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.

♯PrimeMinisterMay & CEOs: Three Essential Steps to a successful ♯First100Days


Step 1 Articulate a credible purpose in which you believe

Mrs. May did this yesterday, partly. She said that her objective is to create a society based on social justice. The problem is that I don’t believe her. Not that I don’t believe she believes in what he is saying but that it’s not a credible objective. She is as unlikely to achieve social justice as Mr. Cameron achieved his Big Society – whatever that was – because we all know that social justice is a woolly unachievable aspiration.

We also know that her own track record in the pursuit of social justice is mixed. What has she achieved under this heading? She may have done lots, but I don’t know about it. Indeed she is known to be tough on migrants. As a migrant myself, I find that at odds with an assertion about caring about social justice. I’m also wary of the phrase “giving us more power” over our lives. That’s’ code, in my mind, for abrogating responsibility.

It also sits uncomfortably with the fact that her new home is located in the Borough of Westminster. In some of its wards, 78% of children live in poverty (Government Indices of Multiple Deprivation). It has the third highest rate of child poverty in London and nationally (SNA Report 2014). It is one of the worst boroughs for ethic minority groups in terms of health & wellbeing (Runnymeade Report 2016). This is all on her doorstep. She has been working in that borough as Home Secretary for six years. Maybe she doesn’t know about it. But if I were setting out my stall as The Social Justice PM I would know about my starting point.

So, if you are a CEO or a function leader starting your First 100 Days make sure that your objective is as credible as it is clear. Had Mrs. May said that her objective is a 10% increase in social justice measured across seven headings then I would have been impressed. But she didn’t.

Step 2 Understand that strategy is a simple word meaning “how”

Strategy, one of the most misused words in the English language, means “how” you achieve your objective. Michael O’Leary’s strategy was to annoy customers so much that they expected nothing more than a safe flight. He succeeded. Pure genius, as the Guinness people love to say. On this analysis Mrs. May was notably silent on the issue of how, precisely, she is going to achieve social justice. If she has one and didn’t tell us, then I worry why. If she hasn’t, then I just worry.

So, I strongly advise you never to articulate an objective without declaring a credible strategy to achieve it. There’s that “c-word” again. Credibility. It’s important. But I have sympathy with leaders who have difficulties formulating their strategy. This is acceptable provided you admit that your current strategy is to find strategy. What isn’t advisable is to have no articulated strategy. She hasn’t.

Step 3 Outline a plan to implement your strategy, and stick to it

Whilst plans are lists of actions to be taken by people to deadlines, they also reflect decisions on agreed behaviour. The most important behaviour Mrs. May has to illustrate in her first hundred days is her ability to create an environment in which her team can thrive in the implementation of the strategy to achieve the credible objective. This includes her behaviour in making appointments.

Already, on Day 1, she has illustrated that she doesn’t yet fully understand the importance of this step in the appointment of Mr. Johnson as Foreign Secretary. We know she doesn’t trust him. So she must be setting him up for a fall, as he will. That may cause mirth but it will be very serious for us all. Mr. Davis’ appointment as Head of Brexit is also worrying. She should do that job. But how can she? She voted Remain. But maybe she didn’t mean that. If so, she’s not credible and her first hundred days will end in tears.


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My advice to Boris…

So, what can we all learn about leadership from the Referendum that we can usefully use in our organisations? What behaviour did we observe that we should avoid? What advice would I give to Boris if he were a client or to you, if you were a client about to seek a leadership position?

Well, in simple terms – Boris and Nigel won, and David and Jeremy lost. That at least, is what you could be forgiven for thinking.  In truth, they all won because none of them was really committed fully to Europe in the first place. And they all lost because they created a terrible mess. The lesson therefore is: unless you have a clear purpose, strategy and behaviour plan – what I call PSB – you will lose, even if you look like you’ve won. Their purposes were far from pure; their strategies were consequently flawed and their execution plans and behaviour were appalling.

But Mr. Johnson is likely to become Prime Minister or if not, he will almost certainly be close to power. But he shouldn’t kid himself. He has led no one anywhere. He influenced the voters; he didn’t lead them. There’s a big difference. And on current form I predict that if he does become PM, it will end in tears. He shows no aptitude for leadership. My advice is: don’t do it unless you are willing to change. I gave Mr. Cameron the same advice in my May 2015 newsletter. He mustn’t have read it.

To be successful you need to create an environment in which others thrive in the service of a shared purpose. You have to care, genuinely. Frankly, it appears to many, that he doesn’t give a damn. After the vote Janan Ganesh wrote in the FT that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove wore “…the haunted look of jokers at an auction whose playfully exorbitant bid for a vase had just been accepted with a chilling smash of the gavel”.

But what if Boris came to me and said “Ciaran, I desperately want to be a great Prime Minister like Winston Churchill. I know I can do it. In fact I was born to it. I’m extremely bright and all that joker stuff is just an act. But I need to ensure that I don’t trip up. I hear you’re a jolly good adviser so what do you say, eh?”

I would design for him a tailored three step Programme:

Step 1 Reflection: where am I now and why? Where am I going and how?

Boris is where he is, like all of us, because of his formative years. According to the experts, we all took decisions during those years as best we could in response to the environment and events, good and bad, that we experienced as young children and teenagers. The problem, we’re told, is that we continue to behave as if those stimuli still exist, when they don’t. A reader of Sonia Purnell’s biography of Boris requires no training in Freudian analysis to guess at the genesis of some of his current behaviour – serious deafness until he was eight, divorced parents and brutal experiences at school. How did he cope? In leadership terms, it’s got to do with Emotional Intelligence, a chief component of which is self-awareness. Are you aware of your behaviour and where it comes from?  And why you are where you are in your career. Were you the bully or the bullied or somewhere in between?

So, I would find out if Boris has low or high EI in terms of self awareness and if he was willing to make small changes in his behaviour or, as the experts say, “re-decide” how to behave in the light of new contexts. This might sound like psychobabble to some but even Boris himself “attributes his ‘evasiveness’…to not being able to hear [at that early age]…and fearing he might say the wrong thing….”. So clearly he is connected to these issues. The question for him and any leader is: what do I want to achieve for whom and why; am I wiling to make the necessary changes in my behaviour to achieve it? If the answer is yes, then Boris could surprise us all and out Churchill, Churchill. If not, he should back out now.

Steps 2 and 3 to follow in my next blog post