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Conversations that Count

Peter Willis

Facilitating dialogue for problem solving, strategy and system change

You or your organisation face a problem, perhaps an opportunity. You discuss it in regular meetings but you can’t truly resolve it. It’s so easy to get stuck. I know, because I’ve been facilitating conversations for nearly 20 years, helping people to move beyond ‘stuck’ to coherent thinking and fresh ideas that can work.

“Peter is an experienced, gentle, yet challenging conversation strategist. Not only is he able to hold and host the conversation, he is also able to provide content with depth, all in his inimitable style – humour, compassion and punch – rolled into one. Peter really knows how to work the room to help groups think and feel together.”

Vanessa Otto-Mentz – Head of Strategy, Sanlam

I’ve discovered that the best conversations can dissolve the strata of power & seniority within a group to unleash a wealth of new thinking.

“Peter is an inspiration and has a way of connecting with people that makes them comfortable to think out of the box, to challenge, to learn and begin to create anew. He has a way of connecting the different levels within and across an organisation and creating an environment that allows for all voices to be heard and for concerns and possibilities to be explored together.”

Mary-Jane Morifi – Formerly Executive Head Corporate Affairs, Anglo American Platinum

I believe that deep, extended dialogue is one of the surest ways to bridge any divide, whether within a company, organisation, or society.

“I have had the privilege to work with Peter as a facilitator in the Eskom NGO Forum. Peter has a calm and approachable demeanor that encouraged all participants to make a meaningful contribution. With appropriate and incisive questions he also pushed both Eskom management and the Environmental NGOs to be more open to different perspectives. This created an open and trusting environment. More importantly, he made us deal with the difficult issues, the elephants in the room.”

Mohamed Adam – Former Eskom Corporate Counsel/Divisional Executive

My approach is usually to immerse myself within the group that I’m facilitating, while at the same time remaining independent enough to be a ‘critical friend’ and firm taskmaster.

“We had the pleasure of using Peter Willis as a facilitator for a number of strategic processes we embarked upon last year with our senior management group. Peter was excellent, grasped the culture of our company and its nuances extremely quickly and was able to tap into our requirements very easily, to the extent that it felt like he was one of us. He organised the processing of the meetings extremely efficiently and was able to drive all meetings to the point where real deliverable outcomes were a reality.”

Andrew Golding, CEO, Pam Golding Properties

Any group has the potential to think as a coherent unit – it just takes patience and an empowering ambience.

“Thank you, Peter, for your excellent facilitation of the strategic planning workshop for our Centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation. You helped us not only to decide on an exciting research agenda but also to strengthen our group identity.”

Prof Res Altwegg, University of Cape Town

The Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative – breaking new ground

Cape Town became briefly the focus of world attention in early 2018 as we headed towards Day Zero. A surge of innovation and adaptation swept the city in those dry, dry months, culminating in Cape Town’s water consumption dropping by a staggering 45-50%. Day Zero was averted.

But how could we learn from what we’d all done in the heat of the moment? And wouldn’t other cities find it helpful to know? But no institutional mechanisms exist for doing this at a city-wide scale, either here or anywhere globally. So, with my good friend, film-maker Victor van Aswegen of CineSouth Studios, we created the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative. Visit our website here and, to see the 30 in-depth interviews with key people who responded to the drought across the city, browse the Drought Response Film Library.

There is a large and growing concern in cities around the world that water insecurity could become a critical failure point. We’ve already been invited to share the project and the film material we’re producing in Johannesburg, Sydney, Brisbane and London – in each case getting a very positive response.

Next stop: a series of 15 minute Modular Lesson films, each one focusing on a particular area of learning out of the Cape Town experience.

Then in the second half of 2020: the feature-length documentary.

My Journey to Here

I grew up in the English countryside and studied history at Oxford University. My first job was in the UK Department of Industry, liaising with the French government on the Concorde project. Thereafter I taught in London schools for four years and, through the 1980’s, created and ran several small businesses in the field of publishing and marketing. In 1993 I moved to Cape Town with my wife (a South African) and our small son in time for the first democratic elections.

From 1995 to 2014 I pioneered in the field of sustainability, helping leaders make strategic sense of major social and environmental trends and for the last 12 years of this period was the South African Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. In that role I designed and facilitated numerous senior executive programmes, including the annual Prince of Wales Business & Sustainability Programme.

Since 2014 I have been a freelance facilitator and advisor. In March 2018 I began the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative.

I mentor a number of young men and women. I remain a Senior Associate of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and am a Fellow of the Institute of Strategic Risk Management.

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in South Africa I created a project with The Resilience Shift in London whereby I interviewed each week for 16 weeks twelve senior decision-makers from around the world – some corporate executives, others Chief Resilience Officers in major cities – asking them to reflect on their leadership practice and experiences as the crisis progressed.

Their fascinating insights are gathered and discussed in podcasts here. A second phase of Resilient Leadership: Learning from Crisis will be undertaken during the latter part of 2020 and into 2021.

Tel: +27 21 786 1910 | Cell: +27 82 378 2384


“Circles in a Circle”

1923 by Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 – 1944)

Kandinsky’s work has always moved me when I’ve encountered it in museums. I only recently learned that he was effectively the founder of modern abstract art and was constantly exploring the interaction between points, lines and planes. This painting not only illustrates that exploration, it also speaks to me of the complexity, creativity and ultimately the beauty that can arise when a conversation is conducted within a well-defined and safely held circle. I also find it has something of the quality of a mandala and my mind dwells upon it very easily and peacefully.

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