To help mitigate the risks of executive derailment in the early stages of executive integration, there are four strategies we recommend.


You would not send a spaceship to Mars without carefully surveying the landing zone and deciding how and where you will enter the planet’s atmosphere. Likewise, before taking on a new role, a new executive should spend their precious upfront time observing and gathering as much data as possible about the business and its people. This data collection should start early during the recruitment and selection process.

Here are some tips to accomplish this:

• Do your Homework: Seek out what you can about the organization’s performance, future ambition, and strategic plans. But, more importantly, try to find out what competitors are saying and prepare a list of questions about how the strategy and values are reflected in everyday decisions.

• Connect the Dots: Talk to current and former employees to find out what has made people successful. Ask the CHRO or HR business partner to share the organization’s talent and succession plans.

• Decode the Culture: Ask for the latest employee engagement survey and dig into the key drivers of organization culture:

a. What language are people using to describe the organization’s culture, accomplishments, and business challenges;

b. What behaviors are tolerated, encouraged, or rewarded; and

c. What processes does the organization value above others (these might become part of your early wins or biggest source of frustration).


However well-suited you might be for the role you have stepped into, be prepared for the ambiguity that comes with a new mandate and untested relationships.

Building these critical relationships does not just happen accidentally – every new executive needs a plan to identify their stakeholders across the organization, in particular the less obvious ones whose names may not stick out but whose opinion is often sought-after by those in charge.

Over-investing in relationships involves a disciplined approach:

Rehearse your story and how you want to introduce yourself, why you are here and what you are hoping to learn in these initial interactions – how you first show up will make a lasting impression

Keep track of any promises you make, information you are missing, and your observations about each person you meet

Write a fundamental question that shows you mean business. General McChrystal, the former commander of allied forces in Iraq, asked soldiers the same question: “If you couldn’t go home until this war is won, what should we do differently?”


Most executives are brought into new roles to create meaningful change. And, usually, they are greeted by a mountain of problems – some in the open and others hidden from view – that they need to tackle. Deciding which to tackle first and making a visible impact on the business is a critical early test of executive integration.

That test is doubly difficult for executives who have been promoted from an operational role and are eager to create a “to do” list rather than take in the big picture. Here, the trickiest part is giving up the temptation to work harder on operational challenges – something VPs are often good at doing – and learning to slow down.

As such, it’s not always wise to play the passive observer for the first 100 days or wait six months before laying out a change plan and making changes.

Susan Doniz, who took on the CIO role at Boeing during the Covid pandemic, has a practical roadmap for new executives: “In the first 30 days, develop your relationships and form a hypothesis. After 30 days, pick the lowest hanging fruit and fix it – fast.” She feels that the window to add value to the organization, executive team and the CEO begins to close after the first 60 days.


The number one regret voiced by most executives is that they wish they acted more quickly to make changes to their team.

Making tough people decisions comes with the territory of taking on a new executive role. One CFO we interviewed acknowledged that “letting people go isn’t an easy thing to do,” and pushed off making a call on a few key individuals. “I let it linger, and it had a negative impact on my first year’s performance,” he reflected.

Most new executives need to set a hard one-year limit on getting their team in place. This removes doubt among their team and with their stakeholders. This also avoids the “drip down” effect of making waves of changes, which can create paranoia.

Tips to accelerate your people decisions as a new executive include:

Quickly sense who is “on the bus” and who is not – trust your instincts

Ask for stakeholder and peer input, and insist on candor

Do not aim for perfection in the first 60 - 100 days – seek to improve what you have

Give yourself a target date for when to have your team in place

Making it through the critical first year of an executive transition requires grit, leadership savvy and the ability to forget what made you successful in the past.

Making a successful transition requires taking a hard look at the leader you are, and the capabilities you need to develop to expand your leadership and succeed in your new role. Transitions can be a test of resilience, especially when you are promoted internally.

If you need coaching and guidance on how to make that transitional change into an executive role, get in touch with our team here.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

Shortly after starting a new Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role, preceded by an impeccable 20-year career in finance, Peter was gone. What happened?

Joining a new organization is like careening down a highway while still figuring out how the steering works. While scrambling to locate cruise control, you can suddenly find yourself driving on the opposite side of the road, making a wrong turn, or ending up in a ditch. In this two-part article, Dr. Tracy Cocivera, Eric Beaudan, and Gary Payne explore how to overcome the challenges of executive integration.

According to McKinsey and Company, between 27% and 46% of newly placed executives are seen as a failure or a disappointment within two years of joining an organization.

As you transition into a new executive role, you can learn from Peter’s failure through strategic planning, building relationships, proactive decision-making, and understanding the value in your team.

Peter was the CFO of a $1 billion technology firm with operations across three continents, and managing a team of 50 finance professionals. His professional background was impressive, including 15 years as Vice President (VP) Finance at a high-growth technology business which had grown through an aggressive global mergers and acquisition strategy. When he was recruited by a private equity-backed organization seeking a CFO to scale the business and undertake an Initial Public Offering, Peter leapt at the opportunity. Confident and excited, he moved quickly to re-organize his team and launch a finance transformation agenda.

Six months later, Peter’s agenda ran into a wall, as did his trail-blazing career. He left the firm with a generous exit package, but with a bruised ego and sense of self-doubt.


1. Weak relationships - Despite his genuine attempts, Peter failed to forge a close relationship with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and his Chief Strategy Officer, who he underestimated.

2. Trust deficit - He hardly spent time getting to know his team, and instead became quickly frustrated by their shortcomings. He took on the critical reporting tasks he had previously handled as a VP Finance and became mired in minutiae.

3. Lack of communication - He never expressed his doubts and challenges – either with the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) or an external coach – believing that would be seen as a weakness.

Peter’s experience is not unique. Adjusting to a new role, a new team, and demanding stakeholders can be a daunting challenge, even for an accomplished executive. Too often, we have found leaders like Peter are “underprepared for – and unsupported during – the transition to new roles.” (McKinsey & Co., 2018)

McKinsey reported that a successful transition can lead to a 90% likelihood that teams will meet their three-year performance goals. By contrast, unsuccessful transitions can result in a 20% drop in employee engagement and a 15% dip in team performance.


We set out on a quest to interview CEOs and senior executives in the United States, Canada, the UK, and China to better uncover the biggest struggles executives face in a new role. We found that, in many cases, executives have learned to manage culture and organizational politics using instinctive or learned behaviors that may not carry over naturally to a new environment.

The odds of success for newly appointed executives have become even more lopsided during the pandemic, as many workplaces have shifted to remote and hybrid work environments. The CHRO of a large Canadian telecommunications firm noted that remote work has doubled the time it takes for new executives to find their groove.

Combine that with the alarming tendency for both leaders and companies to overestimate their ability to fast-track the success of new executives, their teams can wind up in utter chaos. Worse, it can have a broader impact on organizational performance.

In Part 2 of our article, we will be highlighting the four main strategies we recommend to help mitigate the risks in the early stages of executive integration. In the meantime, if you would like to find out more, you can get directly in touch with us here.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

As an executive or leader, time is the most valuable commodity, and yet it is in a fixed supply. While it is obvious that time management is important, sometimes we can lose track of what is a priority in the rush of our daily work. Harvard Business School conducted a study on CEOs and found that 79% of them worked an average of 7.8 hours over the weekend, on top of 9.7 hours per weekday. An executive role is evidently a consuming one, and so ensuring that you have control over that ever-ticking clock is a priceless skill.

A proact/react ratio is one way to measure how effectively you are using your time. If you

find yourself constantly interrupted by phone calls, knocks on your office door, and in meetings on short notice, then you may be in react mode. There are so many things coming at you at once that all you can do is react to them as and when.

But imagine how it would it feel to be making the calls you wish, having the meetings you think are important, and initiating action? If you find that you have time to think and engage with your staff, you may be in proact mode. You have control over your time and delegate it accordingly, being proactive and doing things before they have the chance to become something you have to respond to later.

So how do you move from react to proact? One way is to trust the people you

hire. Careful delegation to skilled, caring people with whom you have a great professional relationship with can give you the hours to do high level work that perhaps only you can do, by virtue of your position. This will allow for valuable uses of your time, such as more customer interaction, time to understand the competition, and developing a clear vision of what could be coming down the road.

Another thought is to set a one-hour time slot in your schedule at some point during every week, in which you schedule nothing. Do not catch up on e-mails and allow no interruptions. George Mitchell, former US Senator and Secretary of State, used this method, asking his executive assistant only to interrupt him during his thinking hour if his wife or the President of the United States called. Emergencies happen, but if you can be intentional about giving yourself time to think, read, and assimilate market data, you are moving into the proact realm.

Additionally, journaling as an executive can prove to be extremely beneficial for time management. It is a great way of strategizing for future endeavours, as you can reflect on things that have happened and find ways to mitigate potential problems in the future. On top of this, it will simultaneously help strengthen your leadership capabilities – the founder of Impraise argues that leaders need to be able to master the five soft skills of active listening, self-compassion, empathy, vulnerability and honesty. The privacy and ability to be honest when journalling allows leaders to develop and hone these skills.

If you need further guidance on how to start tackling your time, you can get in touch with us here.

Now that you have been introduced to what life as a first-time CEO has in store, here are three recommendations for emerging CEOs:

  1. Build, develop and lead through your leadership team

Building their leadership team has always been an important part of the CEO job; but the composition and purpose of this team is changing as businesses themselves take on a wider understanding of their purpose.

Traditionally a CEO’s goal was to develop a “high performing team,” in which each member was responsible for a different function that created value for investors and customers. But thanks to a growing emphasis on Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) considerations, today’s leadership team must now serve a wider caste of stakeholders than its predecessors. Employees, for example, are now considered primary and equal stakeholders to investors and customers. Similarly, many investors are now evaluating companies based on their social and environmental relationships with the communities in which they operate.

As a result, modern CEOs need to build “high value creating” teams, in which success is measured by the team’s ability to create simultaneous value for a broad array of stakeholders. A side effect of this widened imperative is that success is no longer measured by looking at how individual members of the leadership team execute their individual functions. Instead, a successful leadership team has to work interactively, across functions, to ensure that it represent the interests of (and creates value for) all stakeholders.

For first-time or new CEOs, building a value-creating leadership team—and making sure that you get the right people on it—is crucial to your ability to focus broadly across the needs of the organization and to increase value by steering company purpose and culture. But it is not easy to do. A Systemic Leadership Team coach can be invaluable in helping the CEO build, lead and motivate the perfect team.

  1. Build informal relationships with individual board members

The board can be an excellent source of guidance for CEOs, and newly appointed CEOs should go out of their way to build informal relationships with individual board members who can provide the advice, feedback, and support that CEOs often fail to receive from other members of their organizations.

But building these relationships can be harder than it sounds. Your board members, after all, do not work in the office down the hall; they may not even live in the same country. This is why close relationships between CEOs and board members rarely just fall into place like they often do between CEOs and key members of the leadership team. Instead, building relationships with board members often requires conscious effort. New CEOs will need to go out of their way to creatively engage their directors on a regular basis outside of the formal strictures of the boardroom.

  1. Work with a coach

Executive coaches are an excellent resource for first-time CEOs. As neutral third-party observers, coaches provide the kind of constructive feedback and skills training that CEOs, as bosses, often struggle to get from their team members. They also help CEOs improve their skills in conflict management, responsibility delegation, time management, and listening—all of which are necessary for new CEOs to successfully adapt to the role.

The purpose of executive coaching is to increase performance by improving emotional intelligence, which leads to a more empathic and self-aware leader. Even the best CEOs can get better at their jobs. Some of the most influential CEOs in the last decades—Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt among them—have benefited tremendously from executive coaching.


The CEO job can be one of the most rewarding jobs in business. It is also unquestionably one of the most difficult. Incoming first-time CEOs should expect the role to bring a variety of changes to their lives, most of them positive, some of them negative, others downright confusing. By surrounding yourself with trusted advisors, by consulting mentors, and by hiring a coach, both new and seasoned CEOs can minimize their isolation and get the feedback they need for success.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

If you are reading this, chances are you have encountered articles telling you that a good chief executive officer (CEO) needs to be a decisive, results-oriented leader who can simultaneously articulate a strategic vision for the company, embody its culture and values, and represent it to outside entities—all while driving growth.

You probably also know that CEOs walk a tightrope between the often-contradictory imperatives of their job. They must be optimistic, capable of seeing opportunities wherever they look, and at the same time be capable of assessing the risks that lie beneath those opportunities. They must be great listeners and team-builders, able to synthesize information and opinions from a variety of sources; but they must also be decisive, willing to make decisions without consensus in moments of informational uncertainty.

The CEO position is comprised of psychological and emotional complexities; knowing what a CEO does and knowing how being a CEO feels are very different, and making the leap to the lead executive chair is one of the single most challenging job changes of most CEOs’ careers.

So, here are eight things you should know when making the transition:

  1. Being boss-less is not all fun and games

Most first-time CEOs come to the role after decades of hard work—decades during which they had peers with whom they could informally trade feedback and superiors to whom they could refer certain hard-to-make decisions. The fact that CEOs have neither bosses nor peers within the company constitutes a real and drastic change, one that requires adjustment and often drives the social isolation, lack of feedback, and fear of decisiveness that first-time CEOs frequently experience.

  1. Responsibility can be isolating and painful

Almost by definition, when you have boss, you also have someone to whom you can defer responsibility for the most consequential or challenging decisions. But when you are the CEO, you are that boss. For many executives, this is something they have longed for: the moment when they get to give orders without having to run them by someone else. But with this authority comes an intense emotional burden: suddenly you are the person making decisions—often based on limited information—that can have serious ramifications for the company’s health and the quality of your people’s lives. Indeed, at times you will have to choose between those exact things. Even experienced CEOs can find the weight of authority incredibly taxing, especially in times of crisis.

  1. People will treat you differently

CEOs hold an almost reverential position in many companies. There are several explanations for this fact, but one of them is that it is the simple consequence of power disparity. If you are an employee, the CEO of your company is not just in charge of what you do at your job every day, they are in charge of whether you have your job at all. And this fact understandably influences the ways in which employees interpret and behave around their CEO.

  1. People will do what you say

One by-product of your authority as a CEO is that what you say—and how you look when you say it—matters more than it did earlier in your career. For this reason, experienced CEOs are often quite careful when they speak; they know that even a spur-of-the-moment idea or opinion can, if voiced, have lasting impacts on the company’s culture, behavior, and reputation. As a new CEO, you can’t bounce ideas off just anyone. You can’t have emotional reactions around just anyone. You must calculate the potential interpretations and ramifications of every idea and opinion before you voice them.

  1. People will act as you act

As the CEO, you embody—whether you intend to or not—the culture you want to see in your company. The way you speak, the way you comport yourself, the kinds of financial decisions you make on and off the job—all of these things send a message to the people who work for you. You may be astonished to learn, as a new CEO, that your employees talk about the model of car you drive and how much you paid for your house. But they will; and they’ll infer things about you and your values from that information.

Culturally speaking, CEOs need to understand (and leverage) the fact that their behavior has a symbolic dimension. Getting rid of corporate jets, for example, may have a tiny impact on the bottom line in the greater scheme of things, but it can go a long way in revising the tone of the company’s culture.

  1. You are the external face of the company

Your own employees are not the only ones hanging on your every word and deed. As most first-time CEOs know, chief executives spend a significant amount of time and energy representing the company to the public—that is, to the media, to investors, and to stakeholder communities. But it is important to note that as the CEO, you are always serving in this capacity. Your life is now a symbol for something larger, and there are certain penalties that come with being a symbol. You give up a significant amount of anonymity, for example, and you give up certain freedoms that come with that anonymity. For some new CEOs and their families, this takes some getting used to.

  1. You are overseeing something that pre-exists you

If you are coming into the company as a CEO, you are inheriting years, even decades, of relationships, precedents, expectations, and practices—many of which will never be described to you.

  1. You will not have total control over your success and failure

Our culture tends to credit an organization’s successes and failures to the person in charge. If the company performs well, the CEO is applauded. If it stumbles, the CEO is blamed. But factors beyond the CEO’s control can dictate both successes and failures. As a CEO, you will be blamed for things that you feel like you had no control over, things you feel like you inherited, just as you’ll be applauded for successes that may not be directly linked to your actions. Either way, you must understand that the core responsibility of your job is to focus on creating value in the space between these extremes.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

For most of history, publicly traded companies have defined their purpose rather narrowly: they existed first and foremost to serve shareholders, and their interactions with customers, employees, governments, suppliers, the environment, and wider communities were subordinated to this agenda. Now, however, the definition and scope of a company’s purpose is clearly changing. Throughout the business world, people are asking why shareholders, many of whom have only passing affiliation with the company, should be prioritized over stakeholders whose lives are deeply tied to the company’s existence and decisions?

This can be a tricky topic. Conversations about ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) strategy and stakeholder management can at times be muddied by idealism, cynicism, or both. But getting ESG right isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s an important part of running a profitable business. Every organization and leadership team must now take the time to think more broadly about how they can interact with and capitalize upon the interlocking network of constituencies to which they relate.

So, how do you go about implementing a solid ESG plan?

How do you drive those values down through your organization, embedding a sense of corporate responsibility into the company’s culture?

And how do you manage your duties to non-financial stakeholders while continuing to provide value to shareholders?

Getting ESG right is hard – but Systemic Team Coaching can help produce great results by helping teams evaluate the systems that they interact with, identify the stakeholders involved in those systems, and develop strategies that accommodate a wide array of stakeholder needs.

In other words, Systemic Team Coaching helps teams pluralize their understanding of value and success.

What is Systemic Team Coaching?

Systemic Team Coaching was developed by Dr. Peter Hawkins, who in his book Leadership Team Coaching, defines the practice thus:

Systemic Team Coaching is a process by which a team coach works with a whole team, both when they are together and when they are apart, in order to help them improve both their collective performance and how they work together, and also how they develop their collective leadership to more effectively engage with all their key stakeholder groups to jointly transform the wider business.”

We work with leaders and teams to define their function in relation to the function of their wider organization and that organization’s impacts on a wide array of stakeholders. We help teams work together to improve their collective performance, placing special emphasis on how a team’s interaction approaches, communications, values, incentive structures and goals can be further aligned to the needs of the business and the needs of the wider stakeholder community.

How it works: The Five Disciplines of High Value Creating Teams

Also developed by Peter Hawkins, the Five Disciplines of High Value Creating Teams is a highly practical Systemic Team Coaching framework that gives teams guidance on how and where to develop their effectiveness.

Systemic Team Coaching 5 Disciplines

1. Clarifying

Clarifying is the process of developing a set of agreed-upon objectives, and it refers to what the team needs to focus on in order to drive strategy. This typically includes addressing the team’s purpose, vision, strategy, objectives, roles, and responsibilities. As coaches, we work with the team to clarify their tasks, their wider purpose, and the methods they intend to utilize—making sure that the company’s core business is weighted alongside diversity and other ESG concerns.

2. Commissioning

Commissioning refers to agreeing upon a relationship between a team’s objectives and its stakeholders. For a team to successfully meet its business goals while also pursuing meaningful ESG strategies, it needs to have a clear understanding of stakeholder requirements and to articulate a success criteria that takes these requirements into account. In this phase of coaching, our team coaches work to expand the team’s understanding of its relationship to its wider stakeholder system, especially as it relates to the ESG strategy.

3. Co-creating

Co-creating refers to teamwork and teamwork methodologies. Either consciously or not, all teams work together to build their own behavioral norms and value structures that, taken together, help determine their collective performance. In order to maximize that performance, and to create the healthiest possible workplace culture, our coaches work with teams to help them consciously build the teamwork methodologies that work for them and will generate the most value.

4. Connecting

Connecting is the process of combining the first three disciplines in such a way that ensures effective stakeholder engagement. It means identifying all stakeholders, defining their unique relationships, and building the appropriate strategies to serve them. Ultimately, the term stakeholder includes an incredibly wide range of people and groups, each of which requires slightly different things from your organization. Some of them (e.g. employees and suppliers) provide value to the team; others (e.g. communities and shareholders) rely on the team to create value for them. Managing these relationships is the responsibility of the whole team not just the team leader.

5. Core Learning

Core learning refers to how the team needs to continually learn and adapt in order to meet the evolving needs of the market, the organization, the team itself, and its stakeholders. One of the challenges of establishing an ESG strategy is coming to terms with the fact that your stakeholders will evolve alongside your operations. Opening new business units, launching new product lines, relocating teams to new locations, expanding into new markets—all of these core aspects of doing business will change the inventory of stakeholders that have to be served by both local and senior leadership teams.

Team coaches help the team step away from their day-to-day tasks and reflect upon their performance processes. The goal here is to codify not just specific lessons the team has learned but also the process by which they were learned so that the team can begin to coach themselves. By focusing on the process of learning rather than simply the lessons themselves, teams prepare themselves to react to the fluid and unforeseeable needs of the future. This stage of coaching also involves supporting and developing the processes and performance of every team member— identifying strengths and weaknesses and coming up with tactics for future situations.

For teams to perform at their best and cast the widest possible net of value for the widest possible suite of stakeholders, they need to be effective in all five of these disciplines.


Systemic Team Coaching can help leadership leaders and their teams improve their collective value- creating performance, allowing their organizations to work toward a pluralized set of goals that provide simultaneous benefit to a wide variety of stakeholder groups.

In working with clients across the industry spectrum, we’ve noticed that nearly every team and organization has stakeholders of whom, for one reason or another, they are either unaware or are potentially impacted by unrecognized ESG concerns. Systemic Team Coaching is an excellent approach to ensuring the maximum effectiveness of a company’s ESG strategy.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

The Five Disciplines of High Value Creating Teams Graphic courtesy of the Global Teams Coaching Institute

To make a difference for International Women’s Day 2022, OrgShakers’ leadership coaches are proud to offer FREE 1-hour one-on-one online sessions to women professionals throughout the whole of March.
To book your FREE 1-hour one-on-one online coaching session CLICK HERE.

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Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

This was my initial reaction to a recent article by Josh Bersin, Online coaching is so hot it’s now disrupting leadership development, where he explores how AI is transforming the way coaching is delivered – and to whom.

Now, I believe in the power of AI and the amazing things it can do to drive the HR agenda in ways that we’ve never dreamed possible. Here at OrgShakers, for example, we are using the latest developments in AI and machine learning to identify, map, and source hard-to-find talent.

But I was shocked when Bersin pointed out that AI might be able to monitor online coaching sessions to help coaches (and coachees) focus on the key issues – and even ‘give nudges’ to both parties to guide discussion during the actual session.

Am I stuck with a fixed mindset? Would this mean having to let go of some of the principles that are fundamental in a coaching relationship? I’m so used to the coachee bringing the agenda for the session. And what would this mean for the confidentiality of the coaching?

Then I started to reflect on another key point raised by Bersin – that the growth of companies like BetterUp, Torch, CoachHub, and SoundingBoard is ‘democratizing coaching’.

I can see that their business model certainly has advantages for companies wanting to provide coaching for more of their employees. However, I think online coaching is only one route to a more inclusive coaching culture.

The ease of availability and the lower costs delivered by online coaching are not exclusive to these providers. We’re all used to coaching virtually now and, while I’m starting to see some clients in person again, I will continue to work with many clients remotely.

Maybe it’s because I’m writing this having just come from a presentation by the truly inspirational Stephen Frost (a globally-recognized diversity, inclusion, and leadership expert, and a friend and partner of OrgShakers) that I’m wondering whether this approach really can achieve ‘coaching for all’ – the kind of coaching that Senior Executives have benefited from for years.

Previously I’ve written about the pandemic leading to more people being able to access coaching. Coaching definitely becomes more accessible if we offer one-off, on-demand sessions or the ability to contract for a few hours.

So, as we think about embracing online coaching, I suppose I have two asks! That we are clear on what’s on offer. And that we don’t lose the value and quality of a true coaching partnership.

Only then can we be sure whether (or not) we should.

If you are interested in a complimentary coaching session with an OrgShaker, look out for our International Women’s Day activity!

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

Diversity brings a range of experience, differences in mindset, background, upbringing, world view, etc. and, as a result, diversity of thinking.

When we talk about the business benefits of diversity and inclusion we are thinking of the removal of inequitable barriers and widening of the talent pool, the richness of culture that a diverse workforce can bring and, from a business perspective, the wide range of viewpoints and ideas which create an engine for innovation and increased profitability.

Harnessing other people’s brains is a key leadership skill, as is also being able to understand others’ needs and appealing to their hearts through defining and articulating a motivating shared purpose.

The yin and yang of leadership – ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ – should, I believe, be updated to ‘Sharing Hearts and Pooling Minds’.

The drive for diversity and inclusion in organisations is, thankfully, moving forward at pace and will hopefully lead to more diverse humans around the leadership table and thus diverse thinking in the most senior of leadership teams.

In my experience of working with senior leadership teams, there is often a vague understanding of the need and benefits of diversity. They know it’s a ‘good thing’ morally but often cannot articulate why from a business perspective and, even if they get the diverse thinking argument, they fail to fully leverage the benefits.

Many appear ill-equipped to know what to do with ideas different to their own when these appear around the senior leadership table. At its worst, they are confused that the new person that they have invited to share the table isn’t thinking like they are, isn’t towing the party line or ‘fitting in’.

Some leaders seem particularly focused on creating and ensuring team harmony, seeing the strongly held differences of opinion as conflict and to be avoided. They see a team as functioning ‘well’ when there is not dissent. But, as with many things, it is ‘how’ we challenge, not the challenge itself, that is the key. We don’t want harmony at all costs – and we don’t need outright conflict.

What we do need is ‘respectful challenge’. Ensuring that there is plenty of emotionally intelligent and respectful challenge of each other, is in my opinion, a business culture change that we need to make happen and soon.

Respectful challenge sits alongside co-creation but acknowledges that we need to draw differences of opinion out, in order to benefit from them and truly co-create, not bury the differences or paper them over in the name of being collaborative.

I am suggesting that we need to bring differences of thinking out into the open around the leadership table in a productive manner; to make it the norm to challenge openly, honestly but respectfully; to know that we don’t have the only answer, the one and only route; to really listen to and question each other with curiosity; and to find the nuggets in each of our ideas that when combined really are pure gold.

Our aim for leveraging diversity of thinking surely is not to agree quickly and move on, or shout down ideas that don’t make sense to us, our aim is to shine the light on different ideas and opinions, examine and find the optimum ideas for our organisations and then agree how to proceed.

Making the time to listen to multiple ideas drawn from many people may seem to be the antithesis of our fast moving, quickly decisive ways of working currently (and I’m not saying that we don’t have to make quick decisions in times of urgency), but we seem to have a business trend which pushes Pace over Quality – and I believe we are the poorer for it.

I have seen the following range of issues in leadership teams (sometimes several in the same team):-

  1. ‘Group think’ – where there is a lack of diverse thinking at all, such that the members are so aligned in their view of the world (same backgrounds, experiences etc) that “there cannot possibly be any other way to do things or think about things” – can there?
  2. Intimidating leader – will brook no dissent, closes down debate, already thinks they personally have all the answers and that their job is to get everyone else to see the merit of their idea and agree with it.
  3. Learned helplessness – often as a result of the intimidating leader, people give up airing views especially those they believe are not aligned with the leader’s viewpoint. They tend to leave the ideas and strategy to the alpha leader. This is dangerous for so many reasons – how good are the ideas from the leader? Harnessing other ideas is likely to create better end results and get buy-in. People are demotivated when they don’t have a voice – even senior leaders – and may leave.
  4. Silent dissent – the team seem to agree with a course of action, or do not surface objections around the table, but mutter dissent outside of the meetings in small groups of allies. As a result, issues return to the table time after time or proceed slowly as people do not agree with the course of action and drag their feet.
  5. Open aggression – the team all sit in their silos only thinking about their own business function and argue their position without listening to each other or focusing on what is best for the whole organisation.

None of the above are particularly healthy or lead to optimum functioning of a leadership team.

So, what are the solutions? Here are a few:

  1. Hire diverse talent and recognise that what you will hopefully get is lots of difference in opinion, thinking and ideas. As a leader YOU need to learn how to best harness the differences and not try to bend diversity to fit into the existing ‘group think’ or shut down dissent. (I coach leaders to manage their concern over dissent and control their tendencies to take over and drive only their point of view).
  2. Really understand that there are individual differences in thinking, not that someone just doesn’t get what you are saying or isn’t as smart as you! Remember that our goal is to understand each of our team’s unique viewpoints on topics precisely because each person truly does not think the same as the next and may have some great ideas and insights that may not occur to us. (I run neuroscience training to help individuals understand this key point.)
  3. Develop the habits of active listening and questioning with curiosity, create team norms around these behaviours. I do this work with individuals and teams.
  4. Encourage and make time for challenge – not conflict – and make respectful challenge a stated behaviour of your leadership team, reminding each other every meeting and interaction.
  5. To respectfully challenge, team members need to feel that the environment is psychologically safe for them to step up and share a different perspective. So, develop your emotional intelligence, EQ – the ‘how’ we interact and communicate with each other – and hire talent with strong EQ or develop the EQ of the whole team. (I run individual EQ assessments and coaching and EQ awareness sessions).
  6. Ensure that whoever is leading the meeting draws out the thinking of all in the group that wish to contribute and allows for different methods of contribution. For example, some people prefer to reflect and then suggest ideas – so send details of the key issues out ahead of the meeting or allow them time after the meeting to come back with thoughts.

Now, the cry I often hear when discussing respectful challenge and co-creation is “it takes so much longer to hear others’ views”.  My response to that is yes, it can take time, but the outcomes will be of higher quality, you will innovate more frequently, you will have more buy-in and less instances of having to ‘do-over’ as potential objections and new ideas will have been addressed.

Of course, there will be instances when, in a time critical situation, a more rapid response may be needed – and often this will need to lean on the expertise of one or two people in the group advising the others.  That said, in my experience once respectful challenge becomes the norm within a team it becomes quicker to achieve results that truly work as opposed to the delays that arise from the huddles of dissent outside of the meetings.

In summary, in order to really leverage the benefits of diversity we need to develop habits and behaviours which allow us to harness everyone’s unique brains. It’s not enough just to invite diverse thinking to the table and then think ‘job done’, we have to really be prepared to open up our minds to differences of opinion and build a culture of speak up and listen.

We need to build the emotional intelligence skills to actively listen, question with curiosity, build the skill of respectful challenge in all members of our leadership teams, and be humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers and our job as leaders isn’t to provide all the answers ourselves.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

Last week, I wrote about a personal milestone, the 40th anniversary of my first solo flight in an aircraft aged just 16, and what I have learned about business leadership from my flying experiences.

This first article was focussed on self-awareness, risk mitigation and shared responsibilities.

There are three additional areas that really stand out for me.

The first of these is about effective communication. Pilots are taught to communicate effectively, for example with Air Traffic Control. In order to do this, they have to learn to listen carefully, to allow the speaker to finish what they are saying and to seek clarification of any detail of which they are unsure, no matter how minor.

Effective business leadership and outstanding communication are inextricably intertwined. The strongest leaders spend much of their time listening for understanding, they actively want people to speak up without fear of a negative consequence and they respect differences of opinion and champion the best ideas, regardless of who has voiced them. They also quickly adapt their communication style as circumstances develop.

The next area is about creating the right culture – a culture that facilitates careful consideration and calculated risk-taking on one hand and that also deals constructively with the aftermath when mistakes happen. It recognizes when something has gone wrong, it brings it to the table and focusses on what can be learned, rather than attributing blame.

Most pilots learn significantly from what’s gone wrong for others and consequently have the humility to openly admit to their own mistakes and share what they have learned as a result. In my experience, the best business leaders are comfortable doing the same.

Finally, and most importantly, flying for most pilots is fundamentally about continuous learning and self-improvement. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and become more skilled and more effective than the day before. This goes way beyond any regulatory requirements and can include both formal and informal training, listening to others and active self-reflection. In my own case, it extends to a personal journal that I complete after every flight.

Similarly, business leaders who stop learning stop leading. Business leaders who create most impact tend to look on every business challenge as an opportunity to learn something new for themselves, and then share their learnings so that individuals, teams and organisations can adopt a similar mindset and achieve sustainable growth. They are able to step up from the hurly-burly of the everyday and take responsibility for their own learning and for the learning of those around them. In this way, they also create the strongest legacies.

In business, the overall approach to continuous learning differs by sector, organization and individual. Whatever the approach, mentoring and executive coaching can play a vital role. They help leaders and aspiring leaders develop self-awareness, thinking and understanding, good judgement and communication skills in a safe, thought-provoking and creative way that is personalized to the needs and circumstances of the individual.

They foster a mindset around continuous learning and self-improvement in order to maximise personal and professional potential and, for many people, they ultimately help them become more fulfilled in their careers. For me personally, this is what I most enjoy as a mentor and executive coach.

That day 40 years ago remains vivid in my memory, particularly my instructor stepping out of the aircraft, smiling and signing me off for solo flight. After I had landed, a little stunned at what I just done, his congratulations and just a few words that made a big impact on me, “A textbook first solo, I’m sure it’s the first of many.”

He was correct. I just hadn’t anticipated that I would find parallel learnings in flying and in business.

If you’re interested in learning more about mentoring and executive coaching, or if you have anything to add to this article, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020

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