CEOs: learn from Mrs May, disband your inner circle today

Many CEOs have, like Mrs May, an inner circle. It’s lonely at the top. You need people around you that you can trust, to tell you the things you need to hear or, if you’re weak, what you want to hear.

There’s nothing wrong with these inner circles provided they are informal and counterbalanced by a board with a formal governance process and in which power truly resides. The issue here is the location of power, not just leadership style.

Mrs May, allegedly, relied on her inner circle to the exclusion of everyone else. The cost of this error will be high. But it’s not as if she didn’t know that her leadership style was a matter of concern for many. Indeed she revelled in her reputation as “a bloody difficult woman.”

And she was not alone in her approach. The ink is barely dry on The Chilcot Report which highlighted Mr Blair’s “sofa style” decision-making as a contribution to the errors in the Iraq war.

So why do many leaders persist in making this unforced error? The answer is that they have no incentive to change. They believe that their behaviour got them to the top, so why change it?

Mrs May didn’t become a micro-manager overnight. It’s part of who she is and how she got to be Prime Minister.  Her identity must be bound up with distrust of others. In that respect, she is typical of many leaders I encounter in the course of my work.

If the cause of the behaviour is easy to diagnose, the cure is less so. It demands behavioural change, and that’s hard unless it’s taken in small steps.

So, if you’re a CEO with high emotional intelligence (EI) and therefore the self-awareness to know that you are behaving like Mrs May or Mr Blair, and know you should stop it but don’t know how then here’s how:

Step 1: Assemble your full operating board and ask each member to acknowledge their outstanding behavioural weakness. Start with yourself. If some less emotionally intelligent members are struggling, play “the least likely to say” game. That will soon flush it out.

Step 2: Start trading behavioural change deals as in “I’ll micro-manage 10% less if you acknowledge your mistakes 10% more”. Then legislate for the breach of these deals.

Step 3: Announce that, in future, no major decision will be taken without full discussion by the entire board and at which meetings and by rotation one member will act as Devil’s Advocate with full permission to question the rationale for each decision.

“Pigs will fly”, I hear you mutter in response to these steps. Not true. This process works. I have facilitated it many times. It works because there is an incentive to make yourself vulnerable, to change and to move to a higher level of leadership behaviour. The latter is the real prize because it feels good and it makes you a better leader.

And let’s be clear, micro-managers don’t enjoy micro-managing. They find it exhausting, energy sapping and time-consuming. Most of all it hides latent greatness. One micro-managing CEO I worked with and who did reduce his meddling behaviour using my small change approach, reported that he had more time, a happier team and, I believe, developed higher levels of trust.

I’m sure that there’s a different, more trusting, softer side to Mrs May. One that we have not seen, although one hears that the 1922 Committee had a glimpse of it during her belated mea culpa. See what I mean about incentives?

If I had my way, every leader would have to spend a minimum of one year at Emotional Intelligence School (EIS). There they would undergo mandatory weekly psychotherapy to process formative years’ experiences; they would study psychology and behavioural science, and above all, they would have to pass a boot camp type test on the benefits of good corporate governance. That would teach them never to rely on an inner circle, ever.

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