‘The world could do with better leaders,’ Sara Fazlali successful training concept, Secret Me, has motivated many to embrace the skills of spies.
Could you know what to do if a disgruntled employee came into your office with a gun? Or you were forced to negotiate the release of a colleague from captivity? Or plot your escape in full dinner dress? If this all sounds a little James Bond, that’s intentional: Sara Fazlali believes the skills of spies have important crossovers to the real world.
Having worked at the United Nations, Foreign Office and in the British Military, Sara had seen first-hand the difference exemplary leadership could make. Also, the more she read the papers, the more she thought that the world could do with better leaders – in politics, in business, in Non Government Organisations.
She and her business partner Adam (formerly Special Forces) decided they would build a one-of-a-kind training organisation, Secret Me, using rapid-fire training in 20 an unusual range of military and spy skills. The aim? To help people build resilience, become better leaders, understand themselves and not just survive, but thrive. The programmes would be delivered by former UK Special Forces, counter-terrorism and intelligence officers.
Secret Me delivers an elite programme, targeted at senior leaders, who spend three days in a country house, being tested to their limits. The programme covers all aspects of leadership, including negotiation, resilience and creative thinking. They are teaching emotional self-regulation, helping people to understand why they react in certain ways.
Sara says: “You can train yourself to react to stress, for example. Just because your instinct is to ‘fight’, that doesn’t mean you have to fight in all situations. Just by being aware of it, people can control their behaviour and their thinking.”
The programmes are intense and even apparent ‘downtime’ can bring surprises. “They may just be relaxing and getting to know each other, but we might do a night-time shoot. One of the guys will meet the person in a corridor and give them one of the pistols. During the course you’re competing with everyone else. And you might be doing it in high heels, or black-tie dress. We like surprises and we like adding in some Bond-style excitement.”
This is no Who Dares Wins boot camp, however, Sara says that their instructors understand how to work with each client, judging their capabilities and limitations.
She adds: “The team we have in place is highly skilled, they change the programme to match individual needs. This means people learn without being stressed. Yes, they are put into uncomfortable positions, but nothing they aren’t equipped to deal with.”
“The group has a curriculum where people can pick and choose modules, though people are generally quite happy to leave it to the team,” says Sara. The various modules include self- defence, which focuses on self-confidence, how people walk, interact and face confrontation. Shooting is about blocking out distractions and staying focused. Poker may be about reading people and their body language. The programme even includes an ‘active shooter’ module, which is all about the art of negotiation.
In building Secret Me, initially Sara tapped into her network. Inevitably, this focused on the corporate sector and high-net-worth individuals, but word spread.
She says: “The chairman or CEO would say “this is really useful - can I bring my executive team on this?”"
The next stage
Sara found that she also had clients with teenage children who thought the programme would be valuable for them.
“They would say how much their son or daughter would benefit from it, but that they couldn’t afford to send them on it. Our next plan is to create an app version, with clear tuition and gaming elements, supplemented with weekend courses to make it more widely available.”
This is scheduled for launch in May next year. The group has found backing from angel investors and they will tap this network to fund the app as well.
Sara is part of a long journey into what makes good leaders. Her degree was in social anthropology, and her master in arts in conflict, security and development.
Previously, she ran a networking group, the Arete Club, that sought to bring together people from disparate backgrounds to chew the fat on big ideas; the Archbishop of Canterbury alongside the CEO of a major oil company, for example, discussing climate change. There was no agenda other than to create inspiring conversations. “We just wanted to have a forum for germinating better ideas.” It is a worthy ambition at a time when great leaders are thin on the ground.