Many CEOs and function leaders achieve much less than they could because they hate the process of selling…


..themselves, their ideas, or even products or services because they fear rejection, are uncomfortable asking for anything and don’t know how, exactly, to sell well. These feelings are as career damaging as they are remedial. Even the most taciturn can learn how to overcome this problem, which pervades all leadership contexts including the top three: leading during complex change including business development, job finding and surviving the first 100 days of a new role. I have case study examples of each.

The fear of rejection is deep-rooted. It is linked firmly to the second driver, which is a dislike of being and appearing needy. Experts tell us that this revulsion indicates a history of difficulty in negotiating needs in formative years. If you were able to negotiate and satisfy your reasonable needs at home and school, then you are likely to be able to do so in adulthood leading to a natural ability to sell well when the need arises. The opposite early years’ experience, however, is more common.

Much of my work is in helping clients deal with this hard-wired behaviour because they have no option but to sell; not just in the business development sense but also if they are leading during complex change – restructure, M&A, conflict, adverse trading conditions, first 100 days, earn out or even trying to win at interview for a new executive or NED role – they must succeed at selling themselves and their ideas to people.

One client had a life-long difficulty with selling although this was not immediately apparent. I stumbled on the extent of the problem when I did my selling module with them, the key points of which I can deliver in about an hour. He seemed quite grumpy at the end of the session, and there was an insinuation that I had rushed it. I picked this up and did a Feel/Need/Do process which I use to surface any dissatisfaction with my sessions. Sometimes these can be subliminal.

I managed to get him to say that “All my working life I have felt uncomfortable selling; I’ve done it because I’ve had to but I hate it, I FEEL I’m no good at it but increasingly I must do it, so I NEED to get better at it and what I’m going to DO is to ask you to spend much more time on this than just an hour.” So I did.

I created a tailored programme for him over several sessions, focusing on those steps in the selling process with which he had the most difficulty. For example, he had a block around finding out what a target needed or might need. He didn’t know how to ask questions which surfaced needs.

Once he understood that he could ask open biased questions – who? what? when? where? how? – i.e., opening questions and how these linked with the closing steps, he felt much more comfortable. He learned that good selling is about genuinely putting yourself in the shoes of the buyer. It’s not about smoke and mirrors. I suspect his background would not have been one where intrusiveness was encouraged, so he confused gentle questioning with an intrusion. The result was that he subsequently did a pitch with a colleague who was astonished at his change in selling behaviour. The success was his. I was delighted to provide the framework.

Ciaran Fenton

October 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

CEOs should take note of HS2’s decision to test their subcontract bidders’ ability to collaborate…


…because the only difference between HS2 and any business is scale. Yes, High-Speed Rail 2 (HS2) is a £56bn project, but the leadership issues are the same in a £56m business or a £5.6m business. HS2 just has more zeros.

They want to evaluate the ability of the bidders for contracts on the project “to deliver the collaborative behaviours they claim they possess” (FT 15 October 2016). So they have hired B2B Partnering Performance, a firm of psychologists, to run behavioural tests. They put bidders under pressure to see if they will “revert to type”.

The story raises several questions: Why doesn’t every business do this? What processes will HS2 use to help keep behaviour on track, if you’ll excuse the pun? Above all, why are “soft issues” now getting so much attention in leading and managing in complex situations?

The answer to the last question is that the art and science of business have evolved over the last hundred years to embrace the fact that businesses succeed or not depending on the extent to which leaders manage relationships successfully in complex situations.

A CEO, function head or managing partner has to lead a team during periods of complex change: business or function restructure; losses or loss of market share; post M&A; “silo behaviour” in a group or partnership; crisis; an adverse leadership audit; conflict or succession planning issues in a family business.

Leaders need in these situations to motivate the board or team to cooperate while growing the business or function while at the same time keep customers and stakeholders happy. Their risks include low morale and poor behaviour and an unclear strategy while time runs out leading to unhappy customers and impatient stakeholders.

It is impossible to deal with complexity without a shared purpose. You can’t agree on strategy until there’s agreement on objectives and you can’t plan to deal with complexity without a strategy. It all comes back to shared purpose.

But a shared purpose, in turn, is impossible without behavioural change. People won’t agree on anything unless they are incentivised to do so. They must be made to see the benefit to them of agreeing on purpose. They will only do that if they see an inter-dependence between their personal objectives and business objectives. You can’t do that without knowing them.

So that’s why HS2 has hired psychologists to get to “know” the bidders so as to predict their behaviour. But even if they pick those who exhibit the best behaviour they still have to be led and managed on the job. Leadership is about creating an environment in which people thrive. That’s a daily task, not a one-off process.

My approach is to help individual leaders and team members to develop their personal Purpose, Strategy and Behaviour Plan – a Personal PSB Plan; then to agree the business Purpose, Strategy and Behaviour plan – an Organisational PSB Plan. Due to the interdependence of these, I facilitate agreement on ways of working together as a team and how to manage relationships in the light of these plans, on a daily basis.

HS2 might consider not only how they are going to avoid The Hawthorne Effect – how people’s behaviour change when they know they are being tested – but also how they will maintain the behaviour tested. Nevertheless, the story is a sign of the times that the leader of a £56bn project sees the value in these processes. This is a useful reminder to all leaders that good behaviour in relationships is key to success; its absence, the sure cause of failure.

Ciaran Fenton

October 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

Last night I met Ed Balls and was surprised, sad and hopeful in equal measure to see in him a #leadership role model for CEOs…


…because he demonstrates the truth in the apparent contradiction that revealing your vulnerability makes you a stronger leader. He was speaking at a Whizz-Kidz charity event at The Ivy Club to which a client had invited me.

He spoke of his stammer; his daily terror in dealing with it; the jibes he endured as Education Secretary for not being able to “even get his words out” in the House of Commons. But it was the manner of his “coming out” which illustrates the power of allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

He had started to work on his stammer, had even told a few people and had produced a DVD on stammering for primary school children. At the launch event of the DVD he “blocked” during his speech. He suffers from “interiorised stammering” which causes the blocking of words.

After the speech, a parent of one of the children who featured in the DVD called him a coward for not fessing up to his stammer as his child had done and especially for not giving the children confidence that they too can have a stammer and still become a Cabinet Minister.

After this episode, he revealed all in a newspaper interview. The process transformed him, changed people’s view of him and also reduced his stammer.

I bought his new book – Speaking Out – which was on sale at the Whizz-Kidz event and joined the queue to ask him to sign it. When my turn came, I asked him if he had heard of Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, recommended to me by a client, which explains in detail how the courage to be vulnerable can transform your life and how it backs up what he said. I said I would send him the link.

I found him to be surprisingly “nice”. An inadequate word, I know. I had never warmed to him when he was on television when in Government and in Opposition. But last night I felt moved by his candor about his stammer, the decision to take part in Strictly Come Dancing – a massively popular TV show which I never get to see – and how the reputation of politicians become fixed in the minds of people.

I felt sad that this man who could have become Chancellor and could be now helping to deal with Brexit endured so much for so long before finding a way to confront his demons. We all carry some secret, which prevents us from being who we can be. The lesson for leaders is that if you tell people who you are, they are more likely to like you enough to follow you.

He wasn’t alone in the room with this story. A young woman in a wheelchair told a moving story of how Whizz-Kidz had helped her to overcome the obstacles in her life enabling her to go to Cambridge, live a full student life and is now a lawyer in the City. In her case, while her physical vulnerability is evident, her internal vulnerabilities were as hidden as those of Ed Balls. They both spoke equally well of facing and overcoming these. You could do worse than to send a few quid to Whizz-Kidz, before the pound falls any further.

Ciaran Fenton

October 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

Why CEOs in their #First100Days, and Mrs May, should heed Whitbread CEO Alison Brittain’s advice on #emotionalintelligence…


…because, according to the Financial Times this week, she “recommends developing your ability to empathise. A high IQ is pretty much a given for any CEO…but combining it with EQ – emotional intelligence – is much rarer”. She’s worth listening to because “recent research from Mercer Kepler puts her among the top five “best value for money” chief executives in the FTSE 100.”

Time will tell if Mrs May becomes amongst the top five value for money Prime Ministers. But if her speech at the Conservative Party conference is a guide to her future leadership behaviour she appears to be a bit light on empathy and when the bad days come, as surely they will, she may regret not taking a more “arm around” approach.

I focus on just three aspects of emotional intelligence in my leadership programmes. First, I focus on the use of empathy as recommended by Ms Brittain. Second, on developing self-awareness and third, and most importantly, negotiating needs productively.

Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Of course, this demands that you are connected to your feelings first. It’s impossible to be empathetic without that component. An extreme example is a torturer. It’s impossible for them to torture someone without first disconnecting from their feelings. If they remained connected, they would empathise, and it’s tricky to water board someone if you feel sorry for them.

The priority of any leader is to create an environment in which people thrive to achieve objectives. Empathy is essential to this task. We all know CEOs and other senior leaders who lack empathy. They cause a great deal of unnecessary suffering. But, you may argue, they often get the job done through sheer force of personality. Indeed they do, for a time. But it’s not sustainable and in 21st. Century society, it’s untenable.

Those who lack empathy usually lack self-awareness. Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection. It’s the ability to say to oneself – “there I go again doing x, y or z.” One client was acutely aware of their instinctive impulse to solve every problem and so rarely delegated entirely to anyone; another of their occasional bullying and a third an inability to put others fully at ease. Their strength was in this awareness.

Experts tell us that our ability to negotiate our needs productively is rooted in our childhood experiences. If, as children, we were able to express our feelings and our needs and have these met, at least the reasonable ones, then we are more likely in adulthood to do the same and, as leaders, to model this behaviour.

Many leaders whose needs were unmet in childhood tend to bulldoze their way to positions of leadership by force of personality because that’s the only way they believe they can get what they want. They arrive at the top only to find that this approach doesn’t work with the people they lead. They wonder why people are not doing what they want them to do when they want them to do it. It can be a very painful process to watch and horrible to be on the receiving end.

The good news is that anyone can develop, on their own or with the help of others, empathy and self-awareness and the ability to negotiate needs productively. I recommend three steps: first, don’t do or say anything without asking three questions of yourself: what do I feel? What do I need? What should I do to meet my needs?

Then ask the same three questions of the people you are leading on the same issue: what do you feel? What do you need? What do you want to do to meet your need? Then agree a plan to meet all requirements as closely as possible, provided it’s in the service of a shared purpose. And that’s often the problem: a lack of shared purpose. If you can sort that, everything else tends to fall into place.

Ciaran Fenton

October 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335