Go for a change programme, not a review, this year…

I find that leaders, when addressing problems on their boards, executive committees or senior leadership teams, tend to cleave to effectiveness reviews, formal or informal, rather than cracking on with change programmes. 

Apart from companies required to carry out and publish board effectiveness reviews, I don’t see the value added in a two step approach i.e. a review followed by action on matters arising. 

Frequently, leaders santistise the written review findings for political reasons; they don’t address the matters arising, or if they do, they fail to change anything. 

My approach is to fix, not point by cracking on with a small change programme  with immediate impact. 

By small change I mean facilitating each board or team member to make one small change in their behaviour which, in aggregate across the board, will have a big impact on outcomes. 

I operate a three-step process as follows:

  • 1-1 meetings with each member of the board or team 
  • facilitated plenary sessions to explore issues arising in the 1-1s 
  • follow up 1–1s and plenary sessions during the Term of the programme – as many required to address issues as they arise as well as mediation sessions between pairs of members if required

Typical issues include:

  • not working together as a unit
  • one member causing most conflict
  • supine NEDs
  • chair interfering in day-to-day matters
  • poor governance and decision-making
  • unresolved conflicts
  • stress of rapid growth or scaling


  • clarity on organisational purpose, strategy and behaviour
  • clarity on individual member purpose, strategy and behaviour
  • reframed relationship agreements between members based on an understanding of how organisational outcomes depend on the behaviour of each member

Typical term

  • six to nine months

Best wishes,


Back to work after the holidays and chemotherapy. Now what?

I felt excited commuting downstairs to work this morning. Great to feel normal again. We’ve had a wonderful holiday catching up with people. They were all so kind during my year-long chemotherapy treatment. I’m in remission due to medical miracles and the kindness of stranger clinicians and nurses, now a big part of my life.

And, like the many cancer patients before me, I am not the person I was before my treatment. I must confront this first working day of the new year as a different sole employee of my consultancy to what I was a year ago.

What do I care about at work now? What’s my career purpose? What’s my answer to that question that I have so easily posed to hundreds of clients over 20 years? It doesn’t feel so easy now that the boot is on my foot. What’s my strategy? What’s my plan to implement that strategy? What’s my PSB?

Feck! I’m not sure. That’s why I’m writing this blog today. I must figure it out before tomorrow when people are back at work. After a year of ticking over, I must restart marketing and selling my services to them. I must play revenue catch-up. But what if…?

Doubts gnaw at my previous certainties. Can I sell board effectiveness programmes now with a straight face? Can I help senior leaders make career choices to find jobs to make a significant difference to the organisations they join? Do I care anymore whether my lawyer leader clients are sleep-walking into last chance saloon in their pact with society?

More broadly, do I care as much about politics, news and current affairs as I did? Why am I listening only to the news headlines and quickly switching to Radio 3 or sports? Time was I used the sports section of the newspapers to light the fire. Now I read it cover to cover. By the way, ’tis the best of journalism. Who knew?

My intention at work must, as I tell my clients, be about how my work contributes to my life’s purpose. But what’s that now? Nietzche’s famous observation was that if you can figure out your why, you can bear any how. This insight helped me through my bleakest days in the hospital. I did figure out my why: caring for those I care about.

So what has changed? I always cared about people, but they were not, in truth, always my primary focus in my all too busy life. Now I think about others first more than I did. Indeed, when I feel low, I pick up the phone to help others in more pain than I am. Why is that? Is it because I have needed them more, and it’s all about me, not them? Is it, as per my Dad’s favourite quote: there’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole? Will I return to my old ways when the fear of cancer eases?

I don’t think so. A good and kind friend, who has stood by me through the worst days, told me I found a richer version of myself through my experiences last year. I like this because it feels true. And because that’s what people frequently do in adversity.

But if I were my customer, I would now ask how this navel-gazing would put bread on the table, top up my pension and make me feel fulfilled as a fulfilled thing. What am I saying now to my customers? What does it mean for boards, teams and senior leaders teams needing support in difficult times?

It’s all very well for me to have fancy epiphanies, but in 2023, boards, teams and leaders face complex organisational choices, personal pain and challenges to their feelings of fulfilment. In-house lawyers, a market segment of niche interest to me, return to work at a time of uncertainty regarding their role and purpose.

Today, if you are a board, team or senior leader at a point of inflexion – scaling, leadership issues/changes, or career crossroads – I can help you if I can care about you. If I can’t, I won’t. Only hire me if you want me to care about you as much as your organisation. If I do that, your organisation will benefit. Organisations are a coalition of people’s career businesses for a relatively brief period. If I can help each person thrive I can help your organisation thrive.

How will I do that? What’s my strategy? It’s by helping people reframe their relationship with themselves, their boards/teams, their organisations and, ultimately, with society.

If I work with a board or team, I start working on the personal purpose of each member in one-to-one sessions; then, I work with the entire board or team in plenary sessions teasing out the interdependence between individual intent and organisational purpose. Then I facilitate a statement of shared purpose, strategy and behaviour. I can trace most organisational problems and conflict back to a failure to work through the pain of agreeing on a shared purpose, strategy and behaviour plan.

When I work with individual leaders on their career crossroads, I work through with them what I have worked through here for myself in this blog. I help them reframe their why, how and their behaviour plan – their PSB. Then I help them execute it.

When I work with in-house lawyers, I focus on helping them reframe their relationships with themselves, their profession, and their employer clients at a time of emphasis on the environment, society and governance. That’s the subject a book I’m writing for publishers Globe Law and Business to be published later this year.

I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is connected in their involvement in the fulfilment business: how we fill our lives with meaning. We still must make money. I must. But it’s a means to an end. Not an end in itself.

All’s changed, as Yeats said, in a different context. For me, 2023 is about helping people reframe their relationships and they mine.


Please don’t tell anyone I’m following the footie…

Cancer changes everything. Whoever said that, ‘tis true, at least in my case. Everything has changed for me. My values, habits, and interests.

What and who I care about, and how deeply, has changed fundamentally. I have also become tidier after a lifetime of mess. And, mirabile dictu, I have started following the footie and worse, cricket. But you can’t tell anyone.

In male company particularly, there is no one more reviled than a wannabe Johnny come lately sports fan. Unless you can remember being lifted over the styles at six months by your Dad, can riff misty eyed on Nobby Stiles and ‘66 and pronounce Richarlison properly, best shut up in the pub. As for cricket, just don’t even try.

Not that I had zero interest previously. Many of my friends and clients are football and/or cricket nuts. Most like rugby. They frequently and generously invited me to games. One in particular invites me regularly to The Emirates and to Lords. He’s followed Arsenal, man and boy. Cricket is part of who he is. So I got the gist, enjoyed the games but didn’t care deeply. That’s all changed.

Since March I’ve had five long stays in hospital. The last, for my stem cell transplant, was for four and a half weeks. In isolation, no visitors. Did my feckin’ head in. Especially at the weekends. Hospitals change at weekends. The atmosphere morphs. It’s quieter. Staffing levels are different. Saturday mornings are the worst.

The weekend looms. How am I going to get through this? A kind nurse gets me a cappuccino and the Saturday broadsheets in the hospital shop. I used to read the news, politics and business pages front to back. Never but never ever read the sports pages front to back. Then one, weekend I figured something out.

All these years I’ve been furrowing my brow for too long over matters over which I’ve had no control, controlled often by lunatics and or charlatans, and invariably deeply depressing. Meanwhile my mates were also having great fun watching sport and reading the sports pages. Why not me? So, I gave it a go. No one needs to know.

First up I tried the T20 World Cup. It wasn’t on the hospital TV system so I listened to it on BBC Radio 5 Extra. I started to listen only to the news headlines on Radio 4, and instead of continuing to listen to some bullying cabinet minister with zero interest in governance bang on and on, I switched to Radio 5X, for the sport. I found myself caring. Excited. Don’t tell anyone.

The commentary was soothing. Ireland was playing. Did well out of a DLS (sic) call. I’ve always maintained that cricket is a crude derivation of Gaelic hurling. This doesn’t go down well with my cricket mates. Anyway, a friend said I should watch the last two overs of India v Pakistan on You Tube. I did. Kohli was mesmerising. Exciting. Fun. I told one of the nurses of my new nascent interest. She, from India, was reared on cricket. She recommended I watch or listen to as many whole games as I can and it will slowly become clear. I am and it is.

And so to football. On Sundays in hospital I watched Match of the Day before Kuensberg on Sunday. Not just the last ten minutes but the whole programme. I became interested in the managers. Fascinated by their contrasting approaches. I read about them in the sports pages. Then I watched the games more closely and became interested in individual players. I’ve watched many of the World Cup 2022 games. I even know some of the players names. I look forward to the games. But don’t tell anyone.

As for rugby, I’ve always liked it. Even played it at school. That said, we were forced to play all games at boarding school in Ireland. A different game each day: Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and soccer (English football) by rotation. Amach air an bpáirc! They would shout in Irish. Get out on the feckin’ pitch now, in English. Hail, rain or snow. I was big, strong and tall, although devoid of skill. Useful, occasionally, in line outs. Otherwise hopeless. I was geeky, wore glasses and was called four eyes. V original.

I was invariably last pick for soccer (football) teams, but often on the best team. So I passed many a winter’s afternoon freezing cold in goal seeing little action, it being at the other end. Day dreaming. Then the ball would come my way. Sheer panic. But at least I was able to stop a ball better than I was at kicking and controlling it.

In the light of that history recent changes in my interests are taking me, pleasantly, by surprise. And, speaking of Richarlison, I might, when my hair returns, even consider a bleached hair and tatts vibe. Why not? But don’t tell anyone.


Three incentives for boards & teams to reframe their relationships, regularly

I find, time and time again, working with members of boards and teams that they miss out on opportunities and increase their risks by ignoring the constant link over time between the quality of their relationships and personal/organisational outcomes.

They miss out on opportunities because the poorer the quality of their relationships the more likely they will not attract the discretionary effort, innovation and candour from others essential for success at that level. “I would have suggested X but the CFO would have made a snarky comment about ROI, so I didn’t”. The idea never sees the light of day. They avoid the words “what if?” as too risky.

They unconsciously increase risks because members feel unsafe to speak out on potential risks. Why take the personal risk? “Everyone in the room knows what’s going on but said nothing. It’s a joke” Except it isn’t a joke.

Members frame their relationships to accommodate the lowest common denominator of behaviour. They view meetings as unavoidably political, low in trust, high in point scoring.

Issues they should raise with all team members they explore in the bar with just a few. They recall with anger and passion personal sleights, real and imagined. “Did you see how X looked at me when I gave my report? Did you?”.

Their decision-making processes lack rigour, consistency and challenge. Good governance goes by the way side. “We’re all agreed then” the CEO says. It’s a statement, not a question. Chilling.

The underlying problem is a belief that this conduct is just part and parcel of business life. It’s the way it is. No point in trying to change it since people are people and they won’t change. Or can they?

What if it were possible to incentivise members of a board or team to reframe their relationships regularly if they could believe that it would make a significant difference to their desired personal and organisational outcomes?

The first incentive to reframe relationships regularly is that desired personal outcomes are dependent to varying degrees on the desired personal outcomes of others. This is the case even in organisations wholly owned by one person. Elon Musk may now own Twitter outright but he needs other individuals with personal needs to make it work. Why not accept this reality since not to do so creates personal risk?

The second incentive is that personal and organisational outcomes are interdependent. This is separate from the dependency above. Your organisation is a coalition of individuals with their relationships, for a brief period. Your organisation needs you to help meet its needs. Equally you need it to meet your needs. Why ignore this interdependence?

The third incentive to reframe relationships regularly is that needs change over time. If needs change then relationships must change. Why ignore this imperative if in so doing personal and organisational risks increase and opportunities are missed?

If this sounds like hard work it’s because it is. But it’s no harder than the stress, frustration and potential failure in the status quo.

I will explain in future blogs how I facilitate reframing relationships and how you can too.


Your neutrophils are back, he said…

Your neutrophils are back, my Haematologist said to me the day before yesterday. Not just back, he said, but they’ve gone from zero to point three. His eyes twinkled above his mask. He was clearly pleased. I think I’m in love with my Haematologist. There’s probably a law against that. He’s amazing. Calm, caring and honest. I know a bit about leadership. He’s a natural. I’m lucky to have him. You can leave this room soon and get home next week, he continued. A tear escaped from one of my eyes. I had been having a bad morning mentally and physically. Under stress I tend to obsess about everything. I’m intellectually aware that that is an anxiety transfer mechanism. Emotionally in those moments I feel totally fecked. So that neutrophil news was tailor made for me in that moment. I had been in isolation for three and a half weeks, had six days of high intensity chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant followed by a tough week of side effects. All of which I was told had gone well – I was lucky not to experience serious nausea – and my recovery was ahead of average. I felt grateful for that but low and so the news that my neutrophils were back made my mood soar. Yesterday they leapt again and I was allowed out of the room for the first time. I liked that. I did several laps of the ward wearing my Panama hat, as my hair is all gone, and trying to cut a dash in my blue Gant work-shirt and jeans. Not sure I quite pulled a dash off but the nursing staff were very encouraging. Today I feel emotional. It’s as if, with the end in sight, I’m allowing myself to let go. I’ve been holding myself together for several weeks in this the seventh of seven phases. Hard to believe. Also hard to believe that this time last year I didn’t know the word neutrophil, or platelets or PICC/Hick line, or temperature spike or the myriad terms which have become all so familiar. The names of the drugs. The names of the daily routines. OK if I do your wee Obs? Ciarán the nurses say umpteen times a day as they check my temperature, blood pressure and oxygen flow. Has anyone ever said No? I joke. They come in at 2am to check my temperature and then at 6am to take bloods. I’m so used to it now. The day has a rhythm. The doors swish open and shut all day. Nurses doing wee Obs. putting up blood transfusion bags which I get regularly, bringing drugs, food, changing bed linen, and above all the 10pm tea, hot toast and butter which makes my day. That’s a big change from when lunch at The Bleeding Heart in London made my day. And I have come to know these nurses well. I’ve been in and out of hospital for long stretches since March and these nurses have become an integral part of my life. They are truly front line. They are kind, compassionate, and helpful. They work hard. I have taken time to get to know them, remember their names (at least try) and hear their stories of their lives. I advise anyone about to go through what I’ve gone through to invest time in getting to know the staff; listen to them; respect them; do what they ask. When I can I cancel the buzzer for them, make it easy for them to do Obs. to clean my room. Small stuff but it matters. Also I advise that you adopt an Adult-Adult relationship with doctors and nurses. It’s easy to become institutionalised and to adopt a Child-Parent relationship. There’s no doubt, as neurosurgeon Henry Marsh author of And Finally amongst others found that he felt he had lost power when he became a patient. I’m no neurosurgeon but I’m acutely aware of the power differential between me in bed and the doctor standing next to it. That’s why, when I can, I dress in work shirt and jeans and sit out looking much as I do at home. It was noticed by the staff. Not alone did it make me feel better but it made their jobs easier. They are trying to get through their day too. A positive attitude lifts everyone. I also tell them what I’m feeling emotionally not just physically. I’ve yet to be disappointed by taking this risk. It’s an Adult-Adult approach. Above all I have learned that figuring out my why, just as Nietzsche said, makes it easier to get through any how. It’s true. My why is about the people I love. That’s it. Nothing, but nothing else matters. I wish I had figured that out a long time ago. I’ve been loved and supported by so many people this year. I couldn’t have got through it without them. I’m so grateful. Those videos got me through. I learned to tell people honestly what was going on for me. I also learned to pick up the phone to those going through tough times. Next I have learned (had to learn) acceptance. I accept my cancer. I accept the wait until next week. I accept the painful side effects. I accept the toxic chemicals into my body. Initially I was terrified. Now I say bring ‘em on. This isn’t easy for me. Acceptance isn’t easy but there’s no other way. And I’m lucky. Many have had to accept much worse than I. Next I’ve learned to live in the moment as much as I can. The Power of Now as Eckhardt Tolle writes is all we need. There is no past, no future, only now. I’ve learned to turn towards pain, counterintuitively. By going deeper into pain we can transform it. I’ve experienced that. Finally, I’ve come to understand what kindness means. It about first being kind to yourself and then to others. My Haematologist – with whom I’m in love, did I say that already? – says I’m hard on myself. ‘Tis true but ‘tis changing because cancer changes everything.


“That’s a landmark bag” the nurse said. ‘Twas, in more ways than one.

“That’s a landmark bag” the nurse said to me kindly last week when she connected me to my final chemotherapy drip.

Although I have a major stem cell process to extend remission starting next week with stem cell harvesting and, after a long break, a tough stem cell transplant process in October, I have completed all six of my chemotherapy cycles for my, fortunately treatable, Mantle Cell Lymphoma which cycles started at the beginning of March.

The day after that landmark chemotherapy bag my Haematologist said that I am now most likely in remission subject to confirmation by a PET Scan in September.

His use of the R word – a medical miracle and a tribute to a truly excellent health service – marks a key milestone in my cancer treatment and so I feel I can take a breather and reflect and share three things I have learned over the last six months:

⁃The first is acceptance. Easier said than done. All the books I’ve read – Mindfulness and Cancer (Wiley); The Power of Now (Tolle) and Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl) to mention just three – and the advice I have received emphasise acceptance as a first step.

Everyone I know carries some heavy burden at some stage. So I had to accept that I have cancer. I also had to accept the treatment that goes with it. Hard this. It’s not been a walk in the park.

Acceptance also of the setbacks along the way. And there were many. I had a lung operation which wasn’t in the original plan.

Acceptance also of the small things that happen that can trigger upset. Like a day’s delay in chemotherapy or not getting out of hospital on the day pencilled.

Finally, acceptance of the good things. The news that I might be in remission, the love of others, my own strength – all of which I have a tendency to feel are far too good to be true.

The second is learning to live in the present – literally – and thereby to manage my propensity to catastrophise.

When I become anxious, as I do frequently, I do what the books say: connect with my body in the moment and breath and ask myself what I’m feeling now. That centering process breaks, for me, the circle of obsessive thinking.

The weekends are hardest in hospital, like today. I look out the window over Belfast from Floor 10 of Belfast City Hospital. The sun is shining. People outside are either at the beach or in their gardens. I haven’t been outside for 13 days. Yes I am counting.

It’s 1430. How am I going to get through the weekend? Well I’ve learned to accept that I’m locked up for my own good, that this day too will pass and simply to be with the moment and see what happens. And so I decided to write this blog and so the day is evolving as good as it can in the moment.

Third is the difference between grief and sadness and the primacy of personal intention over everything else.

I said to my wonderful cancer counsellor provided by the charity Cancer Focus that my experience was stirring sadness about my past, especially my childhood/schooldays in boarding school.

She said she felt that I was experiencing more grief than sadness. That was an ah-ha moment for me. Like the moment I learned the difference between guilt and shame. I used to think that I am burdened with so-called Catholic Guilt but in fact it’s Shame, a non-denominational condition which blights many. I see it in my work with boards. Particularly amongst men.

I asked my counsellor if she could cure my Grief. She said no but she could help. Imagine, she said, you are in a shipwreck but you have managed to clamber onto a safe piece of wreckage. You are safe but the waves crash over you and it feels unsafe. But the knowledge that you are safe and the likelihood that in time the strength and frequency of the waves of grief will/can diminish does/can help enormously. It does for me.

I also learned that my safe place is linked to my purpose and intention in life which is foremost about the people I care about and who care about me. Love, I have found – back to the wall – is what “it’s” all about. Viktor Frankl in far, far more extreme circumstances than mine found hope in love in the concentration camp.

I’m so grateful to the people who love me for helping me get through this. I’m not sure I could have survived mentally this far without them.

And I am/will be there for them without fail because, to a greater or lesser extent, we are all locked in our various inner rooms. It’s only by connecting deeply with each other that we can fully experience the bliss (yes, bliss according to Tolle) of sharing this extraordinary world in which pain and joy are constants.

That’s what I’ve learned so far.

I will have stem cell harvesting on next Wednesday. I hope to be out of hospital by next Thursday/Friday next week. I can’t wait but must wait. Then I go back into hospital for a cell stem transplant process in October which I’m dreading but ready to accept. Then it will be over, apart from maintenance. I can then get back to normal. But I feel changed. Normal won’t be the same ever again. In a good way.


NEDs/CEOs: discourage dissent on your board at its peril

Board decision-making reminds me of the film Sliding Doors. The film presents two outcomes. In one, the main character just about makes it through the closing doors of a train and the outcome is x. In the other, they don’t, and the result is y. Catching the train was, therefore, a ‘sliding doors’ moment. The movie dramatises the two alternate outcomes, popularising the expression: ‘a sliding doors moment’. It’s a powerful image.

Board meetings are like that film. Decisions are taken or not. Discussions had or not. People speak up or not. The implications of these alternatives are grave. The stakeholders who suffered as a result of corporate scandals will know how grave: Enron, Carillion and The Post Office – to mention just three.

Non-executive directors should act as critical friends of the business. But the power of NEDs is limited by how much information they receive, their courage and the board’s culture. Worryingly some NEDs tell me that they have influence but no power despite the power they possess under the Companies Acts. They have power but don’t use it.

So what to do? Well, you can do nothing, and nothing will change, or you can decide at your next board meeting that you want to put processes in place to reduce these risks for your business.

The cause of company failure or significant risk events will be in the decision-making processes. So how can you ‘de-risk’ the decision-making processes in your boardroom, particularly on your operating board or ExCo, where members have access to more information, and the management team takes decisions daily?

I propose that at every main and operating board meeting in your business, one member is appointed as the Devil’s Advocate for that meeting with permission, nay the expectation, that they can say the unsayable, speak truth to power and challenge, for the sake of it, every critical decision.

The Chair and CEO would never act as Devil’s Advocate, but every other board member or ExCo member would be required to take on the role by rotation at each meeting.

The process would not change how you conduct the meeting or who speaks when or how save that at the end of the meeting, the Devil’s Advocate for that meeting would speak without interruption or challenge. For example:

– Chair – you spoke over Joe Bloggs several times during the meeting. Joe Bloggs, you allowed yourself to be spoken over. This behaviour is unsustainable and poor governance.

– Noone spoke up on Item 4 when we all know it’s a controversial issue, and I have heard colleagues debate this issue hotly outside meetings. We must revisit this issue.

– On Item 12, we spent no time planning how to celebrate the behaviour of that function which was odd given how much the results from that function have improved. Unless we celebrate successes, we won’t motivate the teams and therefore reduce the chances of achieving our objectives.

I suspect, if done correctly, the board would reverse or amend many vital decisions using this process. Fundamental issues affecting the future of the business – primarily conduct risk would be called out.

Your Devil’s Advocate would require a mandate to represent all stakeholders – not just shareholders and the banks, but creditors, large and small, employees, their families and the environment.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock has said repeatedly that “society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose”. Financial journalists frequently write that board members of organisations in trouble did not ask the right questions and that carrying on as before has already led to a fractured society. Merryn Somerset Webb, the editor in chief of Money Week – not exactly a left-leaning newspaper – has opined that since “most adults in the UK have a stake in the listed UK sector, they should know that – be able to act upon it”.

The zeitgeist is changing. Women are standing up to predatory men at work. Electorates are defying old voting patterns. And investors see the writing on the wall for old processes.

They see that the current model isn’t working. They also know that it’s not a binary solution – capitalism versus socialism, but a midpoint which gives all stakeholders a say in matters which affect them.

Perhaps the term should be Stakeholder Advocate and not Devil’s Advocate. But if these arguments do not persuade you to implement a devil’s advocacy process at your board meetings, you might ask yourself why?

Is it because you’re afraid? If you are, then the seeds of self-destruction are already sown in your organisation. It’s only a matter of time.

Ciarán Fenton

CEOs fresh from a funding round: three warnings

You’ve done it. You’ve got the deal across the line. The endless legal drafts have stopped. The signatures affixed. Better still, the money is in the bank, or at least some of it. Phew.

Now, you must deliver and in respect of which challenge here are three warnings for CEOs:

First, don’t fail to take significant time out to reflect and congratulate yourself and your team.

People buy people first. The investors have bought you and your team first, then and only then your ideas. If you are a driven entrepreneur the idea of taking significant time out to reflect on your collective achievement may seem self indulgent. Do it.

Get your team together ideally off-site in a pleasant location or if not, online. Go around the room and say what you appreciated in each of them during the funding round and what you’ve learned.

Be fulsome in your praise. Then ask each team member to do the same. Encourage feedback on you. Have fun. Enjoy the moment. Relax. Honour yourself and your success. Breath.

Why? Because if you don’t take time to celebrate achievements properly you won’t integrate the primacy of wellbeing into your leadership culture. If you don’t honour wellbeing, you risk falling well short of your objectives.

Second, don’t ignore signs of jockeying for position, relationship stresses, and insecurities on your top team, especially as you hire new people, now that you have the funding to do so.

Relationships on top teams post funding become notoriously brittle. “Things are not like they were at the start. It’s all a little less flat. The CEO is more remote.” These are the feelings I hear reported by top team members after funding rounds.

What they really mean is: things are different for me. I’m feeling insecure. There’s more distance now between me and the CEO, not least because they are busier; I have less power and influence, on top of the fact that my shares are diluted. I miss the old times.

So, as soon as you have facilitated your celebration/post mortem, arrange 1-1s with each of your senior team using the following framework:

– a reminder of your organisational purpose as shared by all; check that they are still on side or not with that shared purpose; be alert for shifts in emphasis since nothing shifts incentives more quickly than funding rounds

– check their personal purpose; why are they still here; a reminder from them as to what they need to feel fulfilled

– explore the interdependence between their personal purpose and your organisational purpose; how will they get what they need and how will the business get what it needs from them, post funding?; specifically, how can you create an environment to help them thrive?

Third, don’t forget to get the team together after the 1-1s to agree a renewed shared purpose wording, a shared strategy to achieve that purpose and a shared behaviour plan (what I call a PSB Plan) as to how you will apply the strategy to achieve the purpose. The step I see missed most often is flushing out, early, differences of opinion or even shades of differences of opinion. These will come back to haunt you if you don’t address them early.

It’s important that you tell them at that meeting that you will be sticking to regular formal reporting 1–1s at which you will expect each of them to follow the famous RAPID acronym: results; actions; proposals; ideas and feedback on decisions they have taken. The last is important: if they’re not taking decisions they’re not using their delegated power and if they’re not using power you risk not achieving your purpose.

Finally, find someone to support you.

Ciarán Fenton

Why wise in-house lawyers should refocus on practicing law, fast

I’m currently working with a wide range of in-house lawyers as leaders. Some are from large and mature organisations. Others are from small rapidly growing x-techs with impressively talented young CEO/Founders. Several are from medium-sized organisations.

While I have worked with hundreds of in-house lawyers over the last 15 years I’ve never seen a more dangerous time for them, as individuals, than now. The profession is sleepwalking nakedly into the public spotlight, unprepared. They’re in for a public kicking the likes of which they’ve never experienced.

This time bomb has been ticking for some time and there are three clues that it’s about to explode:

First, The Solicitors Regulation Authority has recently launched a Thematic Risk Review into in-house lawyers. This is the regulatory equivalent of a siren with flashing red lights and a klaxon.

Why, after years of behaving as if in-house didn’t exist as a large and rapidly growing segment of the profession with unaddressed issues, has it now suddenly taken action?

What incentive does it have, suddenly, in abandoning its long-held steadfast position that a) it doesn’t interfere with the business employers of lawyers b) in-house lawyers can and should whistleblow and if they don’t then that’s not the SRA’s responsibility and c) theIr worst kept secret, that it believes that private practice is in-house’s back-stop and it is heavily regulated already? The answer lies in the two other reasons.

Second, the rule of law and the role of lawyers in upholding the rule of law is in the news and is staying stubbornly in the headlines. The furore over legal advice to oligarchs, for example, reached the floor of the House of Commons.

The high stakes legal opinion-shopping by the government on triggering Article 16 of The Northern Ireland Protocol is attracting public attention. The public know that governments have legal advisors. They are meant to be the good guys. If legal advice is publicly perceived to be shorn of its independence in matters which affect ordinary people then the public will sit up and take notice.

Third, the Post Office Scandal which involves serious questions about the behaviour of lawyers including in-house lawyers did cost lives and that story has captured the public’s attention. The Williams Inquiry into the Scandal reports at the end of this year. That report may well detonate the time bomb.

In my experience the degree to which each in-house lawyer can act with independence varies considerably depending on the context.

One said to me – unusually – that they were able to insist on an amendment to their employment contract to take account of their SRA obligations. Another, on the other hand, said that not standing up to the business in all cases had become the norm. The latter is ubiquitous.

One IHL expressed concerns about the impact on young lawyers of a culture of passivity in the profession. “If that’s what they learn as young lawyers in-house, it doesn’t augur well for the profession, does it?” they say.

The use of out-of-house opinion has also come up as a significant issue: some IHLs feel compelled to use outside counsel’s opinion when they are perfectly capable of providing advice without it. Why? The answer is that many IHLs have lost their independent voice within the business to such an extent that they feel the need for cover from outside. This is bad for them, bad for the business and bad for the future of the profession. I propose three ways in which in-house lawyers can manage these personal risks:

First, they might consider asking for an amendment to their employment contracts noting their SRA obligations.

Second they might consider asking for a reporting line to the Chair or SID not just as a protection for them but as a protection for the business.

Third they might start using the word practice more often in their work. They are regulated independent professional services firms on legs selling their services to the business for cash and soft benefits.

They practice law. They, particularly young and inexperienced in-house lawyers exposed to high reputational risks, might remind themselves and the business regularly that practicing law independently is their primary purpose.

A time will come when the people who encouraged them to be “business people first, lawyers second…business partners, not blockers and to do more for less” won’t be seen for dust.

Then, if you are an in-house lawyer, you will be on your own sunshine. And the people who will lash in the boot first will be your legal peers. Just wait and see who kicks first after The Williams Inquiry.

Better still, don’t wait.


I learned a hard lesson in acceptance last Saturday

I was excited last Friday. My bloods were up and nurses on the ward were talking about the possibility of my going home on Saturday or Sunday if my bloods continued to rise.

I spent Friday looking forward to packing and planning what I would do over the weekend. I looked out my window of Floor 10 Belfast City Hospital across the city to Cave Hill. The sun was shining. It looked great.

I had then been in hospital for over ten days, had 15 hours of chemotherapy and was desperate to get home. Being cooped up with no visitors was doing my head in.

When they said “possibility” I stupidly had converted that to “certainty”. So, on Saturday morning when my bloods collapsed – a not unusual occurrence after chemotherapy – I felt devastated. It was the lowest point since my diagnosis of treatable Mantle Cell Lymphoma in January. I went into a mental tailspin.

It was my daughter – who has a friend with Lymphoma – amongst others who helped me recover my mojo. They said that going home is merely a break from the year long treatment and if I accept, rather than fight, that reality then the roller coaster blood results will be easier to bear.

And they are right. I shouldn’t be allowed home until my bloods are safe. I don’t want to be at home unless I’m safe. So it follows that if I accept without resistance that I have cancer and a hard year long treatment programme but one which, fortunately for me, has usually a good prognosis then I can reduce my stress.

I have preached for years to my clients in my leadership consulting practice about The Power of Now by Eckhardt Tolle which is about a total acceptance of “the now”. It’s easier said than done. It’s time to eat my own dog food – as the marketeers say – and practice what I preach. Since Saturday I have done so and it works.

As it happens my bloods have improved and if they are still up today I can go home today. But if they’re not and I have to wait another day or two I will no doubt be hugely disappointed but not devastated. What will be will be. I’m grateful to all those helping me through this. Thank you.