Teenagers in the boardroom?

A few years ago my daughters reached their mid-teens.  Amongst many challenging things I had to learn was a new vocabulary.  It’s tricky, you see, to communicate when it’s too much effort to use more than one syllable!

One of the most used expressions was ‘meh’.  After considerable deduction, I decided that the closest translation was a shrug of the shoulders.  It means something like ‘so what’ or ‘I don’t care’ and dismisses anything that’s not of immediate and personal relevance to the teenager in question.

To my surprise, I’ve gone on to find this sentiment in abundance in the boardroom.  I haven’t yet heard the word used, but most discussions in most top teams provoke exactly the same disinterested, disengaged and dismissive responses from a proportion of the team.

Do they really not care?

Board members wouldn’t work as hard as they do without an inner fire. Every leader I’ve ever met is there because they passionately believe things can be better, and because they want to play a part in achieving something they care deeply about.

The problem, then, isn’t in individual team members. It’s in what they are talking about. Most team members know that too many of their discussions are about fighting fires, dealing with symptoms and that resolving what’s on the table will, at best, only inch the organisation forward incrementally.

Their hunger for real change therefore remains unsatisfied. Worse still, it’s often unacknowledged. They dutifully carry on, doing what’s needed to satisfy targets, meeting agendas and reporting requirements – conserving as much energy as possible for the things they truly care about.

Moving up – Level 1

Do you know what lights up each of your colleagues? Do they know the same about you? Imagine a team in which you each knew one another well enough to understand, and support, the things you were each driving for. How much better would you, and each of them, perform?

Most HR Directors, for example, would love to create an organisation in which there was meaning and purpose in the job of every employee. They’ll tell you that there’s a huge amount of research data that shows this to be a critical determinant of individual performance. Isn’t it a paradox, then, that this is so often absent, or indistinct, for each member of the top team? If engaging the whole person and their passions is important for everyone else, isn’t it even more important for your colleagues in the boardroom?

Moving up – Level 2

An even bigger shift happens when you can align what each of the team are yearning for.  Harnessed together these aspirations are a powerful, even unstoppable, force. Like anything valuable, achieving this isn’t straightforward. But it isn’t difficult either.

It starts with understanding what each person in the team wants for the organisation. What are their highest aspirations for the organisation and team? What do they want to leave behind when their current role comes to an end? What do they most want their part in reaching that to be?

Once you understand that for each person, you can start weaving them together into a shared aspiration. We have found that there’s much more similarity than difference in these individual aspirations – which makes it easier than you might think to combine them into something collective and powerful.

Raising the sights of your team

We call these discussions ‘Ambition Conversations’. They are the foundation of everything the Leadership Team does and the keystone of the Six Game Changing Conversations.

There are three basic ingredients you’ll need to make this happen in your team.  

  • Time. One of the reasons that these conversations rarely happen spontaneously is the grinding pressure of the everyday – and the crammed meeting agendas this produces. Finding the right time and place (it’s almost always better done away from the office) to be able to open up and explore these questions is critical to success.


  • A method. Talking together in this way runs against the objective and analytical skills that most leaders cultivate (with good reason). To help people break out of these habits, and get to people’s real passions, requires a process. You can find a couple of tools for doing so in our book JUMP!


  • A little patience. Once individual perspectives have been understood, finding the common threads is usually relatively easy. The challenging part is to then find a way to articulate the common picture in a way that doesn’t feel like a dry abstraction full of ‘management speak’. This almost always takes a little time to emerge, but when it does it’s a great moment. You know you’ve found it when each member of the team talks about it, they become animated and their eyes sparkle.

Once the ambition is identified, the team will need to review their agenda and priorities – and to use the energy and excitement in the leadership team about their ambition, to excite and engage the rest of the organisation.

When leading meant leading

A consumer goods company we worked with were doing well. It just wasn’t as well as they’d been used to. Their key product had revolutionised the market when it emerged 20 years ago. For some time, it was the only product in its field. Times were good, growth was radid and large profits flowed. The company became a global business and brand. Their success allowed them to invest in and innovate their product into an entire range.

Inevitably, competitors emerged with ‘me-too’ products. Gradually these became better and took a significant share of the market. Whilst our client was still the clear leader in both market share and quality, their growth was now much harder to win with pressure on both volumes and margins.

The people in the organisation were becoming disillusioned. Talk of the ‘old days’ was commonplace and some of their best people were being poached by the growing competition. Many of the leadership team were disheartened. Defending their market from the competition wasn’t nearly as rewarding as defining it.

The Ambition Conversation with this team was to be a revelation.  As team members shared what they really wanted the company to achieve, it was clear that what they all really wanted was to be again at the leading edge of the market.

When this central idea emerged, there was a moment of disappointment.  It looked impossible to get back to this position. It took an intervention from a surprising source to lift the team again.

The Technical Director, Alun, was a quietly spoken Scotsman. His role had become so diminished that the CEO was talking about removing him from the team. He spoke up with surprising energy conviction. “I can give you at least ten new applications for our product that our competitors haven’t even thought of…”

As he listed them, excitement returned to the room. Some had been discussed before, others looked hard to achieve. There was no ‘eureka’ product or application. Put together, though, it was clear that there was significant potential to break into a number of new markets where they could once again lead – and , by doing so, generate new sales and strong margins.

Over the next few weeks the team made some big changes. Accessing these new markets became their number one priority and structural changes were made – including providing the Technical Director with a much larger role and a greatly expanded team so that he could drive the needed changes.

It’s almost two years since the session where we had that Ambition Conversation.  They are just about to start their third new market launch. The profit contribution from the first two has reached 7% and growing rapidly. More importantly, the entire organisation, as well as the leadership team, have been galvanised by the idea of leading by reinventing new markets for their products.

Developing a high performing leadership team

Creating a team that functions well, exploits the amazing strengths each member brings and complements the inevitable weaknesses that every member also has can lead to dramatic improvements. It can transform an organisation’s results, culture and prospects, quickly and permanently.

It is perfectly possible to take a normal, uninspired, disparate collection of people and talents and set in motion a process that will help it evolve into a powerful, unified and productive Leadership Team.

You can do it, and it can happen quickly. A complete and sustainable transformation will take time, but the first positive signs of change will be visible, and making a real difference, within weeks. You just need to know how to go about it.

Making changes in your team

In my Book, JUMP!, I set out in detail how you can build the case, generate support for and develop your Leadership Team. Over the next few issues, I’ll expand on how HR professionals can apply these ideas to improve the effectiveness of their Leadership Teams and make truly transformational change to the people agenda in their organisation.

For now, you can get your free copy of JUMP! (hard copy or eBook) here.

I hope you can use these ideas yourself. If not, and you’d like help even if only to think through how you might do so, then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email .

Read more…

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership, which shows what it looks like in practice — based around a real case study.

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson