There are critical moments in meetings, like that one in 1921…

Yesterday, The Irish Times published a supplement – 1921 Truce And Treaty – on the events in 1921 that led to partition in Ireland, shaping its history for a century.

The centenary stirs deep feelings on all sides.

The centenary supplement includes a description of the meeting in London on December 6th 1921, at which 12 men – for they were all men – signed The Anglo-Irish Treaty.

That moment when all 12 had signed the document was the issue’s critical moment. The moments before or after the Treaty’s signing, momentous as some of those were, do not compare with that moment.

I am fascinated by critical moments in crucial meetings in history, politics, business and personal lives.

My fascination is not about counterfactual exploration but the behaviour of decision-makers. The quality of the process is vital.

Why, exactly, did Dev stay in Dublin? Not, what if he hadn’t.

Why, when the delegation returned to Dublin to a meeting to discuss the draft treaty, was that meeting such a shambles? Not what if it had been otherwise.

And why did Lloyd George threaten immediate war if the delegation didn’t sign the Treaty that day when he must have known that the signing could have been delayed? Not what if he hadn’t.

We all find ourselves in or as witnesses to these critical moments, even if they are not on this epic scale.

But all critical moments share degrees of joy or horror.

Hearing they’re all “being made redundant” is a critical moment of horror for a workforce caught up in a “downsizing”.

The moment the board decides to downsize is a critical moment for it. For some board members, the decision will have been easy if not joyful. For others, it’s torture.

But what of the quality of that decision? Were all the pros and cons available to all and on time? Was the decision driven through or adequately debated? Was there even a vote, or did the chair declare, “It looks like we’re all agreed then. Next item.”

Or worse, was the decision-making process fudged whereby the precise views of every director remains unclear. “A decision was made, but I was against it, actually”

Loyd George, Chamberlain (Austen), Lord Birkenhead, Churchill, Worthington-Evans, Greenwood, and Hewart signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty for the British side.

Griffith, Collins, Barton, Duggan, Gavan Duffy signed for the Irish side.

The personalities of these 12 men informed their behaviour during the negotiation and ultimately their decision to sign the Treaty. Their formative years shaped their characters.

Character defines how you behave in critical moments in a decision-making process.

Behaviour and decision-making processes at critical moments matter, one way or another.

Ciarán Fenton

Lunches are back, and so is my newsletter…

First post-lockdown lunch…

Best Meal

Embarrassingly, feedback from my regular newsletter readers over the years revealed that their favorite section was not, as I had hoped, my insightful analysis of boards, leadership and ESG issues but my Best Meal section.

One reader declared “I never read your other stuff…I just go straight to the bottom of your newsletter to your Best Meal”.

So, I moved it to the top.

It was pointless, therefore, publishing my newsletter during lockdown.

Now that restrictions on lunches have eased…

My best meal recently was at the Castle Hume Golf Club – a Nick Faldo course and location for the 2013 G8 Summit – at The Lough Erne Resort near Enniskillen.

I wasn’t there to play golf nor to look at the great G8 pictures in the bar.

No, I went there with my newspaper and with unseemly haste for my first post-lockdown lunch. There’s a balcony with an elegant corner table overlooking the final tee. Not that I was in the least interested in what was happening on the final tee.

I ordered a pint of Guinness – asked them to set up another – and a large bowl of chips with sachets of ketchup galore.

Purists may argue this does not qualify as a meal. They are wrong. Experts rightly claim: “there’s eating and drinking in Guinness”. There is.

I had a great time.

Once, this would have been an unremarkable event. Now it was a special occasion. After months of lockdown the Guinness tasted like nectar. T’was properly “pulled”. The chips were like chips should be. Fluffy inside. Crisp outside. Hot. The sachets of ketchup were faultless save that the opening nick was missing on the sides. So I tore these open with my teeth but in such a rush that I must have looked like yer man from Revenant. The service was friendly, indulgent and frictionless. What was not to like?

Books

These stand-out:

  • Wounds by BBC War Correspondent Fergal Keane is a must read if you know nothing about what happened in Ireland between 1918 and 1922 and want to understand some of the root causes of the Troubles. And if you do but haven’t read it, read it. These events took place not far from where I was born and raised but I was unaware of the fine detail. The fine detail is grim but important.
  • I’m fascinated by the USA’s presidents, especially the link between their formative years and their conduct in office. So far I have read, or listened to, books on Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Eisenhower, Obama and, currently, FDR: No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin which is excellent – not least because of the detail on his early years’ influences. Robert Caro’s Passage of Power on LBJ is brilliant especially his first hundred hours in office.
  • I don’t read much fiction but enjoyed Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.

Music

Cooking

  • Many years ago a lawyer friend gave me a recipe for anchoïade which I have since deconstructed, reconstructed and, if I say to myself, have brought to an entirely new level. Like life, it’s all about balance: between the black olives, garlic, anchovies.
  • I learned how to make a Portuguese soup using chorizo and cabbage and stock which is great.
  • I ruined umpteen tea towels during lockdown. In mitigation, I tell my wife, that when cooking I feel like a conductor of an orchestra and get a bit carried away, mistaking the oven glove for a tea towel. For some reason this genuine explanation causes her to roll her eyes.

Work

  • During lockdown I managed, by Zoom, to deliver – inter alia – a programme in the USA to a GC and their team on reframing the relationship between their law department and “the business”…
  • …facilitated the board of a family business to improve decision-making by putting Propose/Debate/Vote at the heart of their governance and by reframing their relationship with their NEDs and Family…
  • …supported the CEO of a regulator and their management team in their purpose, strategy and behaviour…
  • …helped an entrepreneur launch a new consultancy …
  • …facilitated several senior leaders launch portfolio careers…
  • …pioneered an online “off-site” for a law department over six weeks using Zoom, What’s App & Slack instead of three days in a country house hotel…
  • …helped several leaders manage their First 100 Days in a new role and helped one secure a senior role…
  • ….supported a CEO through tricky COVID related decisions…
  • ….took part in a live online mock boardroom crisis in which I advised “the chair”: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ciaranfenton_anatomy-of-a-boardroom-dispute-a-live-mock-activity-6796399299228921856–Pcg
  • developed a programme to help boards change their decision-making processes and behaviour in the light of ESG which is no fad and here to stay.

Looking forward to loads of lunches.

There are only so many left.

Ciarán Fenton

The New Board Game Blog 5: Propose/Debate/Vote – back in fashion

The New Board Game

How to adapt, behave and relate in the post-pandemic boardroom

Blog 5: Propose/Debate/Vote – back in fashion

  • Time was, on the best boards:
    • board meetings focused on motions which were proposed and seconded
    • debated
    • voted on
    • if you lost your vote, you backed the board’s decision, or you resigned
  • Now, frequently:
    • the board’s agenda is tightly controlled, usually by the CEO
    • motions are not encouraged
    • open debate is as rare a hen’s teeth
    • votes are even rarer
  • Worse:
    • if you challenge “you are not a team player”
    • votes are viewed as a sign of distrust: “if we’re on the one team, why vote?”
    • one-person-one-vote rules are ignored
    • dysfunctional relationships flourish because there’s no process to manage differences
  • But, post-pandemic
    • directors will come under a harsher conduct spotlight
    • they will want to demonstrate that they exercised their rights and performed their duty
    • proposing motions will help them demonstrate their intent
    • winning motions will become their unofficial metric
    • they will want to record their dissent if they don’t resign
    • and watch out for more resignations than in pre-pandemic times
  • Why?
    • because society’s pandemic loans/bailouts come at a cost
    • that cost is that there’s no going back to the old ways
    • you can’t take taxpayers money with one hand and dismiss it by ignoring ESG-based decision-making with the other – until now, that injustice was ignored as “that’s just business”
    • so, when your board experiences a serious risk event that causes societal detriment, your directors will want to show that they tried, much more than previously, because society will demand justice, stridently

Ciarán Fenton