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It Starts At The Top




When I was born, mum had the hospital re-take my baby photo several times because I was frowning.  Frowning seems to help me think. I’m sure I’m a good candidate for botox but the truth is, no one would recognise me walking around looking pleasantly surprised.


Leaving the conversation with David was like you just figured out a crossword clue and are mentally counting the letters but don’t have a pen.  An impressive man with an impressive career, being asked to start sessions with me after 15 years as a Director was like telling Elon Musk to think outside the box, or meeting with a wedding planner with no partner or desire to marry.  He was too mortified to discuss that he was mortified. I empathised with his confusion.


The Board, ever cognisant that they could not ignore their responsibility,  held concerns about lack of psychological safety. It looked like a team and was instead a single leader unit. Brilliant people, including a hard fought international recruit to the team,  came and left quickly feeling they couldn’t speak up or enact change.  Other senior peers stayed and diluted themselves accordingly, and David always reported matters to be 'in hand' at Board meetings. The Board couldn’t see a fire but were starting to cough from the smoke.


I sat in on a few Executive team meetings which were profoundly pleasant. I started to wonder if I was the only one in the room who didn’t floss and hadn’t done my tax.  The thing about smart people is that they learn quickly not to bang their head against the wall and choose another path to take 100 feet before they’d have wound up in a dead end.  Consequently, David never felt there was any conflict to resolve and the team never sensed there was any point in not following the unpublished script. Rainbows and unicorns were the topic of discussion with occasional appearances by the good news fairy.


I’ve always found the kind of people who thrive around a leader and the leader’s tolerance for conflict or disruption, to be predictive.  The price in this case was a failure to innovate, and a business stream that should have been a Do Not Resuscitate was a sink hole for limited funds because David had a soft spot for it. Fascinatingly, the Board also found it difficult to raise their concerns about psychological safety.


Work with David ended well with his decision to do a number of things deliberately differently. He embedded recommended processes to improve meetings, reported more feedback and received more diverse suggestions.


I asked him, toward the end if he knew he could choose between 20% better performance and innovation, but had to swap it for 20% more discomfort, what he would choose. "I know how I should answer that", he smiled. But we both knew it was going to take some time.


Boards, and senior leaders have a task more urgent than they know in understanding and complying with this space. If it doesn't come from the top, it's unlikely to come at all.

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