We like unusual profiles – people who do not fit stereotypes, who give disruptive and genuine answers. When we met John Purkiss in 2010 we were intrigued by his mix of talents and interests. He’s a humorous man who works as an executive search consultant and is a regular speaker on personal and professional development. He was a Partner with Heidrick & Struggles prior to co-founding Purkiss & Company. John is the co-author of How to be Headhunted and Brand You, with another book in the pipeline. We are delighted that he has agreed to give the first in our series of interviews.
Bonjour John, we would like to start the interview with this timeless philosophical and spiritual question “who are you”?
Essentially, pure consciousness.
We have picked a few questions inspired by the late 19th century British “confession book” (later known as the Proust Questionnaire).
First, what do you appreciate the most in your friends?
I get on really well with people who are on a similar wave length, in the sense that they see something beyond the intellect and the physical world. Quite a lot of my friends practise meditation or do yoga or something like that. They have experience of observing thoughts and emotions, instead of just being thoughts and emotions. They know there’s something beyond that.
What is your favourite occupation? I enjoy understanding people, writing about people and taking photographs of people. Those activities take several forms.
A topic that is dear to all of us, what is your favourite food, drink and/or restaurant.
I like Lebanese food – the vegetarian sort. I drink a certain amount of green tea, although I am a bit concerned about the radiation at the moment.
How do you wish to feel the day you die?
I hope I will accept it and that everyone else will accept it too…
What is your present state of mind?
Peaceful. I meditated for half an hour before coming here.
What is your favourite motto or quotation?
Lots, but one that comes to mind is from Deepak Chopra who says “Accept the present, intend the future”. It’s powerful, in the sense that if you want to do anything in the future, you have to accept where you are and the way people are.
Now we would like to proceed with more conventional interview questions. How did you decide to work as a headhunter?
I started out in investment banking and strategy consulting. I enjoyed the work, but the lifestyle wasn’t for me. In the meantime I became fascinated by people. Then I discovered I could be a headhunter and work with boards of directors while being relatively independent.
How would you define your own “personal touch” and differentiating advantages as a headhunter?
I think everybody does it differently. In my case there are probably three things. One is that I’ve worked in banking and consulting, and have an economics degree and an MBA, so I can do my homework on companies quite well. The second thing is experience of working in different cultures, and 14 years’ experience in executive search. I think intuition comes partly from experience. The third element is meditation. Once I learned to meditate, my intuition started working really well. I get a feeling about people within seconds of meeting them.
How do emotions and intuition come into play with the candidates you interview?
It is a very interesting question. I would separate emotions from intuition. There’s a lot of work going on in neuroscience right now which helps to explain how we pick up on each other’s emotions, particularly via the mirror neuron system. It’s clear that we can pick up someone’s emotional state within a few seconds – two minutes maximum.
I am currently doing my homework on this as I am writing a chapter on intuition in the new book. My understanding at this point is that there are two kinds of intuition. One is a kind of false intuition, based on fear. You find yourself in situations where you feel afraid and you don’t know why. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming for instance, you hear a gunshot and that reminds you of the war and you feel bad. It is a kind of emotional reaction, based on fear. ‘Proper’ intuition is based on love, not fear. For example, I meet several candidates and one of them immediately grabs me and I don’t know why. It is just a feeling. I do my analysis, of course, but it almost always turns out that my intuition was right in the first place.
As a headhunter with a soul, how do you react to the infamous expression “It’s not personal, it’s business"?
I don’t really understand what it means. I can’t separate the two because you are dealing with human beings. Have you heard of the ‘illusion of separation’, which Einstein talked about? You have this affinity for your friends and family but not the other guys. You have an illusion that you’re separate from the other guys. In the new book I talk about how to start to see yourself in other people, and even how to get on better with people on the other side of the barbed wire. Most people can fill in the blank. There’s always someone on the other side of the barbed wire.
How did you decide to write Brand You ? How to be Headhunted was published five years ago. However, most people won’t ever be headhunted, either because they are self-employed or because they get their jobs some other way. So I started writing a book to help everyone to market themselves. Then I realised that, before you can market yourself, you have to know yourself. Unfortunately, most people don’t know themselves. Then I met my co-author, David Royston-Lee, who’s a business psychologist. Brand You draws on both Western psychology and Eastern philosophy.
How do you reconcile the self-marketing techniques that you promote in your writing with the more ‘spiritual’ pursuit where selflessness is central?
I think they are easy to reconcile. On the one hand I believe we all have the same consciousness. With a bit of practice, we can see ourselves in everyone. At the same time, each of us is born with particular talents and a purpose in this lifetime. So the question is “How am I going to serve other people in this lifetime?”. To my mind, your personal brand is a simple way of communicating to other people how you can help them.
Isn’t there a risk of falling back into the illusion of ego by suddenly emphasizing the importance of what we do and how we are perceived?
Well, to begin with I don’t think we have much control over how we are perceived. People are going to perceive us anyway. There is a quote in the book from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. He says "Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room". People are going to spend only a very small amount of time getting to know you in a business context. It is best to keep the message simple, so they can grasp it right away.
Do the candidates you interview actually use or refer to these other dimensions of your work? Have they read one of your books?
Some of our candidates and clients have read our books. We often talk about the Jungian archetypes (from chapter eight). They are a useful shorthand for understanding what is going on in the company in question.
Who inspired you in the world of business and marketing?
One person who really inspired me was John Viney, who died 18 months ago. He was the Chairman of Heidrick & Struggles in Europe. He was the first person I met - 15 years ago now - who I wanted to emulate. I had worked in banking and consulting, but I had never met anyone I wanted to be. When I met John I didn’t want to be all of him, but there was a lot that I did want to emulate. He was an outstanding headhunter and talented in lots of ways. He wrote books, played the piano, conducted orchestras, invested in property and technology companies. He was amazing. We worked closely together for years and I learnt an enormous amount from him. You can see his obituary in The Telegraph, among other places.
We would love to know how your ‘personal development’ path started and how you felt the need to write about it through a blog?
Until the age of 26, I did things in a very left-brain way. I got through Cambridge, banking, consulting and INSEAD mainly by thinking and working hard. Then I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I didn’t know it at the time, but 20-25% of the population get it at some point in their lives. Ruby Wax once said, “1 in 5 people have dandruff. 1 in 4 people have mental health problems. I’ve had both.” I got over it, but it did teach me a big lesson, which was that there was a whole new world that I needed to understand. I quickly discovered that, although psychology and medicine have interesting things to say about mental health, they do not have all the answers. I had to find my own answers. I’ve been fascinated by personal development ever since.
What are the 5 books you recommend to be read in a lifetime?
One is The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra. Another would be the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. There is a great translation by Jane English. Another that I really like and am currently re-reading is called A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson. It is a commentary on A Course in Miracles. The fourth one would be The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (see next question). And to finish, an excellent one by Debbie Ford called The Dark Side of The Light Chasers. It is a very clever book and short. In fact, most of these books are short.
The Power of Now has been a big success. How do you explain the way people have been touched by its content?
I actually struggle with the book, but Eckhart did a great job of explaining an ancient concept in simple terms. He is not shy about his own academic background. He was not in an ashram. He was at Cambridge. The one I recommend to people is not The Power of Now but Practising the Power of Now which is simpler, shorter and clearer.
What is your take on Tim Ferriss’ The 4-hour Workweek ?
I have not read it.
Can you summarize each of your two books in one sentence? How to be Headhunted: If you want to get a job through headhunters you have to market yourself to headhunters correctly.
As for Brand You: Before you can market yourself you have to know yourself.
What will the new book be about?
It is designed to help people who are stuck. There seem to be quite a lot of them.
Many people struggle to implement in their daily life, in their business life, what they seem to achieve in their ‘spiritual’ practice. How do you recommend that they merge all these different dimensions to live their life with more unity and presence?
I personally believe - and I am not the first person to say this at all - that there is a perpetual choice between love and fear. In every moment you have at least two possible courses of action, one is about love and one is about fear. You can apply that in your relationships, your work, everywhere.
To conclude, we would love to leave you carte blanche so that you can answer a question we have not asked or share any advice for our readers to take away, or nothing…
The theme that connects Brand You and the new book, and which is important for all of us, is to discover your purpose and why you are on the planet. Once you start to find the answer to that, everything else becomes much easier. Choosing the right job or business or whatever is much easier when you know where you are going.
John, thanks so much for your time and advice. No doubt our readers will send us some interesting feedback after reading your answers.