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E233 | From Professional Rugby Player to Innovation Consultant with Aidan McCullen 

What comes to mind when you think about innovation? Creating something new from nothing. But does the word innovation push people away from doing it, thinking they don’t have the skills? Our guest on the podcast thinks so, and that’s why he uses the word reinvention instead. And that, reinventing, is exactly what he did with his own career after retiring from professional rugby. Today, we hear about his fascinating journey. 

This week on The Melting Pot, we learned from the author of Undisruptible, and host of The Innovation Show, Aidan McCullen. Formerly a professional rugby player, Aidan now works as an Executive Coach and Innovation Consultant. 

In this episode, Aidan talked about his journey as a rugby player and how he shifted from that to a career in innovation, and became a podcast host and innovation consultant. He also explored the cultural differences between some of the teams he played with, and he dived into the Butterfly metaphor that he uses in his book Unsdisruptable to explain the life cycle and how it applies to businesses. 

Make sure to download and listen to this fascinating episode day.

On today’s podcast: 

  • Writing Undisruptable
  • The cultural difference between rugby teams
  • The Butterfly metaphor
  • From professional rugby to innovation
  • The impact of self-talk on mental health 

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Podcast – The Innovation Show

From Professional Rugby Player to Innovation Consultant with Aidan McCullen 

Aidan McCullen is the host and founder of the Innovation Show, broadcast globally and on national radio stations in Ireland and Finland. He is also the author of Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life. 

Aidan also works as a Consultant, Board Director, College Professor and Executive Coach. He is a champion for change and has reinvented his own career after rugby when he played for Europe’s most successful rugby teams: Leinster and Toulouse, and represented Ireland. 

The need to write Undisruptable

The literature and data on innovation are often very academic and inaccessible, which is one of the reasons Aidan wanted to write his book, Undisruptable. He needed to translate all that data into an accessible, story-based and metaphor-based one that people could relate and easily understand. Having worked in Transformation and Change, Aidan has seen how difficult it can be on your mental health to feel like you’re fighting against a massive beast. Secondly, he was looking to pour into this book all the knowledge that he’s been exposed to, which is often very academic. 

“People would just go, is that all that means? So firstly, they feel that they are not alone and they’re not the problem because they’re often made feel that are the problem.”

During his time as a rugby player, Aidan used to train through injuries to ensure he kept his place on the team. His life was about training. So, he admits that when he wrote the book, he did it through the lens of a former athlete, as well. Because if you use the word innovation, he says, innovation really means ‘new, from nothing’. So it’s new. 

“And the word alienates a lot of people, and it pushes them away, and it makes them feel that they don’t have the skills to do that.”

So, Aidan uses the word reinvention instead. And that is that you have capabilities and skills, and all you might need is to unlearn some and relearn others in order to build something new. And that’s the theme of the book, permanent reinvention. It’s an ongoing process. It’s not an event. It’s a mindset. It’s a way of living.

The Butterfly Metaphor

The original metaphor that Aidan was going to include in his book was not that of a butterfly but of a phoenix. The mythical creature that every 500 years willingly walks into the flames, burns itself up, and from the ashes of what it used to be, gathers what’s still useful in order to enjoy a new cycle of existence. It was Aidan’s ten-year-old son that made him question it. 

He told him that if he was going to use that metaphor with the intelligent people he worked with, they were not going to believe him. He needed to find something better. 

“The grace transformation from the caterpillar into the butterfly is this magnificent change. I wanted to really break it down and map it to the transformations that you see in organisations. One being incremental and one being transformational.”

Through its life cycle, the very first act is the caterpillar emerging from a shell, using it as fuel for its future becoming. “So it uses what it used to be in order to feed what it’s going to become in the future.” Then, it goes through incremental growth, which is how the caterpillar becomes a bigger version of itself. It eats multiple times its own body weight through leaves and foliage, and it removes its outer skin. 

“That’s exactly what happens in organisations. That’s exactly what happens to so many of us. We find something that’s working, and we make it bigger and bigger and bigger.”

At a certain point in the life cycle, and after going through this incremental growth, the butterfly knows it needs a bigger transformation to enjoy its full potential. So deep within the DNA of the caterpillar are pre-programmed cells, called ‘imaginal discs’. These are like a blueprint that exists within the DNA of the caterpillar. But the immune system, just like the corporate immune system, attacks them, seeing them as foreign invaders. Then enough imaginable discs come online, and the way they communicate resonates at a frequency that acts as a communication form. And they come together to overpower the DNA of the caterpillar and overpower the immune system. They induce it to go and become a chrysalis. 

Now the transformation has changed. Within the hardened outer skin– the cocoon–, an enzyme is released to melt down the caterpillar. 

“That’s going to fuel the future becoming, just like the way the caterpillar ate its egg. Now the caterpillar is becoming the fuel for the butterfly. So the cycle continues. Then the butterfly emerges from the cocoon.”  

And, as Aidan tells the tale, there is something beautiful when the butterfly emerges, and it’s hanging on to the cocoon from which it came. 

“I saw it as this moment of gratitude and moment of sadness or melancholy, where you look into all the difficulties and challenges through which you came as a moment of gratitude to kind of go, ‘it really sucked when that happened, but they made me what I am today.’ And then the second part is, in order to enjoy your full potential, you need to let go of that. And then you can only fly on to the future.” 

From Rugby Player to Innovation

When Aidan retired, he had the idea of becoming a ‘madman’ advertising executive and owning his own business. At the end of his career, around 2007, he was often injured, and he used that as an excuse to build capability for the future and see what would be a good place for him to start doing something different. 

“I remember picking up the Forbes magazine, and on the cover, it said: “can anyone catch the cell phone king?” So it was this story about how great Nokia was and how they owned half the mobile phone market. And I was like, ‘that seems like an interesting place to go’.”

When he finally retired, he went from a good-earning position to being an intern. In every advertising firm he came across, there was a group of young people looking into ‘digital’, not really knowing what that was yet. As Aidan was reading a lot of books and content about innovation, he started to see opportunities where other people didn’t.  

“That’s how I got into transformation. So I joined a media company, and went in as an unpaid intern. Within three months, I started getting paid and went on to run the place. Within a few years, developed a new digital arm for it, merged that with the traditional arm, and then left.” 

After that, Aidan became the Head of Innovation for the national broadcaster in Ireland, RTE. One day, his boss asked him to come up with an idea that was interesting to the non-Irish audience. So, he came up with the idea to develop a show to interview founders, startup founders, entrepreneurs, business people, authors, etc. Their answer: ‘it will never work’, he says.

“So I went down to the radio department and I hand the guy this one-pager and he goes that’s a great idea; what budget have you got? And I said I don’t have a budget. I was asked for an idea, I just wanted to get your opinion. And he goes you know what, if they’re not going to do it, we’ll do it on the radio.” 

That’s how he got started, and when he left the broadcaster, Aidan closed the show to relaunch it as a podcast after some time. His first episode was the one with Seth Godin, which was really helpful in creating the snowball effect that allowed him to get more brilliant authors on the show. 

Often, people that are thinking about starting a podcast ask Aidan how to get a sponsor. For him, that’s the last question they should ask, as they’ll be doing a podcast for years before getting a sponsor. Instead, for Aidan, the podcast is about learning.

“ I actually see the show as the mirror. I call it mirror work, where you have people on the show, they’re the light, and the show is this way of spreading it through the mirror. And then my own writing or my own thoughts is candle work. So that’s the way I differentiate them.”

The cultural difference between rugby teams

As a rugby player, Aidan worked really hard, as he felt he wasn’t talented. But, as he recalls, there were a lot of talented players that weren’t hard workers. When that happens, you can only get so far, but you get knocked out in the knockout stages, he says. 

“In probably my best season in Leinster, we got to the semifinal against a French team, and the final then was against Toulouse. Toulouse was the other semi-finalist who won. So they were watching us, and they had watched all our back games. I had had my best ever season. That was the season I played for Ireland. So they’d seen me, and they started to watch me.”

Three years before recruiting him, Toulouse team was already showing strong interest in getting to know Aidan to see if he was a good fit for the team. But before being sent to Toulouse, Aidan was flown to the Claremont team, also in France. 

“The experience was so different. When I went to Claremont, my agent picked me up at Leon Airport and drove me to Claremont. I waited. This is the night before. I waited then ages. The coach was waiting and made me wait for like a couple of hours outside. No communication.” 

It was for him such a negative experience that within the same week, he decided he didn’t want to play for them and left for Toulouse, where he was struck by the difference between the two teams’ welcome. 

“ I was like just straight away struck by the difference. And then he [a member of the Toulouse team] goes, ‘what we’ll do is I want to bring it to the club to meet some of the players. We’ll have lunch, and there’s a Michelin-star restaurant in the stadium. We’ll have lunch at the stadium, and then tonight we’ll go to a match. You can see how we play. And then tomorrow, we’ll talk business.’ Unbelievable difference”

Even though they had just won the European Cup the week before, the Toulouse players were really humble and openly excited about playing with Aidan. It was a very close-knit team; they spent a lot of time together, and that trust was reflected in how they played. 

“You can’t suddenly buy a load of players and create a culture. It just takes time, and it’s a huge lesson for businesses as well. You got to start today. If it’s not there, you got to start today. And it’s going to take time. You can’t just flip and create a culture.”

The impact of self-talk on the way we behave

One of the most impactful episodes of The Innovation Show was the one with Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief, about the science of Epigenetics – the study of how your behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect how you genes work.

In that episode, they talked about the Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto and his book The Hidden Messages in Water. Dr Emoto’s spent fifteen years researching the effects of human speech, thoughts, and emotions on physical matter. He and his team measured how over 10,000 samples of water responded to words, music, prayers, and blessings. He and his research assistants spoke to, played music for, and even had monks pray over the water.

With the belief that water is energy, they treated the samples differently to see how they responded. One sample, they treated kindly, with positivity and love. With the other, they did the opposite. What happened is outstanding, says Aidan. 

The water that was treated with positivity purified and crystallised. However, the other water turned grey and dark. Then, the scientists looked at the frozen particles and how they looked like. When it was frozen, the crystals were all these geometric patterns of the beautiful water. And then the other was all asynchronous. 

“That means that how I speak to you and how I say to somebody who serves me a coffee in the morning, thanks a million, have a nice day, actually has an impact on them.”

Book recommendations 

The Heart of Business by Hubert Joly

The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton

Change Your Paradigm, Change Your Life by Bob Proctor

How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolski

The Hidden Messages in Water by Masaru Emoto

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