Twice a week at Notting Hill Genesis the entire Executive Board (eight of us) meet for a cup of coffee. “Let’s discuss that at coffee” means we commit to discussing an issue amongst ourselves in an open, collaborative and strengthening way.
We had a problem. Our Executive Board was seen as a diverse group of people running their own empires. George, running the sales team, came to see me quite often, asking me to have a word with Helen, in charge of product. She was being unreasonable and wouldn’t allow a change of design. Helen, on the other hand, usually had something negative to say about Colin, the Finance Director. He wasn’t allowing accruals, meaning her figures were always seen in the most pessimistic light in front of the main Board. And so on. The idea of these one on one meetings was that I, as the Chief Executive, would side with them and issue an instruction. Or that I would find a reasonable compromise they couldn’t achieve alone. I used to find this irritating, and was heard to mutter about “knocking heads together”, or not wanting to be the Mum to a bunch of rivalrous children. If an item was coming to our Executive Board meeting the proposer would routinely consult me, get a view, amend the paper if necessary and bring it forward, knowing I would push it through for them, even if there was an objection from another department.
Throughout the organisation there was an awareness of “what the CE wants”. Quite junior people were aware of my preferences to a ridiculous degree and tried to please me or win favour by doing what they thought I would like. As they treated me like a Queen, in their own departments I let them be the Squire – in charge and in control. Staff were generally loyal to their own King or Queen, and didn’t automatically co-operate with rival Squires. If asked they would say that they were not sure what the overall strategy was,
At the time I had created an organisation where I managed “strategy” and the main board – the team were allowed to run their own departments, more or less free from interference. Any areas of difficulty or disagreement, I would decide, using what I thought was my superior skills of judgement. Things went quite well for a long time.
Eventually however things started to go wrong. One person’s judgement is always only partial. No-one really challenged me. Each Directorate was at war with the other one, although the disagreements were suppressed and not expressed directly. We made poor decisions because we were not a team. We didn’t do the right thing for the company or the customer as staff were set up to do what they thought one person – the boss – wanted.
After things had come to a head we had a genuine change of heart and decided to operate quite differently.
We consciously adopted collective leadership.
The whole team was tasked with agreeing the purpose and strategy of the organisation. I stopped telling everyone what I thought or wanted and tried to listen. That was quite hard! I looked for differences of opinion around the table and helped the team work out a reasonable compromise. When one person was an outlier we tried to find a solution that would address their worries. We spent much longer reaching a view than we had ever done before and I began to worry that we would simply run out of time to do our main jobs. As we slowly, but surely, began to hack a new strategy out of the rock face, we began to grow as a team. We gained a much greater understanding of each others’ viewpoint and experience. We all listened better and thought more creatively rather than just reverting to our old certainties.
These early meetings were quite difficult as some areas were difficult to resolve. But as people felt listened to by everyone else they became more receptive to new ideas. Sometimes one or two ganged up and I tried to undermine this, in an attempt to get a considered team standpoint.
The experience of working together over several months to create a genuinely shared vision, mission and strategy, was very positive. Firstly we really got used to each other and learned about each other, in depth. We also created something we could share the organisation as a whole – a very clear view of what we were here for that everyone could share. Finally we got used to dealing with conflict, and difference, and the whole process of listening and working through difficulties. This stood us in good stead when dealing with difficult issues as they came up week after week. The organisation started to notice something very different – now there was a collective view. The Directors started to work in a new way. They now encouraged a range of opinions before giving an opinion. They listened to the staff – actively seeking the contrary and dissident views – and tried to find a solution that worked for all. They were respectful of their Director peers and brought their difficulties and issues into the room. We began to experience a much more harmonious organisation.
We decided to continue the discussion over coffee. We now meet up twice a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays as it happens – for an hour or so, from 8.45 to 9.45am. We meet in the canteen or break out areas in a couple of our main offices so the staff can see us sitting, talking and working together. We are available if they need us. Now, twice a week we check in with each other, share what has been going well or badly. We get decisions or a view, or just keep each other in the loop. We reflect on what happened in meetings of staff, the board or with key stakeholders. We do all we can to attend, and if we are needed at an early meeting elsewhere we tell the others by email in advance. Our coffee mornings doesn’t replace our fortnightly Executive Board meetings that have papers and decisions and minutes. The collective approach we have developed means there is minimal need for colleagues to lobby the CEO. We are very open with each other and there are no secrets. We still work quite hard to reach a reasonable compromise on the tricky issues but everyone is heard and contributes.