Tag: leadership

Just Governance

Measurement, Meetings, Organisations, Teams No Comments

My colleague David Dowe and I were chatting recently.  We got onto thinking about what it takes for an enterprise to be ‘governed’ well and to avoid governing systems going wrong (or at least not work well enough).


There is a wide variety of ways organisations are established and led from owner run SMEs to the largest offices of State. ‘Governance’ is more likely to be explicitly discussed and not just assumed where there are formal structures such as Company Boards with non-executives, Charities with Trustees or campaign Steering Committees.


For many years now, there has been a bit of a fashion for ‘Good Governance’.  What does that mean – and how can it be assured?


In answering this question, we have drawn on our experience of working in all sorts of environments over the last couple of years: from technology accelerators to school systems; professional associations to conservation charities; improvement projects to academic institutions.


So, this is our governance ‘top ten’:

1)   The FRE framework for organisational success brings three fundamental roles for governing groups to mind.  The first part of FRE is thinking of Focus: is the purpose of the organisation shared? Is the strategy clear – is it understood? Has the governing group set out its intentions (and limitations) for the wider staff to work toward and within? Second in the FRE framework is taking Responsibility: do governing boards avoid overstepping the mark and resist micro-managing the executive? The third part of FRE is the Example of senior leaders, including board members or trustees, in setting the cultural tone for an enterprise.  This is a crucial, and often neglected, role of those involved in the governance of an organisation.  The remainder of this checklist probes further into this territory of direction, scope and culture.


2)   Governing groups are often expected to be many things: a sounding board giving advice; maybe providing a sort of litmus test before an idea is rolled out; and frequently a decision-making body too.  It is a heady mix trying to be a critical friend to the executives and part of checks and balances in securing the best decisions and way forward.  It is necessary to be clear on the scope of the governing roles – and to be sure that the governing group has the skills, and more important, the attention and awareness to do the job.  Is the group clear what its primary purposes are? Does it spend time giving an overall direction with an overall strategy?  Does it recruit and support a good CEO and then give them a clear sense of their autonomy and limitations, including how their performance will be reviewed?   How far is the governing group involved in assuring itself that overall goals are being achieved, the finances are secure and the best possible organisational culture is established?


3)   There are many cautionary tales of governing groups failing to take an interest, or get an accurate impression of, organisation culture (for example).  Many boards govern through dashboards and metrics – but organisation leaders can game the measures and Boards find them hard to discern.


4)   The mechanics of governing group meetings can be inefficient with an astonishing amount of managerial time spent preparing for board meetings, reporting, following up issues.  There can be a degree of gaming and a seeming disconnect from the actual business sometimes.


5)   Finding ways to keep in touch with both team delivery and organisation performance without overstepping the line into micro-management is a key balance and challenge for governing groups.  Boards tend to deal in papers and presentations.  It is very hard to really understand what staff are feeling and know whether the CEO is doing a great job or not. Their information often comes from others inside and outside of the organisation which introduces a time lag.  Finding ways for the Board to get early warnings of unrest, confusion and non-attainment are important. Useful indicators can be the experience of interacting with staff who are only occasionally and unexpectedly encountered further into the organisation, spending time out and about and being alert to ‘weak signals’ (e.g. through complaints).


6)   In doing its difficult work, is the governing group willing to have Critical conversations not just around issues of strategy and organisation process but also culture?  For true consensus to emerge important issues need to be named and given sufficient air time on frequently packed agendas.  In shaping the agenda and discussion it is important to recall previous discussions and reports – not just taking ‘matters arising’.  Finding ways to remember previous promises made by the executive and have time to explore and question that productively and collaboratively.


7)   Given these challenges, there are often choices about how to arrange (or, frequently, rearrange) governing systems.  In our experience, there tends to be an over focus on the structural options at the expense of the behavioural.  For example, a committee structure is more likely to be reviewed than the sort of decision making and scrutiny discussions to achieve a real improvement.  There is a sort of ‘Inverse Attention Law’: where the changes that are most needed are less likely to be considered. Using a biological metaphor, sometimes the ‘Anatomy’ (that is, the structure of a board or its sub groups) needs changing, but more often it is the ‘Physiology’ of how the existing parts work together that is crucial.  Getting the governing groups ways of working right is often more necessary than the overall wiring.


8)   The role of the Chair is crucial. There are many high-powered Boards where strong personalities are quite deliberately given a platform to speak as separate voices.  It is possible for the management team to take away different opinions on direction or performance. It is easy for chairs to either let all the voices speak (wishing to be seen as inclusive) or become too dictatorial.   Pulling together a wider ranging debate into a clear corporate line can be difficult to achieve.  This summing up is sometimes avoided to allow personal agendas to be pursued through the ‘smoke and mirrors’ after a meeting.  Chairs are often chosen for their sector knowledge.  However, the key role is to manage a good discussion and lead the development of a strong team (where you can disagree well en route to agreeing a collective line that all are publicly committed to, and where the group holds each other to using the best possible behaviours).


9)   It is possible to invest too much power in the board, council or steering committee.  Sometimes board members are very high powered and sit on lots of governing groups, possibly collecting too many appointments and not having sufficient time to give to their role.  So it can be useful to find other ways to improve the advisory architecture so that checks and balances are in place.  Setting up working groups and advisory groups can be used to show organisations are engaging more widely – but they can run into the many dozen, leading to a lack of consensus or good ideas get lost.


10)   Given all this, what is a useful way forward?  Well quite simply, take time to review how you are doing.  Be prepared to question the “Inverse Attention Law”: the structure might need rejigging and processes rewiring.  However, it is likely that securing the best behaviours will be a key task: achieving the physiology rather than the anatomy.  Do you meet well?  Do you have good conversations?  It might seem a bit prosaic, but reviewing how your meetings go can be a good place to start, using something like this assessment – which can be presented in a variety of ways including as a wheel, and can be tracked over time.  It is a simple first step: governing made easy.


So “Just Governance”?  It is not necessarily simple and straightforward.  And yet it needs to be thought through and fair.  It can then provide amazing value added oversight with a light touch.  Helping the right things to happen, and helping avoid things going wrong.



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Making the hard stuff easy?

Improvement, Personal productivity, Teams No Comments

You have probably come across the business adage, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”. Like a number of famous quotes, is not quite clear to me who first coined the term – there is quite a lot on it online. But was it Covery? Enrico? Anyhow…

When thinking about organisations I like the distinction between structure, process and behaviour.

In one meeting last week I was challenged: “so, are you an organisational behaviourist?” Normally, I prefer to use Edgar Schein’s language and see myself as a ‘helper’ – and not even an OD specialist or Change Manager, which LinkedIn endorsements tend to say I am. So, I wasn’t sure I wanted the Organisation Behaviourist tag. But I guess I am the OB title. I see behaviour as key for it provides the physiology of organisational life – ways of working that can make any ‘anatomy’ work, or not. If I ask people to think of a leader they admire or a team that is performing well, and then write what it is about them down that impresses them, it is clear that the vast majority of the positive attributes are attitudes not technical skills, behaviour not knowledge.

There are some notable approaches to orchestrating behaviour shifts through ‘nudges’. Also, there is lots of training offered to change behaviour – from ‘difficult conversations’ to ‘line management’ to ‘team working’.

For me, the most significant improvements in organisation come from a disciplined focus on behavioural improvements around R and E in FRE – that is ‘responsibility’ and ‘example’. But I know from my work that the ongoing curiosity and empathy that is needed for this sort of sustained shift isn’t easy to generate and maintain.

A recent HBR study shows that even the most thoughtful training approaches bring about minimum behavioural changes long term, in the absence of a shift in the example of senior leaders. This makes sense – at least it confirms the finding from my decade-old research about getting values into practice, see this.

So these ‘soft’ shifts are hard. That is clear.

On a recent trip to Australia I saw a new way of promoting a long lasting shift in the culture of organisations in action. I saw it at work in settings as diverse as a bank, a commonwealth department and in a food manufacturing plant. The ‘Blue Bus’ approach started out in steel manufacturing and mining. It is spreading. It is a sticky idea. There is a pull. It seems to be passing the Chili Test. It makes the distinction between ‘hardware’ and ‘software. Between the ‘spaces’ leaders regularly ‘play’ like strategy, tools and systems and the area that is really needed for individual, team and organisational performance: mind-set, values and behaviour.

If you are in Asia or the Pacific (or even Australia!) and want to find out more, do let me know – I can make an e-intro. As there is deliberately almost nothing about it online. And, looking ahead, the guys (in a gender neutral sense) will be over in Europe in 2017.

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NPO, the evidence and effort – and elephant

Noble Purpose No Comments

I am struck by how little literature there seems to be on the particular and tricky internal dynamics of leading charities. What there is often focuses on the skills to work in partnership with others, for example.

There are plenty of courses targeted at Charity leaders. I am struck that many development programmes seem to present generic modules that would suit aspiring and new leaders from a wide range of sectors, including fully commercial (non-Noble Purpose Organisation) ones.

What is the unique core curriculum a CEO or Director of a charity or public sector body needs to really help them prepare for their particular challenges?

I propose the ideas around the NPO paradox might be the ‘elephant in the corner’ of the education and research room.



Leading NPO

Noble Purpose No Comments

I have assumed, and so have others, that the task of managing teams in Noble Purpose Organisations should be quite easy. The combination of…

Powerful purpose
Passionate people

…is easily assumed to make things better, easier, more successful.

However, I truly believe that leading NPOs requires more fully honed leadership skills as:

– Staff expectations are high (so there is further to fall)
– Many are hurt from previous experiences, so cynicism is not far from the surface
– Plus there are some co-workers with veiled ambitions: a few are only in it for the power and perks, or at least have come to be that way.

This heady mix of high motivation, high expectations, an element of burnout and overwhelming personal (or tribal) vested interests makes NPOs fascinating places – from the highly productive to the deeply toxic.

With this we turn back to the power of


Accountable Autonomy
Alignment and positive Attitudes

(to be continued…)


The perspective of the rear view mirror…

Engagement, Meetings No Comments

Getting on for 10 years ago I had an idea.

Blogging + Photos = Photos to Make you think (PTMYT).

This was before shifts in technology were heralded with the iPhone…

So then it became…

Blog + Photos + Smartphone = BOOM …you know the ‘social’ answer…Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter etc.

And the reason for sharing this?

Not for how I missed my calling as a social media billionaire…

Rather, I am not a fan of ‘icebreakers’.

However, in many events, for many years, I note how groups have found it energising (or at least cathartic) to a start with this ‘setting the scene’ exercise:
1. In pairs
2. What has happened (over the last x years, or in y sector) that has surprised you?
3. What was predicted (assumed or widely anticipated) that has not come to pass?
4. Shout out some of the most striking (and surprising!) findings
5. Capture to screen

This is a method that works very well in a strategy retreat or scenario workshop.

And it works well in many team development, service improvement and conflict resolution situations too.

Ps If you have read this far, then this year old blog on ‘pictures’, might interest you.

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Delegation demonstration

Personal productivity No Comments

As part of our conversations about ‘responsible autonomy’ and team working the topic of delegation often comes up. Will others we work with pick up the baton when we make a request? Who can you trust? How to line manage well is a key managerial skill.

So in our new podcast, at the second link here, we share our practical way of thinking about this challenging topic – with a nice illustration (and a bit of alliteration!).

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The chief culture officer?

Organisations, Think No Comments

In our work, as regular readers will know, we support senior leaders in shaping the thinking (creative exploration, option generation, decision making) and behaviour (values, ways of working, culture) of their senior teams and organisations. Many years later, we still find the 4i model helpful in framing this task.

As a colleague pointed out to me this week, one of the early management theorists, Jacques, made a big deal of getting the right sort of thinkers at the appropriate level in an organisation (noun) with the right degree of ‘requisite organisation’ (verb) – see this  and this.

However, this more modern piece – actually published this week – is a more contemporary account, with the role of CEO as the guardian of not just the thinking of an institution, but of its behaviour too. We like this – as do a number of clients we have shared it with over the last few days.

We have long believed that what leaders say and do matters – more than their ability to personally think clever new ideas. This twin focus (on thinking and behaviuour) is part of the way we like to develop teams in what we sometimes call our ‘Team Gymnasium’ of several development sessions linked to specific readings, assessments and conversations. Some of the ideas that are core to this process are those of Lencioni (for his team model), Heron (for the 6 interventions), Fairtlough (for responsibility autonomy) – alongside some of our ideas on VIP (values into practice), FFO (front foot organisations) and NPO (noble purpose organisations).

As always, we are happy to share more on any of this FOC (free of charge)…

That is enough TLAs for now – by the way there are ‘only’ 17 thousand possible permutations I read recently! So a few more to go…(even accounting for a couple more here)

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Example of level 4 and 5 (values) leadership

Values No Comments

You know of our ideas on getting values into practice – with our 5 level model outlined here.

This recent example from Australia, is a powerful illustration of level 4 and 5 leadership: senior staff modelling the values and also reinforcing them with who they hire and fire, recruit or promote.


Now is the moment

Values No Comments

As you may know we have been interested for many years to see ‘values in practice’ – for example, a health care system that puts some of the stated concerns (quality, safety, kindness etc.) into practice (see this earlier pro-bono work).

We notice, post the seismic impact of the Francis Report into care failings in part of the UK National Health Service, more and more initiatives that are working to get ‘The Culture’ right, such as this which we see as helping the most critical level of activity in our values model – Level Four (where leaders work very hard and truthfully to model the values they want).

We are encouraged – and wish all those seeking to bring about positive changes for patients/clients/users/customers/consumers/parents/children etc. (in whatever sector) the very best.

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What sort of boss?

Reflect No Comments

Are you (or do you have) an average or extraordinary boss? We like this blog – shared here in case you missed it when it was going quasi-viral.

This links to the Valve Handbook and this, the work of Gerard Fairtlough at www.idenk.co.uk/ra .

Neat stuff.

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