By @SimonCocking. Great interview with James Bowen and Brian MacNeice, co-Managing Directors of Kotinos Partners and authors of Powerhouse – Insider accounts into the world’s greatest high performance organizations, which we reviewed here.

Powerhouse, insider accounts into the world’s top high-performance organisations. Reviewed

Well done on the book, what has the reception been to it?

The feedback has been great with lots of very positive reviews. It is fantastic that so many people seem to really like the insights and are finding them very useful. The first print run sold out within 24 hours of release something that came as a very pleasant surprise.

How was it writing the book?

It was something of a labour of love. We have had a long running passion for really understanding high performance for some time. It is at the heart of the work we do with our clients and we challenged ourselves to come up with deeper insights into the fundamental drivers of sustained high performance. Having developed these insights, we thought what is the point in keeping this a secret. So we agreed we would develop the book to share our insights and thinking on performance.

From start to finish the book took over 3 years to write. The research process was by definition very time consuming. We wanted to really get to know the institutions we were studying and so that took time and a lot of air miles. Also we had to balance this with the demands of keeping our business running and continuing to service the needs of our client base. In a perfect world, we might have taken a year out to focus exclusively on the book but we didn’t have this luxury.

Starting with the Grameen Bank in the book seemed like a great idea, in terms of bringing in insights from a less referred to example in business books generally (yes they’ve won the Nobel Prize, but generally featured more in social development studies rather than business ones). Question how was Bangladesh, and is the bank still thriving / what challenges does it face, why is it not more widely used?

There are two key reasons why we started with the Grameen Bank. Firstly, it is a great example of high performance in action and as you point out not one that is as widely known or talked about as it should be so it helped us set the tone for the book. Secondly, it serves as a great example of how ‘Ambition’ is a key starting point for high performance. Whilst this is something we saw repeated in virtually all the organisations we visited, the Grameen story brings this concept to life in a very real and practical way.

Bangladesh was a fascinating country to visit. It is obviously still very underdeveloped and Dhaka the capital city very crowded. However, we found the people incredibly friendly, warm and generous. In particular, the borrowers we met (all women) were inspiring people and it was fascinating to listen to them tell their stories of how they have used access to credit to change their lives and those of their families.

The Grameen is still thriving and is deeply embedded into the social landscape of Bangladesh. There are over 2,500 branches across the country and the bank continues to grow and is profitable year on year. The range of services it offers to its members is expanding.

Given the success of the Grameen bank, it is hard to understand why the model has not been replicated more widely. The Grameen is the forefather of the micro-lending industry, however not all micro-lenders adopt the same principles or approach and therefore may not be as effective.

 You’re based in Dublin, how do we do in Ireland in terms of building successful teams?

There are some great examples of high performing organisations in Ireland for example the Kerry Group and Ryanair that demonstrate many of the organisational capabilities we have highlighted from the exemplar institutions we profile in our book. However, there can and should be a lot more examples of long-term, sustainable success stories from Ireland. Our fundamental belief is that any organisation can become high performing.

 What tips would you give to organisations looking to improve their performance?

Sustained high performance happens by design rather than by accident. Each of the exemplars we studied has arrived at the top of its game as a direct result of having aimed there. Leaders in each case have defined success in explicit, tangible terms – that relate to the institutions’ core purposes and that capture the hearts and minds of their people. From there they have developed strategies to build performance momentum while creating organisational capability and capacity in parallel.  Moreover, they have iterated those visions and strategies on an ongoing basis – to take account of progress and what they are learning, and to reflect changes in the institutions’ external environments and circumstances. It is clear from our research that direction-setting and dynamic strategy development as capabilities are key enablers of enduring outperformance.

A second insight is that sustained outperformance is grounded in competitive advantage that is fundamentally organizational in nature. Simply put, these winning institutions have built capabilities and ways of working that mark them out from their peers. These organizations are different, and work differently to the norm in many key areas. For example, they have more, better engagement across their workforces; higher standards of operation and behaviour; narrower “gaps” between their best and worst performers; better, feedback-enabled, learning environments and more efficient, effective governance processes. These individual sources of advantage complement each other and enable the organizations in the round to win – not just in the short-term or as a once-off, but repeatedly and consistently over time.

Thirdly, we would suggest that while the routes by which all of our institutions arrived at the tops of their games are many and varied, there is a structured approach that leaders of organizations that aspire to match their performance can follow. We call this our Powerhouse approach, and it reflects the integration of our research and client work over the last 5 years. For us it’s about working within and across the four pillars of our model as shown in the image below (and described in more detail in the book).

In summary, our research makes clear that there is no silver bullet to achieving enduring out-performance. Our Powerhouse approach, however, provides a framework for channeling the commitment, dedication, energy and insight of diverse groups of people over extended periods of time to that end. Our research also demonstrates that sustained high performance does not in any way have to be the preserve of a “chosen few”, rather we suggest that any organization with the right ambition and approach can become a high-performance organization over time, joining the list of those featured in our research in the pantheon of winners.

What trends are you excited about for the future?

The trend I am most excited about is the realisation that high performance organisations are made not born. The consequence of that is that leaders in businesses are becoming more attuned to the need for them to create an environment that will lead to better performance. One example of this is the move away from traditional annual ‘performance reviews’ to a feedback rich culture where performance is addressed day in day out. The businesses that crack this will have a performance advantage over their competitors.

Anything you would do differently looking back at the development of your own business?

Lots! There are always things we look back on and could do better. One of the areas for focus we have is to build long-term value into our business by creating non-consulting based revenue streams. Over the next year we will be looking to develop methodologies and tools based on the insights from our research that will help us achieve this.

Do you see more remote working occurring in the near future, if yes / no, why so?

Yes, and so that poses a challenge for organisations to figure out how to ensure they maintain alignment, focus and engagement as the shape of how people work continues to evolve. Our Powerhouse Model provides a framework around for leaders to achieve this.


What were the challenges of writing such a unique book?

There were two major challenges. Firstly, we had to convince the various institutions to open their doors to us and allows us study them in great depth. This required a combination of perseverance and ‘Irish’ charm. For some institutions, they were very open from the outset. Others took longer and in these cases we just kept asking until they said yes. We also used, to our advantage, the wide network of Irish people around the world to help us open doors. It is amazing how well connected the Irish diaspora is and we were usually able to find someone in our network who could help us out if we hit a roadblock.

The second challenge was one of timing. We invested a significant amount of time in the research process and visits. We had to balance this with the demands of running our business at the same time and keeping our clients happy and our children fed!

What first inspired you both to develop the book?

We have had a long running passion for really understanding high performance for some time. It is at the heart of the work we do with our clients and we challenged ourselves to come up with deeper insights into the fundamental drivers of sustained high performance. Having developed these insights, we thought what is the point in keeping this a secret. So we agreed we would develop the book to share our insights and thinking on performance.

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How did you both find co-authoring?

At first it presented some challenges. Our writing styles were different and so we found ourselves trying to impose our preferred styles on the manuscript. However, we quickly learned to get the balance of our styles right and consistent. Our publisher, Kogan Page, helped in this process too by offering reviews and critiques of our early drafts to sharpen it for the target audience of the book.

Is this your first book – are there plans to collaborate in future?

Yes, this is our first book and given that we are business partners we will obviously continue to collaborate into the future. Is there a second book in us? Maybe, however for now we will see how people react to this book and I suspect our natural hunger for more insight into high performance will prompt us to write something else in the future.

Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked you?

Was there one particular story, of all of the interviews and features throughout the book, that you think about most often?

It is really hard to pick out one as all of them had their own special moments. The process of visiting each of the institutions in person and spending time immersed in their worlds was a privilege and created lifelong memories for us. If forced to land on one, we might highlight our visit to the Grameen lenders meeting in the village of Mirzanagar – otherwise known as branch no. 23760207 – as having been very special. It was amazing to witness the group of female villagers speaking with pride about how they were able to sustain incomes for their families on the backs of the loans they received from the Grameen Bank. It was a powerful reminder of how business (and we have to keep reminding people that the Grameen Bank is a profitable, corporate entity not a charity) can make a real difference to the lives of so many people.

James Bowen and Brian MacNeice are co-founders and Managing Directors of Kotinos Partners Limited, a niche advisory firm working to help CEOs and their teams achieve sustained high performance. They are also co-authors of Powerhouse – Insider accounts into the world’s leading high-performance organizations, published in October 2016 by Kogan Page.

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