Two Scoops…

Alison Craig

I first met Malcolm McPhail some 30 years ago when I walked into the then Cunninghame District Council Sport Development Team – as his boss. We were both young, early in our careers, ambitious, and both runners.

We worked together for a few years before Malcolm left for a career in leisure management. I stayed with the organisation that would later morph into KA Leisure for another couple of decades, leaving in 2016.

When I heard that Malcolm had taken up the top post at KA Leisure – Chief Executive – I sniffed a story. And I knew it was one only I could tell.

And so, Malcolm and I find ourselves sitting across a desk at KA Leisure HQ. I get ready with my notebook and voice recorder, silently observing the worn landscape of his face. He, no doubt, is doing the same right back at me.

Malcolm leans forward. “So, are you still running?”

Erm, hold on, I’m supposed to be asking the questions here! But running is a good place to start. Malcolm’s lean frame indicates that he very much still is.

“I’m a 56-year-old guy still training five, six times a week, and it’s a shock to the system and I don’t enjoy it. But I keep going back and doing it and I can’t really explain it other than it’s who I am, and it validates my existence.”

Whoa, wait! This is a guy at the top of the tree, recognised as one of the most successful leaders in the leisure industry. But he’s on a roll…

“My plan was to retire at 58, but I’ll maybe hang on till I’m 60.” His eyes are bright now. “Rhonda caught me writing a five-year plan a couple of weeks ago and she said, you are kidding me! Only you, Malcolm, at 56, could write a five-year plan for your athletics.”

Rhonda is Malcolm’s wife. And we’ll come back to running, but for now it’s time to get him onto another track – his career, which has been extraordinary by any standards. In Ayrshire, Pool Lifeguard, PE Teacher, Sport Development Officer, then a leisure contracts role in Bolton, followed by his first ‘big gig’, Leisure Contracts Manager at Bolton Metro. After that, General Manager at the biggest leisure club in Europe, Next Generation. Within seven years, it took over David Lloyd clubs. Then, Chief Executive at Life Leisure and he was, in his own words, a ‘big time Charlie’.

Over the next four years, Life Leisure won 24 national awards, along with a range of major leisure contracts. Within the organisation, though, Malcolm brought his passion for people.

“This stuff,” he says, waving a spreadsheet in the air, “is just noise. It’s people that are important. I’ve always surrounded myself with brilliant people, and I’ve never been the smartest in the room.”

Authenticity is an overused word. But in Malcolm, here it is, shining pure.

“Everybody has a light in them. It’s inherent and it burns bright. You just have to go looking for it and find ways to express it. That energy is like your signature. It might get different as you get older, but people still know your signature.

“Emotional intelligence is big. I’m always nice to people, I never blame, and I get to know them, their lives, their birthdays.” He tells a story of one day telling a colleague, “Love your jumper by the way. Where did you get it?” And they ended up swapping jumpers for the day.

There’s science to it, though, one that Malcolm studied via a Postgraduate Diploma in Behavioural Psychology. As he talks, the central influence of emotional intelligence on his personal development and his practice as a leader is clear.

“What happens when the psychological models, the change models, don’t work?” he asks. “What matters is that people have the emotional intelligence to get to the start line.”

This insight, along with the sudden death of a close colleague and then COVID, brought a turning point for Malcolm. “I realised that actually, I don’t need to be a chief executive anymore. It was enough being an athlete, a dad and a family man. And I decided that I was going to set up my own business, coaching emotional intelligence. Let me go through your belief systems, your ego systems, your trauma bonds. I promise you, I’ll make a difference in the types of leaders you are and how your teams are.”

It’s a great story of a successful man and one who has been guided by… something. What is that, I ask?

“The driving force, I think, comes from a boy with a troubled upbringing. My dad was alcoholic, and there’s so much trauma and collateral damage for kids associated with that. I was so thin and malnourished. My nickname then was Two Scoops, because the dinner ladies would always give me two scoops to try and build me up.” He shrugs, bracing his now strong body.

“But at the age of 13, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I realised that I had two choices. I could dig myself out of that place, or I could play the victim. I don’t want to take anything away from people who are struggling with life, but you can be a victim or a victor… there are only two letters of a difference. The key is you have a road to Damascus moment, a point where you say I’m not going to live like this anymore. And then you have to be consistent. You have to get up every day and do the work.”

And what does that mean, for you?

“I just get up in the morning, make my bed, drink water, do my press ups.”

It sounds like a spartan routine. What about happiness?

“I wouldn’t talk about happiness. I would talk about joy. Happiness is like motivation – it’s fleeting. But joy, and discipline, they are fundamental. Discipline starts off with a framework and ends up with every day you get up and work the programme, consistently. I don’t buy into the idea that you do something for three months, say, and you change your behaviour. It’s got to be for life. The older I get, I realise there’s a disconnect between what science says and actual lived experience in the real world. The tools we have involve living in the present and getting interested in other people. And that’s not taught in leadership school.

“And now I’m just turning up, Malcolm the athlete – it’s big business, Masters athletics! – Malcolm the dad, Malcolm the husband. And I’m so pleased that I don’t have to be somebody. I’m just enough.”

Ok, but now, in the ‘autumn’ of his career (his word for it), he’s Chief Executive of KA Leisure. Why? He looks at me, quiet and intense now.

“It’s really important as a leader that your legacy is that the next generation coming up is better than you. It’s a duty of care. And jeez, these young people here are good, these youngsters are brilliant.”

Perhaps he sensed a story too.

You can find Malcolm McPhail FCIMSPA on LinkedIn.