about it a bit, and then I said, “So you were in the Israeli Army. Is that where you got your first taste of this?” “Yeah, it was” and all of a sudden we are not talking about Chemistry at all. We are not talking about the project we are doing. What I have just done with him is prove to him that I am the right person to work with. Now, we are exchanging audiobook ideas. He was a key decision-maker in signing off £600,000 worth of work that we signed off last month, and I am not saying it was just my conversation, but you can imagine in a meeting where someone said, “Should we work with these Chemistry guys?” and he puts his hand up and says, “Yeah. I met the founder. He is a great guy. We like him a lot.”

That would be a good example of him being curious. Reading a bunch of stuff allows you to connect the dots in the meeting—a salesperson who was not curious would just read up on the client. I didn’t do any research for that.  I knew his job title, but other than that, I walked in and opened the conversation and just explored with him what his interests were.


Jamie: But that does speak to the level of preparation that you are willing to do for a really big pitch?

Roger: That is my point. I don’t. I did not do any research for that meeting, because of all the research I was doing anyway. I will give you another example. He said, “This is about behavioural change,” and I said, “Yeah, behavioural change is pretty interesting, isn’t it? We have got an interesting approach to that, and it has to do with observing the processes of organisations like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous.” The other thing I would say is you need to be able to story-tell. If you cannot use an analogy, story-tell, and make a play with the facts, then do not be a salesperson.

If you are not willing to have the discipline to build a network and do it purposely, do not be a salesperson. But equally, if you are not willing to be curious, do not be a salesperson. You have to engage your audience using spiky storytelling and take the effort to write well. But you cannot write stuff or tell stories unless you are reading stuff. That is the rule. You will never write anything interesting because you have got no foundation to base it on. If nothing is coming in, nothing can get out.

One of the tricks I learned is to tell a story that is so good that they want to tell their wife or their husband that story when they walk through the door that evening. Be memorable. What I want to leave them with is, “Did you know this?” I don’t want them to tell their colleagues and simply say, “I met a talent firm that we are going to be using.” I want them to leave the meeting and say, “I met this fucking cool company today. They are going to be doing our talent.”

Then the final thing I would say is: have discipline. The only area of my life where I have any discipline, because I have no discipline in many of the other areas, is my selling activity. I religiously am the number one user of our CRM. I write up my meeting notes after every meeting. If someone rings me and says you had a meeting with someone on such and such a day, I just go to the CRM, and I find it. I am religious on sales discipline, and cadence both personally and with the team.

So, in my opinion, to succeed at sales, you need that combination of curiosity, a purposeful network, a disciplined sales cadence, and sales admin.  But you have to combine that with a desire to “be fucking interesting.” That is the best way of phrasing it, right? Be fucking interesting.

Jamie: Thinking of your sales career, if you had it again, what would you do differently?

Roger: The problem with me is I have no rear view mirror. I very rarely look back to reflect, what would I have done differently?  Partly because there is probably so much that I would spend a lifetime trying to figure it out. I worked really hard at all of these things. I dedicated myself to them. What would I do differently from a selling perspective? I think I probably could have benefited from some more formal training.

I am self-taught. I have never had any sales training. I just nicked the stuff that appealed to me and felt good. What that means is that I have probably been shaped such that the discipline of account management is impossible, for example. What it means is that I am fairly a one-trick pony in the sense that I am an originator. Having said that, I do think the skills you need to be an originator and the skills you need to be an account manager are similar. It is all origination of a sort. I think the thing that I never really got early on was formal tools, tricks, and practices of really strong account planning. That is why I am having to learn those later on in life, knowing that I will never be quite as good at them as I would have been if I had learnt it when I was younger.


Jamie: Does that speak to the importance of learning everything at an earlier stage right or being even more curious when you are younger?

Roger: Yeah. Absolutely. I think there are two points there. Learn and learn again and absorb but do not keep the stuff that does not work for you and keep the stuff that does work. Then the other thing is to be parsimonious because you cannot learn everything.

The other thing is, and this is going to sound incredibly old-fashioned, but find a job that is hell on earth and get forged in a crucible. Do not get bored in a really nice environment. 

 My first job was at Michael Page. I cold-called for half a day every day – it was called a calling hour, but we actually did it for longer. The lights would go out. We put orange flashing lights on, and we just banged the phones. But the point is not, “Did that teach me that it is a really good way of selling?” No. It was awful. The productivity on it was awful. But does it mean that now I am prepared to pick up the phone to anyone without thinking about it, without having to sit there and say, “What script am I going to write and what should I talk about?’

I say, “Who do you want me to talk to?”

Probably the best cold call I’ve ever done was when I cold-called the CEO of Major UK Telco and got through to him. I told him that his team that he had set up to explore emerging technologies were behind the game. We had an incredible proposition for him, and I had the numbers that could change his life. He put me on hold, dialled in the CTO, and then had a three-way call with him and the CTO and within a month we were trialling our service in their network. That is probably the ballsiest cold-call of my life.

I have made some horrible ones as well. I have been shouted and screamed at, the phone slammed down and threatened with lawsuits. I have had it all. I have turned up for client meetings and the client literally just booked the meeting to tell me to do one. You are waiting in reception like, “What is going on?” and then the client comes down and just says, “You guys are a bunch of arseholes. I just wanted to get you here, to waste your time like you have wasted mine and tell you to get stuffed.” And you simply reply, “Okay, I’ll get back in my Volkswagen Golf.”

All of those experiences have taught me that nothing life-critical happens because of that, it just hardens you. I look back on those things, and I think that was some of the most enjoyable times I have had selling. That might just be me. I am a masochist; probably another core quality of a salesperson! 






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2 thoughts on “Roger Philby, CEO, The Chemistry Group”

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