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

Many CEOs and function leaders achieve much less than they could because they hate the process of selling…


..themselves, their ideas, or even products or services because they fear rejection, are uncomfortable asking for anything and don’t know how, exactly, to sell well. These feelings are as career damaging as they are remedial. Even the most taciturn can learn how to overcome this problem, which pervades all leadership contexts including the top three: leading during complex change including business development, job finding and surviving the first 100 days of a new role. I have case study examples of each.

The fear of rejection is deep-rooted. It is linked firmly to the second driver, which is a dislike of being and appearing needy. Experts tell us that this revulsion indicates a history of difficulty in negotiating needs in formative years. If you were able to negotiate and satisfy your reasonable needs at home and school, then you are likely to be able to do so in adulthood leading to a natural ability to sell well when the need arises. The opposite early years’ experience, however, is more common.

Much of my work is in helping clients deal with this hard-wired behaviour because they have no option but to sell; not just in the business development sense but also if they are leading during complex change – restructure, M&A, conflict, adverse trading conditions, first 100 days, earn out or even trying to win at interview for a new executive or NED role – they must succeed at selling themselves and their ideas to people.

One client had a life-long difficulty with selling although this was not immediately apparent. I stumbled on the extent of the problem when I did my selling module with them, the key points of which I can deliver in about an hour. He seemed quite grumpy at the end of the session, and there was an insinuation that I had rushed it. I picked this up and did a Feel/Need/Do process which I use to surface any dissatisfaction with my sessions. Sometimes these can be subliminal.

I managed to get him to say that “All my working life I have felt uncomfortable selling; I’ve done it because I’ve had to but I hate it, I FEEL I’m no good at it but increasingly I must do it, so I NEED to get better at it and what I’m going to DO is to ask you to spend much more time on this than just an hour.” So I did.

I created a tailored programme for him over several sessions, focusing on those steps in the selling process with which he had the most difficulty. For example, he had a block around finding out what a target needed or might need. He didn’t know how to ask questions which surfaced needs.

Once he understood that he could ask open biased questions – who? what? when? where? how? – i.e., opening questions and how these linked with the closing steps, he felt much more comfortable. He learned that good selling is about genuinely putting yourself in the shoes of the buyer. It’s not about smoke and mirrors. I suspect his background would not have been one where intrusiveness was encouraged, so he confused gentle questioning with an intrusion. The result was that he subsequently did a pitch with a colleague who was astonished at his change in selling behaviour. The success was his. I was delighted to provide the framework.

Ciaran Fenton

October 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 heed Marshall Rosenberg’s advice on meeting needs


Marshall Rosenberg

Marshall Rosenberg is famous for his work on nonviolent communication. He died in 2015. Commentators have wondered why he wasn’t more famous than he was. Not that he wasn’t famous. His book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life is a best seller. He was a renowned international peacemaker and mediator, and he received several awards for his work.

His book does not feature on the main “Best Business Books Ever” lists on Google. His peace-making and mediating were not high profile, nor were the organisations that honoured him with awards. Marshall was clearly not a self-publicist. Perhaps this explains why CEOs don’t quote him as often as they do Jim Collins, Jack Welch or Warren Buffet. Here are three reasons why they should.

First, his advice on getting needs met is invaluable to leaders. He might have been even more famous had he renamed his book  “How to get what you need?” That’s his core message. “If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met”, he says. So what? Unresolved conflict, which is bad for your business, is invariably about unmet needs which are not expressed.

Unresolved conflict within boards, teams and joint ventures abound. They are deeply damaging. I know this from my work with clients. I have developed a simple grid, which I call The Relationship Grid, to help clients track their key relationships. I ask them to “RAG” each relationship on a regular basis. On any given day, each leader I know has at least one “Red”, a few “Ambers” and the rest are “Green”. Getting the Reds and the Ambers to Green is the challenge. Marshall’s advice may help.

Second, CEOs should note his distinction between need and strategy. Needs are about feelings. Strategy is about action. He tells the story of the couple who had given up on their marriage. “I need to get out of this marriage,” the husband said. This statement was a strategy, not a need. Rosenberg advised them to connect with needs they could meet without ending the marriage. The husband needed more appreciation, and the wife more closeness. They arrived at a set of agreements that satisfied their needs.

In business, this scenario is also achievable. I have used this technique on many occasions by facilitating  “soft contracts” between board members. One CEO client was a self-confessed micro manager. One of his directors was a not so self-confessed “shoulder wiper” i.e. he would never take responsibility for mistakes. Consequently, they both wound each other up and the rest of the Board.

The Board needed the CEO to micro-manage less and the “shoulder wiper” to own up more. I facilitated a soft contract between the two, with the rest of the Board as witnesses, to change their behaviour by a minimum of 10%. That is, the CEO would micro-manage ten times less out of every hundred actions and the “shoulder wiper” would “own up” ten times more.

We also legislated for the breach i.e. what would happen if they broke the deal? A simple “call out” process was agreed.  Nothing was written down. I came back after six weeks to review progress.

The CEO reported that he was meddling twenty times less – not just ten (competitive or what?); that his team were happier and that he had more time. All these came as no surprise. What interested me was what he was going to do with the time released from meddling, and we worked on that.

The third reason CEOs should heed Marshall Rosenberg is his views on “freeing ourselves from old programming”. By this, he means our conditioning. The most powerful from our parents. My micro-managing client was intellectually aware that his behaviour came from the fact that he was never allowed to fail as a child. He understood the impact of this conditioning. If you don’t allow children to fail, they will trust no one, least of all themselves. But changing this is easier said than done.

Rosenberg proposes a “literacy of needs” as an antidote to conditioning by becoming, merely, conscious of it. All mindfulness experts agree that this is the first step in behavioural change. Many CEOs behave unconsciously. Once they become aware, something shifts for them.

Then they can articulate their needs. Needs are feelings, not actions. “When Joe Bloggs does not take responsibility for his team, I panic because I (desperately) need to succeed, and I depend on him”. Those are feelings. “I, therefore, micro-manage him.” That’s an action.

But that move doesn’t help Joe Bloggs. In fact, he feels worse.  “When things go wrong, I panic because I need reassurance that I’m not the bad guy, and therefore I blame others”. It was likely that shame dominated his formative years.

Rosenberg’s formula is: “When a, I feel b, because I’m needing c and therefore I would like d.” So, instead of micromanaging him, the CEO could reassure the director that he just needs the problems fixed; his need is not to blame him. In turn, the director could take more ownership knowing that his need not to feel ashamed would be helped by the CEO doing his job: which is to create an environment in which people thrive.

Ciaran Fenton

September 2016


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


For aspiring Non-Executive Directors

The 7 Deadly Sins of Nascent NEDs – A One Day Workshop at the IOD, London

#SmallChange: We’ve had Thatcherism and other “isms”. Is it over the top for you, as a business leader, to claim an “ism”?


I am writing a book. It’s called Small Change: how to work, lead and follow in the 21st. Century. I am blogging draft synopses of sections of the book as I write it. I would be grateful for comments, questions and feedback as I proceed.

Below is a draft section. You can see an Introduction and other draft sections on my blog or on LinkedIn Pulse.

Your “ism”

Not long after Theresa May became Prime Minister of The United Kingdom, The Observer newspaper ran a piece encouraging her to define “Mayism” lest she fall into the trap of being defined by others.

I was pleased to see that a high-quality newspaper was ready to believe, not only that she could have an “ism” but that she could have it at the start of her term of office despite the arbitrary rules of “ism”.

Margaret Thatcher famously said, of her successor John Major, that there “isn’t such a thing as Majorism”. Leaving aside the arch nature of the comment it raises the question of who decides who should have an “ism”.

I’m interested because for some time I have used the concept as part of my work with leaders. If I’m working with Joe Bloggs, I say: “what is Bloggs-ism?”. They say: “what do you mean?”.

I say “there is only one you and, even though you may be similar to other leaders, nobody can lead the way you can. So what defines your leadership?”. Usually, they start by saying and I paraphrase: “I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t see myself as very unique”.

I counter this with a point of grammar which may appear pedantic but isn’t: you can’t qualify the word unique. You’re unique, or you’re not. You can’t be very unique. And since everyone is unique then, er, you’re unique.

“So what?” they ask. I answer: “If you’re unique then your leadership is unique, whether you like it or not. Therefore, you have a choice: to lead consciously or unconsciously.

By leading unconsciously, I mean that you do not give the matter much thought. You feel that anything else is an exercise in management speak or mumbo jumbo. You just get on with it.

But what if you knew that you would have better personal and organisational outcomes by consciously accessing your unique leadership behaviour? Would it not be worthwhile to use it? Conversely would it not be an opportunity cost to avoid it?

So what is your “ism”? It’s about your objectives and the principles you use to achieve them. If you take the time to clarify these and apply them, daily, you and those around you will notice the difference. Start by making small changes in how you do what you do and see what happens.

Your “ism” is like a personal Target Operating Model or TOM. Most businesses have a TOM. It usually has three elements: a market need; strategic resources and processes by which the resources are applied to meet the market need.

Likewise, your TOM is about your needs, the resources you have at your disposal and the processes you use to deploy those resources to meet your needs.

But what if you don’t know what you need; are drifting or are driven by unclear drivers, some from your formative years?

In which case, it might be useful to you to figure out what you need, not what you want. There’s a difference. You may need to change your job because you drifted or were driven into it, but you may not want to do so.

I acknowledge that all this “ism” and TOM stuff sounds like hard work. It does because it is. Even the small changes required to shift your needle in a better direction is challenging. But the return on the effort invested is worthwhile.

The reason Thatcherism went into history and Majorism didn’t was not because his leadership behaviour was worse than hers. It was because she, rightly or wrongly, was clear about what she wanted to achieve and she articulated these objectives continually. I can’t remember what Majorism was because he didn’t.

That doesn’t mean there was no Majorism. It was he, not she, who was integral to the Irish Peace Process. It was also Thatcher’s outstanding behavioural weakness at work that brought her down. She was a bully. She bullied once too often. Thatcherism and bullying were synonymous. Her Target Operating Model included thuggery as an essential process in the execution of her plans.

I use the word thuggery deliberately. It means being cruel or vicious. She was, at times, very cruel and vicious. Many of her lieutenants were afraid of her. This occurs in business as well as politics. How many senior leaders are terrified of their bosses? I meet them regularly. But leadership by fear lasts only for a short time. Sooner or later the terrified will find a way of fighting back.

That said, Margaret Thatcher and all those given to bullying do so because they see no other way of behaving. For them, there is no midpoint between bullying and being bullied. Often they were bullied at home and or at school.

What if Margaret Thatcher had found a way of leading without bullying? I believe she could have achieved greatness beyond her marmite reputation had she done so. Some of her social policies might even have changed, unbelievable as that might sound.

In The Fenton Model®, our behavioural weakness is a “lid” on our hidden talent. Start making small changes in your behavioural weakness and you will begin to reveal your hidden potential. Then tell everyone where you are now and why, where you are going and how you’re going to get there. Then you can claim your “ism’ with as much right as Thatcher.

Ciaran Fenton

August 2016


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


For aspiring Non-Executive Directors

The 7 Deadly Sins of Nascent NEDs – A One Day Workshop at the IOD, London

#SmallChange: You are a unique business; start behaving like one


I am writing a book. It’s called Small Change: how to work, lead and follow in the 21st. Century. I am blogging draft synopses of sections of the book as I write it. I would be grateful for comments, questions and feedback as I proceed.

Below is a draft of Chapter 1, Part 3. You can see an Introduction and other drafts on my blog or LinkedIn Pulse.

Chapter 1: Have you ever seen a CEO with a Human Capital Asset barcode?

Part 3: Small change: You are a unique business; start behaving like one

If you work, you sell your skills for money. In business, they call it revenue. Whether you’re an employee or self-employed, you will have overheads. The difference is profit.

You have financial assets and liabilities. And you may have shares or options with a future value. Together these constitute your financial net worth.

You have strengths, which are intangible assets and weaknesses which are intangible liabilities. The difference between these is a sort of intangible net worth. If you didn’t, no one would hire you.

You receive intangible benefits from your work. These are the feelings you need to make the effort worthwhile. This effort, including the management of relationships, are intangible costs. The difference between these is a soft surplus or a deficit.

A significant number of people I meet have a soft gap. The official happiness statistics bear this out. This book is, in part, about how to close that gap as much as possible.

Your personal history is unique. No one on the planet shares your precise history. There isn’t another you amongst the 7 billion or so people in the world. Therefore, you are 1/7 billion regarding your uniqueness. This reality gives you a unique selling point – a USP as they call it in business.

Many companies claim falsely, a USP. Few, if any, have a unique anything. Businesses are, as Professors Barwise, and Meehan pointed out in Simply Better, “simply better or not than their competition across a range of category benefits”.

The irony is that only individuals can honestly claim a USP. Usually, they don’t because it’s scary to do so. The entire canon of organisational theory is, unconsciously, designed to discourage your ownership of your unique value. Why? Because leading and managing unique individuals is perceived as impossible.

So the language and labels used in business reflect this perception: human capital assets, resources, hires, direct reports and leavers. You couldn’t find more dehumanising words if you tried.

The inconvenient truth is that you are a professional services firm, on legs. All the art and science of business can be applied to you as easily as it can to a huge corporation. The only difference is the number of zeroes in the size of your revenues and the complexity of running the business of being you.

My clients are underwhelmed, at first, when I outline this view of the world. They believe that the asymmetrical power relationship between employee or contractor and boss or client negates my proposition. They might say “I can be as unique as I like but that won’t cut any ice with my boss if he or she wants to be difficult.”

It’s a reasonable point. But I disagree with the premise that nothing can be done about the power differential and that “put up or shut up” is the only option. I believe that there is a midpoint between accepting the status quo and getting fired.

It’s about making small changes in your own behaviour first. Then stand back and witness how the organisation changes its behaviour with you.

And if many people were to change their behaviour at work, fundamentally, there might even be a revolution in how we work in the 21st. Century.

Why not? Organisations are merely coalitions, joint ventures, and contracts between unique people businesses for brief periods. What if the nature of these were to change?

Ciaran Fenton

August 2016


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


For CEOs /CFOs and Legal Leadership…

#LegalWithTheBusiness – A One Day 50/50 Workshop for GCs and “The Business”…

For aspiring Non-Executive Directors

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