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The Life Changing Magic Of NOT Doing The Same Thing And Expecting Different Results.

Why the ‘right team’ in the ‘wrong context’ can be a disaster for business

We often talk about the importance of giving feedback as a leader. This week I’m writing about the importance of listening to it, borne out of personal experience on both sides of the employer-employee relationship.

Sometimes, we have to take on board things we don’t want to hear. In business this can be particularly burdensome because it usually means shouldering the responsibility of having to do something about it – of having the courage to change.

A few years ago I concluded to a chairman that he’d have to replace his entire executive team. That he responded by throwing a stapler at me is by the by, (it missed me and left a nasty mark on the wall). He was renowned for his love of projectile objects, so it was less surprising than it could have been. What no doubt surprised him was that the particular team I was referring to, had in the previous four years turned around two big organisations delivering fantastic value for investors and the group. Incredible achievements, and yet here I was telling him that it was time to shake things up.

In this case the staple-throwing chairman chose not to listen and within 24 months the team had gone on to confirm my worst expectation.

Why had I been so confident they would?

Chemistry has been profiling high performing (and, as it happens, low performing) leaders for 17 years. Part of this process involves using this experience and an extensive data set to define the critical traits and behaviours for leadership success, based on the business context. And context is key here, because when trying to predict future performance, context is everything. It’s why we have always maintained that previous experience is such an unreliable predictor of future performance. Think about it; when did you last fire an executive because they did not know what to do? You hired them precisely because they knew what to do, the problem was they probably didn’t do it in the context of your business.

The leadership of Winston Churchill is probably one of the best-known examples; seen as a brilliant wartime leader, the country rejected him as a peacetime leader. So much of leadership is situational, an ability to excel in a given context or environment – and then fail in others. We all, naturally, want to play to our strengths.

Back to the airborne stapler and the team that had been hand-picked to deliver the critical strategic and commercial objectives of a specific context; that of a privately owned and broken business where taking outsized risks and batting for outsized returns were rewarded. Speed was, very much, the name of the game. If Facebook had not taken it already, the team’s motto could have been ‘move fast and break things.’ I loved this team, they were incredible. There was no doubt that what they had achieved was phenomenal. But, I also knew that entering the FTSE 100 required something else. Why? The answer lies in the parable of The Scorpion and the Frog.

A scorpion, which cannot swim, asks a frog to carry it across a river on the frog’s back. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

The team had the same problem; they were unable to adapt in a changed context. Just like the scorpion, who so fatally couldn’t adapt his behaviour to the context he was in, so it went for that particular exec team. They had been purposefully selected on the Intellect, Personality and Motivations for the environment and behaviours successful in a privately owned turnaround. On the back of the FTSE frog they simply wouldn’t be able to help themselves.

This is why context is the overwhelming principle that guides us and our work at Chemistry. Good leadership isn’t a one size fits all. It can only ever be situational. For if you don’t appreciate the changing context, even the best of leaders are doomed. Look at old Winston.

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