How CEOs can learn lessons from the Brexit-Trump shocks to build capability, not just performance, by investing in relationships with people they don’t like…



… because the commentators tell us that many voted for Brexit and Trump because they felt “left behind”. It follows that they would not have done so if they had felt the opposite.

The opposite of feeling left behind is to feel included. You can’t feel included if you are not in an inclusive relationship. The Remain Campaign and Hilary Clinton would have won if they had been in relationships with people who disagree with them but were willing to trust them.

The Remain Campaign did not campaign to Remain. They campaigned not to leave. Try that with a lover and see how far you get. If it doesn’t work in love, it won’t work in politics. It’s about both emotion and facts. The fact is that the Remain team did not believe in Remain, but they didn’t like the Leavers either. Mrs May was one of these fence sitters. They were not in a relationship of any sort with the Leavers. No wonder they lost.

Hilary Clinton did not build strong enough relationships with the poor of Ohio, the cynical of Florida, the fed-up of North Carolina. The fact is, Mrs Clinton didn’t demonstrate enough that she cared. Bernie Sanders did. Moreover, her relationship with the disaffected was so weak that many of them were willing to overlook Mr Trump’s misogyny, racism and lack of ability. No wonder she lost.

Now Mrs May and Mr Trump have to deliver. They won’t because they can’t. They don’t know what they don’t know about leadership, a lethal compound ignorance. What they don’t know is that success depends on creating relationships in which most of the people you lead, even those you don’t like, thrive. You can’t do that if you are not in a relationship with them.

Mrs May is heading for a fall. It will be a big fall, and it will happen soon because a) the disaffected Leavers have merely swapped places with unheard Remainers b) she has a hectoring leadership style which alienates people and is not conducive to the deal making she must now do and c) and above all, history will recall her nadir as the moment she failed to support her judiciary in the High Court. For many, this failure to lead will neither be forgotten nor forgiven because they care deeply about hard-won core values of democracy.

Mr Trump is also heading for a fall. It will come soon as he holds all the levers of power in Congress, Senate and The White House so there is little to stop him from falling. He has toxic relationships with those he doesn’t like. No weasel words in an acceptance speech or in the transition talks with Mr Obama will change this. He will fail because he needs the help of the people he hates. And they won’t help him.

How can CEOs learn from this? What has this to do with them? Surely there is no comparison between Mrs May, Mr Trump and the CEO of any business? There is because we all know CEOs who don’t build relationships wide and deep in their organisations. They stick with the people they know and like and only do the things they feel comfortable doing. There are Trump-like characters in business. We all know them. We also know leaders like Mrs May who may be useful function leaders but make poor CEOs.

Once, I ran a change Programme at a large organisation that treated one function poorly. They saw it as non-core, a bit second-class. Even its physical location reflected its low status. Morale was low. They felt “left behind”. But they made things worse for themselves by giving out a strong smell of burning martyr – understandable, but fatal.

The function was, as IT people like to say, “mission critical”. So I asked the CEO if I could move some of them from their out of the way location into the centre of the “mission”. To his credit, he said yes.

I facilitated a relationship change programme between the function and the centre by bringing them physically into the centre where healthy relationships could develop. It got off to a shaky start but as soon as “both sides” realised that they had a shared purpose and were valued and valuable in achieving that purpose, the relationships were transformed – a word I rarely used but is true in this case.

The lesson for CEOs is that it is no good trying to achieve excellent performance without building sustainable capability. Sure, you can deliver stunning results in the short term without paying much attention to the medium term, to “the important not urgent” issues and, crucially, to those who are not at the centre of your short-term bubble. But, sooner or later you will fail.

Former Goldman Sachs chief economist, Lord Jim O’Neill is reported in the Press as saying that the recent shock results may jolt business into realising it must do more for the workers and communities it serves. He also feels leaders appear to have lost the ability to connect with many of the people they are leading. He’s right.

If you build relationships with these, they will support you even if they don’t agree with everything you say. Fail to do so, and you may experience in your organisation an internal version of Brexit-Trump because you won’t know until it’s too late and, rest uneasy, these will do lasting damage to your business.

Ciaran Fenton

November 2016


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

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