How to stop your CEO (or boss) from screwing up!

More than a year ago, April 2016, I set out to study leadership, by experimenting, journaling and reflecting on my own journey as the new CEO for Redington.

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I’ve tried to look back on the past year dispassionately to learn clear lessons that can frame the next year. I have tried to think about what has mattered the most, what to maintain, what to let go of and what changes to make. This has actually been really hard to do objectively, given how self-preserving our memories can be, forgetting mistakes, making us blind to so much and especially the many people who play a huge part, the conditions and even luck.

I found it really helpful to look back at my journal and blogs throughout the year:

Reflections on Leadership 1 year in

Management, as we know it, was invented 100 years ago to get people to show up to work, to do the same thing efficiently, every day and in the same way. It was not designed to engage, adapt and innovate. Yet the world, our work and industries have changed beyond recognition.  We need an overhaul of our management systems, tools and thinking to ensure they are fit for purpose.  I believe we need to reinvent leadership.

Patrick Lencioni wrote about the 5 Temptations of a CEO. Here are some related reflections on my first year in the role:

1. When you’re a new leader (frankly new in any role) there is a natural desire to prove yourself, to show that your recruiters/backers made a good decision. As a leader stepping into this role, I knew and trusted my own abilities. It was natural to make plans based on what I knew I could do, without a deep understanding of other people’s skills, ambitions and capacity. I did not ask for help enough and didn’t seek advice often enough. I tried to do too many things myself. This can only ever succeed in the short term. If you’re not careful this can lead to bottlenecks, resentment, over-dependence and abdication of responsibility from those around you. I’ve had to reframe and hack my own tendency to ensure I ask for help from my team, from the wider employees, from the Board of Directors and other CEOs.

2. Everyone looks to their leaders for certainty. Everyone tells you to project confidence in front of your staff. I think this is dangerous. My goal is to develop a firm of leaders at Redington. As a result I have tried to experiment with being vulnerable, acknowledging my mistakes, as well as inviting critical thinking and challenge. It’s been difficult (it’s not at all natural for me) but really insightful. I have found that talented people really value openness, transparency and clarity much more than leaders projecting false certainty and offering blind assurances.

3. As a leader you enter a different echo-chamber in which it becomes increasingly difficult to put yourself in the shows of your front line staff or your clients. Dan Pink says there is an inverse correlation between status and empathy. Leaders find it harder to empathise and see things through the eyes of others. I was aware of this coming into the role, so my experiment to counter this has been to regularly schedule honest and open conversations with clients, staff and suppliers to invite their constructive feedback and to see the firm through their eyes. Even if you schedule regular chats, people often struggle to give you the constructive challenge you desperately need. I need to periodically push myself out of the business to spend time in different environments, with different people and experiences.

4. Popularity is very seductive. It’s very tempting to want to be everyone’s friend. So often leaders struggle to have difficult conversations, to hold people accountable and call out the elephants in the room. Too often leaders choose to maintain harmony in the team and avoid confrontation. It’s natural to want everyone to get on, even though you know there is value in debate, challenge and constructive conflict. This has been difficult for me historically. I have deliberately worked on this all year. I have been running training sessions (using the AltMBA learning format) for all my direct reports and other team leaders on “radical candour”. We have been able to create a common language, permission and shared practice. Whilst radical candour is starting to creep into the language of the firm, it will take a lot more practice and trust for people to apply effectively across the firm (without abusing it).

5. Success is dangerous. It leads to complacency. The more that things go well, the more you start to believe your own hype. Even if you start off with a risk taking, failure embracing, growth mindset, success has the power to shift you to being fixed and risk averse, without even realising it. Every win, every successful project, every initiative landed sows the seeds of complacency, gradually eroding your growth mindset. In addition, what took me a bit by surprise is that people assume you know what your are doing because you’re CEO; success just reinforces that. The dopamine hit means you do more things that give you more status (without even realising), rather than focusing on the choices that will deliver the best results. I have to keep catching myself, asking my team and the wider firm to challenge me, to point out “what I am missing” or “what should I think about differently”. I’ve found this particularly hard, but it is the key to consistently delivering results.

I have shared these and many more reflections with my team and the firm over the past few months. On my one year anniversary I invited blisteringly honest feedback from across the firm and in response to it have tried to set up our governance, communication and decision-making differently for this next year, to learn from those lessons, setting up new experiments to deliver different outcomes.

Leadership 2.0

Having started my second year in the role, I’ve been thinking about setting out some red flags and warning signs to the whole firm, so they can keep me (as well as the other leaders in the firm) accountable. This was inspired by fund manager research process where we identify what could go wrong with a fund manager in advance using “RedRadar”. We share this with clients that are investing in any fund from the outset, so they can anticipate, be alert and prepared if something starts to go wrong.

Much like Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), these are 7 Key Risk Indicators (KRIs) for me and frankly any CEO or leader:

  1. Infallible: if your CEO or manager is not making any mistakes, they are not taking enough risk, maybe previous successes have created complacency.
  2. Unchallenged: If people stop asking the CEO/leaders questions, stop challenging them, start accepting whatever them say, this is a red flag.
  3. Frantic: If they are always running around, from meeting to meeting, neglecting rest, learning and reflection, complaining about not enough time to do the important things.
  4. Defensive: If they are defensive when you challenge or criticise their decisions, this is a worrying.
  5. Agreeable: If they start to avoid people, do not facilitate conflict, do not offer radical candour this is a concern.
  6. Indecisive: If you are always waiting on them to make decisions, so that you can move forward. If every decision goes through them, this is a warning sign.
  7. Controlling: If your CEO/leader does not invest in others, does not develop leaders around them, this is a problem. I think a good leader is always looking to make themselves redundant.

I find these are really helpful checks and balances for myself.

I know for example, I am struggling with feeling a bit frantic (#3) at the moment and am doing something about it. This was my overarching focus (new year’s resolution) for 2017, to experiment with daily hacks, habits, systems, routines and overrides to give time and attention to my family, my health and all the things at work and outside of work that are most important in the long term. It has been a daily battle, a weekly struggle and an ongoing war against my own mind, against the urgent, the loud and the easy. I am still trying to make deliberate choices, planning, scheduling, blocking out time, setting boundaries, managing distractions and creating a support network. Some days I win and some I lose, but its a daily battle worth fighting.

An invitation to challenge authority

Back to the overarching theme of this blog, I believe that everyone has a responsibility to hold their leaders accountable, to challenge them, to call them out if they show one of these warning signs and to help them succeed by not screwing up.

Of the various factors that have been tested by psychologists for what makes great teams, the one that stands out above all is ‘psychological safety’ – a shared belief held by the members of a team, that the group is a safe place to take risks and challenge authority.

Amy Edmondson wrote in 1996 in The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, that “the best team leaders encourage people to speak up; teammates felt like they can expose their vulnerabilities to each other; people could suggest ideas without fear of retribution; the culture discourages people from making harsh judgements.” My ongoing fundamental cultural challenge remains – How do we help people to feel safe, whilst encouraging them to disagree? – I’m sure this is true for most other leaders too.

It has been an incredible year of experimentation, achievement and learning. It’s been a great start to the second year. I feel privileged to serve the people in the firm, to be part of this tribe and to have shareholders who want to make 100m people financially secure.

“We don’t hire smart people so we can tell them what to do, we expect them to tell us what to do.”

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