Leadership: why directors should not imitate Mr Mourhino and Mr Ferguson

Soccer players in action on sunset stadium background panorama

Jose Mourhino is the current manager at Manchester United Football Club and Alex Ferguson is a former manager of the same club. Both are famous. To some, that’s an embarrassing understatement.

But not everyone knows and loves football. I don’t love it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like it or understand it.

A client recently sent me a link to an article about these two managers because he felt that I would be interested in the story from a leadership perspective. He was also clearly assuming that I had no interest in it from a football perspective.

To be fair, he has grounds for this assumption: he knows from our sharing of respective life stories that I was not sporty at school, was always last pick in playground footie and my nick name was “four eyes”. You get the picture.

But in my advancing old age I’m now getting tired of the assumption by friends, colleagues and clients that I know nothing whatsoever about football, rugby and cricket. The reverse is the case.

I’m a veritable walking-encyclopaedia of sporting trivia. Why? Because I get invited to major sporting events where, because I’m not deaf, I have to listen to endless punditry and I pick things up.

I’ve also spent a lifetime in pubs with blokes, quietly nursing my pint, whilst they willy waggle about their sporting knowledge as in: “ …no mate, you’re wrong..t’was the Forwards wot won it”. Occasionally I would get a sideways pitying glance but never asked for my views.

I would quietly think things but not say them: a) t’was hardly the Backs that won it for them b) why the necessity to collapse into Estuary English? The speaker was posh and had a First from Oxford and c) the Forwards, er, need the Backs.

I know lots about sport, actually: I could bore for England on “the slope” at Lords; I know, because I’ve been told a million times, exactly why England won the Triple Crown a million years ago – t’was because they were made to watch dots move on a laptop.

And, because I’m a closet Arsenal fan – I can’t come out because you have to be following a club ”man and boy” to have any street cred – I know and indeed agree that their forwards have an irritating tendency to “fanny around” the goalmouth.

But I will never be taken seriously on sporting matters. Indeed one mate was so outraged with envy when he heard that I was invited to a major rugby international he said that “I had no right to be there; that I know nothing about the game and that I simply do not understand that sport is tribal”. Yeah, tribal. I let it pass.

I enjoyed the game but didn’t lie awake reliving each phase.

I also know a bit about leaders in sport. Enough to know that they are poor models for leadership in business.

I read Alex Ferguson’s first book and concluded that he was a genius at understanding and nurturing world-class football talent. But for me he was not a leader business people should emulate and for three reasons.

First, his context was exceptional. Most leaders are not dealing with uniformly world-class talent and in the public eye.

Second, and to state the obvious, managing a football team is not the same as running a business and Mr Ferguson did not run the business side of the club.

Third, and I may be wrong, but I got the impression that he used persuasion techniques that would not entitle him to membership of The World’s Top 20 Emotionally Intelligent Leaders.

I also know a few facts about Mr Mourinho. He too is a talented football manager but I won’t be sending any of my leadership clients to sit at his feet and learn how to lead. A resolutely unsmiling persona works well on the touchline, but not in the boardroom.

The link that my client sent to me was to reported comments by Jose Mourinho saying that the Club had not evolved since Alex Ferguson’s departure and was stuck in time. My client was making the point that organisations need to evolve too.

I agree with this and also agree that one personality can dominate an entire organisation, even after they leave. Culture is reflected in conduct which is observed behaviour over time. And it takes time for behaviour to change. And in that, football and business are alike.

But just as the rules of football don’t apply to business, neither do the rules of business apply to football. And this applies to the timings of the departure of leaders. In business they should serve short terms, develop and then make room for others.

Sport is different. And in this regard I believe that Arsene Wenger has been right to hang in there. He is the Obama of The Premiership. He believes in the supremacy of people being the best they can be over winning. And, despite what my mates say, winning isn’t everything. But what do I know?

http://www.ciaranfenton.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Business or personal strategy: which dominates your board?

What is it with our obsession with strategy? We are respectful of words like profit and loss but somehow treat strategy differently.

After 15 years consulting and nearly 20 years in corporate life, it is the word which stands out for me as the most abused because it appears to mean wholly different things to different people.

Conversations, which tend to be liberally peppered with it, bear this out: “I’m hiring someone to do the day to day stuff, so that I can concentrate on strategic stuff” or “We have just hired an awesome Head of Strategy” or “Frankly, and strictly between you and me, the problem with Joe Bloggs is that he’s not very strategic”.

Worse is when strategy is confused with purpose and execution as in “we intend to be the best in the world by hiring good people”.

Being the best in the world, if you mean it, is a business objective and is not a strategy. Hiring good people is as basic a leadership behaviour as breathing. Strategy, it ain’t.

But why the confusion? Strategy means how your board achieves its purpose. That’s it.

It should be decided once and, while it may change, it should stay fixed for a reasonable period to allow for its implementation.

Therefore there should be no need to use the word strategy in any context other than “since our agreed strategy is X then we are doing y or we should do z”. Or not, if those actions are not congruent with your strategy.

For example, Ryanair’s objective was, it appears, to be the best and most profitable no frills airline in the world – or words to that effect.

Its strategy appears to have been to train the market  to expect nothing but a safe and cheap flight. Its execution behaviour – love it or loath it – was to do everything to lower market expectations of airline service which had been raised over a generation which believed  flying was for a certain “class” of person. Ryanair broke that myth.

Proof that its poor treatment of customers was “strategic” is the manner in which it reacted almost overnight to the introduction of a business class product by rival Easyjet. Suddenly, Ryanair became user friendly, introduced its own business class product and sales went up by c 20%.

That’s a story of a simple purpose, sophisticated strategy and clean execution behaviour in action. There was no confusion whatsoever about the meaning of those words. The results bear this out.

The problem on many boards however is that there isn’t a shared business purpose nor, in addition, are the directors upfront about their personal purpose.

If your business purpose is not shared by your colleagues on your board and if your and their personal purpose is also not clear then it’s not surprising that your business strategy will be weak, at best.

Some clients “push back” on this by saying that “our purpose is to make money, everything else is strategy”. To which I reply “it’s no wonder you all have a different spin on strategy since making money is, again, as essential as breathing. It is a collateral benefit, not a purpose.”

The reason purpose and strategy are problematic is because they are difficult to get right. It is a truly challenging task in complex markets to get your purpose statement right and then to follow through with choosing the right strategy to implement it.

But, and perhaps surprisingly, this can be made much easier if your directors are upfront about their personal purposes.

After all, the purpose of any organisation is inter dependent with the purposes of each of the people working in it and, particularly, with the members of its board.

Initially I find this a hard sell. Directors  find it  difficult to accept that they constitute the business. They speak of the business in the abstract, as if it were a third party. But it isn’t.

It is the sum of their individual purposes brought to bear on a market need. But often the personal purpose of one or two individuals can dominate or skew business objectives and therefore strategy.

Once I get a board to address the matter of their shared business purpose in the light of their personal objectives, I find that business purpose and strategy can be reframed much more cogently.

Your CEO is key to the success of this reframing process. If he or she is willing to share their personal purpose and strategy honestly and openly they will be a catalyst for the others to do the same. This is called leadership.

There are three steps to harmonising business and personal strategy on your board:

First ask each director to articulate their personal financial and fulfilment needs and objectives and how these fit with their understanding of business purpose and strategy.

Second, in the light of these shared insights your board should work on the precise wording of business objectives and which all directors are happy to sign.

In my experiences this process can be difficult and can surface deep and painful disagreements. But it’s worth the pain because future disagreements will be more easily resolved by reference back to agreed objectives.

Finally when, and only when, there is absolute shared clarity on business purpose and one that fits with the articulated personal objectives of each director, can you move on to addressing strategy.

Then, often to everyone’s pleasant surprise, agreeing a good and robust strategy becomes relatively straight forward. Are you surprised?

www.ciaranfenton.com

Impostor Syndrome: anyone on your board suffering with this?

Impostor Syndrome – the ever present fear of being found out as a “fraud” – is, according to recent research, more prevalent than we thought.

But if you or anyone on your board is suffering from this how would you or they know? Why does it matter and what can be done about it? Here is my take, based on my experience with directors:

The problem with some sufferers on boards is that they hide behind a veneer of super confidence. The glass is not just always half full, it’s ever overflowing.

Part of this confidence is often grounded in their formative  years in which they were the apple of their parents’ eyes – particularly their mothers’. A mother – or father – who gives a child unconditional love throughout their formative years gives them a gift worth more than gold.

But where this can go wrong is where this love is not tempered by boundaries and especially help with developing empathy towards others.

Children of doting parents often speed to the top of organisations because they don’t “do” the self-doubt that hinders others.

Yet something happens to them along the way which can be deeply unsettling: to their shock and horror they realise that their peers, bosses and underlings don’t see them as “God’s gift”. Suddenly their confidence is dented more grievously than many an alpha male (in particular) would be willing to acknowledge out loud.

How they process this shock determines the extent to which they suffer from impostor syndrome.

Many “plateau” and underachieve in their careers,  fearful that any further stretch will mean they will be found out.

If you suffer from this syndrome you can google remedial actions. It is more tricky if you suspect that one of your colleagues on your board is a sufferer and doesn’t appear to be self-aware.

The problem is that they often behave in a manner which does not attract empathy. They drive colleagues away using behaviour which smacks of arrogance and hubris.

Yet they are often “dying a thousand deaths inside”. One way around this – and it really matters because you need your leaders to be mentally healthy – is to create an environment where, in private, board members can express their vulnerability to each other honestly.

If you feel that on your board this simply would never happen, think again.

Who would have thought that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would become friends? Who would have thought that Nelson Mandela and F.W. deKlerk could do a deal on apartheid?

If they could do the unthinkable, your board can. Brené Browne in her book Daring Greatly advances empirical evidence supporting the link between showing vulnerability and personal and organisational success and fulfilment.

Every board member carries some emotional baggage. That is the nature of human existence. For boards to ignore this reality is to miss a trick in their Target Operating Model (TOM).

A TOM is defined as the processes an organisation employs to deploy its strategic resources to meet a market need.

There are few more powerful “strategic resources” than the relationship between members of your board. After all, nothing gets done without them.

It follows therefore that it is in your personal interests and in the interests of your organisation to maximise the effectiveness, conduct and behaviour of your board members.

One way to achieve this is to work actively to improve your relationships with each other.

And if one of your number suffers from impostor syndrome it is empathy they need, not attack. It’s “arm around” not digs in the solar plexus they need, no matter how much they push those approaches away by their faux cocky behaviour.

One motivation for you to try this is that if you  don’t suffer from impostor syndrome you are most likely to be suffering from some other emotional challenge which no human being can avoid.

Aren’t there times when you could do with some empathy, support and encouragement? Unless of course, for you, there are none. In which case this won’t make any sense to you at all.

Transformation: why you should start phasing out that word

“The problem with transformational change is that it implies ordinary change has no change in it whatsoever”. So quipped the comedienne Sandy Toksvig on this subject.

If comedians are using one of your key business terms for their material, isn’t it time to reflect?

The problem is that the word transformation is now so deeply ingrained in the grammar of business language that’s it’s scarcely conceivable to imagine its absence.

If you type the word transformation into the search box of LinkedIn the result is shocking. The word is attached to everything from job titles to programmes. It’s ubiquitous.

But why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t job titles include that word? What’s wrong with a bit of tautology if it encourages improvement? Does the use of language really matter?

It’s easy for comedians to joke and business writers to pontificate but it’s people like you who have to “deliver, execute, and step up”. And if you don’t, you’re in trouble. So for you, on a daily basis, this is no joking matter.

That’s why I invite you merely to consider phasing out the word, not dump it. Because it won’t be easy.

But you should consider doing so because it will make your life so much easier in the longer term and it will improve your business faster. I say this for three reasons:

First, there’s the slightly embarrassing reason  that the use of the word is, literally, ridiculous. And why would you want to be associated with anything even remotely ridiculous?

I mean how many transformations have you actually witnessed, heard about or “delivered”?  Few, I suspect, because transformation means changing one thing into another. It’s about alteration or conversion. These are lesser spotted.

I recall a brand of  toy our kids played with called Transformers. These looked like innocent toy cars but then, with a twist here and a yank there, they could be transformed into scary monsters. They were what it said on the box: transformers.

But few transformation programmes are sufficiently well funded, supported or thought through to be worthy of the name.

What they really mean is change. And change,  I’m afraid, is part of BAU. Calling it transformation helps no one.

Ryanair is an example of transformation. Michael O’Leary and his team contributed to the transformation of the airline market. Time was that flying was for a certain class of person and cost a small fortune.

Mr O’Leary, and other similar airlines, decided that this could be transformed and they did. But Mr O’Leary was called a CEO, not a transformation director.

Some  IT transformation programmes are genuine transformation programmes but most are change management programmes where the greatest roadblock is the behaviour of users. Believe me, behavioural transformation is as rare as hens’ teeth.

Between 1995 and 2000 I worked at ITN the UK news provider. I witnessed and was a minor player in the conversion of the newsroom from analogue to digital. That was a transformation programme.

While at ITN my job was to manage and exploit its moving picture assets which were significantly large and grew daily.

It took me five years to lead change in the behaviour of how moving pictures were used on the news bulletins and how their secondary rights were exploited. While I feel proud that I facilitated significant business and behavioural change, I transformed nothing.

So why use a word that will set you and the people you lead up to fail? The reason is that most people in business are terrified of behaving normally and feel that they must use abnormal and grandiose language.

And it’s certainly not normal to say you will transform something when you know you can’t.

You wouldn’t say at home that you have transformed the family culture by persuading everyone to sit around the table for dinner and chat instead of watching the telly. You might feel like you had done so but you know that if you do, you’re  just doing your job.

The second reason is that the word undermines trust in any change process. And without trust there is no change. If people don’t believe that change is possible and desirable they won’t buy-in. So why undermine your own change process?

The third reason is that it reminds me of Original Sin. If you are a Catholic or come from that culture you will know what I mean. If you don’t suffice it to say that the word transformation carries with it an implicit dollop of shame about how things are now.

If we need to transform then we must not just be bad, we must be terribly bad. And some business leaders are pass masters at creating feelings of shame.

The problem is that many so called transformation programmes fail because of implied shame because people don’t like to be shamed and are not motivated by it.

And if you’re trying to change something but call it transformation you might fail because of shame. And that would be a shame.

Purpose: why you should use that word carefully and sparingly

If you are reviewing your career and or organisational purpose you may find it a useful exercise to reflect on the meaning of the word purpose, it’s use and frequent abuse.

The word purpose is a noun meaning, according to The Oxford English Dictionary,  “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exits”. The example given is: “the purpose of the meeting is to appoint a trustee”.

So far so straight forward. But the purpose (sic) of management-speak, with which we are bombarded daily, is to render meaningful words as emotionless as possible.

Emotion, which is the expression of feelings, is the mortal enemy of management speak because feelings make us question orthodoxy. And mainstream management orthodoxy doesn’t always brook questioning.

So, the word purpose which was going about its business contributing beautifully to our sentences down through the ages was recently hijacked by management speak and converted into a proper noun as in “purpose-led, purpose-driven and purpose based”.

What’s wrong with those terms you may reasonably ask? Isn’t the intended meaning clear? Is it not pedantry to challenge a well intentioned use of a word, albeit ungrammatical?

Well it does matter not only because grammar matters but because the use of the term “purpose-driven” may assume that we share the presumed definition of their purpose. And we may not.

There are of course many organisations whose purpose is to promote better behaviour in business and who use the word as a shorthand for a higher purpose. This works provided everyone has a shared understanding of what that higher purpose might be.

Your business purpose may be to maximise shareholder value. Another might see that merely as a collateral benefit of providing excellent products and services. A third might view their purpose as neither of the above but to be the best in the world at what they do. And so on.

The point is you can’t be told what your purpose is. It’s yours. You can be led or driven by your purpose but not by purpose itself.

The precise use of the word matters for a second reason: it’s imprecise use can contribute to conflict in the boardroom because conflict is reduced when board members have a shared purpose. A purpose can’t be shared fully if there are preconceived ideas as to its meaning.

The third reason you should use this word with care and sparingly is because it has a direct impact on strategy, another mightily abused word.

If purpose means why you do what you do, then strategy means how you achieve that purpose. It doesn’t mean anything else. As the OED helpfully points out, strategy serves purpose.

So if there is confusion about your business purpose then your strategy will be flawed. If some of your directors feel that purpose is a proper noun with an inherent meaning and others don’t well the board is going to be at, er, cross-purposes.

This happens more frequently than you might think. I’m often taken aback in my work  at how often boards, particularly operating boards, do not have a clearly articulated purpose and a strategy which serves it other than to make money which is neither a purpose nor a strategy but a result of both in combination.

If you treat the word purpose almost as a sacred term you will derive more benefit from it for yourself and for the people you lead and for the organisation for which you work.

Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great set out a framework for what he called your business BHAG: a big hairy audacious goal. I call it purpose.

His framework requires your board to answer three questions: what can we become the best in the world at? what can we become passionate about? and how will we drive profitability?

I think his is an elegant framework for figuring out your purpose whether personal or organisational and I commend it to you provided you use the widest definition of profitability which can be intangible as well as tangible.

So, there is nothing wrong with board members wanting to be purpose-driven or led provided they all share the same meaning of the word. The problems occur when the don’t.

But communication in boardrooms is frequently constrained by interpersonal politics. This often results in confusion. The word purpose is a special word and should be used carefully and sparingly. Purpose matters.

Taking stock of your career: an alternative approach

You, like many who lead busy lives, probably take stock of your career at holiday time. Or, like others, you may do so more frequently and more formally using a variety of career management tools, books and even leadership consultants like me.

I offer the following approach as an alternative to these and, in some cases, complementary to them:

First, decide on your life’s purpose. That’s a tall order. And it’s completely different from “objective setting”. It can’t be done in five minutes but it can be done. And unless you carry out this step properly your career review will be flawed.

You don’t have to decide on a life purpose forever, just for now. You can change it later if you like. What’s important is that you have one.

But how do you go about it, properly? What more can there be to it than setting clear medium term financial, physical, psychological and any other goals you feel are appropriate?

There’s nothing wrong with this list of goals. Indeed if we all attended to this list in a robust way we might all lead happier and more fulfilling lives.

But I propose a different starting point because it delivers better results: what can and should you be?

Abraham Maslow, creator of the Hierarchy of Needs, invited us to “be what we can be”. His invocation should be part of your answer.

But I propose an additional nuance to his challenge: what should you be?

If this smacks of paternalism it’s unintended. By “should” I merely mean “ought” as in “what should you do to make the best of what you can be”. Maslow + , if you like.

So what can you be? Well that depends on what you’re offering to “the market”. For the avoidance of confusion my analysis excludes those who are not engaged with the market in any way.

In other words, what are you offering the market as an employee, consultant or pro bono volunteer or NXD in return for cash and/or intangible benefits? What could you offer? What should you offer?

You could offer more of the same, less or raise your game and offer more. But what could you offer at a maximum and what should you offer as a minimum?

The answer to what you could offer is a function of the difference between your best behaviour and worst. I use the word behaviour in the widest possible sense. It includes what you can do as well as how you do it in relation to others.

The answer to what you should offer is the difference between what you need from your work in financial and intangible terms and the cost to you in those terms.

So let’s apply this analysis to you as if you were a typical client: a senior leader in a business or organisation, although my analysis applies to all levels.

You have a reputation, a set of skills and experience as well as a level of emotional intelligence. Together these constitute your perceived value in the market.

As part of this perceived value you are known to be excellent at doing X , and have domain knowledge of Y. But what about your potential, Z? What do you or the market know about that?

In addition you have a known outstanding behavioural weakness at work A, and other career contextual weaknesses B and C comparative to others. The latter might include – though they shouldn’t and are illegal – age, race or gender. The extent to which these issues are abused is truly shocking.

Perfectly legal comparative weaknesses might include education, years of service, or a narrow range of experience. Whatever your weaknesses, your task is to manage them not ignore them.

The two most important components of this model are A and Z. Your outstanding behavioural weakness at work, as agreed by others, masks your deeper potential.

You have skills, competence and passions which no one has seen but which only you can reveal. Furthermore no one else owns your potential. That’s an awesome competitive advantage. And one which we rarely exploit fully.

If you can confront your outstanding behavioural weakness and commit to making small changes in it then you will soon find your hidden potential. It’s your hidden potential that is most valuable to the market. It is this you should focus on in your career review.

Once you have confronted your “A and Z” then you can figure out what you need from your work and at what cost.

For example, if you need high levels of autonomy, complex problems to solve and plenty of people around you but are not willing to “work all the hours” then you have to find a context that will deliver that outcome.

In rough terms I believe that if you can say 75% of the time “I love my job” – then that’s as good as it gets, except for those who make a living from their hobby.

If your self score is today less than 75% then the cost of what you are getting isn’t worth it. Often scores of less than 75% are reported to be related to a person or persons who are “making my life a misery” and “not to do with the job per se”.

This doesn’t stack. Managing relationships is what work is about. Either you find a new way of managing these or you should leave.

Either way you deserve your 75% and it’s there for the taking. The catch is that you must be willing to make the small changes necessary to achieve your true potential. Anything less is selling yourself cheap.

Why business plans should include director behaviour forecasts

It’s the holiday season, and operating board directors like everyone else are setting their Out of Office email modes to On. But while they may be demob happy, many are not happy at work at all. Not one bit.

Typically the cause of their ennui is the dominant poor behaviour of other directors, as they see it, towards them on their operating boards. It often keeps them awake at night. It makes some even weep. Over the years I’ve identified three broad categories.

First, there is bullying behaviour. It can be conscious or unconscious, but the effect is the same: other people suffer. And usually, that means the business suffers because the business is a collection of people.

Second, is passive aggression. This too can be conscious or unconscious but has the same impact as bullying does on people and the business.

The third is hubris. You can be neither a bully nor passive aggressive to exhibit hubristic behaviour. Exponents chief behavioural trait is that they appear to listen to you but not a word you are saying is getting through. They are often very nice people, and for whom the glass is always not just half full, but overflowing.

Very little upsets them. But, as one client put it, “they are capable of extreme levels of unconscious cruelty” towards others. The impact on the business can be disastrous.

While we are all capable of each and all of the behaviour listed, my focus is on the impact of those whose dominant response is just one of the above and is extreme.

So, even if only half of what I say is true regarding the impact on the business, why don’t operating boards try to predict director behaviour in their business plans? Surely it would make commercial sense to do so?

The answer is partly that the bullies, passive aggressors and hubristics (sic) sign off the business plans and partly because there is no business planning language to cover off this nebulous issue.

I propose that the solution to the second part of this problem is to have a section under the SWOT heading in the business plan that addresses poor conduct i.e. poor director behaviour over time is a top risk.

This solution may help to solve the first part of the problem because any Threat in the SWOT section of a business plan is a risk and there is precedent for including mitigation of risks in business plans as a matter of good practice.

So is this not an opportunity for business planners to put in place, at the outset, processes and governance structures that at least reduce the impact of the risky behaviour?

And of course, business planners can avoid the thorny issue of naming the behaviour in the business plan. All they have to do is to name the potential risk attached to it.

For example, one risk is the failure by any director to call out their concerns on any issue at operating board meetings which could lead to significant risks to the business.

Therefore the business plan should include processes to mitigate that conduct risk. I propose the appointment by rotation at each operating board meeting of a Devil’s Advocate whose sole purpose at that meeting, and with the full permission of the other directors, is to spot and call out conduct risk by drawing attention to behaviour at that meeting which could give rise to such a risk.

Now that step would require courage – a behaviour which is the greatest mitigator of all risk events in business. And courage thrives where directors “have each other’s backs”.

So, as you set your email to OOO for your summer break can you honestly say that your colleagues have your back or, indeed, you have theirs? What can you do to improve that mutual support when you return? What might stop you?

Perhaps you might feel better if you gave these questions some thought on the beach. At worst you might be able to make small changes that could make a big difference.

Happy holidays. Happy returns.