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We know complexity is a big topic in leadership right now. Today’s podcast explores what it means to effectively develop leaders for this, and in particular the role of business schools.

I’m joined by Robert MacIntosh, who is a Professor of Strategic Management and Pro Vice Chancellor for Business and Law at Northumbria University.

His research focuses on strategy and change with senior leadership teams and has involved strategy development and execution with over 100 organisations. He also has significant boardroom experience as a chair and trustee.

He is a Fellow of the Institution for Engineering and Technology, the Academy of Social Sciences, and the British Academy of Management.

He chaired the social care charity, Turning Point Scotland (2019-2021) and currently chairs the Chartered Association of Business Schools as well as sitting on the board of Revenue Scotland, the devolved tax authority of the Scottish Government.

The second edition of his book Strategic Management: Strategists at Work was published in 2023 and he is currently co-leading a major UK research project on EDI in research and innovation settings.

He describes his status as a shareholder of Aberdeen Football Club as a case study in optimism.


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Jacqueline Conway  00:00

The organisational peak is a perilous environment. It’s more complex and challenging than anything that’s gone before. And as a consequence, both executive tenure and corporate longevity are decreasing.To survive and thrive at the perilous peak, executive leaders need to balance their functional leadership or focus on execution with enterprise leadership, that is ensuring the organisation adapts and our new world. That’s what we’ll be exploring in the advanced executive leadership podcast. Welcome. I’m your host, Jacqueline Conway. I’m the founder and managing director of Walden Croft, a consulting practice dedicated to helping executives and executive teams anticipate, navigate and lead at the paperless peak. How do we develop leaders for the world they have to navigate to D? And can we develop them in advance? Or do they have to be enrolled and find a way through as the grapple with gnarly and complex issues that aren’t amenable to off the shelf solutions are the old mechanistic ideas of how change should happen? I’ve been interested in these questions for many years. And I’ve often wondered, since my own very positive experiences in business schools, but knowing the limitations, what the role of business schools are in preparing very senior leaders, I’m joined today by Professor Robert McIntosh, who’s not only a Pro Vice Chancellor of a business school, but it’s also the chair of the National Association of Business schools in the UK. Robert is also a strategy professor has done much excellent research in the area and application of complexity science, to leadership and management. He was also my PhD supervisor, and has been a person who has been highly influential in my practice, on how we can develop requisite leadership for the C suite in a disrupted world. I’ll let Robert introduce himself. And then we’ll explore these topics in more detail.

Robert MacIntosh  02:15

My name is Robert McIntosh, Professor of strategy and I’m what’s called the Pro Vice Chancellor for the business school and the law school at Northumbria University in Newcastle. I’m also the chair of our national representative body called the chartered Association of Business schools that represents the interests of 122 member business schools right across the UK and a few international schools that are affiliated with us. All right, great stuff. And so obviously, you’ve got this long and illustrious career in academia, in in business schools, doing academic work with people who are then taking that out into industry, we’d be good just by way of context of I mean, over the period of time that you’ve been doing that, what are your reflections on how things have changed in academia around business skills and developing leaders? So I would say a few things in response to that, Jacqueline, first of all, in terms of business schools, I mean, in the time that I have been involved with some, which now spans a few decades, they have definitely got bigger, they have definitely got more numerous. So it used to be the case that not all universities have a business school that no marks eo is relatively unusual if for some reason you don’t have a school of business or management. It used to be the case that business schools were relatively small parts of sometimes bigger universities. My first rule in a business school was at the University of Glasgow when it was a tiny department in an otherwise enormous University. And it’s no an enormous part of a big university and draws in several 1000 international students and several more 1000 domestic students a year. So the scale of them and the frequency with which you encounter them and business in universities has changed a lot. I think one of the things that hasn’t particularly changed is that I’m not sure that businesses always understand how best to engage with a business school. I think that there are still some perceived barriers and there are lots of particularly smaller businesses, particularly social enterprises, charitable organisations, startups that don’t necessarily realise what tremendous asset the business school community is to them, and often, they’re on their doorstep, and in many cities that are multiple business schools actually on their doorstep, then I think that’s probably partly to do with a perception that business schools are really about business with a capital B, and big business at that. And of course, business schools actually cover organisations of all kinds including commercial All businesses and large listed businesses, but they also do work with startups and social enterprises and public organisations and charitable organisations.

Jacqueline Conway  05:09

I think when we think about business schools, I mean, even even, I think MBA, that’s the first thing I think of I think the Business School is primarily the okay that our undergraduate degrees and business and all sorts of things. But, I mean, certainly my interaction with Business School is when I did an MBA at Strathclyde University. But you’re painting a picture of it, the it being much broader than that. And it could be broader still, if there was wider engagement with business with a small b.

Robert MacIntosh  05:44

Yeah. And to just look at some of the numbers, we started by discussing what’s changed over overpayments for business now is really one of the enormous subjects in the UK. So one in six of all UK students at any university studying anything is studying business. And that’s remarkable. And yet, I think the perception remains that business schools really are mostly about MBE, and similar post experience offerings for people who are already managers and want to learn how to manage your leads more effectively. The reality in 2023, is that 6% of the over 400,000 students in UK business schools are doing MBAs and the two thirds of the students in UK business schools are doing undergraduate degrees. Wow. And that’s an enormous community of leaders of the future. But it’s not necessarily what’s in your mind when you do the word association between the frieze business school and what kind of person might be studying there might go there by benefit from the knowledge or research contained within the business school.

Jacqueline Conway  06:46

That is fascinating. And as you say, these are business leaders of the future. Of course, that’s not the only place that business leaders of the future come from. They don’t just come from business schools, they come from all over the place. But insofar as they come from business schools, how has the How has the the academic community kept pace with the changes that are going on in industry? And how do they go about that? How do they know what’s changing in industry so that the might match their research to that, or their teaching and learning to that?

Robert MacIntosh  07:26

So there’s a few things in there that I would unpack some of which I would see as broadly positive change over time, and some of which I would see as maybe a deterioration, that the positive things are that is much more of an incentive around developing research and knowledge and new insights, in conversation with practice, across a whole range of different kinds of settings. And some of that’s to do with the incentive to secure external funds to support your research. Sometimes it’s to do with the requirements of things like the UK government’s Research Councils, to have partners telling you that we want to do this research to so be no organisations will come along and say yes, we’d be happy to support this research bed for money. And we will put in access or contributions and kind into their positive development. One of the things that I think might be a bit of a deterioration from when I first started in academia, is that when I first started there were it was much more common to encounter people who had had a career doing something, who had them for the latter part of their career joined the University to teach. And that’s becoming I think, less common as universities have really professionalised. So in order to succeed in your academic career, you have to typically these days, do a PhD publish, generally new knowledge. And those are things which are actually quite long term commitments. And it’s actually I think, harder now for someone who maybe had been a finance director or a marketing director or run their own business to come into a university and say, Okay, I’ve got lots of relevant experience, I’m here to teach for a period of time or on a on a part time basis whilst I do other things. And I think that’s a bit of a shame, because it’s reduced to the diversity of the community of staff, one would find in a in a university setting. And if you reflect on your own time on an MBA programme, Jacqueline, I’m sure some of the people that thought you were able to say, Well, I’ve actually done that, you know, whereas these days, I think you’d be more inclined to meet somebody who’s spent the majority of their working life inside a university building their own career and trying to succeed in what was a difficult, complicated, demanding environment. But but that boundary between practice and academia is, in some ways, a little more difficult to transgress these days. But go back to your question of how do people stay up to date with that it’s largely based Hang in conversation with what’s going on in the world of practice around you, whether that’s in logistics or HR related things, or innovation or strategy, which is my subject area. So it is about continuing to stay close to what’s happening in the courts and courts or real world beyond the ivory tower. And by doing that work, what ends up doing research and publishing and trying to develop insight, which in some ways should hook people beyond the University of the business school to they can show this person may have some insights, I’ve read some of their things, they really seem quite interesting, we should invite them and to talk to us, all of which comes down to relationships. I think successful, academics are good at building relationships and seeming credible in the space beyond their native environment of the of the university.

Jacqueline Conway  10:51

And, you know, let’s just kind of pull on that thread, then of your own specialism, which is strategy, and how the strategy landscape has changed over the last 1015 20 years.

Robert MacIntosh  11:05

Plus strategy has a history that goes back a few 1000 years, depending on who who you read. But you know, military states, political powers, and religious orders have always had strategies as well as to how they would be organised. And in one sense, that hasn’t changed much. It’s mostly about thinking over the medium to longer term about some big ambitious change you want to effect in the world, and then thinking how would I achieve that, but but I would say that over the period that I’ve been involved in research and strategy that are some distinct strands that have changed, it used to be more common, probably more the default, that that those decisions about who we want to be and how we want to compete. And what we’re trying to achieve, were the preserve of a very narrow, privileged elite at the apex of an organisational pyramid. So you know, in ancient times, that might be the monarch or ruler, it may have been the general or commander of the armed forces, and in organisational terms, it might be the owner, or the chief executive or the managing director. And over time, that has become much more of a participative co constructed conversation amongst the organization’s members. So I think there’s much more emphasis on trying to bring the community of people within the organisation with you, ultimately, of course, there remain some power differentials in that and not all opinions are equal when it comes to deciding which product to launch or which location to exit from, or whatever the big decisions are. And I would say also, there’s been much more of a recognition about the way in which real life interferes with neatly laid plans. And so it used to be that we’d have an idea that we will launch this product, and in seven years time, we’ll have this percentage of that markup on this basis. And most people recognise though, that the world is so turbulent, that actually those really long term things are inherently problematic. And there’s probably more of our reflexive dynamic focus on emergence and the complexity of delivery, combined with the other point that I’ve made, which is that that, in turn is informed by listening really intently, not just within the organisation, but beyond the organisation, to customers, to stakeholders, to competitors, and regulators, but a whole range of different voices, to try and keep your finger on the pulse of was probably a much more rapidly changing and evolving landscape than it used to be.

Jacqueline Conway  13:36

And so, I mean, full disclosure for the listener, I should just say that you’re one one of the reasons we know each other is because you were my PhD supervisor. And it was through your work in complexity that I was introduced to it. And you’ve done a lot of the kind of early stuff around complexity and leadership and a lot of that was born all done with graphs, etc, and with others, and now, the the ideas of complexity science are really important for leaders to understand, I think in order for them to lead well, because it means that they are working with a deeper knowledge of the way that the structure of the environment that they’re in actually operates rather than a kind of simple, linear, reductionist way of thinking about things that the that you might have thought of before when we were kind of using old industrial age models to lead organisations. And given that you were a pioneer in that and given what you’re seeing about the importance of that for strategy, how, how do we develop leaders to embrace complexity, particularly those leaders who are potentially coming in to a business school who come from like one of the harder sciences or an engineering background or logistics background where these ideas run counter to the things that we might have been taught around some of the technical aspects of the role.

Robert MacIntosh  15:15

So I would say, two sets of preconditions before I go into the answer that fosters earlier in the conversation, we’re saying, business leaders of the future don’t just come from business schools. And that’s true, they, you know, people don’t have to even been to university to start a business and be a successful entrepreneur, many of the most successful ones haven’t. But often, even if they don’t start at a business, school leadership is associated with some visit through the business school. So a lot of business school students, and indeed staff didn’t start out in business that I started out in engineering, you know, it would be uncommon for somebody to start in chemistry, go off into an industry get promoted into a leadership role, and then go back to a business school to pick up some skills. So that’s, that’s the first piece of precondition. And then the second set of preconditions stuff is regardless of whether you’ve been to a university or what you’ve studied, if you have been to a university, I think we bring into our leadership rules as we as we inherit them, we bring some perceptions or prejudices or expectations about what leaders are supposed to do. Often erroneously based on TV, film, books, myths, stories from our childhood, we imagined that leaders are supposed to be in charge and able to control things and the great leaders just do that really effectively and badly. They’ve just haven’t mastered the art. And I think with those two sets of observations, you then come to how do people begin to understand complexity. And I think that for many people, as they take up a leadership responsibility, that is that gradual realisation that we’re not in Kansas anymore, this isn’t quite like the book of the case study. It’s not quite what I imagined, you know, I have a big red button on my desk, I press it repeatedly, and it doesn’t seem to do the thing I thought it would do. And then I think people begin to get curious as to why they’re so that is the case, it seems very straightforward. It’s a very good plan, then it just isn’t working. And I think that people come to an understanding of organisations as organisms, not mechanisms and life as complex, not complicated. Usually, through some lived experience, either that they were trapped, somebody was trying to lead them in a way which they didn’t find very helpful, or that they were trying to lead in a way, which they thought was very straightforward, but was producing quite bizarre outcomes, not expected outcomes. And that curiosity then is what on Earth is actually going on? And is it all some hopeless dilemma that it’s just feet that I might as well turn up to work and do my knitting, or put my feet up and see what happens. And I think my research in that space started from a position of saying, just accepting that the world is complex, and that the system’s perspective tells you there’s multiple variables at play, at the same time, does not equate to seeing, there’s nothing you could do about it. And so the idea of influencing, emergence, as it happens around you, is really the thing that has been central to my research inquiry into strategy over the whole of my academic career. It’s not, it’s a sweet spot somewhere between the gay abandon of just saying, well, it doesn’t really matter, I let go of the banks of the river I’ve been swept along, we’ll see where we end up. And on the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum, a control freak mentality that if I tell you that in week six, you’ll be doing that on Tuesday morning, and you just do it, it will all work. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in between reesink What are the things I can actually exert some influence over? And as I exert that influence, what are the signals I should pay attention to, as it’s unfolding to tell whether I’m doing something which is helpful for my purpose, or actually unusually unhelpful, and in ways which I hadn’t foreseen at the outset, then so that space is the space that I’m most interested in how one behaves intentionally, but not in a controlling way, but in a way, which is trying to affect outcomes that you have a view of being better than some other outcome?

Jacqueline Conway  19:20

And I suppose, you know, the question that the listener will probably have, if they’re, if they’re anything like me is, what are those things? You know, how, what is that sort of thing that’s in the middle between those two extremes that you paint? So

Robert MacIntosh  19:37

in the work that I’ve done in this space, informed largely by some study of what it is to learn something and what learning means when it’s a collective activity, rather than just an individual activity, and some inquiry into complexity and the nature of organisations as systems. I think that there are some key concepts that you can pick Attention to one of them is diminished use different languages used in different bits of literature. But the sort of underlying principles or rules of the game are the things that you can influence. So you can see, well, I really don’t mind what kind of product or service we deliver. But they have to deliver more than this level of financial return. Or they have to get to market and less than this kind of a piece. And so that doesn’t tell you what the answer is. But it does tell you some criteria by which you would shape the answer. And so that’s the thing that will be right in the foreground of my main, particularly in a group or team that are trying to lead an organisation would be Could you try to agree as explicitly as possible, what those rules of engagement are, what are the boundary conditions within which you can improvise. Because if you take a different metaphor from the world of music, improvisation is always that structured and unstructured thing. So you have to say, well, we’re playing at this tempo, constantly true, you can’t play not that tempo, really, because then you will not you’re not part of our band. But whilst we’re playing in that tempo, and then this key signature, you could do that if you want to do that would work. Whereas this wouldn’t work. So that those boundary conditions are for me about engagement in the same activity, as opposed to the dissonant experience of actually, I thought we were doing the same thing. But it turns out, we’re doing quite different things. And then if you get that part, right, there are two other things that happen in the background. One is about creating conditions where novelty, unusual, unexpected things might happen. And that tends to require a level of uncertainty. So if you are, in my view, somewhat delusionally, trying to follow a very prescribed long term plan, then mostly people don’t tend to improvise. And so there’s something about creating a level of fluidity or uncertainty or ambiguity that creates permission for people to have trial and error Pape experiences. And those trial and error experiences would be guided by the, that doesn’t really matter. As long as it’s in this time signature, I could still do this, this type signature, versus that’s going to sound really off key if I played the wrong key for the rest of the band. And then the third piece is about noticing what’s working and not working. And I would express that in more technical terms about feedback processes. So sometimes you think well, it’s wow, I really didn’t see you doing that this morning, Jacqueline. But now that you’ve done it, that’s a fantastic idea. We should all do that. Versus I didn’t see you doing that this morning. Check that and actually hate to break it to you. But that’s not very helpful. And I think we should all avoid doing that. And so one of those types of feedback amplifies and the other suppresses. And so that amplifying, and suppressing, which is founded on noticing happens in a context where there’s sufficient ambiguity or fluidity for some unusual things to begin to happen, because things are just slightly off keel. And that happens in a context where there’s some shared conversation about what’s agreed and what’s not agreed what’s on the table, and what’s off the table. Then, a long time ago with our good friend and colleague, Donald mcleaney, you also no, we wrote that up into a framework which we called conditioned, emergent, but in lay language, that’s where those three things are about the rules of engagement, about the opportunity to experiment, because there’s just enough looseness in an otherwise managed situation. And it’s about noticing the things that you want to encourage and the things that you broadly want to discourage. None of which tells you that in three years time, and month 27 of our plan, I’m not at this point, and our financial projections will have done this thing in exactly this way. But it does say what could kind of predict the outcome that we might get, because it will have a distinct shape and size to it. But I can’t tell you what it will be. So one of the analogies that I often use about that is, if I asked 10 people to design a table that could see eight people round and cost less than 200 pounds, I’d get 10 different designs, but they’d all meet a certain criteria. So in some sense, I don’t know what’s going to happen. And then another sense, I think, well, I’ve got a fair degree of confidence that it not be a table for one. And it won’t be a table for 27 people. And it won’t be a table of cost 3 million pounds to get some sense of what it’s going to be but still an inherent sense of curiosity as to what turns out to be the best answer.

Jacqueline Conway  24:33

So that is a beautiful description of complexity. And I’m really noticing the subtlety and nuance that’s required to operate in that kind of space. That’s different from the kind of command and control. Here’s our Gantt chart, sort of an annual there’s an agile way of working and all of that but at Still, we have traditional ways of leading that run quite counter to that. And so bringing us back then to business schools, I mean, I’ve got, I’ve got two, two curiosities. And I’ll see them both, and then you can take them in whatever order you like. The first is, how are they in the business schools? Try and if if the if the, what’s coming up for me is that that is an inherent set of capacities, capabilities that a leader would have to have in, in order to do that kind of thing that’s quite different from the, you know, you mentioned earlier in this conversation, are kind of ideas of what it is to be a leader and where we get them from, you know, movies and all of that kind of thing. So how then do we develop leaders in business schools and outside of business schools to build that capability for for, for complexity, and for that sort of emergence to or to be accepting of that emergence. And the second is, you said earlier, when they get there, they realise that things don’t quite work that way. And one of the things I’m really curious about is the leaders who get to the C suite who are still quite far away from having those capacities, and whether or not we should be looking for those capacities, before people get to the C suite. Or whether or not those the complexity of the C suite is such that we couldn’t expect them to have an awful lot of that before they get into that space where they’re doing enterprise leadership. And they are in there having to live with complexity day in and day out.

Robert MacIntosh  26:57

I think my starting point would be closer to your end point, Jacqueline, that that we would probably don’t know until you get there. And to apply and span both of your question areas, I guess there’s a different pedagogy or educational model that would underpin the formation of a leader of the future. Option one is I’ll teach you what the books have always told us, you know, us a great leader are in charge, you just develop a great plan. And then you just read to people until you’ve done it. And then we could reveal to you, it doesn’t quite work like that. And some people might actually experience the whole of their careers thinking that they’re great planners, just the thing that made it for them. And often those people have got a slightly sycophantic self narrative, which is, of course, it’s all because I’m so brilliant that we’re here today. And they may never get to the point of realising that actually, a different version of exactly the same story is, yeah, well, that wasn’t really working, that we did all these things, we didn’t tell you because we knew you’d be so upset or angry with us. But that’s how we succeeded. Actually, it wasn’t your plan, it was our plan to one version of that is that you go through this transition, would you gradually reveal the further complexities of a situation. And some people might accept that whilst they’re still in a classroom setting in a university or a business school, and others might have that moment of realisation when they get to the C suite or some other situation where their leadership is, is impinging on their consciousness in some way. And it does strike me that there are some leaders that I’ve met, who seem blissfully unaware of the other version of the same story. So they’ve got this account of themselves as the heroic Saviour, who’s the only person bright enough in the room to have seen that this is the way it would work. And that that’s not the only version of the success story that they sing. And so for me, it is something about the lived experience, whether that’s for an undergraduate student who’s going to be many years away from being in a C suite. Or it’s somebody who’s many years away from whatever it was they did in their formative years, whether it was education or otherwise, whether it was at a business school or otherwise, who gradually begins to think this world does not work the way that I thought it worked. And it often that has to do with some traumatic experience of launching a product that are going horribly wrong or merging with another company, and they’re going horribly wrong or trying a thing which is worth every stage of your life so far, and then it just doesn’t work. And wherever that transition happens, that’s the point at which you can engage people. So it seems to be rather than looking for those sensitivities. I think what you’re really seeing is, what is the right experience for you to have this moment where you think, whoo, okay, so I could also explain what’s going on like this. And that could happen very early in your career, or very late in your career. I wouldn’t necessarily see that as the kind of filter through which you should do recruitment, because, you know, otherwise, you might be looking at a very narrow set of supposedly enlightened individuals who are appropriate for the C suite But on the other hand, I would be somewhat concerned at someone who just kept banging away with the same hammer against the same needle shaped object thinking, Oh, I just need to keep trying as hard. You know, Henry Mintzberg, who you and I both know, and like his work, he’s got this lovely turn of phrase in his book, which is called The Rise and Fall of strategic planning. That, you know, it was a fantastic idea, it was just that the implementation was wrong. And he goes on to say later than the court. And people below you in the C suite might say, if you were so fantastically bright, why didn’t you fake factor and that we wouldn’t do this properly? You know, it wasn’t implementation. That was the plan, that at some point, I think, people have that moment of realisation. And if they don’t, they’ve got some other kind of diagnosis going on. Will they see this is not healthy for them to have that moment of realisation?

Jacqueline Conway  30:53

How familiar are you with ideas, they involve adult development, and this continuing process of maturation beyond her childhood and adolescence, you know, and not just around the cognitive capacities and brain plasticity, but our ability then to, to take on more complexity and to engage with the world more the way that it is rather than the way that we want it to be.

Robert MacIntosh  31:24

I have to say, I’m not particularly familiar with the academic literature around that. But what it sounds close to me like is the work of Carl Vikon sensemaking. Where he, he posits really, that that is the essential criteria or process that we’re all engaged in, in organisations as we are making sense of what’s going on around us. And we are driven not just as members of an organisation or as employees or as leaders, but but actually, as a species, we are driven to time have some schema, which says, I understand what’s going on around me and how I sit. It’s about a sense of belonging almost. And so what what I would project on to the ideas that that you’re introducing, without any knowledge of those ideas, I have to be honest, is the sense that that’s what that’s what’s important people will have an experience in which what used to make sense no longer seems to make sense. And that that’s the trigger for that maturing, revisiting of fundamental assumptions about what works in what circumstances and why that might be the case.

Jacqueline Conway  32:29

Yes, I really agree with that. And I agree that it was, you know, my no other say, I know Carol vates work reasonably well. So isn’t that then the thing that way in, notwithstanding the fact that people are going through this iterative process of have an assumption, I’m testing it with reality, did it work? And therefore I can continue to hold that assumption, or does it not work? And then I’ve got a choice to continue to hold the assumption, or do I update the kind of operating model that I’m working with? And isn’t that then that the, the key moment, when the the f f f business skills were able to I mean, maybe this is impossible, were able to tap into that bit of capacity building.

Robert MacIntosh  33:21

In the education sphere are everything from undergraduate through to post experience, business schools, I think a bit like medical schools, which they are often compared to, in educational terms, as very applied spaces where you know, the whole point of doing this is in order to be able to run a business rather than just to write about running a business. I think business schools are quite good at creating opportunities for people to experience things and then to reflect on them. So in the MBA programme, they you were a student on there was a consultancy module at the end, where you brought your knowledge from a range of different disciplinary areas of finance, and HR and logistics to a live problem. Where there, there is no singular right answer, but there probably some wrong answer. But you know, you could easily see in the same organisational problem or setting an answer, which largely derives from the financial model, the business is operating on auto answer, which really is focused on the kinds of people that we recruit for an answer, which is mostly about how our supply chain is kind of receding away all of the profit margin and that we need to fix that. So I think that those experiential things do create opportunities for students in business schools, at all stages of their career to have that moment of stepping back and reflecting and the academic staff can have a real value in that space to be the provoke provocation to that reflection, and to introduce some ideas or thoughts about what else might be going on there. But the other thing that I wanted to pick up from the world of, of business as well and by business, I always tend to mean everything from public organisations to social enterprises to large corporates. But if you did the leadership team, I think one of the most interesting things is whether there is any permission and or expectation of a moment’s reflection on what’s going on, as well as how it’s going on. And so we can all be busy doing our, you know, 60 hour weeks and feeling were working hours or souls into the ground, doing the doing, and, and I think in really high performing teams, that when at least one person has had that moment of realisation that we’re not in Kansas anymore, that is either permission or requirement to see, can we just stop for a minute? And see, what did you think was going on here? What did I think was going on? What assumptions was I bringing to this work? And there’s something really interesting about foreground and background there, where what is the work is the work, the delivery of the new product of the clan, or the expansion or whatever it is that the business is trying to do? Or is the work us figuring out how we’re engaging with each other and whether that’s doing so in a way which is effective? And if we get that right, the other type of work will just naturally fall out of it will build better products will be more effective or be more sustainable or efficient? And that’s the bit that I’m most interested in, is that what it is that senior leaders feel? Is the is the core of their day job? Is it the doing of operational stuff? Or is it the reflecting on how that operational stuff is being delivered, and whether there’s a tweak needed here or there. And I do think that that is some sort of almost personality. Typing that goes on with some leaders clearly see, the job has mostly to do with the delivery of every day. And other leaders here as that’s important. That’s the, that’s the equivalent of the life support system, and you can’t afford to drop the ball or have your blood sugar levels dropped below a certain critical level. But it’s not the main thing. The main thing is actually as long as that’s enough, then at all key, please, the main thing is trying to figure out why it’s like that, and how that tells us how we should interact with other colleagues in ways which are less dysfunctional, more productive, more innovative, and then really, really high performing organisations. I think that often is what’s going on. There’s that curiosity about how this is going on, as well as revelling in the fact that it’s amazing that we’ve just bought through your biggest ever sales turnover in this quarter, or we’ve had our most successful ever product launch or whatever measure of success you’re interested in.

Jacqueline Conway  37:40

I mean, I couldn’t agree more I you know, that’s obviously that softens the way I do the work that I do. That’s, that’s exactly the space. But as you see some teams for in some, in some kind of intangible ways are able to offer intangible reasons are able to do that, and others find it and others find it much more difficult. And they find it much more difficult, of course, when they’re under a great deal of stress and pressure. Because of course the minute we are under stress, we are exhausted, you know, we’ve turned off the capacity in her, you know, in an executive brain and that kind of prefrontal cortex to be able to do that work. And so given that that’s an environment that many executive teams operate in, in this very disrupted world, then what what is their? What support might we give leaders who are trying to do that already difficult work in an extremely disrupted and potentially stressful environment?

Robert MacIntosh  38:50

I think a lot of it’s to do with confidence, and a lot of it’s to do with permission. And so what’s the what’s the anxiety response, which is stopping you in a board meeting, saying actually, can we just press pause? And I just want to Jacqueline said something which makes me think she’s understanding the situation fundamentally different than me. And I want to just kind of explore that with you. What stops you doing that is the raw pressure and terror the condition, we don’t have time for that. And if this doesn’t go, well, we’ll all be fired, the business will disappear. So there’s something about permission, and that comes from a place of confidence that the wheels won’t absolutely come off, right, this incident. And I think, almost in a sense of folk wisdom. You hear that a lot. You know, the Einsteins thing, legit thing that if I had an hour to solve a really big problem, it’s been 59 minutes defining the problem in a minute solving or whatever the ratio is. You know that the person who’s got an hour to chop a tree down would spend half an hour sharpening the sword the other half cutting the tree though. There’s something about that confidence to see that we’re not just going to die right now. So can we just spend 10 minutes talking about it and somehow that three’s up and gives permission to others to think, Oh, and one of the things that I’m, I guess most interested in, in my research with leadership teams on strategy is about the relationship between what I would call problem solving and problem framing. And they are two different qualities of activities. And I’ve just been without using those words been describing the difference between the fanaticism of problem solving when we already know the solution, we just need to do it faster. problem framing, which is it’s just a fight, should we still, if we’re feeling like we are running flat out right now, and we need to go even faster? Should we just stop and see if there’s a boss we could catch or something else that might be a better solution here. And I think there’s, I go back to the idea that in leadership teams, typically at least one person has to have the curiosity to have that sensation and to notice it. And somehow that confidence, or the power or some combination of things to allow the rest of the group or to enforce to the rest of the group says that can we stop? And when that happens, it’s happened a few times and meet it. I observe meetings as part of my research. It’s happened a few times in board meetings when I’ve been sitting there and you think, short, very powerful experience when suddenly people think, Oh, this is a poor thing. I thought it was a tall. Oh, and you realise actually, that sometimes the source of that fanaticism is that you’ve been pulling left and I’ve been pulling, right. And we both been sweating buckets. And if we just stop for a minute, we could have said, Oh, should you want to go the other way? Oh, well, okay. We could both do that. And certainly a thing which feels very difficult feels very easy.

Jacqueline Conway  41:40

Absolutely. And so the, the enemy of that is the speed isn’t the fanaticism, that the same sort of urgency

Robert MacIntosh  41:49

and impending doom and Jeopardy are the other things that I would throw into the mix.

Jacqueline Conway  41:54

And so, and also a sense, when I’ve done some work with teams on what stops you and I was really trying to uncover a number of layers down, what is the fear of them slowing down, and having meetings that don’t have an agenda, perhaps, and that allow for a different quality of conversation around sensemaking problem framing to use your language there. And we do. I mean, that’s, that’s exactly the kind of thing that we do, too. We call it the issue chain, where there are different when an issue arises, there are a number of things that happened before you get to solve the problem, move in, you know, decide the course of action move into action. But when we work with executive teams, when we try and layer upon layer, see what is it sometimes it’s a sense of fear that other people will think that they’re kind of sitting about drinking coffee, not doing very much that there’s a there’s a sense of being observed as not meeting the stereotype of what a leader ought to do, which is, you know, working because these people are very well paid. And they have all of the perks, and they have all of the power. And so there’s so there’s also a sense of responsibility to not make it look like it’s a complete, Jolly.

Robert MacIntosh  43:19

And often, just to go back a few steps in the conversation. The individuals are individual with most authority and power to have chronologically a bit older and have already accrued many of the career and personal benefits of whatever success they’ve had, are surrounded by people who want that, but who don’t yet have it. And so that a mimicry sangria, which is why if I want to impress my boss, and they work 90 hours a week, I better start working 90 hours a week and a better more ask questions and a better not standstill. Because that will look like I’m losing. And so that’s how some of that self perpetuates. Some of it also self perpetuates, because there’s a genuine sense that imagine in the, in the health service, for example, in the depths of COVID, you know, trying to think, well, this is actually going to save somebody’s life, if I can get this right and get it rolled out right across the hospital, it will save lives. And I don’t have time to sit about and contemplate my navel. And so there’s that type of dynamic going on. But that is go back to this thing I said earlier, there is this moment of confidence or calm that somebody else will introduce which is okay, to doesn’t have to be in a way that we don’t have to take three weeks over this. But between now and the coffee break, I just want to spend five minutes thinking this question through. And that just changes the dynamic. And it’s almost about the permission to have those kinds of slightly more dangerous conversations which could feel slightly more like you are shooting the breeze or faking it. And for me, that is about the confidence to realise that that is the real work actually, that’s the thing that real leadership is all about.

Jacqueline Conway  44:50

Yes. And when I think of executive gravitas, or leadership gravitas, and I’m like you observing When I’m coaching teams, and I’m in that room as those things are, those conversations are happening. That’s where I, I see gravitas. That’s that’s when I think this is that’s really leader like that, that kind of behaviour, where, as you’re talking about confidence, where you’re able to sort of slow it down enough to encourage the rest of the team to explore what’s what’s really going on.

Robert MacIntosh  45:25

It has a sort of photographic negative, which is, you can’t just do that forever and ever. And that be the only thing. There’s a moment of reengagement, which is that was incredibly helpful. So we are all agreed that we’re going to pull left or not, right? Okay. So now we’re going to spend the next week pulling left as hard as we can, because we need to get a move on. And highperformance isn’t just about big ideas, and, you know, feeling nice about it and feeling you understand your place in the world. It’s also about hard work. So it’s a slight paradox that it has to be a blend of those two things, and the transitions between those two things that really make the difference.

Jacqueline Conway  46:03

I really enjoyed my conversation with Robert, as I always do. And I think there’s so much in this final part of the conversation, where we were thinking about the types of conversations that leadership teams have, and the things that they allow themselves to talk about. There’s a level of vulnerability necessary to see, can we talk about this thing that’s been troubling me about the way that we’re going about this, and I hope that today’s conversation has given you some food for thought on these issues. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please hit the Follow button, so arrives in your feet as new episodes are released. And if you’re so inclined, it would mean a great deal to me if you could leave a rating and review. And if you’d like to stay up to date with the ideas and offerings that we have for executive leaders, then you can sign up to my weekly digest. The link is in the show notes. This is very much a team effort and Walden Croft, and I’d like to thank Pippa Barker, Sita Ballantine, and Lauren McAlpine for helping make it happen.

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.