In his 30 years of asking this question, Wharton Business School Professor Stew Friedman has heard one word become increasingly common: Flexible
Elements of Flexible Leadership
What does it mean to be flexible as a leader?
capable of bending easily without breaking; able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances.
What context do we need to know in order to easily adjust our plans and strategy to altered circumstances?
Flexibility requires Context
In order to be consciously flexible as a leader, you must have clear the relative value of different aspects of your life. As a leader of teams, you need to help others develop their own clarity and explicitly use it in your decision making.
Dr Friedman says that too many people take a binary approach. They take for granted that professional and personal are two ends of a weighing scale. Increase one, reduce the other.
This is not a straight trade off. This trade-off approach leads to unnecessary sacrifices.
In Vistage, our stated mission is to increase both profesional effectiveness and enhance quality of life. We place both at the core of the question. We don’t want your life quality sacrificed for professional effectiveness, nor vice versa. We want a conscious integrated decision.
The key of flexible leadership for yourself and for those around you is to get clarity in 3 ways:
I am listening to Mandy Hickson sharing her life story with Vistage this morning. Mandy was the second ever female pilot flying combat missions for the British military. She shared her dream as a young girl of flying fast jets, and all the obstacles that she needed to overcome to make that dream come true.
Every Pilot has a Blind Spot
Mandy shared that a pilot cannot see their “6 O’clock”… directly behind you. There is no physical way that you can see what is directly behind you.
That is why you fly with a wingman.
A wingman flies 3/4 of a mile off your wing. This way they have a very clear view of your 6 o’clock. They can see what you cannot see.
We can only see 360 degrees with the help of the people around us.
Our Vistage Spain call today had “The Role of the Board” as our theme. This post gathers together some of the valuable resources shared by the group.
The HBR Article Building Better Boards from May 2004 came highly recommended by the leaders of today’s workshop, much of the content below comes from that article.
What does a High Performing Board do?
“The board has two vital roles: Craft a strategy and hire & fire the CEO”
The quote above is from my father who has spent over 15 years as a board member on 4 global corporate boards, he continues to serve on a number of charity and university governance boards. I like the clarity and focus of that statement. The board can help in many areas, but it has two non-delegable tasks.
The following are my notes from Professor Herman Daems’ session on the IESE Advanced Management Program. His course is “The role of the Board of Directors in Evaluating and Selecting the Strategy”.
Dr Herman Daems is professor at University of Leuven and visiting professor at Harvard Business School, and currently he is the Chairman of the Board at BNP Paribas Fortis SA/NV. He has been part of many public, private and charitable boards over his career.
Herman Daems: What does the board actually do?
Develop an Ambition for the Company – an ambition is not a strategy. An ambition might be to “Climb Everest”. A strategy would be the specific path to gather the necessary resources and execute the climb of the mountain.
Find the Leadership to develop a Strategy to realise the ambition – management must develop strategy.
Approve a strategy – Important to be clear that a board does not make the strategy, only approve that the leadership’s strategy supports the Company Ambition.
Provide Resources (Financial and Human) – importantly the board establishes the dividend policy
Balance the Power of Differing Interests (shareholders, management, employees, government, public) – board members must have general business experience. Specialist members do not make good board members. Board must make collective general business decisions, not just good specific decisions. Individual members must have credibility and be willing to raise their hand and make an impact.
Monitor and Control Strategy – the board plays a much greater role on controlling strategy than on deciding the strategy. Management will rarely say that their strategy is not working. This is where the board is really necessary.
Control the use of Resources, control the risks involved – see next item…
Assume responsibility for the actions and risks of the company – The Board of Directors have “collective responsibility” for the actions and risks of the company. Members are not personally responsible. Some legal attempts to hold a finance expert or an audit committee member personally responsible have always been pushed back by courts on the basis that board is collective responsibility. In banking crisis, some executives have been held personally responsible, but in no cases have board members been found personally responsible.
Checklist: Tasks of the Board
The following is a checklist of all the areas where a board can provide input, leadership and critical push-back for the management team.
The high performance board contributes positively to management decision making in the following 9 areas of strategy, operations, people management and capital structure.
Portfolio Change (M&A)
Marketing and Sales
Human Resources and Organisation
non-CEO executive compensation
Entreprise Risk Management
Ethical Perfomance and Compliance
Brand Positioning and Integrity
Legal and Regulatory
CEO Performance Appraisal
How Engaged should the Board be?
At different times, the board may play a more or less engaged role in day to day operations. The directors and the CEO should have a conscious explicit agreement about which of the following levels of engagement are appropriate to the current context.
Passive – uninvolved, often under complete control of the CEO
Certifying – reviews and approves strategy, sometimes meets without the CEO being present
Engaged – contributes to strategic development, recognises their responsibilities to oversee CEO and company performance
Intervening – engaged and contributing actively in specific areas of the business, convenes frequent meetings
Operating – setting strategy, taking decisions, running day to day business operations; fills gaps in management experience
What does a Board Member Do?
A good board member will have two important elements: independence and competence. Independence is that they are free to take a contradictory stance and question the CEO and management. Competence can be judged in the following list of areas where board members need to bring capabilities to the table:
On Tuesday 26th May I had the privilege of speaking with over 50 leaders across Ireland who are alumni of Timoney Leadership Institute. Timoney has had a great relationship with IESE Business School and many of their leadership programs are taught by IESE Business School faculty.
This is a wide ranging conversation about leadership and learning in these times of uncertainty.
Questions that I didn’t get around to answer during the webinar:
James G. : How do you communicate your vision in times of challenge without being selfish
In Vistage when we talk about the 7 critical skills of leadership, number 1 is “Create a Shared Vision“. What is important is not so much that a vision exists, but that it is the result of input from every person involved in the organisation. The leader’s role is not to create the vision. The leader’s role is to cultivate an environment and facilitate an ongoing process where every person contributes in some way to the vision.
If you as a leader know the vision, but if I enter your building and speak to the receptionist and ask “what is the vision?” and his or her answer is a blank stare… you have not been effective in creating a shared vision.
As I mentioned in my answer to Ann M’s question… a lot of this process is run by active listening. The 4 questions that I recommended that you ask over and over again are:
“What’s going well?”
“What’s not going well?”
“What would you change?”
It is more important that everyone believes that you care, and you understand their specific joys and difficulties, than having a beautiful well crafted poetic vision statement.
Before any work on vision, one of the activities that I do with people that work with me is ask “What are the characteristics of the best Vistage team mates?” “What are the poisonous characteristics that we must avoid in new people?” and make sure that everyone has explicitly contributed to articulate what type of people we want to spend our time around.
Dermot D. : Great talk, Conor! Any tips on how to become more courageous, in business leadership terms??
Dermot, I believe that courage is a practice. If you practice small brave actions in the little things, you prepare yourself to take brave actions in the big things. A friend of mine says that there are no big things… the big achievements arrive out of a series of small things. If you do the small things well, you don’t need to worry about the big things.
When I take a group of leaders on a retreat, we work on trust and vulnerability. If I can create an environment where you are willing to be honest with what really challenges you… then there is a high possibility that you will take valuable experiences out of the time we share together. If you choose not to be honest, there is little we can do to support you. When someone says “but I don’t know what type of vulnerability you are looking for”… my answer is “are your hands sweating as you think about sharing it?” If no, it is not honest sharing.
One of the bravest actions of leadership is to admit what you don’t know, admit what scares you, admit that sometimes you our way out of your depth. Your role is not to know the answers. Your role is to facilitate a process that leads to answers.
PS Admitting that you don’t know is not a ticket to enter the state of victim… you don’t get to not take responsibility for facilitating the search for good answers.
Philip C. : Conor, your conversation and guidance is very inspiring. I have just signed up for your YouTube channel. Can you tell me if you have any books and if so where can I obtain them.
One of my big life goals that I have not yet completed is “write a book”. I write lots of blog posts, I write many articles and teaching notes for IESE Business School… but have never had the sustained discipline and clarity needed to do the 6-9 month work to complete a book.
I did write a book about my experiences of parenting… Keep Wonder Alive but it is more a manifesto than a full book.
Sean O’K.: Great talk Conor, really inspirational and helpful ideas for all of us. It sounds to me like you firmly believe that each of us can create our own life story? Would you agree?
If you don’t do the work to plan the life you want for yourself, you will contribute to someone else’s life plan. In the case of our children and our good friends, this is a wonderful opportunity. If you are just handing over your energy, your imagination, your intelligence, your activity to other people’s projects… it is no wonder that you feel that life is somewhat empty.
Burn out doesn’t come from too much activity. It comes from too much activity on stuff that is not important to your life plan.
Louis D.: Hi Conor, thanks for all your wisdom. Can I ask if faith plays a roll in your life and success? Is this a topic people are reluctant to discuss and why is that? Love all your YouTube stuff, thanks.
I have faith.
I love working with people to find their own path to self-belief. I do believe that this process is a dialogue and a mutual exploration… not a static blog post or video.
What I think about online sharing of these ideas: The concern that I have about words that capture a spiritual experience is that they can be read out of context. I am more than happy to share my experiences in private courses…. where we have had a chance to connect and build mutual trust.
Words are dangerous… If I say “honesty” we each have an interpretation of what it means… and each of us has a slightly different definition. The more abstract the word, the more our interpretations are likely to vary. Words like “airplane” and “bird” are safe on a blog post. Words like “faith” and “spiritual” and “peace of mind” are more prone to widely varying interpretation.
James G.: Is 52 yrs of age too old to be successful
As a premier league footballer, yes.
As a chess grandmaster, possibly.
As a rock star, probably.
As a leader who positively encourages others to become the best version of themselves? No. Plenty of time.
Karl D. : How important is it to learn from past decisions and experiences and do you factor those lessons in when making a decision today. Great and insightful tal Conor…well done.
I love Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach. He often distinguishes between his brain and his mind. His brain is the same brain he had as a child… but his mind… is all the brains that he has access to today. His brain is limited. His mind is infinite. Our mind can take decisions not just on our own experiences, but on all of humanity’s combined experience. This type of decision making… an openness to not having to be the smartest, but to be the one willing to listen to the smartest is the greatest type of leadership.
Michael B. : Conor in our early entrepreneurial experience, would you agree that the unbridled drive and zest you need to get the plane off the ground means you tend to put projects first and people second – would you not expect this from a younger, raw, driven business person?
There is a Buddhist idea that every 7 years there is a specific phase of human development. Zero to 7 is “realise I exist”, 7 to 14 is “realise others exist” (and their dreams and fears and plans are as important to them as mine are to me), 14 to 21 is “kill your parents” (which is a metaphor!… it is a realisation that nobody is better than you, nobody is worse than you… inside you are all the positive aspects and negative aspects of humanity…) and the list goes on… you can only move to the next phase by fully living the previous phase. I can’t take a 7 year old and force them to achieve the compassion that a fully developed 70 year old can take towards the world.
I sometimes listen to my daughter talk about a difficult situation between friends, or in school… and I wish I could take what I know now and just shove it into her mind… but that is not how it works. She will live her own life and find her own way of coming to terms with life’s joys and struggles. I will always encourage her to take a positive, resourceful, creative stance towards the world… but beyond that, her answers are her answers.
I can wish that my younger self was less arrogant, less greedy…. but I wouldn’t be who I am today if I had not been that earlier arrogant and greedy self.
Mark McC. : Thanks Conor I was going to ask you what is the best way to explain resilience to a leader in these times www.createthegreatinyou.com
Right now you are home with family. Nothing is missing. Your memory can haunt you and your imagination can scare you. It is you who generates suffering.
Where is your intelligence working? For you? Or to scare you? Or to haunt you?
Memory and Imagination – this is what we are suffering. My cancelled plans for the future… never existed except in my head. My cancelled plans for my business… never existed except in my head. My memory of how much we sold last year… is in the past.
I find it so hard to let go of what I had expected to be doing. I find a lot of motivating for me comes from working towards a future that I have imagined that is “better” than this current moment.
I think we are born resilient, but we learn to be victims. I love the book “Who moved my Cheese” by Spencer Johnson. It goes direct to this difficulty of human to let go of what I had expected.
Joseph Campbell said “we must let go of the life we have planned so as to live the life that is waiting for us”. I struggle with this. My thinking is so often focussed to avoiding change and not accepting new situations that are not what I had hoped for.
Thank you for these great questions.
Thanks again for your participation and I look forward to hearing from you.
This article by Vistage CEO Sam Reese was originally published on the Vistage blog. Over his 35 year career as a business leader, Sam has led large and midsize organizations and has advised CEOs and key executives of companies all over the world.
Over to Sam…
The COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges for leaders, but it also offers fresh opportunities to learn how to navigate their companies through uncharted waters. As employees accept the current crisis and adjust to new environments, routines and protocol, they look to leaders for transparency, stability and conscious decision-making.
Great leaders know leadership excellence is a challenging, continuous journey that requires hard work and determined attention. They reject shortcuts and take ownership of their development, especially in times of crisis. They bring rigor and grit, working hard to hone their expertise and continuously improve. They recognize it is important to keep an organized rhythm of communications and work progress that will keep their businesses busy and aligned during a crisis.
2. Carve out space to work on the business
Successful leaders routinely carve out time and space away from the business to reflect, acquire new knowledge and focus on strategy. This discipline allows them to gain the clarity they need to navigate the day-to-day challenges and understand the environment outside their business. The stress of leading through a global pandemic requires a leader to pause and regroup.
3. Challenge your thinking with fresh perspectives
Great leaders seek diverse perspectives on important decisions from trusted peers. They actively work to combat insular thinking and confirmation bias. They find other CEOs and business leaders who’ve tackled similar issues but in different industries. These peers understand the nuances and challenges of the role but bring fresh perspectives, unhampered by institutional knowledge. Now more than ever, when a group of diverse leaders learn from one another, this effect is amplified. CEOs can share the real-time learnings that come from leading a company through a pandemic.
4. Stoke curiosity
World-class business leaders are high on curiosity and low on ego. They are inquisitive, welcome new ideas from trusted sources and eager to explore. Vulnerability is viewed as an asset, and they are the first to admit they don’t have all the answers. They ask questions to seek input and pressure-test their assumptions, so they can come to the best decision for the business – not to prove their own point. These trying times present the opportunity to be open to and apply new ideas.
5. Apply discipline to decision-making
High-performing leaders follow a disciplined approach to decision-making. They use a systematic process that takes into account their instincts; judgment based on experience and data; and perspectives from peers, mentors and employees. The key is to focus on what can be done today, not necessarily developing long-term strategies that may need to be changed after a crisis. Focus has to remain on mission, vision, purpose and values as the North Star. With these values as the foundation, leaders can make decisions with speed, consistency and accuracy – even under the heavy pressures of a pandemic.
6. Find a trusted guide
Successful leaders view a coach or mentor as a critical component to leadership excellence, especially in stressful times. They value a trusted guide who challenges their assumptions, identifies their blind spots and holds them accountable. The most effective coaches and mentors approach the CEO as a whole person, not just the leader in the corner office. Leaders who take a comprehensive approach to development that includes feedback from trusted peers, effective mentoring, and insights from subject-matter experts continuously outperform their competitors.
7. Rise by helping others
Great leaders help others think critically through their challenges and in the process fine-tune their own decision-making skills. Leaders also recognize relationships matter even more during a crisis. Whether these relationships are with coworkers, customers, suppliers, partners or investors, CEOs and decision makers help others as they remain in constant, transparent communication. Accessibility is the No. 1 quality employees look for in their leaders during a time of crisis. By staying available, you will become acutely aware of the challenges that need to be addressed and convey a sense of stability and continuity during a crisis. High-integrity leaders leave a legacy. The way you manage in a crisis like this will be a key part of the legacy you leave and an example for those who follow in your footsteps.
The coronavirus has brought disruption and caused unprecedented challenges for CEOs, but it can also inspire innovation and lead the way to a company’s future success when life returns to normal. COVID-19 shines a light on the challenges of leading through change and crisis. By using these seven laws and providing clear communication, decision makers can take effective action for their companies today and tomorrow.
Just listening to Stuart Lancaster deliver a webinar for IIBN. He shared his path to head coach of the England rugby team, the hard blow of falling out of the home rugby world cup, and his current role as part of the leadership of Leinster rugby club.
Create and align people to a cause – you need every member of the team to move beyond their own wants and needs and be a genuine contributor to the team… for this there needs to be a meaningful cause that is bigger than “winning”. Stuart shared how he wrote to the parents of all the england team players and asked them to share what it meant to them to see their son play rugby for england. This helped him show the players how they represented something much bigger than rugby.
In these difficult times, this story about the 20 Mile March is my reminder of what to focus on… and how to stay in control of my life.
I first heard this story from Jim Collins. He shares it in his book Good to Great. Here, I share my version of the story… and how it relates to leading yourself and your organisation in difficult times.
Your 20 Miles?
What are your 20 mile march habits? What are your aspirational self 20 mile march habits? What can you do in this period of quarantine to practice your 20 mile march?
I’d love to see you connected, sharing your personal experiences, your questions, your updates with the community.
Have a great week.
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