On meeting Ashley Banjo I was immediately struck by his height and stature. This 26-year old from Essex has a presence that leaves you in no doubts that he is both a calm and strong leader. He appears friendly and humble with a tendency to look a little coy at the attention he attracts. Not to the extent that he is uncomfortable with his fame but certainly in a way that suggests fame has never been a motivating factor for him. On taking a seat, Banjo’s energy is warm and relaxed. I certainly feel confident that this is going to be an engaging and inspiring conversation.
Britain’s Got Talent is a central part of Banjo’s story and it is the global talent show that he speaks of first. ‘I was never interested in entering a competition like that’ he said ‘it’s not necessarily a cool thing to do.’ At the time Diversity were already winning street dance competitions and had a strong reputation within a network that they cared about. It was only after producers had contacted the dance group directly on a number of occasions that Banjo sat down with his boys and described how he had ten pairs of eyes looking at him saying ‘please can we do it Ash? Please?’.
Having breezed through the early stages of the competition, Diversity found themselves up against a woman who had become an overnight global sensation. Susan Boyle was the hot favourite to win the TV show that year and Banjo recalls the impact that her fame had on their perspective of the competition. ‘Within 8 weeks Susan Boyle was one of the most famous women on the planet. By that stage, she had even appeared on the Simpsons! I mean, that’s on everyone’s bucket lists isn’t it, to appear on the Simpsons?!’ But rather than be concerned about the unlikelihood of taking first place, Banjo made a smart move and encouraged his group to enjoy their first TV experience. ‘The show became about us being the best we could be’ and ultimately it was this attitude that Banjo believes swung the votes of the British public in their favour. ‘If you look back at the tape of the final, I was smiling because I was happy to have made it to second place out of thousands’. Banjo goes on to talk about what the group put into the show. Giving your best and enjoying yourself creates incredibly positive energy, not just for yourself but for those around you. Ultimately it was this energy that swayed millions to vote for Diversity to win the show leaving Susan Boyle in second place.
This attitude of giving your best and enjoying your experiences is a theme that runs through all of Diversity’s successes. Having performed at the Royal Variety Show as part of their BGT prize, they went on to appear there three times. They have now performed in 30 countries around the world and have sold out venues as big as the O2 in London.
On setting goals
You’d think that this kind of success could only come from careful planning but I was struck by Banjo’s attitude to setting goals. There’s no doubt that the global dance troupe have a vision of their future success but short-term planning and daily decisions are kept fluid. Their strong vision creates a level of trust in the long-term focus of the group and means that Diversity can stay responsive to what is going on around them. If an opportunity comes up, the boys are able to adapt. This might mean choreographing a new dance piece, experiencing a new culture or meeting new people. As long as the opportunities they take align with the greater vision of the group, they are free to make intuitive decisions as they need to and are not committed to a rigid plan.
Fluidity like this is aided by the strong sense of team that is at the heart of Diversity’s success. ‘The most important thing within the group is that we trust and respect each other.’ Banjo gave the impression that these qualities aren’t ‘nice-to-haves’. Without trust and respect for each other you get the impression the group simply wouldn’t exist. The framework for Diversity’s commitment and innovation is the relationships that the boys have. Banjo does not shy away from talking about love in this context and I get a strong sense from him that on this subject there are no defining lines between home and work. ‘Dancing is a way for me to open my heart’ he says, and you feel his passion as he says it. Banjo clearly feels very fortunate that his life and work are so fulfilling but it is not by chance that this has happened. The emotion with which Banjo talks about his job and his team are a central part of Diversity’s success.
On facing challenges
Banjo is one of those people who takes life in his stride. There must have been some major challenges for a dance group who went from being unknown to global award winners in the space of just a few years. For example, Banjo breezed over the fact that a couple of the original members of Diversity had left the group. However this is exactly the kind of thing that can have an impact on a team’s performance. How does the leader handle these challenges?
With a philosophical tone, Banjo reflected on the time when the group consciously set a bigger vision for their future. ‘When you are honest about what you want to achieve and what it is going to take to get there, people have a choice to make.’ Banjo describes how losing members of the original line-up caused no problems at all. People’s priorities change and ultimately everyone has to live their life as they wish to. When members of the group left it meant that those who remained had greater trust and focus for what they were doing.
On being a leader
When answering a question about how he came to be the leader of Diversity Banjo’s first response was that it wasn’t intentional. He wasn’t the original leader of the group but ‘there was no coup’, he didn’t set out to take on the leadership role. What Banjo did want to do is be the best dancer he could be. He describes his curiosity to learn new things and equal to his curiosity was a desire to share what he had learned. Naturally people started to turn to him to learn new tricks and moves and so began his evolution to leadership.
As a leader, one of Banjo’s biggest strengths is how well he knows his team. ‘I know what they are capable of better than they do.’ It helps of course that he has been dancing with some members of the group since they were 5 years old. ‘I‘ll say to Perry for example, do this trick. And he’ll say, I can’t do that. And I say, yes you can.’ This kind of leadership quality doesn’t just come from knowing your team, Banjo has an innate desire to inspire those around him and he believes in the strength of his entire team.
Belief in his team is central to the way the group collaborates. Banjo is undoubtedly the leader of Diversity but collaboration is crucial to their success. New ideas for the group come from the whole group. ‘We store information from all our experiences, like when I watched Matrix and I remember that bit in slow motion. And then we’re in the studio and Mitchell does this new flip and I think, wouldn’t it be cool if Mitchell does that flip over my head while I’m in slow-mo.’ The environment that Banjo has created for himself and his boys is one where ideas can develop naturally. Trusting his gut feeling when making a decision or developing a new idea feels like the only way Banjo knows how to be. You feel as though this is a man who trusts in his abilities and those around him to the extent that innovation doesn’t need to be forced.
As a natural part of innovation, failure is something that Banjo is very comfortable talking about. When Perry landed on his head during a performance at Downing Street, Banjo turned it into an opportunity. He actively and persistently looks for the things that have gone wrong in a performance. ‘The guys sometimes ask me why I’m so negative but looking for what has gone wrong is a natural part of how we improve.’
Gut feel is a judgement that leaders in business sometimes refer to but for Banjo it feels as though it is his primary barometer. It was an enormous pleasure to be in the company of a leader who is so trusting of himself. Banjo’s experience and wisdom belies his age but it is no surprise when you hear him refer to the choices he has faced and the conscious decisions he has made along the way. I took enormous inspiration from his calm approach and feel certain that his conscious awareness plays a huge part in his success, his enjoyment of life and his inspired leadership of a world-renowned team.