Why CEOs and directors, unlike Mrs May, should actively encourage dissent on their operating boards

Mrs May continues to present students of leadership with excellent material on the dos and don’ts of modern leadership.  Her speech this week announcing the General Election was another great contribution to that canon.

The strongest part of her speech, and one that CEOs would do well to emulate, was her absolute clarity of purpose. This is no “Theresa Maybe” as The Economist described her at the start of her premiership. Love her or loathe her, you can be in no doubt that she wants as hard a Brexit as she can negotiate. That’s her purpose. No maybe about it.

CEOs who don’t convey this level of clarity on their own purpose go on to struggle to articulate a credible strategy and as a result their implementation plans are weak and risk-rich from the outset.

But then Mrs May needlessly threw away this early advantage.  Had she been a client of mine, I would have insisted she maintain that level of clarity in all aspects of her speech because it pains me to see leaders score avoidable own goals and she scored a veritable hat-trick, all of which CEOs can learn from.

Her first own goal was when she said that the reason for calling an election was because “…there should be unity in Westminster, but instead there is division.” It is bad enough that this was a huge lie  – everyone knows she called it for party political reasons – but it was the underlying disregard for opposing views, so well known to directors who have to work for bullying CEOs, that will have done her damage.

Rafael Behr put it well in The Guardian: “The democratic process is being requisitioned not to air competing opinions but to dispense with them.”

She could easily have just stuck to the line that she wanted a stronger negotiating hand via a stronger majority. No one would have blamed her for that. But like many CEOs with low EQ she confuses dissent with an attack on her identity and so she attacked her dissenters, who are elected and one could argue, paid to dissent, just as NEDs are on  main boards or divisional directors and function heads are on operating boards.

Her identity, like many CEOs, is tied up with being right. Any questioning of that is forbidden because to question is to undermine and that casts you, in that most damning of all verdicts, as “not a team player”.

In my corporate career I experienced and witnessed brutal treatment of dissent on many boards and executive committees. On one ExCom I was warned on arrival that new people were easy to spot because they were the ones smiling. No one, I was told, smiled again after receiving their first humiliating and public slap down. So I didn’t smile. I still got slapped.

The reason this behaviour doesn’t benefit Mrs May or CEOs is that they, ultimately, are the losers. Mrs May lost many floating voters who share Rafael Behr’s views. In addition she lost her moral authority with Tory MPs who agree with Rafael Behr but are afraid to speak out. Later when she needs their support when things get rocky for her, as they surely will, she won’t have it.

CEOs lose badly with this behaviour because it negatively impacts the ROI on their wage bill, especially to directors who are usually highly paid.  This ROI is already affected by the standard behaviour of any employee – director or not – to leave, daily, a significant part of themselves and therefore their value at Reception because they feel it’s unsafe to bring it in.

No amount of HR sponsored “bring your whole self to work” campaigns will change this unless the “invitation” from the CEO is there to do so. But in situations where slaps are administered for daring to be yourself, CEOs and HR Directors should be under no illusion that their ROI plummets drastically and they won’t even know what they’re missing. This is one of those own goals that’s barely visible, because it happens so fast.

The well documented behaviour of advisers in The Oval Office during the Bay of Pigs fiasco is a good example of the dangers of not encouraging dissent. The problem was that no one spoke up because the agenda was controlled. Therefore there was no room for dissent. This contributed to what was an historic disaster for American foreign policy in the 20th century.

I believe CEOs should open every operating board meeting with the same announcement each time: “I need to hear people disagree with me and with each other, constructively. If you don’t you’re not doing your job and if you’re not doing your job you’re of no use to the business.”

If Mrs May had announced an election saying she wanted a stronger mandate and that she welcomed a stronger challenge within and without her party at this difficult time, then that would be a sign of courageous leadership and she, and we, might get not just what we want but need.  But to complete her hat trick Mrs May missed that too and she and we will suffer, needlessly as a result.

 

 

 

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