Back to work: how to lead scared, tired and remote teams by ditching human capital principles

Last week a client told me that people desperately need support returning to work.

They usually use the summer to refresh, she said, but were instead preparing kids for school/university which will be entirely new and different experiences; deciding to home-school or not; parents of children with special needs are especially struggling; there’s a constant anxiety about job losses or loss of colleagues; young people starting careers need help, she said. The list is endless.

That stress is exacerbated when people at work are in distributed teams where there is little opportunity to seek or find support. Leaders have to lead across back to back virtual meetings at a time of constant anxiety.

Journalist Fintan O’Toole captures this fear accurately: “Danger” he writes, “has made us more awake to the world around us than we have needed to be for generations”.

My client says that “We all need to make sure to be kind and generous as much as we can to everyone else and also to ourselves. It’s about micro-goals right now”, she added.

Hers is good advice, especially the part about being kind to yourself. Do you know how?

The overriding concern of leaders now is how to get done what needs to get done over the next three or four months, which will be “make or break”, for many.

I propose three steps:

Step 1: Reflect

Get everyone together as soon as possible and announce to them a three-stage process.

The first step is an opporutnity to reflect on what has happened; what the pandemic has meant for them as individuals in their private lives during lockdown, as members of society and as members of an organisation/function. Listen to their stories. Tell your own, allowing your vulnerability to show too. Don’t rush it.

In the coming weeks, there will be a pent up demand to share lockdown experiences, fears and hopes. You will not get this opportunity to regroup again. Everyone should get a chance to speak and don’t move on to the next step until everyone has done so.

If you can’t engage a facilitator, facilitate it yourself.

Step 2: Reframe

Next, lead a discussion on how your pre-COVID purpose, strategy and behaviour (PSB as I call it) should change. It would be odd if it shouldn’t.

Is your purpose still to maximise shareholder returns? What about pandemic related environment, society and governance (ESG) issues? Did you take government bailouts? Do you not owe more to society now? How has the virus affected your customers, suppliers and employees? How have their needs changed?

Having reframed your purpose, you must change your strategy to achieve that purpose. How will you express that new strategy? Make sure you make strategy a shared decision if you want to retain the discretionary effort of your teams. No amount of money, or threat of losing it, can buy discretionary effort. Only strong leaders attract it. While your organisation may survive for a while with threats of job losses it won’t sustain because you won’t get the creativity and innovation you absolutely need to get through the pandemic.

Step 3: Relaunch

Finally agree small behaviour change contracts with each other focused on achieving short-term “micro-goals”, as my client calls them, in the service of implementing your new shared strategy to achieve your reframed shared purpose.

By behaviour contracts, I mean explicit soft deals with each other in terms of day-to-day process, making sure that you legislate for the breach of those soft contracts since people are human and will make mistakes. You must agree in advance how mistakes can be called out without fear.

To take these three steps, you need to ditch, once and for all, outdated and wholly useless management principles:

Human capital: it doesn’t exist, never did. If it did accountants would have found a way to put it on balance sheets. Try as they might they haven’t succeeded because it’s impossible to own people except in slavery. And that’s illegal. If you approach the pandemic using human capital asset management principles you will fail because you will lose the respect of people at a time when you need that respect most


Human Resources Directors: while human resources technically exist, no one sees themselves as a human resource, least of all you. If anything, you are the HR Director. This is easy to address. Simply, change your HRD’s title to Chief of Staff and ask them to help you lead instead of abrogating your responsibility for people in your organisation to them


Top-down decisions: if you don’t ditch command and control decision-making processes your risks during the pandemic will multiply, and you will miss opportunities because you won’t hear what you need to hear especially if you make poor decisions which will mark you out, forever, as a bad COVID leader. Make sure you appoint a Devil’s Advocate for all key decisions. Also ensure that your General Counsel reports to the Board, not to you. This will protect you and your organisation and may even save you from prison.

In summary, a good COVID CEO will:

⁃ create an environment in which people thrive as individuals with their unique coping mechanisms
⁃ ensure the longterm survival and growth of their organisation or function
⁃ honour all stakeholders: shareholders, the environment, & society

They will also be kind to themselves and others.

What more can they do?

Ciarán Fenton

The pandemic: will it make you, break you or set you free?

How are things? Are you having a good pandemic, “actually”? Was lockdown “great, in a way”? Did you get in touch with your inner sourdough, learn your kids’ names and zoom “back-to-back”?

Is your business “hugely” benefiting from the pandemic, “as it happens”? Sales up, like, who knew? Is “managing growth” your main problem, “frankly”?

Or are you waking each day feeling sick about “Q4”? Have you stopped “furloughing” and started exiting “your people”? Are sales down, “massively”?

Have you had a break, yet? Away from your screens, room, and routine? Have you had a chance to think? Or, better still, feel? You do not live, most likely, in a one-bedroom flat in a high rise with several children. You can afford to philosophise. I encourage you to use that privilege.

I turned sixty during the pandemic. I felt a deep sense of loss for months before this milestone, exacerbated I suspect by the dystopian background of the virus with its promise of a horrible death if you break the rules or if you’re unlucky.

The feeling of loss was specific: I had traumatic school years. I was mourning my miserable adolescence; outraged that time had sped by so quickly; my head still, in part, stuck in the past. I became pathetically obsessed with Normal People, desperate to switch places with Connell Waldron.

I also felt panic. The dawning and the sickening realisation that I had stretched myself over my working life without questioning for a moment that the lifestyle I was creating for myself and my family was an option, not mandatory. We could have lived in a smaller house, spent less, and lived life more fully.

My business has just about survived COVID-19, so far, but like all “one-person-band” consultants, I am fearful of the future and working hard to anticipate clients’ changing needs and to meet them.

Your life story will be different from mine and even if you are having “a great COVID” we are all in the same boat in that sooner, or later we are all going to die of a virus, illness or natural causes. That much we share.

We also share a responsibility – if we choose to accept it – to ourselves and to those around us to be what we can be, not because that sounds preachy and therefore must be right, but because only that way can our lives and organisations become sustainable and meaningful.

But what can we be at a time of pandemic? What can you as a CEO, leader, or board member do differently not just to survive but to thrive at a time when mere survival would do? What’s the point of high-falutin’ stuff about “being” given that we have tumbled to the bottom of Maslow’s famous triangle? You can’t eat wisdom.

Whether, to a greater or lesser extent, COVID-19 makes you or breaks you and/or your organisation there is a third possibility: the potential for the experience to set you and/or your organisation “free”.

Eckhardt Tolle in The Power of Now writes:

“So whenever any kind of disaster strikes…know that there is another side to it, that you are just one step away from something incredible…That one step is surrender”.

I and others struggle with the notion of “surrender”. Either it feels like giving in when one should “fight” or, when surrender means acceptance, that acceptance seems impossible.

Tolle continues:

“When your pain is deep, all talk of surrender will probably seem futile…But there is no escape…When there is no way out, there is always a way through…Give all your attention to the feeling, not to the person, event or situation that caused it…Since it is impossible to get away from the feeling the only possibility of change is to move into it; otherwise nothing will shift…Nonresistance doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing. all it means is that “doing” becomes nonreactive…don’t resist the opponent’s force. Yield to overcome”.

So stop talking about COVID-19. Instead, talk about what you feel about it. “Feel it fully. Feel it – don’t think about it”. According to Tolle, if you do, your actions will come from a different place. A place, not from conditioned responses but from an acceptance of the present. Ask any soldier with battle experience. They’ll tell you about “living in the now”. Sure as hell.

I struggle with applying Tolle, but when I do it works. When I pass his and the ideas of other writers to clients, they too find that something shifts for them.

My 60th. Birthday came and went. It tuned out to be a great day. The angst that proceeded it dissolved as I realised that nothing had changed since the day before. I accept my losses in youth – my wife reminded me that Normal People is a but a TV programme – I accept the feelings around my mistakes in staying on a career high-wire act for far too long, and I accept my fear about what will happen next in my business over “Q4” and beyond during COVID-19.

Moreover, in the course of my birthday celebrations, I found that I am capable of being loved, loving and lovable.

Just like you. What’s not to like?

Ciarán Fenton

John Hume: the ultimate “change manager”

The many tributes to John Hume’s life in all media over the last week all confirm that he achieved what many CEOs talk about in terms of toe-curling tautology but rarely deliver: “transformational change”. It’s as if, as Sandy Toksvig once quipped, “there’s no change in ordinary change”.

I became aware of John Hume in 1972. I was 12, in bed with a cold. I could hear next door the sound of the RTE news which my Dad was watching. The sounds were of The Troubles. Something terrible had happened. That was clear.

The sounds of The Troubles became part of the soundtrack to my teenage years along with the Hits of the 70s: American Pie, Piano Man, Born to Run and the voice of John Hume on the news: quite, slow but most of all, repetitive.

Slow and repetitive as the refrain in any pop song like U2’s “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” which remains in the brain like an earworm. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, U2’s Bono famously brought John Hume and David Trimble together at a campaign concert in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast to support the 1998 Good Friday Agreement Referendum.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was transformational. It transformed a war to peace, despair to hope, economic stasis to growth. Few peace processes in the world have been as successful. That’s why John Hume and David Trimble received joint Nobel Peace Prizes, why other nations study peacekeeping processes in Northern Ireland and why there was no way that the Brexit negotiations could be allowed to “untransform” what they had transformed.

While many people in London, Dublin, Belfast and Washington were involved in that process, few doubt that John Hume, the man from Derry or Londonderry was integral to that process. So, what can CEOs learn from John Hume about “change management”? There are many, but my top three are these:

First, he focused on creating an environment in which people could agree on a language of shared purpose: non-violence, consent, equality of belief. These became the Hume Principles. What are yours?

Second, he repeated these principles slowly, quietly, and endlessly. His beliefs stood the test of repetition. Can yours?

Third, he sought tirelessly to engage with everyone he could on all sides of the debate – and sometimes in doing so, he attracted ferocious criticism and danger – to bring them around to the benefits of a shared purpose. Could you seek agreement on a shared purpose, especially with those who disagree with you? What’s stopping you?

They say that you should never meet your heroes. I met John Hume, through luck rather than any personal achievement, at The World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 90s. I was then a young Commerical Director at Financial Times Television, then part of Pearson Plc. FTTV had a relationship with the WEF. We covered all the summits around the world. I got to tag along.

I found myself at lunch with John Hume, his wife Pat, Michael Portillo and others. By now John Hume had become an icon of my time, up there with Phil Lynott. I had not been keen on Michael Portillo. But at lunch, I felt deeply conflicted as Mr Portillo turned out to be magnetically charming and John Hume decidedly grumpy. I felt a bit disappointed.

No wonder he was a bit grumpy. It was a tense time – a time when the prospect of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley becoming friends let alone “the chuckle brothers” would have been risible. Most of the Northern Ireland leaders from all sides were in Davos, including David Trimble. There was a lot a stake then. It’s hard to talk about “transformational change” when people are not even talking to each other.

Later that afternoon, I saw John Hume from afar speaking intently on his phone. He seemed to me to be someone burdened but quietly resolute. Unshakeably.

The Northern Ireland peace process may seem wholly disconnected and irrelevant from your world as a CEO and to your board. But in my boardroom practice, I have witnessed precisely the same conduct as on display in The Troubles: anger, hate, violence – psychological, if not physical.

Behaviour over time is the definition of conduct. Perhaps, therefore, John Hume’s legacy is not just his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland but as a model to all leaders of how to conduct a change process, over time.

John Hume, peacemaker and ultimate “change manager”.

Requiescat in pace.

Ciarán Fenton