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16 January 2010

The time I interviewed Ruby Wax

Tag(s): Boards, People


Of all the pre-Christmas “do’s” I went to perhaps the most interesting was a Criticaleye reception where the guest speaker was Ruby Wax. “Oh no, not the Ruby Wax who made her name in alternative comedy and then did some wacky interviews with people like Hugh Hefner and Pamela Anderson?” I hear you saying. Yes, the very same but also the Ruby Wax who majored in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and now works with leading organisations from Goldman Sachs to the Home Office on developing emotional intelligence and creating trust in relationships.

Ruby Wax was born Ruby Wachs, in Illinois, USA, the daughter of Jewish parents who fled from the Nazis in Austria in 1939. Her father built up a successful sausage manufacturing business. After University Ruby came to the UK and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She began her acting career as a straight actress opposite Alan Rickman at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Alan was later to direct most of her stage comedy shows.

In 1978 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and appeared with Michael Hordern in Love Labour’s Lost, and with Juliet Stevenson in Measure for Measure. Ruby made an appearance in a 1980 episode of The Professionals, which also featured Pierce Brosnan.

She then switched to comedy and developed a brash and loud persona conforming to the British stereotype of an American.  Her physical appearance matched this image, with red hair and blood-red lipstick. In the 1980’s she appeared in the British sitcom Girls on Top, as backstage interviewer at Amnesty International’s 1987 benefit show "The Secret Policeman's Third Ball” and in Red Dwarf. In 1987, Wax was given her own comedy chat show Don't Miss Wax, on Channel 4

She now capitalises on being one of Britain’s best-known TV personalities by offering leadership facilitation to top organisations. Through her directness, intuition and humour she quickly establishes a relationship with her guests creating a climate of mutual appreciation and rapport. She claims that this incredibly useful skill can be taught to any leader who wants to motivate, inspire and improve communication within their organisation.

Ruby Wax draws on her 25 years of interviewing experience to facilitate leaders from organisations as diverse as Skype, Deutsche Bank and the Welsh Assembly.

Her workshops include clips of interviews with Madonna and Imelda Marcos, etc. Ruby deconstructs these clips, demonstrating moment by moment how she gets under the skin of these individuals, relating to them on a human level, breaking down the facade.

Workshops also include practical exercises to help leaders viscerally feel the difference between talking 'at' someone rather than 'with' someone. Participants learn to be more aware of how other employees, clients and partners perceive them and therefore how to present a more human face, utilising humour, curiosity, empathy, intuition and honesty.

 She particularly emphasises developing Emotional Intelligencedeveloping skills in self awareness, self-management, social awareness, genuine listening and social management –‘working the room’. As you might expect she also encourages using humour in leadership but also how to best work under stress while keeping the organisation positive and creative. She shows how to create trust in relationships and break down the barriers between employees and leader

Examples of her work have included:

  • Coaching members of a defence organisation to develop insight into their individual behaviours when working as a team and therefore be able to adjust that behaviour through awareness and self regulation.
  • Facilitating members of the government to communicate more effectively with the public and their employees by teaching them to talk 'with them' rather than 'at them'.
  • Coaching managing directors and CEOs to change their organisations to a culture of openness and creativity rather than fear and how this change must come from the emotional intelligence of the leaders.
  • Interviewing CEOs of several global internet companies and international banks in the presence of their employees to make them more 'user friendly', exposing their more human side, showing they could be trusted and that they were genuinely passionate about the organisation.

Ruby Wax has experienced episodes of depression for most of her life, but it wasn't until she finally checked into a clinic, that she realised how widespread mental problems are: "It's so common, it could be anyone. The trouble is, nobody wants to talk about it. And that makes everything worse."

Ruby has written about depression and used the topic for her one-woman shows as a way of getting the subject out in the open. "We need to take the stigma out of mental illness. People shouldn't be ashamed of it." Ruby manages her depression through therapy and medication and is optimistic about the future: "It used to be the 'C' word - cancer - that people wouldn't discuss. Now it's the 'M' word. I hope pretty soon it'll be okay for everyone to talk openly about their mental health without fear of being treated differently."

After her speech I had the opportunity to talk with her. Far from being brash she is quite vulnerable and clearly sincere in her desire to encourage empathy. Humour as so often is a defence mechanism but I am delighted that she has found a practical use for her talents and I am sure the leaders and organisations who work with her will benefit from developing their own emotional intelligence.

Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved




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