Facilities management is fraught with friction, mistrust and frustration. Between FMs and Ops Directors; between FMs and FDs; between clients and providers; between providers and suppliers – it’s rare to find a harmonious relationship. Much of this is due to the technical inefficiencies that are common in the industry. It’s hard to build fulfilling business relationships when data is inaccurate, or processes do not adequately guide the behaviour of team members.

But even when processes are improved, and data is accurate, building relationships isn’t always easy. Business environments can be stressful, and the human animal is a complex one. Differences of personality are common – and these are one of the most common sources of stress, of inefficiency and, yes, of ineffectiveness. Misunderstandings, misplaced dislikes and clashes of personality cause missed opportunities and lost value. Who hasn’t come away from a potentially lucrative meeting thinking ‘If only that MD/CFO hadn’t been so b– awkward…’?

So how can you avoid those moments? How can you be the person whose personality is always an asset, who never seems to find people difficult, who can turn even tricky situations in their favour?

We tend to think of how we interact with others as being synonymous with our personality; it’s something we think of as innately ours, and not particularly open to analysis or criticism, let alone improvement. Soft skills, though, are skills like any other. We can assess and improve them so long as we make the effort to see ourselves as others see us. That means leaving egos at the door – something that’s easier when we think of interpersonal skills as abilities that need improvement, rather than parts of our personality that need changing. Once we do that, it’s possible to look for the training and input we need to grow as a leader.

But who to turn to for that insight?Well, at Perform, we go to the best.

Fred Sirieix rose to fame as the de facto host of Channel Four Television’s First Dates, a reality TV show that has captivated viewers not with a menu of shame and embarrassment, but with genuine happiness, excitement and possibility. The show follows the experience of ordinary couples on their first dates, from pensioners to students, the attractive and the not so attractive, gay and straight.

First dates, however, are awkward enough for anyone, even without a lurking camera crew and the certain prospect of broadcast on national TV. Fred’s job, as maitre’d of the First Datesrestaurant, is to put the daters at their ease, and help them be their best selves in what – despite the producers’ best efforts – must be a rather unnatural situation. To do that requires the sort of interpersonal skills that win people over every time. On the basis that no-one could possibly have that level of charm naturally, we went to ask what advice

he would have for business leaders who recognise the potential for enhanced charm and relationship skills to add to their effectiveness at work.

Fred’s day job is as the General Manager at Galvin at Windows, the Michelin-starred restaurant on the top floor of the Park Lane Hilton in London. When we went to see him early on a grey Monday morning, the famous charm is in place – but he’s all business as he leads the front of house and kitchen teams setting up for the lunchtime service. As a bona fide celeb, it’s easy to forget that Fred made his name as a high-profile leader in a fiercely competitive industry.

So has charm been his secret weapon? The answer from the man with the piercing blue eyes is a yes – but it is a qualified yes.

“The most important thing,” he explains in his endlessly engaging French accent, “is to have the customer at heart. “If you don’t do that,” he continues, “then everything else becomes more difficult.”

So charm helps, but it won’t cover a multitude of sins. “Some people might be charming, or they might be charismatic,” Fred continues, “but if you don’t care then you can’t expect your business to do well.”

“The reality of relationships,” he adds, “is that they require a lot of hard work. The only way to get what you want is to work with the other person, get to know what they want, and to find a way to get there together.”

Charm undoubtedly smooths the road, however. As it happens, we’re not the first to ask Fred his advice on how to develop charm where previously there was none. And, if you’ve ever tried to work on this skill yourself, and found it challenging, you’re not alone. “There’s nothing harder than self-development [of interpersonal skills],” says Fred. “You have to go against your own habits, and your own self in a way, and it’s so much easier to just stay the same, or to revert back even if you do make a change.” “If you’re genuinely interested in learning and developing,” he goes on, “you really have to put in the effort.”

That implies that there’s a real conscious effort going on there and, indeed, there is a shade of mindfulness in how Fred advises going about this. “You have to make the effort to  remember what you were going to do, and then actually do it,” he says, as if this is the most obvious thing in world. Which it is, of course. But remembering what you said you’d do – being self-aware – is one thing. Making conscious changes to your tone of voice, your, body language, your choice of words and your demeanour – in short, how you come across to others – is something else entirely.

It is worth it though. Unsurprisingly, Fred is a great believer in relationship-building as part of all-round high-performance in a business. “If you have excellent relationships,” he says, with his trademark intensity, “you are more likely to have an outcome that is excellent.” ‘Positivity and passion’ is his mantra for how to approach a business relationship, and he sees negativity in relationships as having a direct and immediate reflection in negative outcomes in business activity more generally. “You can’t claim to be aiming for excellence,” he says, “if such an important part of what you do is below par.”

“Excellence on all levels,” he continues unequivocally. “If you have a cake with a slice missing, it’s not the same cake. It’s exactly the same with a business dealing – if there’s anything missing [like positivity in the relationship] then you won’t have
an excellent outcome.”

Cake-related analogies aside, leaders’ efforts to improve their own relationship-building skills are actually a small part of the challenge they face. After all, as a business leader, it’s unlikely that you won’t have thought about, and worked on, some area of your interpersonal skills at some point in the past – however successfully or unsuccessfully you might have done that. But, as a leader, your performance really depends on the performance of your team. So, what about their relationship-building skills? After all, it’s hard enough to work on one’s own to develop charm, charisma and likeability but what about helping one’s team to develop these skills as well?

It’s a challenge that Fred has dealt with for most of his career. There isn’t a stand-in for First Dates, but he can’t be at Galvin at Windows for every service, and he certainly can’t be at every table. He’s the most charming man in Britain, but he can’t personally deliver a Michelin star experience to all guests. To do that, and to make sure that Windows stays at the forefront of the London restaurant scene, he has to build a team with the same skills and abilities as he has.

In a business context, that’s invaluable. How many times have you thought ‘if only I could send so-and- so to this meeting, but I can’t trust them with that client relationship…’? When we think about relationships, likeability, and charm as business skills, it’s logical that we should want our team to develop them to the highest level possible. So how does Fred go about making sure that everyone he manages, from the head waiter to the newest trainee, is constantly thinking about how to charm the customer?

Well, reassuringly enough, even he doesn’t find it easy. “Most people won’t remember,” he says somewhat resignedly. “They need to be reminded many, many, many times – that’s just human nature.”

“No culture was ever developed just by saying something once,” he continues, “you need to be reminding people all the time.” “Look at politics,” he suggests, “political leaders might make dozens of speeches, all different, but all on the same topics, all pointing in the same direction. And eventually, we come to know what those leaders stand for.”

So consistency in management leads to consistency in execution? It would seem so, but there is more to it than that. There’s consistency in example as well. “You have to lead from the front,” says Fred, in what would be a statement of the obvious were it not coming from someone who comes across as so fiercely independent, and individual in his thinking.

And he follows that up with something not so obvious. “You can achieve more by being nice and kind,” he continues. “That doesn’t mean not being assertive, but it does mean being fair, having honesty and integrity. Being nice doesn’t mean you are anybody’s fool, it just makes you easier to warm to.”

In terms of fostering soft skills in a leadership context, that makes a great deal of sense. As human beings we are the product of our environment. If someone is hostile towards, us, we will be defensive or hostile in return – so if we wish our teams to develop their interpersonal skills, then blame, admonishment and unconstructive criticism of their performance should undoubtedly be off the menu.

Dealing with, and training others to deal with, situations where third parties are hostile or aggressive is another matter, however. While, in the hospitality industry the customer is always king, the customer is also an unknown and unpredictable factor, and one that staff have to be trained to deal with even in some quite challenging situations.

Fred is honourably tight-lipped about the possibility of difficult situations with customers, but he’s totally explicit in how he trains his staff to manage in any challenging scenarios. “We train for responsibility,” he says, with a sudden focus that gives one just a taste of the intensity that he must bring to his role as a one of the most successful managers in his industry. That’s the responsibility to apply those interpersonal and soft skills, and to make sure that even an unhappy customer goes away feeling positive about their experience.

There is much to be learned from that situation for business leaders. Whatever our best intentions (and sometimes due to our best intentions), we will end up causing anger or upset to people who are important to us in some way. How does Fred train his team to deal with the irate, the unreasonable and the just plain aggrieved?

“Get back on the front foot,” he says, without hesitation (and coming from a successful competitive boxer, the metaphor isn’t a lazy one). “Team members need to be empowered to win the customer back, and they need to use their judgement, their assertive qualities to do that.” As he elaborates, “it’s about empowering people to make good decisions, but giving them the support to do that.”

And when there’s a legitimate complaint? “Whose responsibility is it to fix the mistake, and how long should it take?” Fred asks. “The answer is, straight away, and it’s everybody’s job. If we don’t react that way, then we just end up making things worse.”

Finally, for those determined to improve their relationship-building skills, is there anything we can learn from watchingFirst Dates? Well, perhaps more than you might think. Fred doesn’t really see a great deal of difference between the personal and the professional when it comes to building positive and productive relationships. “They’re more similar than they are different,” is his judgement. The key to success in both, he reckons, is trust. “Trust is the basis of love, and in business, it’s the basis of loyalty. It’s the basis of the long-term relationships we’re all looking for.”

So charm won’t make up for questionable behaviour in business, but it will make good outcomes more likely, and make them better when they are achieved. And you can develop charm in yourself and your team, if not easily, and not without work. How to work on the skill? Through self-awareness, focusing on the needs and wants of others, and above all, doing so consistently.

We say goodbye – firm handshake, twinkle in those blue eyes – and Fred’s immediately back at work, discussing some finer points of service with a senior member of his team. Charm, it seems, can be the secret ingredient in successful business dealings, but it won’t ever make up for lack of effort or attention to detail.