How to turnaround an unhappy board of directors in three steps

With apologies to Tolstoy, all happy boards are alike; each unhappy board is unhappy in its own way.

Unhappy boards consist of unhappy directors. This is obvious. But since people speak of boards as if they are people – anthropomorphism, to give this behaviour its technical term – they need reminding that they’re not. It’s the directors who are unhappy, not the board.

Happy boards outperform unhappy boards because unhappy, stressed and frustrated directors don’t perform as well as those who are content, energised and empowered.

The reasons for unhappiness will vary from director to director. But directors share one systemic grievance, also shared by their workforce, which is that work in the 21st Century is often not very fulfilling, at all. The happiness at work surveys, which make for grim reading, bear out this assertion.

If directors can address the systemic issues between themselves on the board, can you imagine what they can do for the rest of their workforce?

I believe the world of work can be fulfilling. Not 100% of the time of course, but I believe in the 75% rule that three-quarters of the time you should be able to say: I’m happy at work. But the world of work is still not what it could be especially for those who sit on boards.

We have only ourselves to blame. In the 20th century we permitted a framework for work to develop which created three components that ensured people became and continue to be trapped on a treadmill:

  • The maximisation of shareholder return as a primary purpose
  • Human capital management designed to serve that purpose
  • Exploitation of human and other resources as the main focus of boards

But the movement towards a new model has been building for some time. Everyone knows that the shareholder framework is no longer fit for purpose but have struggled to break its grip.

As far back as 1994 Charles Handy published The Empty Raincoat to set out a “…philosophy beyond the impersonal mechanics of business organisations…if economic progress means that we become anonymous cogs in some great machine, then progress is an empty promise”.

Even mainstream human capital writers like Jon Ingham were trying to humanise thinking in the early part of this Century in his book Strategic Human Capital Management – Creating Value through People, recognising that value can’t be created through any other means.

In what has been considered a “ground-breaking book”, Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations (2014) set out a thesis that “a new shift in consciousness” is underway which could help us invent “a more soulful and purposeful” way to run our businesses.

He sets out what he calls a “Teal” approach to this new way. This includes self-management rather than cumbersome management structures, bringing the whole person to work and what he calls ‘evolutionary purpose” focusing on what society wants from the business and not on the bottom line.

These are just three of many writers addressing these issues. Their work has been augmented by the growth of “not just profit” movements, which sprung up after the Global Financial Crash in 2008. These include Blueprint for Better Business (of which I am one of several advisers); B Corporations and Tomorrow’s Company.

Many of these use “top down” approaches that have strengths and weaknesses. My contribution to this canon is to take an individual rather than a corporate approach. I believe in individual change as an agent of, so called, organisational change, using the following steps:

First, while I agree with others that the purpose of organisations should be to make all stakeholders equally happy – shareholders/other risk takers, workers, suppliers, their families, their communities and future generations through the proper use of the physical environment involved in the business – I nevertheless believe that they will do so only if directors unilaterally grant themselves permission to do so.

The block so far is that directors are afraid of the investor. But if investors are educated to understand that they are not getting as good a return on investment without conceding to equal stakeholder happiness, then they are likely to give it. The first step, therefore, is to take responsibility for enlightening them.

Second, It has always struck me as odd that companies motivated – red in tooth and claw as it were – by profit, continue to allow their workers, especially their highly paid directors, to leave large chunks of their value at reception because boards have failed to create an environment which encourages them to bring their whole selves to work not just the part circumscribed by their job description or, more often, by the culture of the organisation.

The reason of course for this is linked with the first step, but also because they may not know how, precisely, to deal with the whole person. As one delegate quipped rhetorically at a people conference: “Do we really want people to bring their “whole selves” to work? Really?”

Third, is what I call the “paradox of small change” which is that small changes lead to big outcomes. Changing just ten interactions out of every hundred is just 10% change.

That’s small change. But it’s hard to do. You must start with yourself if you want others and your world of work to change; then you must accept that organisations don’t exist, except in law and in the minds of people who work in them, save that they are groups of individuals who are struggling to be who they should be.

If your board is unhappy and you’re serious about doing something about it, start by demanding equality of return for every stakeholder in the business; then find out what each director needs to be happy, 75% of the time and, finally, negotiate the behavioural small changes required to create an environment in which these are met. That’s it. Simple.

CEOs: learn from Mrs May, disband your inner circle today

Many CEOs have, like Mrs May, an inner circle. It’s lonely at the top. You need people around you that you can trust, to tell you the things you need to hear or, if you’re weak, what you want to hear.

There’s nothing wrong with these inner circles provided they are informal and counterbalanced by a board with a formal governance process and in which power truly resides. The issue here is the location of power, not just leadership style.

Mrs May, allegedly, relied on her inner circle to the exclusion of everyone else. The cost of this error will be high. But it’s not as if she didn’t know that her leadership style was a matter of concern for many. Indeed she revelled in her reputation as “a bloody difficult woman.”

And she was not alone in her approach. The ink is barely dry on The Chilcot Report which highlighted Mr Blair’s “sofa style” decision-making as a contribution to the errors in the Iraq war.

So why do many leaders persist in making this unforced error? The answer is that they have no incentive to change. They believe that their behaviour got them to the top, so why change it?

Mrs May didn’t become a micro-manager overnight. It’s part of who she is and how she got to be Prime Minister.  Her identity must be bound up with distrust of others. In that respect, she is typical of many leaders I encounter in the course of my work.

If the cause of the behaviour is easy to diagnose, the cure is less so. It demands behavioural change, and that’s hard unless it’s taken in small steps.

So, if you’re a CEO with high emotional intelligence (EI) and therefore the self-awareness to know that you are behaving like Mrs May or Mr Blair, and know you should stop it but don’t know how then here’s how:

Step 1: Assemble your full operating board and ask each member to acknowledge their outstanding behavioural weakness. Start with yourself. If some less emotionally intelligent members are struggling, play “the least likely to say” game. That will soon flush it out.

Step 2: Start trading behavioural change deals as in “I’ll micro-manage 10% less if you acknowledge your mistakes 10% more”. Then legislate for the breach of these deals.

Step 3: Announce that, in future, no major decision will be taken without full discussion by the entire board and at which meetings and by rotation one member will act as Devil’s Advocate with full permission to question the rationale for each decision.

“Pigs will fly”, I hear you mutter in response to these steps. Not true. This process works. I have facilitated it many times. It works because there is an incentive to make yourself vulnerable, to change and to move to a higher level of leadership behaviour. The latter is the real prize because it feels good and it makes you a better leader.

And let’s be clear, micro-managers don’t enjoy micro-managing. They find it exhausting, energy sapping and time-consuming. Most of all it hides latent greatness. One micro-managing CEO I worked with and who did reduce his meddling behaviour using my small change approach, reported that he had more time, a happier team and, I believe, developed higher levels of trust.

I’m sure that there’s a different, more trusting, softer side to Mrs May. One that we have not seen, although one hears that the 1922 Committee had a glimpse of it during her belated mea culpa. See what I mean about incentives?

If I had my way, every leader would have to spend a minimum of one year at Emotional Intelligence School (EIS). There they would undergo mandatory weekly psychotherapy to process formative years’ experiences; they would study psychology and behavioural science, and above all, they would have to pass a boot camp type test on the benefits of good corporate governance. That would teach them never to rely on an inner circle, ever.

Three steps to unblocking road blocking behaviour on your board of directors

Last week The Times reported that the term “roadblock” was used to describe a surgeon at the centre of a shocking medical malpractice case in the north of England.

Colleagues, apparently, had to “work around” him and concerns about his behaviour were either ignored by him or buried by others. The case reminded me of how prevalent this story is in business.

Although the roadblock cases we all witness on boards may not be as devastating as that one, they can nevertheless cause grievous harm to people and businesses.

But what can you do? These are often bright, effective and key people in the business. They may be robust in their dealings with colleagues but charming with clients and, crucially, they deliver results.

Challenging them is difficult. They are powerful and don’t use, shall we say, Queensbury Rules during difficult exchanges. In short, they bully.

It’s not easy to tackle this problem but it’s not impossible. In fact the issue itself is simple: how to deal with bullying behaviour. The problem is in mustering the courage and enlisting support to deal with it. I use a three step approach in my programmes which I hope you find helpful.

Step 1: Ensure that each director, including the “roadblock”, has a shared, and agreed, understanding of the objectives and strategy of the business.

More often than not, I find there isn’t such a shared understanding save that everyone wants to make as much money as possible. That doesn’t count in my book. That’s like breathing. It goes without saying.

Ask each director to come up with a more sophisticated objective than making money and a strategy to achieve it. The outcome can be surprisingly positive, productive and unifying. At the very least it will clarify any misunderstandings.

It’s crucial to ensure that the “roadblock” signs up to the strategy too. Don’t move to the next step until they do. You may find that this process leads to some softening by the offending director. Or not.

Step 2: Check that there is unanimity amongst all the directors on the roadblock issue. Unless everyone is saying the same things, the problem could be something, or someone, else.

If there is unanimity then agree that everyone on the board not only has the right but also the duty to call out the behaviour on the next occasion it arises. Then, crucially, the person who does call out the bad behaviour must be backed by the others.

This is not about “ganging up” but an important step in reinforcing the agreed approach in dealing with the roadblock which is about always coming back to business strategy and objectives, not personality differences. This is good corporate governance, not corporate politics.

Step 3: Is to make a small change in how everyone deals with the roadblock at board meetings. The principle here is that the other person won’t change unless you change first. A commitment to small change in behaviour, over time, is easier to secure than so called “transformational” change which is a lesser spotted occurrence than some commentators would have us believe.

On the next occasion and at a fully attended board meeting – ideally an operating board meeting, not a main board meeting because procedures tend to be more formal there – when roadblocking behaviour occurs, then one director must muster the courage to enquire how that behaviour helps implement the strategy to achieve the agreed objective. I say “must”, intentionally.

The response is likely to be a strong, if not brutal, push back or to obfuscate or both. Each director should in turn ask the same question or otherwise indicate that they back the questioner. It’s as simple as that, even though it may not feel that simple.

Unless you have chosen the wrong battle to fight or someone lets you down in the room, this approach should work, over time. You will find that on each occasion the other party is challenged to explain the link between their behaviour and business strategy to which, after all they have signed up, they will struggle to maintain the roadblock behaviour in the face of such ongoing unity of purpose.

If their behaviour is unconscious they may even see the light. On the other hand, if they are successful narcissistic bullies they will try everything to bully their way out of the challenge.

If every director sticks to their guns and quietly and calmly return, each time they are rebuffed or traduced, to the agreed business purpose and strategy the other party will have to relent, ultimately.

And if they don’t then the directors have a choice: either to remove the roadblock or become part of it themselves. Sadly, too often the latter is the case but it doesn’t have to be so, if everyone has each other’s backs.

Why CEOs and directors, unlike Mrs May, should actively encourage dissent on their operating boards

Mrs May continues to present students of leadership with excellent material on the dos and don’ts of modern leadership.  Her speech this week announcing the General Election was another great contribution to that canon.

The strongest part of her speech, and one that CEOs would do well to emulate, was her absolute clarity of purpose. This is no “Theresa Maybe” as The Economist described her at the start of her premiership. Love her or loathe her, you can be in no doubt that she wants as hard a Brexit as she can negotiate. That’s her purpose. No maybe about it.

CEOs who don’t convey this level of clarity on their own purpose go on to struggle to articulate a credible strategy and as a result their implementation plans are weak and risk-rich from the outset.

But then Mrs May needlessly threw away this early advantage.  Had she been a client of mine, I would have insisted she maintain that level of clarity in all aspects of her speech because it pains me to see leaders score avoidable own goals and she scored a veritable hat-trick, all of which CEOs can learn from.

Her first own goal was when she said that the reason for calling an election was because “…there should be unity in Westminster, but instead there is division.” It is bad enough that this was a huge lie  – everyone knows she called it for party political reasons – but it was the underlying disregard for opposing views, so well known to directors who have to work for bullying CEOs, that will have done her damage.

Rafael Behr put it well in The Guardian: “The democratic process is being requisitioned not to air competing opinions but to dispense with them.”

She could easily have just stuck to the line that she wanted a stronger negotiating hand via a stronger majority. No one would have blamed her for that. But like many CEOs with low EQ she confuses dissent with an attack on her identity and so she attacked her dissenters, who are elected and one could argue, paid to dissent, just as NEDs are on  main boards or divisional directors and function heads are on operating boards.

Her identity, like many CEOs, is tied up with being right. Any questioning of that is forbidden because to question is to undermine and that casts you, in that most damning of all verdicts, as “not a team player”.

In my corporate career I experienced and witnessed brutal treatment of dissent on many boards and executive committees. On one ExCom I was warned on arrival that new people were easy to spot because they were the ones smiling. No one, I was told, smiled again after receiving their first humiliating and public slap down. So I didn’t smile. I still got slapped.

The reason this behaviour doesn’t benefit Mrs May or CEOs is that they, ultimately, are the losers. Mrs May lost many floating voters who share Rafael Behr’s views. In addition she lost her moral authority with Tory MPs who agree with Rafael Behr but are afraid to speak out. Later when she needs their support when things get rocky for her, as they surely will, she won’t have it.

CEOs lose badly with this behaviour because it negatively impacts the ROI on their wage bill, especially to directors who are usually highly paid.  This ROI is already affected by the standard behaviour of any employee – director or not – to leave, daily, a significant part of themselves and therefore their value at Reception because they feel it’s unsafe to bring it in.

No amount of HR sponsored “bring your whole self to work” campaigns will change this unless the “invitation” from the CEO is there to do so. But in situations where slaps are administered for daring to be yourself, CEOs and HR Directors should be under no illusion that their ROI plummets drastically and they won’t even know what they’re missing. This is one of those own goals that’s barely visible, because it happens so fast.

The well documented behaviour of advisers in The Oval Office during the Bay of Pigs fiasco is a good example of the dangers of not encouraging dissent. The problem was that no one spoke up because the agenda was controlled. Therefore there was no room for dissent. This contributed to what was an historic disaster for American foreign policy in the 20th century.

I believe CEOs should open every operating board meeting with the same announcement each time: “I need to hear people disagree with me and with each other, constructively. If you don’t you’re not doing your job and if you’re not doing your job you’re of no use to the business.”

If Mrs May had announced an election saying she wanted a stronger mandate and that she welcomed a stronger challenge within and without her party at this difficult time, then that would be a sign of courageous leadership and she, and we, might get not just what we want but need.  But to complete her hat trick Mrs May missed that too and she and we will suffer, needlessly as a result.

 

 

 

3 Steps To Better Negotiating

First published by The Law Society April 2017: http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/news/blog/3-steps-to-better-negotiating/

All solicitors are negotiators. But not all solicitors are good negotiators in all situations. One general counsel told me that many solicitors in his team struggle to see the bigger picture in negotiations, are too narrowly focused, and consequently lose the plot.

Good negotiation is about securing a win-win outcome, not win-lose. This necessarily involves compromise and, above all, an ability to sell. Many solicitors achieve much less than they could because they hate the process of selling. They fear rejection, are uncomfortable asking for anything, and don’t know how to sell well.Good selling technique is essentially about needs analysis. This can be broken down into 3 steps.

Find out how the other side feels

The other side’s needs may not be logical or rational, but they are always driven by feelings.

Ask lots of open, ‘biased’ questions – Who? What? When? Where? How? Listen to the nuances of the feelings expressed in the answers. You must listen carefully, not just to catch someone out, but to understand them.

You can check that you have ‘bottomed out’ their needs by using two simple techniques. First, briefly summarise back to them your understanding of their needs. If you get it right, watch for a physical response – often a nod. This, as the psychologists tell us, is the involuntary sign people give when they feel heard.

The second technique, which I have used in negotiations and found works every time, is when you feel you’ve asked the last question, ask one more. This stretch will usually bring to the surface a deeper truth.

Demonstrate how your proposal will meet their needs

This step is short, because it’s straightforward, albeit difficult: demonstrate, rather than assert, how your proposal will meet their specific needs, as well as your own.

Close the gap between their needs and your proposal

Start by asking: ‘If 10 is having a deal, and 0 is not having one, where are we now?’. Unless things have gone horribly wrong, the typical answer is ‘7’. Next, ask: ‘What has to happen for us all to turn the 7 into a 10?’. And then, say nothing. This silence is crucial. No matter how uncomfortable the silence becomes, don’t break it except to repeat the question. They will fill the silence.

When you are clear on the points which make up the gap, address each point carefully in turn. There are various techniques you can use to close the gap, but the most important is to remind the other side about the shared purpose of the negotiation. This purpose can get lost in the heat of the negotiation. Unless there is a shared purpose, there isn’t a negotiation. It’s an imposition.

(Small) change your behaviour

Confront which part of the selling process you hate most, and why. Once you have isolated your fear and its origin, the final step is to become comfortable observing your process or, to use the current jargon, to be mindful. Mindfulness is about separating yourself from your thinking, as in: ‘There I go again not asking for what I want, just demanding it’, but in a manner which is not self-destructive.

Then you can to start making small changes in your behaviour – say, changing 1 interaction in every 10. That’s a small change, but it’s worthwhile, because it creates a virtuous cycle: the more you change yourself, the more success you will have in your negotiations.

Arsene Wenger’s leadership: a neutral perspective

I know very little about football, less about football management. But I’m surrounded by football fanatics, and I get regular invitations to games by business colleagues which I enjoy greatly. I hear a great deal of stuff about football from them, and it’s hard to avoid it on social media.

Arsenal and Arsene Wenger figure hugely in their discourse. Incidentally, am I the only one who marvels at the similarity in his name and that of the club?. “He’s lost the dressing-room” one of my contacts declared, rather pompously I thought. I ask him what that means. He gives me a withering look. “The team don’t see him as a leader no more”.

This usually erudite person lapses into faux Estuary English. Is this patois a prerequisite for football street cred I wonder. I avoided asking him why he didn’t say that in the first place but instead asked him what had Mr Wenger done wrong? “Done wrong! Done wrong!” he roars as if I’d expressed sympathy for an axe murderer in the dock. “He’s not won; that’s what he’s not done” he almost added “mate” but stopped short, suffused with emotion.

He shook his head and added somberly: “Tis time, t’is time to go”. He was trying to sound “more in sorrow than in anger”, but he just sounded angry.

Is it that he has not invested enough money in better players I ask, now feeling in more familiar business territory. “Well, Arsenal’s not as rich as some of the other clubs, that’s for sure”.

You mean the ones that win? “Well being a great football manager is not just about throwing money around” in a tone which suggested that he felt I couldn’t possibly comprehend what it took to be a great football manager. All he knew was that Wenger was not one, “no more.”

I saw a chink of hope here: if he’s lost it that must mean he once had it so, forgive me, but I can imagine how a footballer might lose greatness because it’s in the body as much the mind but how does a great football leader lose greatness? I was going to add that I could understand how any leader might get a bit stale after 20 plus years and could easily freshen up by doing my Small Change Leadership Programme. But I thought better of it. Instead I told him, hoping to impress and by way of academic support, that I had read Alex Ferguson’s first book.

A look of pure contempt mixed with irritation crossed his face, and he just said: “It’s not that simple”. But a bit weakly, I thought. Feeling I had him on the back foot, I pressed my advantage and asked if it wasn’t just like that bloke at Leicester City? “Claudio Ranieri” he mutters, disgusted that I couldn’t remember his name. “Proper order too, Claudio had to go just as Wenger will have to go. It’s the way it is. The fans want wins and if the manager isn’t delivering them – well, on yer bike”.

But I said isn’t there a place for doing the best you can, given your resources and that winning isn’t everything? “Au contraire mon Vieux” he replied suddenly and weirdly switching languages and tone, from angry to patronising, “eet eez aaaall about weeening”.

But didn’t I see somewhere that Wenger encourages young players to make mistakes just like a good CEO would and he actually says: “winning isn’t everything”. And I added, having looked it up, Arsenal is always in the top four and other teams have not done well after leadership changes. I finished off with: that background puts the minor issue of the thirteen fallow years and the inconvenient truth about the Champions League into perspective, doesn’t it? I felt well pleased with my punditry.

“I give up’, he said in disgust. “You know nothing”, almost saying “nuffink”. He’s probably right, but I hope Mr Wenger stays to the end of his contract because he sounds like a good CEO who cares, knows how to develop people and delivers reasonably good results, consistently. What’s not to like?

[Note: every attempt has been made to hide the identity of the other party using liberal poetic licence and some suppleness with the accuracy of the quotes]

How unresolved issues between your board members are impacting your business, and what to do about them

Why not have a facilitated emotional intelligence workshop at the end of your next board meeting?

  • Your board meeting is finished, the agenda covered, and the minutes taken but what about the unresolved relationship issues that are never minuted? My clients tell me that these are the biggest barriers to effective boards and which effectiveness reviews don’t address.
  • The future of your business depends, largely, on the quality of interactions between your board members. If there are problems or a lack of clarity, they matter because they impact the bottom line. Your board is unique. So yours needs bespoke attention, not generic change management solutions.
  • We avoid these issues because they are difficult to address. My workshop provides a framework to address them, incrementally, safely and with a high chance of success in three steps:
    • Supporting the acknowledgement of the behaviour on your board you would you like to see changed and by whom
    • Exploring the positive impact on your business of the changes
    • Tools to assist the behavioural change
  • You may feel that people just don’t change or won’t on your board. But people can and do change behaviour if incentivised to do so.  What better incentive than knowing that if you change your behaviour, every other board member will do so too? It’s simple and it works.

For information on case study examples and costs, you can arrange an exploratory telephone call by  emailing me at cfenton@ciaranfenton.com or text me on 07966168874