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 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?

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