Lessons CEOs could learn from my mother, aged 90 today

My Mum is 90 today. She was born on September 22nd 1930. The Irish Times that day reported widespread gales, a tramcar accident in Dublin and the activities of a man called Hitler.

Mum was nine at the outbreak of World War II, a teenager at a boarding school in the forties, married in the early fifties and had seven children by the early sixties of which I was the sixth. 

She ran two small businesses in her lifetime. Her husband, our father, died over 34 years ago. Her daughter, our sister, died aged 57. She lived a full life against a backdrop of global and local socio-economic change the pace of which was unprecedented.

As soon as I came of age, and over the years since, I noticed one consistent pattern in her behaviour:

“Mind-ful-ness”

On one telephone call during the depths of lockdown, which she endured alone, I asked Mum how she was coping. I use “mind-ful-ness”, she said. Where did you hear about mindfulness, Mum, I asked. On the radio she said, “But I realise I’ve been using mind-ful-ness all my life.” She mouths the word as if it’s a made-up word. 

How do you do mindfulness, Mum, I asked. “Well, I concentrate completely on what I’m doing at the time I’m doing it.” she said, matter-of-factly. 

She has a wise saying for every situation and which saying she repeats as if spoken for the first time. Her mindfulness wise saying is this:

 “There’s only now and now is all there is”. 

I have read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle umpteen times and still struggle with “staying in the now”. Not so with Mum. It’s as if she were born with a “now” setting as standard. 

This habit extends into how she lives the minutiae of her life. She never puts anything down; she puts it away. She rarely, if ever, procrastinates. For example, she would preach to us the importance of writing thank-you notes immediately. “Get out your pen” she would say ” and write that thank you letter today”. 

I have a memory of her balancing her cheque book using, as was done back in the day, her cheque book stubs and not on an app, but with her Sheafer fountain pen, which like all her possessions – were few but of the highest quality and which she minded carefully. 

She always knew where she stood with money; she understood the importance of cash flow management in her businesses and how difficult it can be in hard times to manage those cashflows. She was very supportive of me in my business. I enjoyed our conversations about business because she knew what’s it’s like to juggle the peaks and troughs.

But her mindfulness is not just about the serious aspects of life. She loves life and at 90 is in great health and sharp as a tack. She is up to date on all matters political; loves music and can quote poetry and Shakespeare at length. If you say for example “To be or not to be, that is the question” she will quote the full speech, whether you want to hear it or not. 

Her favourite poem is The Old Woman of the Roads by Padraig Colum with its evocative lines and cadences “O! To have a little house…/To have a clock with weights and chains…/I could be quiet there at night…/Beside the fire…/And loth to leave/the ticking cock and shining delph…”.

On The Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady is her favourite song and she and Dad could dance to Strictly Come Dancing standards at a time when everyone could dance at that level.

“Funerals…” she would say, and after a long pause to check out if you were listening, and in a tone that suggested this was the first time she uttered those words, instead of the millionth, “…are for the living.” She’s not wrong.

“Neither a lender nor a borrower be”, she would say, endlessly. Enough said. 

But there is one saying that will always stick in my mind and which almost goes against the mores of her time when people didn’t necessarily speak openly about their emotions – the word love was not as ubiquitous as it is now – and it’s this:

“From the moment they open their eyes until the moment you close yours, you worry about them”. “Them” refers to her children.  

CEOs reading this, especially those with little knowledge of Irish history, might bear in mind that September 1930 was only nine years after Ireland became independent, the fight for which involved many women, and that Ireland isn’t even yet one hundred years a nation. It was against this background that she lived her 90 years. 

The development of the nascent Irish state in “getting up off its knees” relied heavily on the sacrifices of women like my mother and father to educate their children. Check out the boardrooms of many organisations in the UK and around the world today, and you will find many Irish men and women (less of the latter than should have been) whose characters were forged in the crucible of 60s & 70s Ireland. 

That’s not to say it was a time to be sentimentalised, nor am I saying my mother is a paragon of virtue different from the rest of us. Indeed there were times in my teens and twenties when I struggled to forgive her for not being perfect.

But I changed my tune when I had two children of my own to help raise – not seven. It ain’t easy. They don’t come with instructions. When I’m ninety, I hope mine are kind and forgiving of me. 

  • So, CEOs, there’s only now and now is all there is. What will you do with your now?

Mum – Happy 90th! You did your best, in “the now”. What more can one ask?

Lots of love,

Ciarán

“UK Plc” needs a facilitated virtual off-site, fast: my fantasy pitch

Imagine if the UK were a Plc and the Prime Minister its Group CEO then I would, this week, be pitching to him my facilitated virtual off-site program, which I piloted successfully during lockdown with a financial services client:

Dear Prime Minister,

UK Plc currently lacks a shared purpose (P), a shared strategy (S) to achieve that purpose and an agreed behaviour (B) plan to implement its strategy – a PSB, if you like an acronym.

This means that, even with your large majority, your administration is likely to end in tears in Downing Street as so many have done before you.

The difference this time is that not only do you risk failure on an unprecedented scale but in becoming the worst UK Plc Group CEO of all time because COVID-19 raises the bar considerably on how history will judge your legacy.

My virtual off-site program could help you avoid this disastrous outcome for UK Plc.

Back in the day I would have proposed that you spend two or three days in a country house hotel. You are spoilt for choice. Those I know include The Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Brooklands near London, The Celtic Manor in Newport and any number in Scotland.

But given COVID I wouldn’t, if I were you, risk a physical get together. Look what happened in Clifden last week? An EU Commissioner lost his job. Your off-site must make things better, not worse.

An off-site is designed for organisations “at a point of inflection” which is management speak for a dangerous crossroads. This week you are at a dangerous crossroads for what may seem like a not so obvious reason: the fuss about The Withdrawal Agreement has damaged you and your administration more than any other recent action because it means you have lost a type of trust you may not regain: trust that you will not knowingly risk peace. Knowingly is the key word.

You have created the impression that you will undermine peace, whether you intended to do so or not, and if you are willing to risk that impression your entire governance structure won’t be trusted at home or abroad as the backlash has demonstrated – particularly from the USA with which country you want to agree a trade deal in the fullness of time.

Your problem is, like all COVID-19 CEOs, that you need discretionary support from people at home and abroad at a time of pandemic. If you don’t garner that support your administration will struggle, despite your majority.  You now need to get everyone together and undo the damage by agreeing on a shared PSB for UK Plc over the next three crucial years.

Step 1 Agree your off-site participant list

Were you a Group Plc CEO I would propose three people from your main board and three from each of your “business units” – the four nations. Of course you have the tricky issue that England isn’t run like the other three nations (potentially part of your problem) so I propose you choose three mayors as a proxy – say Mr Burnham, Mr Khan and one other, perhaps? That would mean a participant group of 15 – a manageable off-site number.

Step 2 1-1 Zooms

Next I would conduct 15 x 90 minute 1-1 Zooms with each participant to establish their personal purpose, their personal strategy and their personal behaviour plan to achieve their purpose, on a strictly confidential basis.

Why does personal PSB matter? It matters because organisational psychology tells us that organisational purpose and personal purpose are interdependent. The success of your administration and of UK Plc is dependent on these (say) 15 unique personalities with their personal motivations, leadership approach and behaviour especially in how they behave with each other under stress.

The 1-1 Zooms are to help me facilitate the plenary sessions more adroitly and help me prepare each of the 15 to better contribute to those plenary sessions.

Step 3 Plenary sessions and follow up

Having completed the 1-1s I would facilitate as many 90 minute plenary sessions necessary to agree language on a shared purpose, strategy and behaviour plan (PSB) for UK Plc over the next few years.

Between each plenary session I would have further 1-1s with each participant and in addition I would use other technologies like Slido, What’s App and Slack to support productive interaction and mimic as far as possible over four or five weeks online what happens over two or three days offline. That said, it’s impossible to mimic what happens in the hotel bar.

There is little difference, I suspect, based on my experience of facilitating off-sites over many years, in the behaviour, conflicts and differences of opinion between members of boards and between politicians.

While I won’t be holding my breath waiting to hear your response in the unlikely event of your seeing this fantasy pitch, I’m convinced that unless you change your behaviour and that of your administration now in how it engages with the exhausting but essential process of agreeing a shared purpose for the UK at a time of pandemic then you, like all CEOs who avoid that type of pain, will come to deeply regret that failure but not half as much as those affected by it.

But, I dream on.

Ciaran Fenton