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Sunday, 19 June 2011

Book of the Year! Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan

Simply, a cracking book and one that explains more about what has really being going on in these past few years than any economist has provided.  Written with a clarity, but fueled by anger, this book cuts through our most deep seated assumptions about our smartness and intellect. We, as humans, repeatedly fail to spot the obvious and speak the truth.
She writes "...our blindness grows out of the small daily decisions that we make which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And. what is most frightening about this process is that, as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more -  even as the landscape shrinks."
Heffernan is a good journalist and writes about specific case after case, ranging from the denial from the Catholic Church in child sex abuse to the arrogance of Alan Greenspan. By doing so, it becomes clear that our cognitive lapses are not just adhoc and confined to those of us in the slow lane, but endemic to the human experience. Powerful people frequently believe their own myths and models they create for themselves and impose on others. They are not sensitive to the impact they have. So, when a BP senior manager demands a 25% cut on a processing plant already cut back to the bone, resulting in multiple deaths, Heffernan argues that he could and should have known. Willful blindness.
Should be compulsory reading all members of a Board.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

EMCC European Conference event: Enriching supervision: A Practitioners’ Perspective on Integrating Action Research into Practice Supervision

Here is the link to the EMCC conference site. Dr. Liz Wiggins and I will be co-presenting on a very interesting two very interesting themes to emerge within the coaching profession: The increasing importance of supervision for coaches continuing professional development (CPD) and the integration of action research into the coaching and supervisory process.

Enriching Supervision: Wondering if you and your supervisor have become stuck in familiar patterns of conversation? Going to supervision as something you “ought” to do as a professional but looking for something more challenging and potentially enriching? This session offers a practitioner perspective on integrating Action Research into supervision in order to create a peak learning experience. Two practicing coaches share their experience of practical ways of literally “bringing the coaching conversation into the room” with the supervisor and explore the benefits and potential limitations of this compared to the more traditional approach of reflective conversation. 

We hope to see you there!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Gender Inclusion, a fiduciary responsibility

The issue of getting more women on to boards is becoming simpler and clearer. The research is in:

Boards with a better balance of men and women perform better than those dominated by males. 

'Professor Laura Tyson, former dean of the London Business School, found that diverse boards were more effective at running their companies'  Times, February 25.

Here is the link to the full Times article that quotes the Cranfield study.
With this evidence, the question for all Chairman is what is their strategy  is for increasing the proportion of women on boards; not because of political correctness or because of legislation, but because the business will likely perform better. And, this is what they were appointed to do by shareholders.

Lord Davies, leading a UK governmental study of the issue, says:

"The motive for more female voices is not so that companies might make a token gesture towards gender parity, but because boardrooms which have a greater mix of men and women are more effective at steering and stewarding their companies'. Times, February 25.

Gender balance, specifically, is likely to directly impact evaluation of risk.

Fewer women on boards is indicative of failed talent development strategies, poor succession planning and a lack of targeted leadership development. It is also suggested of regressive male attitudes, such as 'women can't do maths', which are simply inaccurate. Men and women can do maths equally well when they have similar expectations of success. Therefore, the issue is one of expectation, not ability. 

This is why both men and women need to see more women business leaders. Not only will it mean businesses will access a broader base of leadership talent; it will also encourage more women to enter science and technological disciplines with ambition.

Executive coaching and mentoring have too often been used to anoint the heir apparent, rather than build a more inclusive board.  This is changing. Coaches are becoming more aware of their role in designing the right coaching interventions for sustainable business success.

Executive coaching; and board mentoring, are interventions that can have direct impact on accelerating the numbers of women on the board. Coaching can help shift male attitudes towards women, and embolden women to step up exercise power.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Lessons from Tunisia

The Financial Times (26.2.11) carried an interesting front page piece describing how car firms operating in Tunisia were "reconsidering" their relationship with former President Ben Ali. 

A tad late, I think. 

This suggests that  many global firms have not learned the numerous lessons from past experiences of investing in developing markets. 

The experiences of Suharto's regime in Indonesia, where western firms and banks made catastrophic bets on their relationship with corrupt and much despised family members, come to mind. 

All too often, firms seek a quick way to market access by fostering close relationship with an autocrat's family. These "relationships" are built on a mutual return of favors: A blind eye is turned to on-the-ground corruption in return for access to key decision-makers. Such relationships become quickly mutually reinforcing. Firms get lazy and complacent. 

As a result, otherwise clean global firms watch helplessly as their products are smashed up on global TV networks, and the autocrat and his or her extended family head for the airport. An all too familar picture. 

In these situations global firms are not just "doing business". They are reinforcing the very unstable and rigid regimes that enticed them into a trap. They are causing great harm to the societies in which they trade by enabling a regime to enrich itself at the expense of their people, causing long term political and economic instability. Think of the Pahlavi regime of Iran and how we  all continue to suffer the consequences of the corruption that took place in his regime on a grand scale, with complicity and full knowledge of respected global firms operating in Iran under his grace and favor.

A better and more effective way has to be found to enter and trade in developing markets. Firstly, I am a pragmatist and I know that relationships are the life blood of business in developing markets. Unless you know the right people, you're not really in business at all.

However, here are a few pointers as to what global firms can do to build sustainable and diverse relationships in developing markets:
  1. Build a broad base of relationships, not just a dependency on one regime. Do not enter a market unless you are allowed to do this. 
  2. Be very clear and transparent about the nature of these relationships
  3. Express your ethical values in this relationship; and insist on transitioning to professional purchasing and contractual management within a brisk time period. 
  4. Insist on audits of local partners.
  5. Promote vocally economic and social (and even political) reform, to promote the general development of the community in which you trade.
  6. Beware of hidden and implied reciprocal favors forged in Karoake bars by junior and middle managers.
  7. Play a long game in these markets, and be prepared for short term obstacles put up by greedy autocrats negotiating for a larger slice of "their" pie. 
  8. Do not build business plans or make commitments to investors assuming the continuation of autocratic rulers.
If investing firms follow these suggestions they might make a real positive difference in the communities in which they are investing. And, they will reap long term benefits to their global brand.

Women-on-Board Initiative

Click the link to see the interview with Helena Morrissey, Chief Executive with Newton Investment Management, and founder of the 30% initiative (and who has 9 kids!): 

Here is a really intelligent discussion of the business case for women taking more seats on the board. This follows a body of research (most recently from Cranfield University in the UK) that now points to the rather obvious fact that a balance of men and women is needed for better decision-making and risk assessment.

And, Ms Morrissey also suggests what women need to "seize the moment" to make change happen.

This is a real issue in Central and Eastern Europe where the percentage of women on boards is even lower than in the rest of Europe. Based on my own research on Poland's 'WIG 20', the number of women on boards is actually getting smaller (See table based on data gathered up to 2009). 

The situation is somewhat better in Czech listed companies, which I think is due to the larger representation of Austrian owned businesses on the Prague Stock Exchange; influenced by recent legislation monitoring the number of women on the Board.

Improving Airline Safety: Simple rules; intelligent behavior

Even as a frequent but terrible flyer, who craves a gin & tonic every time the safety belt sign goes on, I thought it was about time we all celebrate the remarkable progress in airline safety in leading western airlines.

The fall in the number of accidents from three fatal accidents per million flights to one plane loss for every 3.57 million flights is a remarkable case of what happens when we combine good technology, expert training, sensible regulation and empowerment of crews to do the right thing (

Read below Charles Hogeman account of how this progress was made. His useful maxim I'm sure could inform many other areas of organizational activity:

Presenting on pilot standards at the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) International Aviation Safety Seminar in October 2010, the Air Line Pilots Association International's chief human factors spokesman Capt Charles Hogeman summed up the limitations of regulation to enforce safety thus: 

"Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to ­complex, intelligent behaviour. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, ­stupid behaviour."

The IATA rate equates to one jet hull loss accident every 3.57 million flights, whereas the world average is one every 1.5 million flights. A comparison with days gone by shows that, in 1979, the world average accident rate in the same category was three fatal accidents per million flights, so the global average has improved by a multiple of 4.5 in that period.


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

2011: A Year of Integrity?

I call for this year to be the year in which little by little, person-by-person, we rebuild integrity in our society, communities and businesses. We need to put the wheel back on the wagon.

This is an idea gaining traction. In the Jan-Feb issue of the Harvard Business Review,  strategy gurus Michael Porter and Mark Kramer argue for the reinvention of capitalism through the creation of shared value (CSV) between business and society. They criticize business leaders for conceiving of value creation narrowly and ignoring broader societal factors that govern their long term success.

As soon as one talks of "value" in the broader sense, they raise the question of our ethical decision-making and how we decide what is one value in preference to another. Porter and Kramer take business beyond the right/wrong polarity of compliance to laws and best practices, and they move into the qualitative area of good/bad:A broader and more complex understanding of ethics is needed.

This is timely, as the Edelman survey of Global Trust in Business presented at Davos (FT, 25.2.11), shows a steep decline in trust in business in the US, (to just 46% saying they trust business); and a marginal improvement of 2% globally, (to just 56%). This conceals a sharp drop in trust of banks in western countries.

This loss of trust matters a great deal. It influences the ability of business to shape the global agenda and at the micro level, will mean businesses (and especially banks) will have to work harder to gain the trust of existing and potential customers.

I'm convinced that at the heart of this issue is ethics. But this is not just a subject for law professors;. Nor can we just leave it to "them", then politicians and corporate leaders. It involves us all to be more conscious of our own values and ethical framework, and to act on those values in the face of increasing complexity and uncertainty. 

In June 2010, I wondered around a fascinating exhibition at the Science Musuem in Singapore. It was about the ethical dilemmas in science and medicine. The exhibits showed that there is often no right answer to ethical dilemmas. I reflected that we act with integrity when we consider the different ethical choices and make a conscious decision which we can account for. As US Supreme Court Judge, Potter Stewart describes so well, ethics is about that space that exists between our rights  and obligations.

Integrity therefore means more than keeping to the law, or complying with lists of codes, standards and professional rules. Yes, these are usually important. But rarely do such codes or rule books help us decide what is the right thing to do right now, in this moment.  The Lehman collapse, the Gulf oil spill, and the Iraq  imbroglio did not happen because we lacked the necessary laws or codes - they happened because there was a failure of ethical leadership. 

Put simply, political, institutional and corporate leaders in recent years too often promised more than they could deliver and did not fully consider the wider ethical consequences of their actions.They acted on impulse and in arrogance, not through conscious thoughtful choices.

Philosopher Simon Blackburn describes the need for us to take care of our "ethical environment". This means being aware of all the promises and commitments we make. It means considering the ethical basis of our actions. It means confronting truths.  It means taking ownership for what we do.

Most of us think of ourselves as ethical. Perhaps we work as a professional in some field and have the necessary qualifications and credentials. Perhaps we have a history of doing good work with our clients and we treat people with whom we work well.

Yet, this backward looking view and hubris can make us fall prey to the arrogance that can take over all professionals at some time or other. This is the point when we start listening to  our own ego too much  rather than to others:  Others who may have vital perspectives we need to make good and sounds decisions.

One thing I am working on as a coach is to be less proud of myself as an ethical and professional coach, and be more inquiring and reflective with clients and sponsors about "what is the right thing to do here?" I am learning all sorts of new "stuff" in the process. 

To be ethical therefore we need to be constant state of awareness and learning in relationship with other people (Griffin, D. 2002).

The three ethical perspectives I've found most helpful to guide me are as follows:
  • The Utilitarian: What is my underlying purpose or utility in this action to myself, others or society in general?
  • The Existential: What are the stark realities and painful truths of the matter, on which I need to decide?
  • Deontological: What is my duty in this situation? (NB, Not necessarily to just "follow the rules")
There are many philosophical and ethical factors that go into making a good decision or action - but these three are often a useful starting point, particularly when in discussion with others.

I have designed this short poll to help each of us think about what we need to do more of in this year. The responses are confidential (I cannot see the individual results).

It would be interesting to see the spread of opinion about what is really important for us to focus on  ethically in 2011.

As ever, your comments and questions of any hue are more than welcome.