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The road less travelled by makes all the difference in business

This week, Margaret Canning meets Johnny Parks, the joint director of Toward Consulting

It's a long way from Kentucky Fried Chicken to the headquarters of Coutts, the bankers to the Queen - but that's the journey I learn about in the Cathedral Quarter haunt of Hadskis during lunch with Johnny Parks, joint director of corporate coaching firm Toward Consulting.

Cynics, leave any prejudices about coaching and those who do it at the door, because over asparagus risotto (Johnny) and spiced meatballs with casulli pasta (me), it emerges that Johnny has life experience and insights in spades.

In short, this reflective individual is as far removed as the cliche of the hollow bluster of the inspirational speaker type as you could possibly get.

When it emerges that his career path hasn't been entirely straightforward, I'm more than intrigued.

The 42-year-old describes a questioning of authority - developing his scepticism at the young age of 10 or 11 growing up as one of three kids in Bangor. That led him to confound the expectations of his grammar school educators that he should go to university - leading him into his first job at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

He began doing youth work and found himself inspired by the dedication of Bangor youth worker Maggie Andrews.

Spotting his leadership potential, she leaned on him to set aside his prejudices and apply to university, leading him to study for a Bsc in community youth work at the University of Ulster, followed by a postgraduate course in managing voluntary organisations at the Open University - topped off with an OU undergraduate degree in child development psychology.

Realising that some of what he'd learned could be applied to the business world, Johnny set up Toward Consulting in 2006, and now has around 10 staff, include fellow director Adrian Eagleson, who joined in 2010.

It has since been built into an international business, working with clients from Royal Bank of Scotland, its subsidiary Ulster Bank and IT firm CDK Global, to the Queen's bank Coutts and US firm Concentrix (which now has a massive operation in Belfast).

The company's international reach now takes him and his staff to Silicon Valley, the Philippines and India as well as the UK and Republic.

Johnny is naturally passionate about organisational development, and explains some of the precepts of workplace psychology.

Problem people in the workplace are classified in the theory of transaction analysis psychology as 'victim, persecutor and rescuer,' he tells me. His least favourite is the victim, Johnny confides, with ingrained 'learned helplessness' a hard mindset to shift.

His own experience as a youth who tested boundaries and didn't follow the path expected of him has enriched his approach. The boardroom behaviours he deals with can also be witnessed in embryonic form in children, he agrees. The arrival of photographer Brian lightens the conversation, and dessert is ordered - the classic creme brulee for Johnny, and tart of the day for me.

With that, he's off to meet a sculptor friend while I return to the office, enlightened.

Hadskis, 33 Donegall Street, Belfast, BT1 2FG. Tel: 9032 5444

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