Why every lawyer should listen to Prof Empson’s “Insecure Overachievers”



In her BBC Radio 4 documentary, broadcast this week and available on BBC iPlayer, Prof Empson told us nothing new and everything new.

We know that the stress levels in professional services – and in legal services in particular – are unsustainable. I have seen it at close quarters over 15 years working with lawyers as leaders. Prof Empson’s stories and interviews are genuinely shocking, but won’t surprise any listener who knows that world.

What was new about Prof Empson’s programme is that she has moved the debate on, significantly, by tapping into the growing tolerance in the world of work for people making themselves vulnerable.

Moreover, what was riveting about this programme is that she – a former investment banker and strategy consultant turned academic – is a self-confessed “insecure overachiever” and speaks openly about her struggle.

And she manages to persuade “big names” in professional services to speak openly, frankly, and movingly about their experiences.

One story stands out: the managing partner who changed his shirt five times and pill-popped headache tablets all day due to the stress of an annual partners conference, who knew he was perceived as cool but was dying inside.

Prof Empson’s engagement with vulnerability – her own and others – is new and part of a growing trend. Several years ago a senior in-house lawyer-client gave me a copy of Brené Brown’s  Daring Greatly, a book which explains how the courage to be vulnerable works and dispels the myth that it’s weakness. Her Ted Talk is, rightly, in the Top Ten. My lawyer-client spoke openly about his tendency to overachieve.

Stephen Fry, Alasdair Campbell, and Ed Balls – all high profile figures – dared to speak openly about their issues. Paul Gilbert, a former GC and leader of UK’s foremost leadership programme for in-house counsel, has written for many years about the problem of stress in the profession and, movingly, about his own experiences.

The courage of Prof Empson and these people to speak out does us all an excellent service. It has an impact much more significant than perhaps some realise. It gives others permission to do so too. I now speak openly to my clients about my own experiences, and they theirs. Our shared work is enriched.

The arguments from interviewees in the programme who argued against vulnerability were as chilling as they were predictable: “if-you-can’t-hack-it-get-out…and “slavery was abolished” no one is forcing you to do it….and clients expect it…”

The problem with these arguments is that although factually correct, they assume that everyone will persist with what Yuval Noah Harari calls in Sapiens the current “shared fiction” of the purpose of work in general, and the purpose of professional services in particular. Once we decide to change our shared purpose, all bets are off for the manipulators of “insecure overachievers”.

However, it hasn’t yet happened. And that explains, in part, the mystery of mostly zero disruption in legal services. There won’t be any substantive disruption in legal services, apart from technology-enabled change,  unless and until more lawyers accept that vulnerability isn’t a weakness.

One step that might help this process, not addressed in Prof Empson’s programme but hopefully in a sequel, is an examination of what in their formative years has led to them becoming “insecure overachievers”.

This one aspect of the program has left me a little troubled. I’m uncomfortable with the coining of another new label – “insecure overachiever” – which some lawyers will use to self-flagellate and others as another secret elite badge of honour. I don’t believe this issue can be addressed without looking at the full arc of one’s life.

Pro Empson’s says in her closing words that although the feelings may diminish they “never go away…make your peace with them…recognise that you can be manipulated…channel it for you and not against you…your deepest fears may drive your wildest dreams.”

I don’t see it this way. For me, It’s not about making peace with the feelings or channelling them. It’s about making peace with their origin. Understanding what drove early overachieving decisions in your life and making a new decision. William Glasser calls this Decision and ReDecison.

Prof Empson keeps asking in the programme  – who’s to blame? Well, whoever it is, it’s not she.


How Rosenberg and The Blueprint could bring harmony to your board



Is everything sweetness and light between directors on your board? Does every meeting start with Kumbaya? Does it end with high fives and a director of the month award?

Or is your board racked with conflict? Riven with strife? Sleights, real and imagined, driving an undercurrent of scarcely concealed hostility dominated by a narcissistic bully?

Or is it like a run of the mill family with moving highs and hurtful lows underpinned by unspoken mutual regard, if not love?

Whatever emotional state your board is in, two or more directors will be in amber or red zones with each other on any given day.

Try plotting your board members on a relationship grid spreadsheet with the initials of each across the top row and the same initials down the left column and RAG – red, amber, green, – each relationship. Don’t forget to RAG your relationship with yourself.

The result will be a patchwork quilt of green, ambers and reds, but only from your perspective. I suspect that while each director’s grid would match on many apparent tensions, they would differ in surprising respects.

Tension, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Many years ago a chairman proudly told me that his board was so unified that they never had to vote on anything. Little did he know, as I did, that at least one of his directors was not happy, at all. I’m suspicious when votes are not taken. But I believe he genuinely felt that all was well. It’s just that he didn’t use a process to test his assumptions.

The business case for harmony on a board is so compelling it scarcely needs to be made. The stress reduction case, ditto. We also need boards to make good decisions which respect the environment, society and governance. These are more likely if forged in the crucible of harmony than one of conflict.

If you don’t want to pay eye-watering fees to consultants like me to facilitate improvements in your board’s behaviour, performance and harmony then there are plenty of tools out there to help you.

One useful model is The Blueprint developed by the charity Blueprint for Better Business – full disclosure, I’m an adviser to that charity. Blueprint’s Five Principles provide guidance for businesses and reflect the foundations needed for responsible business: honesty and fairness; good citizenship; responsible employment; guardians for future generations; and a purposeful business that delivers long-term sustainable performance.

One of the five principles addresses the board’s responsibility towards the people who work for and with the organisation. It urges the board to “protect[s] and nurture all who work for it to ensure people also learn, contribute and thrive.”

But how can this wonderful aspiration be achieved if, even if on the best of boards, relationships can swing, sometimes within one board meeting, from green, through amber and into red, occasionally accompanied by a red mist?

The answer lies in the combination of models like The Blueprint and behaviour change processes like nonviolent communication championed by, recently deceased, Marshall Rosenberg.

Rosenberg was a great exponent of a version of Feel/Need/Do to resolving differences.

Let’s imagine that you are going through a bit of an amber patch with one of your fellow directors, with occasional tinges of red. Here are three steps you could take combining Rosenberg and The Blueprint:

Step 1: Commit to spending a day alone together. I mean a full day. Start with a long session in a room 1-1 and then have a very long late lunch. Time, and in my opinion good food and drink, heal.

Step 2: Start your 1-1 setting out your stalls without interruption: my purpose, my understanding of the purpose of the organisation, my view of the strategy and behaviour required to achieve our objective. DON’T move to step three unless you are clear about the other person’s position. This step is about fact-finding. An argument is verboten in this step.

Step 3: Set out in turn without interruption how you FEEL about the other’s behaviour in relation to the purpose; what you NEED concerning that feeling and what you want to DO (usually ask) about it. Then work through your respective Feel/Need/Dos. If you approach this openly, something will shift. It may be a small change but small changes, in aggregate, have a big impact.

Rosenberg tells the story of the man who said he needed a divorce because he believed his wife was taking his hard work for granted. Rosenberg facilitated him and his wife to do a version of Feel/Need/Do. The outcome was that the husband needed appreciation and the wife time and intimacy. Neither needed a divorce.

Ciarán Fenton

FRC Code Guidance: “…evidence…that the [CEO] is willing to listen”. Well?


The Guidance on Board Effectiveness which accompanies the recently updated UK Corporate Governance Code 2018 includes the following challenge to boards and board evaluators:

“What evidence do we have that the chief executive is willing to listen, take criticism and let others make decisions?”

Well, if you are the CEO, can you produce such evidence? And if you are a director or NED can you, on behalf of the board, do so? Or are you a CEO, director or NED who won’t listen?

Or are you a long-suffering director – and I include HRDs, GCs & CoSecs here – who despair that your CEO will ever listen?

Don’t despair. Most tin-eared CEOs are remedial, extreme narcissists excluded. A brief aside on the latter:

Google a simple “test for narcissistic personality disorder” and you will find, e.g. at psycom.net questions along the following lines asking for Never/Rarely/Sometimes/Often/Very Often:

  • Do you experience an exaggerated sense of self-importance?
  • Do you expect to be seen as superior to other people?
  • Do you ever exaggerate your talents or accomplishments?
  • Do you require constant admiration from others?
  • Do you engage in fantasies about being successful, powerful, or beautiful?
  • Do you expect total compliance and special favors from others?
  • Do you struggle to recognize the emotions and needs of other people?
  • Do others perceive you as arrogant or haughty?

Recognise yourself? Recognise others? If my wife were looking over my shoulder as I write this, and thank goodness she isn’t, she would be sniggering. And I would snigger back. Because depending on our answers to the questions, we are all on “the scale”.

The critical question is: where on the scale do you, your CEO, your colleagues sit? If you or they are at the top, or “off the scale”, as some world leaders and famous corporate bullies we could think of sit, then you need help, of a robust nature.

If on the other hand you or your CEO is fond of such phrases like “I don’t suffer fools gladly…I hire good people and drive them hard…this isn’t a democracy”, or worse then you or they might want to take stock. Especially if you are getting feedback which suggests, to use the oft-used management-speak: “people in this organisation are afraid to speak truth to power”.

If so, the chances are that you or your CEO needs to work on or needs help to work on your Emotional Intelligence levels. Why would you do that? What would ever incentivise you to change the habits of a lifetime? Do old dogs learn new tricks?

Well, it depends on your purpose. If your aim is to stay as you are, ignore the art and science of human behaviour, or more likely, don’t know or are scared of change because that’s all you know, then you and your organisations are in danger because, your ways are the old ways and sooner or later you and your organisation will falter, especially in an era of #metoo, ESG and a corporate governance code with fewer tick-boxes to hide behind.

But if your purpose is to make your organisation and the people in be what it can and should be then you have an exciting time ahead, provided you are willing to make small changes in your behaviour.

If you want to tackle these issues in yourself and on your board – we all suffer from them – then you could do worse than read a few books on the subject.

Last weekend at The Big Tent Ideas Festival in Cambridge where I was asked to speak about leadership and reconciliation, I heard Professor Paul Gilbert talk about compassion. During the coffee break, I asked him about the difference between compassion and empathy.

My paraphrase of his answer is that empathy is about understanding and compassion is an action. His book The Compassionate Mind is worth reading as the back cover blurb reveals it “explains the evolutionary and social reasons why our brains react so readily to threats – and reveals how our brains are also hardwired to respond to kindness and compassion”.

Coincidentally, another Paul Gilbert, who I know from the consultancy LBCWisecounsel writes excellent blogs on the value of kindness.

If you’re still not convinced, spend 18 minute listening to Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on Daring Greatly, or read her book.

Finally, whether you like it or not, rivers will keep flowing, and the sun will rise and set each day on your organisation, whether you change or not. What will be, will be. How do you want it to be?

Board Evaluation issues: behaviour matters arising under the new FRC Code

board behaviour

The focus of the recently published revised UK Corporate Governance Code 2018, according to the accompanying “highlights” note, is board composition, remuneration and notably: “positive relationships between companies, shareholders and stakeholders [and] a clear purpose and strategy aligned with healthy corporate culture”.

The FRC places “improving the quality of the board and the company’s relationships with a wider range of stakeholders” at the heart of the Code.

There is also an explicit reference to “the ability for directors and the workforce to be able to raise concerns” and a clear reference to “constructive challenge of the boardroom.”

The language of the Code appears designed to move away from “box ticking” to factual reporting. This presents boards, evaluators and consultants – like me – who address matters arising, with several challenges.

In my consulting practice, I undertake informal board evaluations, and I facilitate programmes on behaviour matters arising from both informal and formal evaluations carried out by others, but I don’t undertake formal evaluations myself – i.e. those which are published in annual reports. Several specialists deal with the latter.

The challenge for companies will be the requirement to report “on the application of the Principles in a manner that can be evaluated” while at the same time ensuring that “companies should avoid a tick-box approach”.

This challenge is all the more daunting given the requirement “to demonstrate how the governance of the company contributes to its long-term sustainable success and achieves wider objectives” [my italics].

Logically, therefore, I would expect in the future to facilitate in my programmes situations where an evaluation highlights, for example, the following issues:

negative “relationships between a director with some shareholders and some stakeholders.”
lack of “a clear purpose and strategy.”
[an un]“healthy corporate culture.”

These are not new to me. I deal with them frequently because they emerge informally in the course of a programme with a board. But in future will companies formally admit these in the course of evaluations under the new Code? And if not, how will they “explain” if they don’t “comply”?

This tricky point is best illustrated by picking three issues which could be “tick boxed” and three which don’t fit in tick boxes. I have selected these from the Guidance on Board Effectiveness “the Guidance” which accompanies the Code.

Tick-box or easy-answer examples

  • “What proportion of Board time is spent on financial performance management versus other matters of strategic importance?”
  • “Are we using scenario analysis to help us assess the strategic importance and potential impact of our challenges and opportunities?”
  • “Is there a forum for the workforce to share ideas and concerns”

Non-tick-box or nuanced examples [my italics]

  • “How do we demonstrate ethical leadership and display the behaviours we expect from others? “
  • “What evidence do we have that the chief executive is willing to listen, take criticism and let others make decisions?”
  • “How comfortable do our people say they are with challenging and reporting issues of concern and is there any evidence that they are doing this?

It will be interesting to see how evaluators deal with these questions and to what extent companies will cooperate with evaluators on them.

The Guidance emphasises that “evaluation should be bespoke in its formulation and delivery”. I’m designing programmes to support companies and to work alongside evaluators on the behaviour matters that could arise.  I have chosen, as my focus,  seven behaviour related headings from the Guidance:

  • To support the Chair in drafting those sections of the report which relate to behaviour and culture issues since the Guidance encourages the Chair to report “a summary of the outcomes and actions of the board evaluation process in their statement in the annual report.”
  • To support the CEO, using an updated version of my Purpose, Strategy and Behaviour (PSB) Programme, on matters arising concerning “clarity of, and leadership given, to the purpose, direction and values of the company”.
  • To support the entire board, using my Relationship Grid tool, on “how the board works together…tone set by the chair and CEO…key board relationships…effectiveness of individual directors… the clarity of SID role..”
  • To support the Chair regarding the “process the Chair uses to ensure sufficient debate for major decisions and contentious issues”
  • To support the General Counsel/Company Secretary to ensure “clarity of the decsion-making processes and authorities, possibly drawing on key decisions made over the year”
  • To support the board in how it “communicates with, and listens and responds to, shareholders and other key stakeholders”.

Many companies will have to “comply or explain” and will feel under compliance pressure to do so. Others will apply the Code, whether they must or not, because it’s the right thing to do, for us all.