Twice a week our Executive Board meets for a cup of coffee – here is why

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.



Being reflective at work

Recently I put forward an idea to someone I work with. It was a radical idea and I don’t think it was very well received. But I am pretty sure my colleague could not think of an easy way to say no without appearing mean or petty. So he said “Let me reflect on that”. He meant – I need some time to think it through. Perhaps he didn’t know what he thought or he needed time to find a better proposal or an acceptable way to reject my idea.

And then I thought that to me reflection is much more than thinking twice about something.

Reflection, done with openness, can massively help a leadership team (or any group for that matter) work out the dynamics in the group that often get in the way of effective leadership.

The Reflective Group

In my organisation we make a habit of reflecting as a group after a major event – such as a Managers Forum, an all-staff workshop, or a Board awayday, for example. While there maybe a few observations on the behaviour of individuals we are always trying to understand the behave of the “group as a whole” – not the individual. However the group’s behaviour is often expressed through the behaviour of an individual, pair or sub-group.

Try to work out what the behaviour means, getting a bit deeper in your reflection than just description. What is happening to the feelings of the group?  By discussing your findings as a group, can the group become more self-aware?

Here are some of the questions we consider when we reflect as a group.

  • Was there any anxiety in the group? Why? What helped reduce it?
  • How was any conflict dealt with?
  • Is conflict avoided by any means?
  • Were we able to be open with each other?
  • Did you see any flight or fight behaviour in the group?
  • Was dependency an issue?
  • Were people “pairing off”?
  • Were there any identifiable sub-groups?
  • If there were smaller, table group discussion – how did the smaller groups fare, compared to the dynamics in the larger group?
  • How did we behave if we left or joined the group?
  • How were any latecomers or early leavers dealt with?
  • What did any disruptive behaviour (eg attempts to change the agenda, point of order type activity) impact on the group?
  • Are there divisions in the group such – by Department, gender/race/age, office bases, paid staff v volunteers etc?
  • Was there a fight for leadership? Do members of the group want to lead or to follow?
  • Is competitive behaviour present?
  • Did the group reach a consensus after carefully considering the issues or was someone’s will imposed on the group?
  • Was the group clear on its task or were there hidden agendas?

An aware and healthy organisation is able to spot and discuss these issues. Off-task behaviour, as it is described and challenged, helps the organisation to move forward. This helps us focus more energy and resource on our primary task and less on “politicking”, making the organisation safer, more productive and effective.

How important is emotional intelligence?

One of the parents at school was telling me about her son Lawrence. “Oh he is so sharp, so intelligent,” she remarked. “He is also really confident”. She paused. ” Perhaps he is overly confident. He talks to adults like he is on their level.” Making allowances for parents who love their children and always see the best in them, I would say this analysis is somewhat one-sided. The young chap in question, who I could observe in the children’s play area,  was not so much overconfident as under-aware. He appeared to be oblivious to the impact he was having on others,  adult or child. I am not a professional so I have no idea whether this behaviour is something he will grow out of when he is less protected,  or whether he will find ways to compensate. But I am certain that, despite his undoubted intelligence, he is not very socially or emotionally developed and this will possibly hold him back in later life.

At work too there are colleagues who are intellectually able but don’t mix well with others, who are not good at team work or co-operating to get things done. Often these people feel that they are high performers and sometimes they are moved into management positions even though they do not have the right skills to manage other people.

The foremost skill we need at work, especially if we want to get to the top, is the ability to understand the emotions and feelings of our co-workers.

Getting others, and your team as a whole, to carry out their tasks effectively, means we need to understand what makes them tick. A manager who, despite their qualifications and ability to analyse a problem, cannot quickly and accurately analyse and understand the feelings of their team, will not be able to get the work done. If they suffer from the same “overconfidence” issue that Lawrence displayed, their colleagues will not co-operate well.

One senior finance manager I used to work with – Derek- was a high achiever in terms of degrees and post-graduate qualifications. He was quick to work out the key metrics, to do sums in his head, and reach the obvious solution without breaking a sweat. But colleagues didn’t like Derek very much. They found he issued instructions without asking for their views. Confident of his intellect and technical skills he was impatient with those who didn’t “get it”, and saw the world exclusively from his own point of view. He didn’t listen much to those underneath him. He became passive in relation to his own manager, more or less doing what he was told. His world view (especially in overestimating his own value and contribution) showed that he lacked  self-awareness and a realistic appreciation of what needed to be done.  Other teams, with whom he had to interact, felt he was superior, and looked down on them. They didn’t automatically include him in their group and the distance between Derek and his natural peer group grew deeper and wider. When he saw things going wrong his low emotional intelligence meant he could not read what was going on and his responses and reactions were not  appropriate, compounding his emotional distance from his colleagues.

Because Penny was  intellectually competent she was able to get and hold on to a senior job in financial services. There are lots of people like her in finance and IT teams where technical skills are especially important. But to succeed today in big organisations the need for social and psychological skills is as important, if not more so, that technical knowledge. As a matter of fact technological knowledge can be learned from books. Emotional and social knowledge is learnt, mainly, from experience, over a prolonged time period, which starts in very early childhood. Which is why I worry about Larry’s ability to adapt to his social reality.

And of course the opposite is also true. Amanda worked in a very junior job in my organisation, starting off on the lowest pay grade we had when she was about 24 years old. In her interview she described planning her gap year in Latin America to evidence her project management skills. After a few years in a menial admin job I became convinced, based on her acute emotional intelligence, that she could get to the top. Rapid promotion followed (although all interviewers were not convinced) and she tackled each new job effectively. Initially she didn’t know much, but she learnt a tremendous amount, always working hard to learn the specific professional knowledge required. She funded herself on an MA programme in housing, and was willing to  take on new challenges whenever they arose. By her mid 30s the organisation had a bit of a crisis. A senior Director left suddenly and there was no automatic successor in the team. We took a risk in asking Amanda to take the role on, on a trial basis.  Initially she knew very little  about the specific work on the Directorate. But because the team liked and respected her they embraced her as their leader. She didn’t pretend to know it all, and her humility and willingness to learn endeared her to the team. They supported her as she quickly learnt the technical knowledge required to excel in the job.

Overall I am convinced that this ability to work with others, to inspire trust and to be accepted and welcomed as a leader, is what makes a great manager. People who are skilled at

  • self-knowledge
  • reflection
  • emotional intelligence
  • listening, understanding, caring about people and adapting
  • honesty and
  • giving and receiving trust

make the very best leaders. I would always prefer to recruit a great manager who makes themselves emotionally available to the team and give them the time to get up to speed technically, that a technical expert who lacks emotional intelligence.

What has been your experience?

How self aware are you?

I spend quite a lot of time talking to senior colleagues and it often strikes me that the key difference between a really good member of staff, and someone who will struggle to advance, is the degree to which he or she knows themselves.

In considering self awareness, I find the Johari window a helpful model. I love  it is named after the two psychologists who drew it up – Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1916–1995). The diagram is both useful and dynamic. Things can move from one pane of the window to a different one. For example from the “hidden self” to the “open self” as we grow more trusting in other people.  If we invite feedback from a range of trusted sources we can understand, and control for, our own blind spots.  The “unknown self” is usually very well defended so we may not get much from this area, but sometimes we discover deep truths about ourselves and they will creep into one of the adjacent boxes.

Johari Window
The Johari window (Commons)

The basic idea here is that our public persona – the arena – is what is displayed to the world. This is how we appear and are broadly understood. We are generally want others to know this stuff or are unconcerned about it. In contrast we also have lots of personal information that may not be widely known. This is private, or hidden from public view. While this information is guarded some of it  may be disclosed to people that we trust, say family or close friends.

Next is our blind spot. This is something we don’t know about ourselves but is widely seen and understood by others. I am sure you have had lots of colleagues like this over the years. Someone who is always complaining but thinks of themselves as a happy-go-lucky optimist. A member of staff who is overly sensitive and prickly but believes they are a great team player. What about the tactless person who blunders into conversations saying inappropriate things – David Brent in “The Office” would be a good example of someone with low self-awareness.

Now we all have blind spots – in our eye there is a part of the eye (at the top of the optic nerve) where we cannot see. The rest of the eye compensates but the idea is that in our personality we all have areas of habitual unconsciousness, lacking awareness.

However if we work quite hard, invite and listen to supportive feedback, we can discover sometimes get greater awareness of things that we fail to appreciate on a regular basis. This might be about me – I don’t say thank you enough – or it maybe about my failure to appreciate something going on around me – I didn’t pick up that Enid was feeling very uncomfortable about doing something I wanted her to do.

Of course this is a difficult area. The mentor or manager has to be open to new thoughts about the person who seeks honest feedback, and not themselves blinded by prejudice or stereotyping. But if the listener is open, experienced and genuinely has the best interests of the person in mind, then they can not only listen well, but also potentially help their colleague to learn and grow.

I once had a colleague was marvellous in every way but his blind spot was that he was a bit too trusting and always saw the best in people – usually women. Now this is not a terrible blind spot to have – after all most of the time people respond to this approach – of course being trusted is a marvellous thing and having a manager who believe in us is a positive experience. But once in a while this colleague got caught by trusting someone too much, who wasn’t really worthy. But on the whole his enthusiasm for his team was helpful and gets results. As his manager however, knowing about his blind spot, meant I (who was less likely trust people too much) kept a watch on his colleagues and if I felt he was being taken advantage of I could suggest that this might be happening.

I also have blind spots – of course! I lack sensitivity to people and have to put lots of effort into gauging this. I need help working out why things are going wrong or how to handle the most difficult situations. In fact I have so many blind spots I almost always prefer to take a decision in a team, or at least after plenty of discussion and consultation with others who have a different perspective.

And then the unknown self. This section of the window is present for completeness, as of course there is much we do not know about ourselves. Some of it is never available, some of it we discover from time to time and it usually becomes part of our hidden self. People who undergo psychoanalysis are trying to unearth this unconscious domain in the hope that it will help them attain greater self-awareness.

However lots of therapy or counseling is probably off the radar for most of us. We have to rely on three groups to get greater self-awareness.

  • Close friends and family. Not all  our blind spots are negative – they can inclue being too generous or nice, as we saw above. But hearing what might be holding us back can be unwelcome and difficult to hear. If our family members are close to us, observant and reflective, they can balance our own understanding with greater distance or rationality.  I often talk things through with my partner and children and I often find they moderate my sometimes extreme views, especially those befuddled by negative emotions
  • Our manager. Again not all managers can give really helpful feedback. Many run their one to ones or appraisal processes in a formulaic way (remember the “shit sandwich”?) Not all managers are self-aware themselves and many are in a competition with their staff, or have prejudices or one-sided views about them. But if you have a good manager, who wants you to do well, they will know a great deal about you from their lived experience of you. Having watched you work, seen you deal with conflict, difficulties and a variety of situations they ought to be able to give you the most accurate and relevant feedback. This is the compassionate manager I try to develop – appreciated by the staff who work for him or her, and the people at the top. Courageous, honest, reflective, kind, supportive and focused on learning.
  • Not all managers can do this work of helping us expand our self-knowledge. They are too busy, self-obsessed or ignorant of how to motivate and support their teams. This is where a mentor or coach might come in. Someone who is not your line manager but who is dedicated to help you achieve your goals and to help you achieve greater happiness.

Achieving greater self-awareness, and opening up to others, also builds trust in you. Showing your vulnerabilty can be refreshing and generally results in others being happy to share more of themselves which makes organisations stronger and more authentic.


Valuable values

Family Values

We all have a set of values. What are yours? Is doing what you say you will do important or not? Would you take something back to a shop if you underpaid? Alternatively would you wear something with labels to an event and then return it for a refund? Do you enjoy gossiping about people you work with? Is being on time something you stress over? How comfortable are you with challenging a racist remark?

Our values are deeply held and embedded in us from our earliest days. If you are forced to breach them you will feel great anxiety and emotional distress.

Personally I have a big thing about arriving on time – I hate being late. I think being on time is courteous – I wish to convey that I believe other people’s time is just as important as mine. I wouldn’t expect others to have to wait for me. I know this value was served to me as a kid, and walked through hundreds of times as my parents took me to school, appointments, parties, etc and always made sure we “left enough time” to get there, even if we had to wait outside until the surgery opened.

You can pick up a value set almost instantly, when you meet new people, visit a family or join a company. That person is attentive when I am speaking, listening carefully, without interruption. This family involves their children in decision-making. Our company has engaging people on reception who see it as their job to make visitors feel welcome. Of course negative values come through loud and clear too – a company that doesn’t care about its customers will convey this in the way it deals with enquiries or complaints.

So given all of us have values – strongly held views about how to behave, breaches of which cause us to feel anxious or angry – why do organisations insist on putting them up on the walls? Whose values are they anyway?

What normally happens is the senior team, or a cross section of staff, or the board at an awayday elaborate which values are meaningful for them. As a result the values are perhaps aspirational, or what people would like to convey. Here is one from an NHS Trust:

Our values are: Pride, Respect, Empathy, Consideration, Compassion and Dignity

These are good values and describe how most of us would like to be treated, especially when unwell (the pride is presumably a feeling the workers would be expected to have).

However is this how you have been treated when you have visited a doctor or hospital? I love the NHS but I have experienced very long waits from harassed staff who are too tired, too overworked and busy to engage. Few NHS trusts can consistently show respect/empathy/compassion to every patient at all times – a matter of fact approach, with a keenness to conclude things rapidly, is more the order of the day.

I would argue that values are communicated by behaviour and interactions rather than glossy posters in the lift or circular diagrams in reception.

If you want staff (or your children) to put your values into practice you have to practice what you preach. If you are a leader, a manager, a teacher or a parent, every transaction and action will be scrutinised by your underlings. Of course words back up the actions “Get in the care, we are leaving right now!” – but you cannot be a family that says it cares about punctuality if you don’t practise punctual behaviour. You don’t get fit by writing fitness goals on a blackboard but by doing star jumps every day.

So where do we go with values?

I think discussing what matters to you personally is important – for me truthfulness and loyalty matter a lot. But our organisational values belong to our executive team, and they have come out of much thought and discussion over a number of years. We don’t publicise them, but we do our best to live them.

We believe in openness, honesty and a willingness to confront difficulties.

The first two are clearly related, but being open is very important to us. This means we bring issues to the attention of colleagues who can address them. It means we tell each other what is happening and feedback how we are feeling, especially when we spot trouble. Creating an open culture takes lots of time. Many people are not very comfortable with it, until they know it is safe to speak openly. Openness cannot exist where trust is low – you have no idea if something might be used against you. So encouraging people to surface, name or call out things that are often closed or rarely mentioned, takes courage. Senior staff have to set a clear example or it just won’t happen.

In terms of honesty we want to make sure that everyone we deal with – staff, customers, suppliers, auditors, regulators etc – are told the truth. We actively avoid spin. If anything we are somewhat downbeat about our achievements. We do, of course, congratulate, thank and celebrate success, but in a rather English way. We rarely sack or discipline people but if they lie – this includes fraud, stealing or covering something up – we take a hard line. If your company makes a big song and dance about “celebrating” everything it can make it hard to say “this is not right”, or “this is just not good enough”. If you claim you have had a great year when the figures show otherwise do you think your staff will believe what you say, or will they think you are deluded?

Finally – why are we willing to confront difficulties? Again this is related to openness and honesty. There are managers who avoid conflict at all costs. This creates an enormous barrier to making progress. Issues fester, or are swept under the carpet. Two teams or Directors are locked into a permafreeze standoff. Nothing is said when Marvin always arrives late. If leaders admit that they got something wrong, or by showing they will take something on that is hard to resolve, everyone feels more confident and comfortable in making similar challenges. When the senior team show, by their actions, that they will get rid of road blocks, political decision making, denial or avoidance, then the staff are empowered to do the same.. A management team that shows it is courageous enough to step up and do the job gives every one else confidence that the organisation is focused on the task rather than consumed by rivalries and non-work activities.

How Leaders are chosen

A particular company, built up and led by a powerful, highly competent CEO – Steve – had created significant capacity and ability in his second tier. One Director in particular – Harry – was being coached to succeed to the top job, and was given the title of Deputy Chief Executive. Everyone in their sector saw Harry as the heir apparent – he was very able, well-respected and liked internally and throughout the industry.  When Steve decided it was time to move on Harry was expected to apply, and he did.

The Board met the candidates and decided a candidate from a competitor company – Maria – was very promising. She had done well in her previous roles and was particularly strong at presentations –  at interview she excelled. Harry did very well too – in fact the board thought he was appointable, just that the outsider was a little better. The Chairman announced that a change would be a good thing – shake it up a bit, kick a few backsides internally and impress the investors with the Maria’s achievements.  So they appointed her to much fanfare.

They had not given much thought to how their decision would be received inside the organisation. The staff had all been expecting Harry to be appointed, the DCE and obvious successor whom they all knew and liked. Then instead of the prince being crowned they heard that someone they didn’t know was coming from outside to shake things up. They started to worry about their jobs and livelihoods. Maybe they were overreacting or fearing the worse, but they felt snubbed, as if they too had been rejected. They felt that Harry represented them too, the work they had achieved together, their values, culture and beliefs.

The die was cast. Harry found no consolation in being told he was the “runner up” (nice word for loser). He started looking for new roles and moved on soon afterwards. The Director team accepted Maria and tried to like her, but they soon found fault. After a short honeymoon period they began to compare her negatively to both the departed Steve and Harry. In the end they sabotaged Maria and she too left, after less than a year. The planned departure of Steve had ended in tragedy, upset and confusion. The organisation felt bereft, perhaps guilty, misunderstood, and certainly leaderless. What the hell had gone so horribly wrong?

None of us is on this earth forever and all us give up our jobs at some point. When that point comes – due to a leader taking on a new job, a retirement or a dismissal – it will send shock waves through an organisation. Staff and investors will react with joy or sadness and share prices often move, indicating the markets view of the CE’s standing.

How the transition to the next leader is managed is more challenging than many boards realise. It’s a lot easier if the organisation has already trained up his or her successor and can rely on them stepping up to the new role. I would argue that whenever possible, if they can do the job, appoint the best internal candidate, even if he or she is not the best in the interview. This will build trust in the whole staff team and they will walk through walls for the board in an attempt to prove that the trust invested will be repaid.

But it’s often not like that. Some are chosen by God; others via family connections. For the rest of it is usually an application and an interview.

close up digitaries famous heads of state
Photo by Pixabay on

Many boards love the idea of “going to the market” as if a shopping trip is the best response when their leader leaves. The process will necessarily introduce risk  – anyone can throw their hat into the ring, including the disaffected and failing. Board members, who often come from different industries, can feel a bit unsure. They engage a “search” expert when the answer is often right under their noses. As they encounter each new candidate the board can become mesmerised by the shiny new features. This person is brilliant with great qualifications and credentials! This man is recommended by his current Chairman who thinks he is marvellous! This woman has single-handedly turned around a failing organisation, and so on.

As they become excitable, checking through the virtues of each possible hire, they listen with optimism and begin to dream. They compare an idealised individual with their own, comparatively ordinary, top team. These new people are completely charming, they behave impeccably (in an interview) and their shoes shine. The executive team, who have worked for the company for years seem dull and familiar by comparison. Many have crossed the Chairman or made a mistake or two in the course of many years of heavy lifting, and this is often remembered rather than the steady track record of achievement. Of course in an interview, or with the head hunter who earns good money from an outside appointment, the untried newcomer can appear to be much better equipped to do the job than the familiar “internal candidate”.

Let me say it again. A good leader creates successors. The Board should support this by working with the senior team, bringing them close and helping them achieve. Unless something goes wrong, and despite it being good practice to advertise jobs, they should have a presumption in favour of the person they have already trained and invested in.

The case for the internal candidate

  • No chance of mis-selling, or gilding the lily – what you see if what you get
  • Board and the staff have seen this person “in the wet”, ie how they perform under the real pressure of the job (as opposed to in an interview) is already well-known
  • He or she has a reliable track record that can be evidenced
  • They really know the business, especially if they have moved through the organisation, and hold part of the collective memory
  • Already en-cultured, they have a good understanding of the starting point even if they are committed to making changes.
  • Generally much preferred by the staff who will see this as continuity, with a degree of change, compared to masses of change and lots of unknowns
  • Appointing the internal candidate gives encouragement and reassurance to the staff. If Harry or Helen can get to the top, so too can they. This is an organisation that rewards effort, teamwork and loyalty.
  • By appointing the internal candidate the board confirms their absolute confidence in their own top team and strategy, and confirms that it has been planning the succession and transition for a considerable time.

When getting someone new in is advisable

Of course making the right decision means the board, the outgoing CE and the senior team are all on the same page with a high level of understanding, trust and teamwork. This goes without saying. However there are times when getting fresh blood in is absolutely essential. The following should lead a board to seek outside help

  • The organisation is failing in a significant way and the old CE and his or her team is responsible for the problem
  • A complete change of culture or business is required, and having engaged them it is clear that no-one on the current team is able to lead the transition
  • The Executive Director team is weak and inexperienced and none of them would even get onto a short list. Even so I would give them a chance, perhaps acting up for a period to see if they can learn on the job and rise to the occasion


Everyone worries (or should worry) about group think and complacency. This is always a danger in a good quality steady state organisation. But what usually goes with this is tremendous strength and loyalty with the whole organisation united and going in broadly the same direction. Bringing in a new leader, even an insider, will always change things and cause some upset which is good and necessary. However continuity is important if the organisation is going to continue to deliver and function effectively. With a stable foundation the new leader can take the organisation forward in a new direction much more effectively than someone who is not already tried, tested and trusted.

What do you think? And what has been your experience?






Employee engagement

I have been writing for a few weeks now about the need to involve staff in designing the future, especially in a period of major change or merger.  If the person who runs the airline always sits up front how will he know what the experience is like for the majority who travel economy? He could travel in economy, eat the food, experience the seating, the noise, the discomfort, the overflowing toilets and the fretful children. This might enable him to work out how to improve his company. But it is easier and better to talk to the staff who work in the environment day in and day out. They are many and the wisdom of crowds will operate. If we don’t ask them most workers are too polite to mention it. Giving feedback is often seen as rather negative or “moaning”. Those who speak up soon get a reputation for complaining and often seen as trouble makers when senior managers really need to hear what people think.

It is strange how this sorry state comes about. The very people who know best are almost always deliberately excluded from giving their view on what is wrong, where waste is happening, how things could be better. Somehow most of the “top team” believe that they know best. Now of course the senior staff have greater responsibility for the company sucess, and they often have access to the levers needed to bring about change. Ordinary staff sometimes only see things from their local or department point of view and the leaders have the chance to consider the wider viewpoint. But they need to empower their teams to contribute to the analysis and combine their skills and viewpoints with those of the senior team.  Often the people who know best are the people who are actually doing the work.

I know organisations that when confronted with staff feedback will say things like:

“Oh Derek – he always brings that up in staff meetings!”. Or “The staff in the Exeter office are always moaning”. “Honestly we offer a cheap as chips service – they can’t expect a Rolls Royce at Mini prices” (I have heard this from a Housing Association Chief Executive).

Yet really listening to our staff and letting them have the authority they need to sort out our most challenging problems is the most amazingly effective ways to create a successful organisation. Getting clarity about who can take decisions, and delegating the authority and budgets to resolve problems is, in my view, the single most important thing we can do to create successful organisations. 

Proper staff engagement is also highly motivating. Abraham Maslow writes about the intrinsic reward we receive from doing something that springs from inside ourselves, rather than what someone else asks or pays us to do. As we take more responsibility at work, even if our job status or income doesn’t change, we often get a strong sense of intrinsic reward. For example we gain

  • Greater self-respect
  • A strong sense of acheivement
  • Knowledge in that we have learned something new
  • A feeling of having done something worthwhile
  • A belief that we have contributed something to the organisation, made life better for ourselves, our colleagues or our customers

Recently a young woman I know – Gerri – despite having a busy and responsible job, and two young children, took on the role of running the Parent-Teacher association at her kids school. The role involves fundraising, producing a bulletin, organising events and chivvying other parents to get involved, give time or money. I questioned her about her involvement as she has minimal free time.

Gerri explained that she is getting great experience that she cannot get anywhere else as her caring responsiblities mean she cannot apply for a more senior job. Because she is smart she has already started to think about the relationship of the parents to the school, how to encourage all parents to give not just the few, and how to communicate more effectively. Her motivation is to make the school better for her own kids, sure, but more than that I believe she wants to experience the sense of achievement that these demanding volunteer roles can deliver – not just making the school better, but also the joy of learning, building a community, getting to know others, motivating her peers too. ,  I believe that all of us are like Gerri – we want to suceed and we will work very hard to get there, if we have the motivation.

What really matters to all of us is the link between our own involvement and the eventual outcome. In large organisations this link is often not that clear and it is important for senior managers to make sure each team umderstands the importance of the work that they do every day. I have always found the anecdote about the janitor who “puts a man on the moon” a bit cheesy, but our overall role in the bigger picture is important to us. Not only knowing how our hard work helps deliver the organisation’s key task, but being applauded for our efforts is highly motivating. Probably more so that a wad of notes in our virtual brown paper pay packet (how many of us remember them?). Being recognised for our contribution, being praised or congratulated by our boss, is probably the most rewarding thing at work (assuming we already have fair pay, terms and conditions). I can remember specifically getting thanked publically for specific achievements long after I have forgotten what I was getting paid in various jobs.

If you are a manager give someone specific, sincere praise today for good work, saving money, innovation, commitment, constancy or kindness.

Finally employee engagement helps to undermine tension between departments. As change is difficult and uncomfortable most of us will try to avoid it. This becomes very apparent in a merger. In a merger, when we generally have two different ways of doing most things, the teams quickly meet deadlock. The only answer appears to be that one must triumph over the other. One will win and the other will be obliterated. This creates fear and of course defensiveness.  The thought that often helps us breakthrough partisan thinking is a refocus on the needs of the customer. This enables people to move away from a defensive position into a more creative one where they can think afresh about the best way rather than just sticking with what they know. Helping our staff to focus on the customer, and with considerable freedom to let the past go (the managers have to demonstrate a willingness to drop their partisan thinking first!), ensures that the new service will be better than either of the past approaches.

If our key objective as an organisation is well understood, we will get that experience of joint endeavour, that we really are all in it together. It will help ensure the teams find new ways of working across the boundaries.

When working with senior staff in local government – some with a social services background, and some with education backgrounds, it was not possible to move forward to create join teams and movement across the professional boundaries, without a shift towards considering the needs of the child as being primary. Fairly soon they began to design new child-focused services and eventually came to the conclusion that they needed training in both teaching/education skills as well as child protection and similar skills.

Henry Mintzberg, in Managing 2011 says, “organisations are built from the bottom up. People want to contribute to a sustainable enterprise and it’s amazing what you can get out of motivated people who are really engaged with the organization. So long as business remains a team rather than a solo effort, management will stay at the heart of it. Instilling a sense of purpose is a better means of motivation, than an obsession with short-termism, bonuses and cashing out. Building sustainable organisations and creating a legacy that will outlast you: that’s what a manager should be trying to do.”

Good stuff.

Do you do real employee engagement or do you go through the motions?