Should board behaviour evaluations under FRC/QCA/Wates be substantially oral, not written?

In an ideal world boards should focus on fixing the matters arising from their board evaluations. They don’t because the purpose of board evaluations of many boards, despite pleas by regulators, is to tick boxes for annual reports and/or to use them as sticks to beat colleagues.

Even organisations who pride themselves on carrying out rigorous board evaluations including on behaviour issues can miss important systemic weaknesses because of the key limitation of written board evaluations: fear of writing down, for example, the belief by most directors that the CEO, CXO or Chair is a narcissistic bully who brooks no challenge. Delete as appropriate.

The collapse of Carillion is a chilling example of the limitations of written evaluations. Its annual report in 2016 noted that its board evaluation had “confirmed that the board, each of its committees and directors continue to be highly effective’.

I suspect there were were no boxes to tick on “recklessness, hubris & greed” in its (Carillon’s) board evaluation questionnaire because that’s precisely how the behaviour of the directors was described in the subsequent joint select committee inquiry.

To be fair to the Carillon evaluators they were and are not alone in struggling to cope with a UK governance structure which, despite widely acknowledged improvements in the FRC, QCA and Wates codes, nevertheless has failed to deal with the box ticking problem. Simply asking boards not to approach evaluations in that manner will not lead to compliance.

Which Chair will sign off an annual report which includes a statement from the board evaluation that they have low emotional intelligence, talk over colleagues at meetings, and don’t read the board papers?

Since boards will continue to publish broadly self congratulatory board evaluation statements where required to publish them and often ignore behaviour matters arising in confidential internal written board evaluations I propose they should, alongside current box ticking, use facilitated oral workshops to address behaviour issues if they are serious about improving board performance.

All but the most pathological Chairs and CEOs genuinely care about improvement in board performance especially at a time of pandemic and at a time when society, investors and customers are hyper alert to ESG defaults.

I propose three steps:

Step 1:

1-1 oral interviews with each director on board behaviour issues. No notes.

Step 2:

Facilitated oral plenary sessions of the board where key concerns on each other’s behaviour are aired and mediated. No notes.

Step 3:

As many 1-1 and plenary sessions as required to facilitate new ‘behaviour contracts’ between colleagues with due regard to legislating for the breach of these. No notes.

I have facilitated these steps and they work.

I agree that they won’t work with personalities “not for turning”. But in that case the board is already broken anyway and failure or a major “risk event” is only a matter of time.

Surely the pain of confronting the truth in private is worth it in the service of personal and shared purpose and that of society?

Ciaran Fenton

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:


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,


“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

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

Why “COVID-19 CEOs” should act on Paul Gilbert’s blog of yesterday, today

Yesterday, Paul Gilbert, CEO LBCWisecounsel, UK’s doyen of commentary and advice to and on in-house lawyers wrote an important blog which, I suspect will have been read by many lawyers but not so many “COVID-19 CEOs” – that is CEOs waking up this morning faced with the task of leading their organisations through an unprecedented global pandemic. 

Paul’s blog concerned a conversation he had last Friday “with a lawyer who told him such a gruelling story that I have not thought of anything else since.”

The lawyer spoke of “his loneliness when first fighting for what was right, but then resigning from a company in which he had discovered systemic fraud.”

So, another day another story of a in-house lawyer brutally forced out by “the business”. So what? Everyone knows this occurrence is commonplace, nay, “business as usual”. 

The “so what” for CEOs is Paul Gilbert’s analysis of the story:

“I will be writing to him this weekend to offer all the support I can. He is a lawyer of exceptional courage. A hero. He played his part flawlessly, made his contribution and he was not found wanting, but he has lost his job and feels alone. The company that employed him may write a different story and probably will. It will be a kind of history too, but not the truth. It is also possible that the lawyer’s story may never be written. His story may not inform a wider world. His story may be lost in time, but it is the truth and it will live with me forever.”

This reflection and the reaction to it on social media yesterday is noteworthy on three levels:

  • first that the pain this lawyer – and his family – has suffered will have been awake-at-night and off the scale and is commonplace
  • second the grim acknowledgement and acceptance that “his story may be lost in time”
  • and third the reaction on social media: hugely sympathetic to the lawyer but resigned to the reality of their plight. They’re probably right about that.

So, CEOs, this story may well be unfolding in your organisation this week. Indeed you may well be a CEO about to “shaft” a hapless lawyer. 

If you are, then don’t do it, if only from a perspective of self-preservation. 

It’s as mad as cutting the brake cable in your own car. And to remove a lawyer of honour during a pandemic is the organisational equivalent of taking off your mask on the Underground and snogging the nearest random passenger. 

You need your “hang-on-a-minute” lawyers, now more than ever. 

But if, as I suspect, you are amongst the majority of CEOs who haven’t a clue what all the fuss is about and are blissfully unaware that lawyers in-house and out, businesses and regulators have slept-walked for the last 30 years, and particularly since the 2008 Global Financial Crash, through a small but growing clamour for regulatory change in the context in which in-house lawyers operate, then listen up: you are sitting on a time bomb. Why?

The day will come when you will be lying awake at night trembling in fear, like this lawyer was, as you deal with a catastrophic “risk event” in your business, on your watch most likely accelerated by the pressures of pandemic and filled with deep regret that you didn’t create an independent environment in which your in-house lawyers could thrive and do their jobs. It will be too late.

Paul Gilbert gives you clear guidance on this:

“The frame we are given as lawyers by our ethical code is an extraordinary gift that empowers influence. It requires that I must act in a way that upholds the constitutional principle of the rule of law, and the proper administration of justice. I must act in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession and in the legal services I provide. That I will act with independence, with honesty, with integrity, in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion, and always in the best interests of each client.”

You can read his blog here:

But don’t just read it. Act on it, today.

Tick, tock.

Ciarán Fenton

What can CEOs learn from Sir Keir Starmer’s first 100 days, and vice versa?

Sir Keir Starmer recently completed his first hundred days as Leader of the Opposition in the UK’s Parliament. Commentators have assessed these according to their political bias.

But none disagree on his chief achievement: his “forensic” approach to “calling out” the government on its behaviour.

CEOs can learn much from his approach. Keir Starmer is a barrister and, as Nigel Pascoe QC explained in BarriserBlog (2013), there are four rules in cross-examining a witness:

“Firstly, put your…case as shortly, clearly and concisely as possible and then leave it…you should try to keep control of the witness whom you are cross-examining. By that, I mean that as the questioner, you should be in the driving seat and by the precision of your questions, keep the witness confined to your chosen territory…the second golden rule, expressed in the truism that the art of cross-examination is not the art of examining crossly…The third rule, perhaps underpinning all the others, is that you must prepare your cross-examination meticulously. You need to think, so far as you can anticipate it, of the worst answer that the witness might give and how you are going to follow up their answer…The fourth rule is probably the best known. Never ask a question, it is said, to which you do not know the answer already. Now I would qualify that rule…Never ask a question unless you have a very good idea of what the answer is likely to be. In other words, there are times when you may feel that you can take a calculated risk…Beyond those four rules, there is one indefinable matter which is very difficult to explain and which you will only appreciate after you have been cross-examining for a while – something in the air that you detect and can use. Sometimes you will sense a line of cross-examination that you had not planned at all. And pursuing it carefully, suddenly the atmosphere changes in court…”

CEOs will achieve more productive outcomes if they follow these rules, at least directionally, when in “cross-examining mode” at board meetings, 1-1s and at the end of internal or external presentations and pitches.

Some barristers take delight in “shredding” witnesses as some CEOs do their direct reports, suppliers and staff. This approach may lead to winning in court but rarely leads to a long term win in organisations. 

While Sir Keir Starmer has deployed these rules to productive effect over his first 100 days he could learn some tricks from those CEOs who are effective and emotionally intelligent. 

In the unlikely event of him asking me for my advice for his next 100 days, I would suggest three things:

  • Make your top people look good. 
    • The job of a leader is to create an environment in which the people they lead can thrive. The Leader of the Opposition leads their MPs, and especially their front bench, no one else. While everyone is obsessed with how Sir Keir might “lead the country” if he became Prime Minister, they must know that even prime ministers don’t lead the country. They too are paid to lead their MPs and especially their Cabinet. The mistake prime ministers and leaders of the opposition make is that they don’t spend enough time promoting their top team and listening to their backbenchers. Mrs Thatcher lost power because of that error. Most PMs do. The best CEOs avoid that trap.
  • Help us understand “Starmerism”
    • As yet it’s not clear what Sir Keir cares deeply about i.e. his purpose. He must fix this soon, or he risks becoming a “one-trick-pony”. People will soon tire of the word “forensic” and realise that he should not be praised for just doing his job: calling out the PM. They need more. What’s “the more?” Sir Keir? Tell us. CEOs have an “-ism” like politicians evidenced by the change in culture in organisations when CEOs with “strong” personalities are replaced by others with different personalities. Clever CEOs figure out their purpose and live it.
  • Please all of your stakeholders, not some
    • Sir Keir’s stakeholders are society, his MPs and voters. CEOs stakeholders are society, their people and shareholders. Each must balance these. Neither task is easy. But failure to do so leads to failure. 

Finally, CEOs currently share one other factor with Sir Keir: every CEO has recently completed their first 100 days as a “cum-COVID-19 CEO”. None could avoid it.

The pandemic is creating new challenges for leaders, not least a significant shift in stakeholder expectations. A reframed shared purpose, an appropriate strategy to achieve it and nothing short of a leadership relaunch are likely to work.

The problem for CEOs and Sir Keir is that these steps are painful. The good news is that the pain is worth it, for all.

Ciarán Fenton

Learn from Lincoln in a crisis: don’t send that email

During lockdown, I started reading – or more accurately listening on Scribd on my run – to David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln.

In Chapter 16, he describes Lincoln’s fury at General Meade’s failure to prevent General Lee’s escape into Virginia.

Frustration fuelled the President’s anger.

Modern CEOs and leaders will recognise these deeper feelings if they take time to pause, stay in the present moment mindfully, and to acknowledge that anger is a much shallower feeling than the deeper unheard inner screams of frustration.

Lincoln had much to scream about: after so many lost battles, the Union’s surprising triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 led him to believe that they could end the war if only General Meade were to “complete his work”. That’s the modern equivalent of JFDI.

However, General Meade didn’t “deliver”. Lee’s army escaped across the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland into Virginia. There was a Cabinet meeting that day. And were that a crisis board meeting in today’s terms it would be said that the atmosphere was tense, to put it mildly.

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s description of that meeting in Team of Rivals – one of several excellent books on the President – Lincoln’s face clearly revealed that he was “disturbed [and] disconcerted”. That’s 1860’s code for: he was massively pissed off.

“If I had gone up there, I could have whipped him myself”, he said. How many times do we hear CEOs exclaim: “Do I have to do it myself?”

Moreover, Lincoln was a President who understood the importance of clarity of purpose and how it drives strategy. He lamented, therefore that since the Union’s purpose was to defeat Lee it followed that chasing him across the river was not the right strategy.

After that Cabinet meeting, he wrote the equivalent of a stinking email to General Meade, described by Goodwin:

“While expressing his profound gratitude for “the magnificent success” at Gettysburg, he acknowledged that he was “distressed immeasurably” by “the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with other late successes, have ended the war.”

But he never sent the letter because, as Goodwin writes, “Lincoln held back, as he often did, when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle”.

That was a good decision for he later realised that since Genreral Meade had been in command for only four days before The Battle of Gettysburg and had experienced enormous losses there, he was exhausted and in a state of great “mental anxiety”.

Lincoln came to appreciate with the benefit of hindsight that he had asked too much of Meade. Had he sent the letter, the hero of Gettysburg would have been unfairly traduced.

So, emulate Lincoln in a crisis: don’t send that email.

Ciarán Fenton

CEOs: are you the biggest problem in managing this crisis?

“Leaders must recognise people’s grief and assist them in finding meaning,” writes David Kessler in the July-August 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review in an article titled “Helping Your Team Heal”.

By grief, he means “the loss of control, the radical change in how we were living, the anticipatory grief we felt as we imagined future job losses and possibly the death of loved ones”. He goes on to explain how leaders can use the five stages of grief, plus a sixth – meaning – to “take care of their workers”.

In the same HBR issue Kevin Sneader, the global managing partner at McKinsey, talks about choosing “candour over charisma”; Chuck Robbins, CEO at Cisco says that “…The culture of organisations, and their people, and how leaders show up during the moment – all of that will define who’s going to be successful in the future”.

Peter Scoblic, Principal, Event Horizon Strategies writes that “…at the very moment when the present least resembles the past, it makes little sense to look back in time for clues about the future”.

These insights are all helpful, especially Scoblic’s emphasis on “scenario planning…to anticipate possible futures while still operating in the present…to build a dynamic link between planning and operations”.

But I fear that the “emerging from the crisis” industry will result in leaders repeating the errors made during the 2008 Global Financial Crash after which they pathologised “their people” and introduced a raft of downwards focused “reforms” to “fix them” without pausing first to look at themselves in the “leadership mirror”.

The result, according to many surveys, was that little changed in terms of behaviour, especially in the financial services sector. It appears that everyone, except taxpayers and the lowest-paid workers, got away with it.

Not this time. This crisis is not the same as the Crash, which was caused by unchecked conduct. This crisis was caused by a virus which has changed the nature of the body politic.

So, as the CEO you can decide to focus entirely downwards – no one will stop you because you are the boss.

Or you can give yourself a year – yes, a full 12 months – of personal purpose, strategy and behaviour reflection, reframing and relaunch.

A year because you will need at least that amount of time to reflect, to take feedback in real-time to reframe your leadership and to relaunch yourself as a credible “cum-COVID19” leader with the humility, nous and emotional intelligence to make the tough calls and to manage relationships in a manner which will not send your organisation into an uncontrollable tailspin at worst or lead to missed opportunities at best.

I propose three steps:

Step 1: Review your personal purpose

  • How has the pandemic changed your personal purpose? 
  • If not, how can it not?
  • Are you somehow immune from the psychological impact of the pandemic because you are the boss?

Step 2: Reframe your personal strategy

  • Having decided on a new personal purpose, how will you achieve it?
  • What fresh approach will you use?
  • What leadership strategy got you to pre-COVID-19 and how can you change that strategy now, because you must?

Step 3: Relaunch your personal behaviour

  • How will you heighten your empathy, because your “people” need it?
  • How will you deepen your self-awareness, because you risk making irreparable mistakes if you don’t?
  • How will you negotiate your needs productively because people won’t give you the discretionary effort you desperately need if you “drive change” rather than lead it?

I have developed a one-year programme to assist CEOs, leaders and NEDs in avoiding being “the naked emperors” in their organisations, to prevent unforced errors and to emerge from the crisis feeling more fulfilled, reputationally enhanced and whole.

Please contact me at for further information.

Ciarán Fenton