What can CEOs, boards and SLTs learn from Joe Schmidt?

Whatever happens on next Saturday at the Six Nations Ireland v England clash at The Aviva, Joe Schmidt will, according to many, retain the title of being one of the best rugby coaches in the world.

What, if anything, can CEOs, boards and senior leadership teams (SLTs) learn from his leadership behaviour?

The inspiration for this blog and this question comes from spending most of last week in the meeting rooms (corporate boxes) at The Aviva Stadium in Dublin, which overlook the pitch.

Over four days, I facilitated 1-1 meetings with the members of an operating board (senior leadership team) which has signed up for my #smallchange programme.

Below the meeting rooms, preparations were underway for the big game. I watched as the grass was cut, hosed and lamp treated. A labour of love.

I’m not a great fan of sporting and military models for behaviour in business. But I’m all for lessons we can learn from them.

Peter Pearson, former British Army Lieutenant General, with whom I sat on a panel on leadership at a conference last year, remarked dryly that “the bottom line in war is somewhat different from business.” Quite.

In respect of the former, while there are many lessons to be learned for example from Alex Ferguson, I would not encourage anyone to emulate his leadership style or some of his reported behaviour.

The motivating benefits of “hairdryer treatment” are greatly exaggerated. We all know CEOs who try it on and find that, ultimately, in business, it doesn’t work.

Clues as to Joe Schmidt’s leadership style emerge from the press coverage, especially a piece in The Irish Times (24 Jan).

On leadership: “We have a degree of hierarchy because we have a captain, a vice-captain, a leadership group but there’s no hierarchy in training or when it comes to people making good decisions”.

In my programme, I work with directors on unpacking their decision-making processes. How did we make that decision? Was it the best process? How can we change it for the better?

On planning: “They’ve got the firepower to be physical…we need to be ready for that” in response to Eddie Jones: “if you want to go to Ireland and get a win you’re going to have to deliver a brutality”. Note that word, “brutality”. Feck!

On a key element of success: “…integrate the new guys”.

Changes in personnel on boards and SLTs invariably change the group dynamics. I’m sure the process of “integration” on a rugby team is different than that on a board. But the need for a process remains the same. Often I see this need overlooked.

Clearly, Joe Schmidt has a fully thought through purpose, strategy and behaviour plan (PSB).

What’s not to like? 🙂


Yesterday’s vote illustrates the lethal dangers of an Executive Chair

Yesterday’s vote marks the nadir in political decision-making process in UK’s recent history.

The vote is, in business terms, the equivalent of a CEO failing to get their business plan approved by the main board after two years trying.

Business boards have contributed to the problem by failing to lobby Parliament strongly enough to ensure that Leave and Remain voters, who are equally entitled to a properly led and managed Brexit process, get one.

That’s because some businesses are not properly led and managed. Their leaders don’t know what they don’t know about leadership and safe decision-making.

It’s also because some wealthy business leaders will be insulated from the negative impact of a poorly led and managed Brexit. They don’t have to care.

But chiefly it’s because of our willingness to tolerate Executive Chairs, whether they hold that title formally, or not.

Instead of acting as the equivalent of a CEO of an Executive Committee or Operating Board reporting to Parliament, which is the equivalent of a main board, Mrs May has attempted, sometimes successfully, to convert the Cabinet into the main board acting as its Executive Chair.

Mr Blair was heavily criticised in The Chilcot Report for using a similar tactic – the “sofa” approach – during the Iraq crisis. If the current crisis turns into a similar catastrophe, Mrs May too should expect an enquiry into her behavior.

Few would contest that the vote was a vote on Mrs May’s deal and not one on her Cabinet’s deal and, manifestly, not a vote on a deal negotiated over time with Parliament.

No organisation can make good decisions, sustainably, through the force of the personality of one person, no matter how hard working or well intentioned. Mrs Thatcher learned that lesson to her tearful cost.

Nor should they be permitted to do so when stakeholders needs are at severe risk.

But few will be surprised or unfamiliar by and with this behaviour. Many readers will sit on boards where the Non-Executive Chair is anything but a non-executive or, in flagrant breach of good governance, holds formally the title of Executive Chair.

Furthermore, readers will know of many CEOs who act as Executive Chairs in the presence of weak but formally appointed Non-Exec Chairs surrounded by equally weak and supine non-executive directors.

The upshot is that in business and in politics we continue to ignore good corporate governance. This leads to poor decision-making and dangerous decisions.

Whether you voted Leave or Remain you can’t deny that the decision-making process over the last two years was deeply flawed. The outcome, consequently, is dangerous for all stakeholders.

So, are you currently tolerating an Executive Chair on your board, or a Non-Exec Chair behaving as one?

If yes, vote them off.

And if not now, when?


“Trust me”: two words PMs and CEOs should never have to say

Mrs May today is saying in a speech that unless MPs support her Brexit deal that the outcome will not only be catastrophic, but undemocratic.

She may or may not be right about the former but the latter is open to challenge.

The danger is that she appears to have fallen into the behaviour trap, like many CEOs, who say “trust me on this” as a statement and not, as it should be framed, as a question: please, will you trust me on this?

I don’t hear any “please” in her voice as many directors who don’t hear a “please” in the voices of their CEOs who say “trust me” when they really mean: JFDI!

The problem is that JFDI doesn’t work with adults. It barely works with children. It certainly didn’t work with mine, whenever I tried it on.

The fact is that leaders have to earn trust. And when, in times of crisis, they need people to follow them and trust their judgement that trust will, almost invariably, be present.

But it takes time to build that trust. And it must be tried and tested through several experiences where those who are led feel a) that they are always heard b) there is a negotiated shared purpose c) there is an unshakeable confidence that the needs of those who are being led will not be trampled upon.

Once, a client of mine, a senior business executive, who had been an officer in The Royal Marines explained that during his training his troop called him “Sir” for many months until one day they called him “Boss”.

Why are you calling boss today, he asked.

Because only today do we trust that if you send us into harm’s way, we believe that you know what you’re doing and you will take care of us as best you can.

So whether you are Mrs May, a CEO or military leader, don’t say “trust me”. Don’t say anything. Just lead well and they’ll follow.