Interview with Margaret Heffernan 

Ian Florance
12th October 2017

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Interview with Margaret Heffernan

Editor Ian Florance talks to Margaret Heffernan, international business leader, author, radio personality, thought leader and TED speaker.


Margaret Heffernan gives this year’s Meyler Campbell annual lecture. It’s a must-see event as Margaret’s views are both considered and forceful: she challenges conventional business thinking through an unrivalled combination of hands-on business experience and wide theoretical understanding.

Her five books and many presentations argue that organisational talent is consistently wasted through management cultures, leadership ego, gender discrimination or an addiction to the application of sweeping solutions rather than smaller changes. Underlying this is a genuine suspicion of competition as an exclusive model for organisations. Margaret appeared in Channel 4’s series Secret Millionaire, has written a two-part radio drama about Enron and has presented at a number of TED events.

We asked Ian Florance, our consultant editor, to interview Margaret before her lecture and she kindly gave time in what’s plainly a busy schedule.

Margaret, what’s the key message you want to get across to Meyler Campbell’s community?

That there’s always more creativity in organisations than we think. We don’t notice it at our peril. And a key part in any leadership role is to nurture that talent. Executives tend to think about themselves: how well they’re doing, what others think of them, their next step. But a key to success is to notice what is often unseen and nurture it. My experience as a manager is that the way to be great is to make other people great, to notice the brilliance in the basement.

I know a pharma CEO who said that what kept him awake at night was the recognition that, in 7 years, only 4 executives had ever got in his face to argue issues they were passionate about. It made him feel – rightfully – that there wasn’t enough candour in his organisation. Typically, this is due to fear of conflict. Great ideas are created by conflict, by sharing. If people don’t engage with them, ideas never improve. Organisational structures and leadership behaviour tend to deaden the possibilities of constructive conflict. Let me stress though – we need conversations, not rants.

Nancy Kline argues that we’re not really taught to think. You seem to feel the same about expression of ideas.

Most education and training does not teach intelligent debate or the critical idea that a conversation is not designed to produce winners. We need to teach negotiation and encourage articulacy.

It sounds like a coaching session, with challenge and acceptance taking place in a safe environment, is a good example of this collective thinking. What gets in the way of creativity?

An over-emphasis on competition between people in an organisation is one. Goal setting and expected rewards - a major part of management armoury in most organisations – also inhibits it, as do forced choices. In effect, if you tell someone to do something to reach a goal and get their reward they’ll do it: they won’t think of a better way to do it or of a different goal.

This seems to have huge implications for leadership.

The idea of the heroic leader is busted. Too many leaders obscure their anxieties with jargon, when what they need to do is call out and use the collective intelligence inside their organizations.

A leader needs to be more like an orchestral conductor. He or she listens and creates a safe environment within which people can make mistakes but also change to express their full potential.

The leader as coach?

Most outstanding leaders I’ve known are basically coaches.  But there’s more to it than just that. One of the worst ideas ever promoted in management books is authenticity: as though you had to be true to yourself even if that meant bringing the organisation down around your ears. You need to create a framework within which other people can do their best work. It’s important that leaders understand ‘It’s not about me’.

I can give you examples from my own career which show this. I was running a tech company on the East coast but was stuck on the west coast and therefore I couldn’t make it to an important restructuring meeting in the offices but, rather than postpone it, I told them to get on with the discussions. The results were much better than if I’d been there, largely because they didn’t use energy sucking up to me. Leadership is too often disruptive: rather than facilitative.

Many coaches are taught to use tests, others are suspicious of them. Reading your books, I get the impression you share a suspicion of them.

Their use in education is a key issue. We’re at a point where we need creative thinking and children are made to jump through hoops which constrain them. Schools seem to be fighting a decade-old war. Ten years ago, the OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study set up a league table of international educational systems. China and Singapore were ‘winning’. So, their sort of teaching was introduced here to ‘compete’. In the meantime, China, Singapore and similar countries had understood the limits of their sort of ‘rote learning’ and changed their way of doing things. The end result is that in seeking to ‘get to Number One’ the UK education system has gone backwards thanks to political ideology. For HR, trainers, coaches and leaders this opens up a huge new task: to take up the educational slack.

The world changes fast now so, whatever else education and work do, before anything else they must create a love of learning. An emphasis on their being one right answer, which certain sorts of tests presuppose, blocks exactly that sort of creative conflict I see as so valuable.

I found your discussion of social capital interesting. You say it’s more important than IQ in organisational performance. Can you expand on it a bit?

The idea comes out of sociology. Some communities are resilient, some non-resilient: by extension you can see that some organisations or groups recover from adversity quickly, some don’t. I lived in Stockwell during the ‘80s and events like the Brixton Riots really illuminated the concept. The key to resilience, the real difference, is whether people know each other as human beings. If they do they will look after each other, be productive, ‘go the extra mile for each other’ or any of the phrases that are used. If they don’t truly know each other they won’t. So, anything that helps true human communication and thus true understanding of each other, that facilitates transparency rather than hiddenness, that creates links, will help create critical social capital. That should be obvious but it’s one of these things people just don’t see, understand and act on.

Time’s getting on. Is there one other thing you’d like to say?

At bottom, all meaningful work is human.

Thank you, Margaret. I’m really looking forward to your lecture.


To book your place on this year’s Annual Lecture, click here.

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