David Beckham’s gentle Desert Island Discs interview was chilling in one respect and one that CEOs and boards might note…

Hit the cross bar

Last weekend David Beckham was the special guest on the 75th edition of Desert Island Discs, a popular BBC radio programme in which guests pretend that they are being cast off on a desert island and choose their all time top favourite piece of music and book for company. This format lends itself to revealing moments.

There was one such moment, chilling in my view when he was talking about his father who he described as “a bit of a taskmaster”.

From an early age, David would practise football in a local park with his father and a goal with no net. “Hit the cross bar, hit the cross bar,” his father would say “for hours and hours”.

David played for a local youth team on Sunday mornings, and his dad would pick apart “every single detail” of his game afterwards. He was only seven years old. On one of these occasions, he recalled blurting out “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean it”.


The chilling moment, for me, was when he said that the first time his dad told him he’d done really well was when he got his 100th cap for England. “It made me emotional.”

I bet it did. One hundred caps it took, rendering taskmaster a very generous epithet indeed. David Beckham didn’t criticise his father. In fact, he defended him using the classic “tough love” defence.

He did this using the same, consistent and gentle tone of voice he used throughout the interview except once, when referring to his father’s approach to child-rearing he said: “if [children] can do better…they need to know”. His voice cracked on the word need, betraying less belief in his father’s methods than perhaps he let on.

It was the first hint of acknowledgement that there might be a mid-point between being brutal on a child in the service of a greater need and acceptance of impact of that brutality. I use word brutal deliberately. Let’s give bad things bad names.

You may well argue that the end justifies the means and you may be right. David Beckham has done very well indeed, by any standards. And he credits his father in particular with building in him “this work ethic”. So what’s not to like and what is the connection to CEOs and Boards?

The issue here isn’t about passing judgement on David Beckham’s father. Armchair psychologists may wonder about the connection between his father’s “failure” to succeed in professional football himself. They may make a connection between this and his obsession with David’s success.

If David feels this is true, he certainly doesn’t betray it. In fact, he said on the radio programme that he believes his father “gave it all up for me”. No greater love…

But who’s to know what his father’s motives were? And why wouldn’t we take him at his word? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what we can learn from him.

Leadership lessons

As students of leadership, the only reliable lessons we can take from this story is that success comes at a cost, decisions taken in formative years impact later years and it’s probably best not to take exceptional examples as role models.

Even David Beckham went further than hints in the interview as to the personal emotional cost, even if reluctantly: “At times it is upsetting for any child…to be pulled up…I’m a lot softer [with my children] than my dad was with me.” I found these understatements quite moving. My guess is, and it’s only a guess, that he suffered much more than he concedes. I’ve always held the view that tough love is an oxymoron.

But it’s the connection between decision making in formative years and later behaviour that CEOs and boards might find useful in their assessment of their success and their leadership of others.

While not on the same scale, many CEOs and board members that I have worked with over the years share David Beckham’s core storyline: utterly driven to march to, or against, the drumbeat of their formative years.

I advise CEOs and board members how to confront early decisions, assess the extent to which they are still marching to that old drumbeat and then to decide whether they want to fashion not just a new beat, but a new drum and sticks – the whole drumkit. Then they can create an environment in which the people they lead can do the same.

One CEO acknowledged that because he was never allowed to fail as a child, he trusted no one, and that was why he had a reputation as a micro-manager. One of his directors acknowledged that he never took responsibility for mistakes probably because he too suffered from the silent killer of peace of mind: shame.

Guilt means I did something wrong; shame means I am bad. The latter is a pestilence, which stalks our boardrooms. Shaming language at board meetings is ubiquitous and is the enemy of business growth. How can people be what they can be if they are made to feel ashamed?

The CEO I mentioned committed to my small change programme and agreed to reduce his micro-managing behaviour by 10% – that’s just a reduction of ten interactions in very hundred. That’s small change, but it’s very hard to do, and it requires a stretch. This CEO was so competitive that, true to type, he reported that not only had he micromanaged ten times less but that he had “doubled that to 20% less!”.

And I believed him because he said that his team were happier – no kidding; and he said had more time – surprise, surprise. I asked him what was he going to do with all this recovered time previously spent micro-managing? He didn’t answer, but my guess is that now that he could trust more, he could risk more, and business growth is all about managing risk.

The great names in sport, music and film achieve greatness because of specific drivers and behaviour. We can learn from these. But we shouldn’t forget that their greatness is exceptional and their behaviour not necessarily the best model for ours.

That said, I wonder if David Beckham’s interest in and his dogged creation of his own fashion brand was his way of taking back control of his life. If so he deserves to be called a great model in more ways than one.

Ciaran Fenton

February 2017


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my website or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

Three reasons why #Boards should consider an informal behaviour review alongside their Board Effectiveness Review #governance


Board Effectiveness Reviews are now commonplace. Their outputs are included in annual and other board reports.

But are they designed to assess underlying behaviour – good and bad? Will they flush out a tyrannical board member or a culture in which it’s difficult if not impossible to “call out” unacceptable behaviour? I doubt it.

There are three reasons why #Boards should consider an informal behaviour review alongside or after their standard effectiveness review.

First, a behaviour review will deliver a higher return on the investment in the Effectiveness Review process because it will address underlying behavioural cause, not just symptoms. Even a small change in behaviour is likely to lead to better commercial and sustainability outcomes.

Second, on a divided board – which is more common than often acknowledged – the effectiveness review is a good excuse to sort out damaging board conflict without further fuelling discord.

Third, behaviour reviews are not just about dealing with the bad behaviour but replicating the good. Since effective reviews are strongest in their highlighting of er, effectiveness, then a process which captures, replicates and enhances that behaviour must be good for the business.

Many boards carry out formal Effectiveness Reviews because they feel they must. A bit like CSR. Of course many do so for the right reasons but they are likely to be the least in need of remedial action.

So, hard-as-nails CEOs are unlikely to welcome any scrutiny of their behaviour which might suggest that they should change it. Unless of course – psychopath CEOs aside – they might welcome an excuse to do so, especially if they can see a link between their behavioural change and improved commercial and personal outcomes.

In my experience even those CEOs and NEDs who exhibit low EQ often secretly harbour a desire to improve it but don’t know how.

The process for an informal board behaviour review – note lower case and the importance of informality – is straightforward:

Step 1: one to one interviews by an external party with each board member. They would be invited to comment on the best and worst behaviour of each of their colleagues using real examples.

Step 2: a facilitated plenary session or sessions addressing organisational purpose, strategy and behaviour and how it fits, or not, with the personal purpose, strategy and behaviour of each of the members of the board.

Step 3: the facilitation, mediation and supported implementation of behavioural change agreements between board members as well as, gently, legislating for their breach.

For some readers the likelihood of their CEO agreeing to such a process might seem laughably remote. In which case the weakness of their formal Board Effectiveness Review is already exposed.

Ciaran Fenton

January 2017


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my website or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

#CEOs, #CXOs and #NEDs: consider three New Year #smallchange resolutions, especially as the UK will trigger #Art50 in Q1

The “Phoney War” will end in Q2

I don’t buy The Times leading article argument (Jan 2) that “the triggering of Article 50 will be followed by more phoney war” because Brussels’ attention will divert to the elections in France and Germany and the Brexit negotiations.

On the contrary, I believe the mood in the UK will change, icily, on April 1st, 2017, the day after the UK legally commits to Brexit. Once you agree to another’s deadline in a negotiation, you are as we say in Ireland, fecked. People will feel this reality acutely on April Fool’s Day, especially in business.

Brussels will play out the negotiation up to and past the deadline in 2019. Why would they do anything else, unless they are incentivised to do so? Either way, since the UK is selling, not buying the UK, not Brussels, will have to make the bigger concessions.

Meanwhile on January 20th. 2017 Mr Trump will become President of The United States of America and its Commander in Chief. I don’t concur with those who say our worst fears regarding his Presidency will prove groundless. They will prove conservative.

It’s against this grim background that CEOs, boards and non-executive directors return to work this week and prepare for their January board meetings. Any time is a good time for them to consider changing their behaviour to reduce risks and maximise opportunities.

But this is an especially good time for them to do so even if only 50% of my gloom is warranted and even if you are one of those who believes (and you may well be right) that there will be short term pain and long term gain by these changes.

I, therefore, propose Boards adopt three resolutions at their January meeting:

Resolution §1: The Board prioritises behaviour over performance

The default behaviour of most boards under stress is to cleave to “the numbers” which measure performance against plan. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that behaviour drives performance not the other way around.

Performance is an outcome, behaviour the route to that outcome. It follows that behaviour trumps performance as a priority. Therefore the Board should map the behaviour required of everyone which is most likely to maximise the probability of success and minimise risks.

Resolution §2: The Board expects continuous behavioural change

In every human endeavour, constant improvement is key to success. This truth is most obvious in sports where the link between behaviour and performance is painfully evident.

Last week Manchester City lost 1-0 to Liverpool after a run of three wins. City’s coach Pep Guardiola made no attempt to hide his pain in the post match interview. All excuses aside, it was individual behaviour which led to their loss and Liverpool’s win.

Andy Murray’s open and tortured relationship with his behaviour is further proof, if proof needed, that our main competitor is ourselves.

Yet Boards rarely put out a message saying that it will do all that it can to help the people who work in their organisation to be what they can be by helping them to change continuously.

Resolution §3: The CEO, CXOs and NEDs will model continuous behavioural change

Many CEOs, Boards and NEDs believe that behavioural change must start beneath them. They forget that even small change by them as individuals, with each other and in their role as leaders has an exponential impact on those who work for them.

By small change, I mean changing a minimum of ten actions in every hundred from default behaviour, just 10% change. That’s small change.

• If, as CEO, you have a tendency to speak over colleagues at board meetings, try doing it ten times less.
• If, as CXO, you have a habit of pointing, not fixing – notice your behaviour and then try to make a small change.
• If as a NED you sometimes fail to call out issues you know you should, notice why you don’t and then try to do so ten times more often.

If the CEO, CXOs and NEDs all change ten interactions out of every hundred, the aggregate impact within the Board and throughout the business will be bigger than the sum of the changes. But small change is hard. That’s why it’s worthwhile in sport, business and at home.

It may even reduce your risks and maximise your opportunities and fulfillment in 2017.

Ciaran Fenton

January 2017


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my website or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

CEOs: top job but still feeling unfulfilled? Tis the season to reflect…


…on why, what can be done about it and how.

The level of human misery at the top of business and the professions is one of the best kept secrets of modern life.

The happiness statistics on those in the middle are well documented. Pressured from the top and bottom their stress levels are high for obvious reasons. Their distress comes as no surprise.

But surely CEOs, CFOs, function heads and top lawyers and accountants must be scoring high on the fulfilment scales? Surely, having worked hard (oh so hard) to get to the top all is tickety boo?

I haven’t seen any credible studies on this. I’m not sure they are possible. Having worked with scores at close quarters I feel that many are in denial, most are getting by and a few love what they do.

The good news is that their plight is remediable – at least for those not in denial. The deniers are in a tricky position. They’re stuck. They’ve got to start by unsticking themselves. Most will need help to begin that process.

Let’s say 20% are stuck, 10% feel truly fulfilled and 70% are getting by. To the latter I recommend the following steps to help them reflect.

Start by confronting all, not just some, of the negative feelings about your role and dig deep. For example: When “he”, “she” or “they” behave like abc, I feel xyz:  I wish my role encompassed X as well as/instead of y:  I feel constantly exhausted. Or is it something else?

I use an intangible income and expenditure account process with clients to help them pin down, precisely, what they want from work and what they’re getting and not getting.

They want intangible income ABC and are willing to expend effort DEF to achieve it – usually hard work and reasonable travel. But the income side varies considerably from leader to leader.

For some it’s about autonomy, for others it’s about teamwork or success. Whatever the requirements I find that the happiest are those who are in surplus about three quarters of the time. That’s as good as it gets.

About quarter of our work is mundane unless you’re lucky to make a living from your hobby. Sadly, a significant number of senior people are in deficit in intangible income. Certainly some feel they should be paid more money but it’s not the main driver of dissatisfaction. I find that it’s usually the intangibles that hurt the most.

The advantage of pinning down your intangible income and expenditure needs is that it forces you to address what you want from work and why you do what you do.

For some it will be the first time that they really address why they do what they do. For others they have completed this task, are happy that they’re in the right job but feel they are in the wrong role. For those who have not addressed their purpose it can come as a shock to find that they are driven by factors which originated in their formative years.

Some are still playing out the pressures put on them when they were young and haven’t come to terms with the fact that they are now adults and can do what they want to do. These dynamics are well documented in psychology and research into emotional intelligence.

Wherever you are on the continuum of clarity of purpose it’s important to realise that you have no hope of true fulfilment unless you figure out why you do what you do. Where are you now, why and where you should go to make the best use of your unique talent?

Clients are initially dismissive when I talk about their uniqueness. But when I help them to connect with the reality that they are unique there is usually a brief flicker of recognition quickly dimmed by the realisation of the chasm between that truth and the relentless experience of work which appears to respect nothing other than lowest common denominator.

I encourage them to work on protecting the flicker from extinction by connecting with what politicians call their “ism”. We’ve had Maoism, Thatcherism and Mayism. Why not you-ism? And for benign not malevolent purposes?

You-ism is about bringing your whole personality, backstory and dreams to your leadership. Sounds corny? If it does maybe you’re stuck. But all you have is your story. Once you are clear on this it’s surprising how easy it is to decide on your personal purpose, and thus your strategy and behaviour for achieving it.

Do that and you will be in grave danger of being fulfilled. Help those you lead to thrive and as a collateral benefit grow your business better than you would otherwise. Because your business is made up of you, them and your respective “isms”. Nothing more.

Ciaran Fenton

December 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

Three reasons why #CEOs should change their behaviour, help others change theirs and, together, agree a shared purpose #smallchange

You want to be a successful leader. You know what that means to you. Delivering the biggest bottom line? Being the best? Changing the world? Whatever.

But do you know why? If you don’t, then you’re not driving. You’re being driven. You are marching to another’s drumbeat. So who’s the voice in your head, if not yours?

A real test of the extent to which you are being driven is to find out what others feel your main behavioural weakness at work is. They’ll tell you if you dare ask. A humorous way to do this is to ask them what they think you are least likely to say. Their answer will be a bull’s eye on your behavioural weakness.

Most CEOs I meet are, as one wit famously said, not entirely displeased with themselves. Most tend to be sure of themselves, at least on the outside. This confidence is part of the reason they’ve reached the top. Somehow they have developed a belief in themselves.

So why would I recommend that they spend time changing themselves? Why would I suggest that they risk failure if they don’t? Why, if they ain’t broke, do they need fixing? And why should they spend any time at all helping others to change?

The first reason is that all success is based on striving to be the best you can be. Since this is, by definition, an endless task, you simply cannot be the best you can be without constantly changing. And your business or organisation won’t, if you and your team don’t. They comprise the business.

The second reason is that the skills that got you to the top are not necessarily the ones that will help you make a success of it. Your self-confidence, intellect, sharp elbows or whatever combination of personal, intangible assets propelled you to the top has done its job. It’s time to stop striving and start leading.

The third reason is that because you may have natural self-confidence or whatever doesn’t mean that each member of your top team has those attributes in equal measure as you do. It follows therefore that, logically, your business can’t thrive unless your team thrives. You and they can’t do that without changing.

No, I hear some say in response this. Just hire the “right people” and let them get on with it. No need for all this woolly, soft and intangible stuff. “I didn’t get me where I am today…” as Reggie Perrin used to say. Indeed. But this is the 21st, Century, not the 19th and things are changing. These days, when the going gets tough, it’s the soft get going. By soft, I mean those with high EQ, not just IQ.

CEOs should be doing only three things: creating an environment in which people thrive; growing the business and keeping stakeholders happy. The best way to help someone succeed is to help them deal with their greatest fears.

But you can’t do this if you are not dealing with yours. But what if you feel fearless? What then? Well, you must remember that you’re in a tiny minority. If only you could do everything in the business, then it would soar because there’s nothing in your behaviour you feel you need to change. But you can’t because you need others. That’s the rub.

At best the behaviour you need to change is your tendency to forget that everyone isn’t like you. At worst, you keep your members awake at night partly because of your behaviour and partly because of what it triggers in them. The latter isn’t your fault, but you need to attend to it if you want them to be the best they can be.

So, throw away the organisational chart. It won’t help you except to remind everyone about power differentials. They don’t need reminding of those. But they need frequent reminding and reassurance that you are there to help them be the best at whatever they do in the service of your shared purpose.

Shared purpose is the most powerful driver of success and fulfillment. It differs from team to team because each team is unique because each member is unique. Their ability to perform depends on your willingness to change yourself. An inconvenient truth, I know. But it’s a truth nevertheless.

Ciaran Fenton

November 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

CEOs who tend to manage both sides of a conversation invariably lose out because they don’t know how to…


…trust that the other party might, heaven forbid, meet their needs voluntarily. This is, I concede, a generalisation, but one borne out by many years of observation.

A good example is the dreaded annual appraisal of senior leaders by even more senior leaders.

I have prepared scores of people for these on both sides of the table. The most common mistake by the appraised is that they don’t allow the appraisers to do their job. Conversely, appraisers fail to use the process to create an environment in which their direct reports might feel more motivated to perform better.

It’s not unusual that both parties have sleepless nights. The appraised will spend hours second-guessing the line of potential questioning as will the appraiser, the potential answers. I tell them that their attempt to manage both sides of the conversation is doomed because they can’t.

Masters of The Universe they may feel themselves to be, but none yet has found a way to control another’s thoughts, let alone their feelings. I advise both parties to follow three steps to avoid this angst.

Step 1: Agree on the underlying purpose of the appraisal before the meeting

Is it to tick a box in a mandatory and tiresome process? Or, is it a “bollocking” masquerading as an appraisal – a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or is it a chat, a catch-up, an honest review and genuine effort to help meet each other’s and organisational needs?

Step 2: Agree on the approach before the appraisal

Will it be a traditional form-filling exercise? Or, will the boss say “three good things and three bad things” with a right of reply? Or will there be an honest attempt to articulate and meet the three needs – appraised, appraiser and organisation?

Step 3: Agree on a rough agenda beforehand as follows

What does the business need? What does the appraiser need? What does the appraised need? Are these being met? What behaviour should stop, start or continue? Above all, what does the appraised need to thrive?

These steps, if followed, can lead to higher levels of performance, deeper trust and restful sleep. I find.

Ciaran Fenton

November 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

How CEOs can learn lessons from the Brexit-Trump shocks to build capability, not just performance, by investing in relationships with people they don’t like…



… because the commentators tell us that many voted for Brexit and Trump because they felt “left behind”. It follows that they would not have done so if they had felt the opposite.

The opposite of feeling left behind is to feel included. You can’t feel included if you are not in an inclusive relationship. The Remain Campaign and Hilary Clinton would have won if they had been in relationships with people who disagree with them but were willing to trust them.

The Remain Campaign did not campaign to Remain. They campaigned not to leave. Try that with a lover and see how far you get. If it doesn’t work in love, it won’t work in politics. It’s about both emotion and facts. The fact is that the Remain team did not believe in Remain, but they didn’t like the Leavers either. Mrs May was one of these fence sitters. They were not in a relationship of any sort with the Leavers. No wonder they lost.

Hilary Clinton did not build strong enough relationships with the poor of Ohio, the cynical of Florida, the fed-up of North Carolina. The fact is, Mrs Clinton didn’t demonstrate enough that she cared. Bernie Sanders did. Moreover, her relationship with the disaffected was so weak that many of them were willing to overlook Mr Trump’s misogyny, racism and lack of ability. No wonder she lost.

Now Mrs May and Mr Trump have to deliver. They won’t because they can’t. They don’t know what they don’t know about leadership, a lethal compound ignorance. What they don’t know is that success depends on creating relationships in which most of the people you lead, even those you don’t like, thrive. You can’t do that if you are not in a relationship with them.

Mrs May is heading for a fall. It will be a big fall, and it will happen soon because a) the disaffected Leavers have merely swapped places with unheard Remainers b) she has a hectoring leadership style which alienates people and is not conducive to the deal making she must now do and c) and above all, history will recall her nadir as the moment she failed to support her judiciary in the High Court. For many, this failure to lead will neither be forgotten nor forgiven because they care deeply about hard-won core values of democracy.

Mr Trump is also heading for a fall. It will come soon as he holds all the levers of power in Congress, Senate and The White House so there is little to stop him from falling. He has toxic relationships with those he doesn’t like. No weasel words in an acceptance speech or in the transition talks with Mr Obama will change this. He will fail because he needs the help of the people he hates. And they won’t help him.

How can CEOs learn from this? What has this to do with them? Surely there is no comparison between Mrs May, Mr Trump and the CEO of any business? There is because we all know CEOs who don’t build relationships wide and deep in their organisations. They stick with the people they know and like and only do the things they feel comfortable doing. There are Trump-like characters in business. We all know them. We also know leaders like Mrs May who may be useful function leaders but make poor CEOs.

Once, I ran a change Programme at a large organisation that treated one function poorly. They saw it as non-core, a bit second-class. Even its physical location reflected its low status. Morale was low. They felt “left behind”. But they made things worse for themselves by giving out a strong smell of burning martyr – understandable, but fatal.

The function was, as IT people like to say, “mission critical”. So I asked the CEO if I could move some of them from their out of the way location into the centre of the “mission”. To his credit, he said yes.

I facilitated a relationship change programme between the function and the centre by bringing them physically into the centre where healthy relationships could develop. It got off to a shaky start but as soon as “both sides” realised that they had a shared purpose and were valued and valuable in achieving that purpose, the relationships were transformed – a word I rarely used but is true in this case.

The lesson for CEOs is that it is no good trying to achieve excellent performance without building sustainable capability. Sure, you can deliver stunning results in the short term without paying much attention to the medium term, to “the important not urgent” issues and, crucially, to those who are not at the centre of your short-term bubble. But, sooner or later you will fail.

Former Goldman Sachs chief economist, Lord Jim O’Neill is reported in the Press as saying that the recent shock results may jolt business into realising it must do more for the workers and communities it serves. He also feels leaders appear to have lost the ability to connect with many of the people they are leading. He’s right.

If you build relationships with these, they will support you even if they don’t agree with everything you say. Fail to do so, and you may experience in your organisation an internal version of Brexit-Trump because you won’t know until it’s too late and, rest uneasy, these will do lasting damage to your business.

Ciaran Fenton

November 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335