What makes for great Board leadership?

Eileen Mullan is founder of Strictly Boardroom a website that profiles boardroom vacancies across the public and third sectors.

As a Governance Practitioner Eileen supports boards and CEOs to maximise their boardroom effectiveness. Eileen is an advocate for the value diversity on Boards brings to decision making and believes fully in enabling and empowering others to take on board roles across the public and third sectors. She has nurtured and supported aspiring Non-Executive Directors, and Trustees , where they are now centrally involved in decision making across Northern Ireland. In doing this many boards have gained the valuable skills, knowledge and qualities required around their board table to make a difference.

Eileen’s current Non-Executive Director roles are: Chair of Age NI, Member of Northern Ireland Committee for the Big Lottery Fund, Health and Care Professions Council and Southern Health and Social Care Trust. She holds an MSc in Management and Corporate Governance and an IoD Diploma in Company Direction.

A champion for boardroom diversity, a believer in anything is possible, civilly partnered to Fidelma and a servant to four rescue dogs, Jake, Woody, JJ and Jess.

What for you builds positive leadership?

For me leadership is based on honesty, trust and respect. So, I have to see it, I have to feel it, I have to evidence it. When I don’t capture all of those in an individual, then I don’t recognise leadership.

We can have leaders that are not heads of parties, organisations, chief executives or managers. We have leaders everyday who get on with it and do their work, but they do it and inspire others and don’t even realise that they are doing it. Those are the ones which interest me most, the ones that don’t say to themselves ‘I am a leader’ but that it’s quite obvious that they are.

On ‘irresistible leadership’

Recently I came across the concept of ‘irresistible leadership’. It’s when a leader gets people – their hearts, minds, hands – behind a cause to give their absolute best. When have you experienced or seen irresistible leadership?

In the simplest format and I’ll expand upon what I mean by that. There was a situation a few years back where a government minister made a decision to close NHS residential homes for older people. There was one older lady who went on the radio and told her story. I think here name was Betty. She told her story in such a powerful way that it was a very simple story; that this was her home. This was her home, this was her stuff, nowhere else is her home. She put the call out the minister that if he wanted to close the home, he could come and talk to her. By that phone call and that conversation what she did was that she got a forcefield of people behind her. That meant that the minister had no choice, no choice but to change his course of action. That’s a very simple thing. For me what that lady did was put her heart out there. She told exactly how she felt as a result of someone making a decision about her, without involving her in it at a very simple level.

At another level, you have your organisations and causes that tug at people’s hearts, whether that be cancer, whether it be children or animals etc. Then you see those individuals who have had an experience of some kind. They have been able to enrol and engage a wide range of people to bring about change. They might have done it on the basis ‘I’m not too sure what the path is’ but they’re clear on what the change needs to be. You see how they have been able to slowly build this mountain of people behind them to say ‘You know what, we need to bring about change’ and they’ve done it.

On the other side of this you have what I would refer to as bad leadership based on manipulation and coercion. If you have a cause for example that I am interested in, I should be a willing participant which means that it’s my decision to join it. The leader’s role is to enable me to do this and identify where I can play my part. You allow me that space to enable it to happen but you don’t say ‘You’re coming and this is what you are doing.’

It is something in the language of leadership that is not spoken about very often. It can be exactly like that…

That’s a space I find incredibly uncomfortable and I will avoid it all costs. That brings me back to the trust, the respect and the honesty. Because if I am in a room and I’m fighting for a cause and if I am not greeted with honesty, trust and respect, I know there’s no point. Time to leave. I have to then think who do I need to talk to next because it’s quite obvious that people I’m trying to engage don’t want to be engaged. Their engagement will be at their own level of benefit.

I sometimes get frustrated at politics here, so much seems to be about horse trading and saying what others do badly instead of what they do well. I do appreciate that Parties represent a constituency of the 1.8million people in Northern Ireland – that voters have expectations of those they elect.

Negotiating is an aspect of being in government in determining priorities but I don’t see enough leadership that is about the greater good of the whole population. I don’t see leadership based on trust, respect and honesty – maybe that’s just politics but politicians are called leaders, so I would like to see more of those qualities in the way they govern.

Personally, what have been your best times and most challenging times in leadership?

That’s honestly a difficult one to answer because you know, I would see leadership from how others would view it. How others might view my leadership might not be how I view it. Yes, I am told for example that I am an exceptionally good Chair. I am told that what I was able to do was pull a group of people together to be clear on what their role was and to deliver on fully for an organisation. I was able to do that without having to drag anybody, they were all very willing participants. I was clear on this is what we were there to do. Now, all I felt that I did was go in and did a bit of re-organisation but that was good leadership.

Yes, but that’s not how I viewed it. Now, I walk into meetings, whether that be a public level or a third sector level and put positions on the table and be very clear, articulate and negotiate to a point, that’s viewed as leadership. I view that as a conversation to get an outcome. That conversation is about how I can ensure that people are hearing the message that I am giving and the message needs to be clear. I suppose this goes back to when you asked me about this interview and you pitched it on the basis of me as leader and I took at breath at that as I wouldn’t envisage myself as a leader. But I get it as there are things that I do, and I may do them in a very soft, not-in your face way, but there are many things that I do which is leadership.

The TEDx Talk for example, that was about me being able to speak for 14 minutes without a piece of paper. I also had to get a strong message across not just for the people in the room that night but for a wider audience. That was me putting my head above and putting myself in a space to be criticised and be challenged.

On thought leadership…

The best conversations I have had is when I start out and go ‘I’m not sure what this might look like, but here’s my idea and I think there’s a role for us all to play and I would love to hear what you think about it.’

And those are the best conversations I would have. When I walk in and say ‘Here it is!’, it doesn’t work. You know, you learn this as you go. It’s about being self-aware and I am incredibly self-aware. I analyse, analyse and analyse myself and do the critique afterwards and go, ‘what did I miss?’ which I will probably do this afternoon!

I would get asked a lot for advice. I think it’s lovely and sometimes I wonder, why on earth are they asking me? Now in one regard, I say it as it is and I’m very direct and direct in a nice way. To think that people would want to pick up the phone and say ‘Listen Eileen, I need your advice…’ is an incredibly humbling experience. And, you know, this is where I find leadership extremely difficult as most leaders like to showcase themselves. They love the fact that someone calls them a leader, and a ‘thought leader’ and all that stuff, they love that. What was the term you used earlier on, that new one, ‘irresistible leadership’? I am sure that they would fall over themselves at that but that’s not my style.

So, when I was talking to you earlier about the people who do it, you know I am one of those. Sometimes I put my head up, and then I get a knockback and I have to go and lick my wounds. Then I have to look at what happened, try and assess it and come up with a strategy of how I ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Are you not?

No, not a joiner. And the reason that I’m not a joiner is that I find it’s very much about ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. How I do business is that if my work is good and you want me, then fine but I won’t coerce you in a networking event to give me the chance do something. For me, that’s not leadership, but for loads of leaders, that’s how they interpret leadership because they are able to wheel and deal.

Leadership is about people, fundamentally about people. If you can’t motivate people, then you’re not clear on your message and it’s not going to happen.

How necessary do you think it is for a leader to nail their values to the mast and be clear about what they stand for?

It’s imperative. I wouldn’t accept it any other way. If their values are not evident, it’s just a non-starter really. I have on many occasions put my trust in people and to find out that it has been abused. And you talk about emotional intelligence and you talk about self-awareness, there’s two ways that that can go. It makes you very hard and sceptical of other people and cynical. Or, you guard yourself and you will be very clear about who you will and will not work with and just not rule everybody out.

So, I need to do a test on values before I engage in conversations. What I was finding was people wanted information, they took that information. Where I was offering the opportunity for collaborative working, they were quite willing to have that conversation on collaborative working to the point that they wanted to go it alone and take it with them. So, that hurts. You’re not meeting values with values. So, what I had to do then was to make sure that I was seeing the values really early on before I would start to engage.

Are values a litmus test for you?

Yes, it is, and if it doesn’t, or is not evident for me I would give it a bye ball. It’s not worth it for me personally: I’m not going to compromise my integrity or my self-worth for somebody who won’t reciprocate the values.

I just see too many people in leadership positions where they believe in their leadership position but they are there for the wrong reasons. It’s a bit like Boards, people go on a board just to be on a board. Or they go on a Board because it passes the time for them. Or they go on the board of an organisation because the cause interests them and they actually want to contribute. The latter one is the one you want. The other two are not. And in many Boards, there’s too much of the first one because they are on for all the wrong reasons. And when I have conversations with government about the challenges with their arm’s length bodies, it comes down to trust and respect. If you have the right people sitting around the table for right reason and there is trust and respect between a department, a minister and a Board, you wouldn’t have a problem. But sometimes what we have are egos: ‘I don’t like what he’s saying or she’s saying, so I’m going to do something about it’ and then its fighting within, about power struggles rather than delivering for the citizens.

I think we have a natural tendency here of not being able to recognise or not to understand what leadership actually is. It can be as simple as the person on the bus who tells the guy to stop doing something to the person beside them. It’s very simple, nothing fancy about it!

What insight would you give to someone who is an emerging leader just stepping into a new role which you think would be most useful for them?

Don’t be afraid. Making mistakes is OK. Making mistakes and not putting your hand up is not OK. Making mistakes is OK and then do something about it. It’s a cycle, you have to be self-aware when you are doing it. Emotional intelligence, deal with it when it goes right and wrong and then understand that it’s not just you on your own. There are other people you have to engage with and how you treat them with honesty, trust and respect will reflect on your leadership.

Leading your life, what has sparked for you the most sense of personal fulfilment?

I would say honestly since I had my kidney transplant, that it has given me a level of confidence that I did not have before. When I allowed myself to talk about it, I realised that it was OK to talk about it. Because what I was doing was triggering thoughts for other people and I realised it was one of the most powerful things I had to share. I’m not one for talking about me.

So, I suppose there are a few aspects to it. I had this new dynamism of energy as physically I was able to do more and the smog had cleared in the head as a result. So, then I was able to do more, so when the opportunity came up, I said yes. I said yes to everything. I allowed myself then to be open to opportunities, events and people that popped up. Each of those then triggered another step and another road to do something else. Every bit of that built confidence.

Would confidence have been directly related to your condition and how you were feeling before the transplant or would it have been a wider thing?

I think probably a wider thing. I can appear extremely confident: It appeared in TEDx that I wasn’t shaking in my boots but you know, you do that; you get those first few minutes and then you get it over with and then you’re on a roll. But you know from a confidence perspective, and this comes back to being on your own as self-employed, I had nobody there telling me if it was doing it right or wrong. That’s a very lonely place to be. Sometimes I just needed somebody to tell me ‘Actually Eileen, you know what, that was spot on…’ Or that I could be tweaking it differently. So, from a confidence perspective, I had to build that up myself. But, my interventions are interventions and my observations of others have enabled me to do that as well.

I heard a guy who was up here talking about 10 or 15 years ago, about those three things you know opportunities, events and people here. You know, you can stand in a bus station and not talk to anyone or you can stand at the bus station, smile and say hello. And that conversation can trigger something else. Or for those few moments at least, you have created a human interaction and that in itself has value.

There are people out there who are leaders and who have not got the ability to interact with people. They are in a position that gives them the leadership role and they will believe they are leader. Their understanding of leadership is the position. But the position alone does not reflect leadership.

People can walk over people very quickly. What was it somebody said, always be nice to people on your way up as you will meet them on your way down? There is a lot of it out there and I suppose this is why I shun joining. For me it can feel wrong because of the culture that comes with it.

When you have had a significant event in your life, it wakes you up. It doesn’t make you immortal, but what it says is that you take every day as it comes and you just make the most of it.

So, for me there’s no need for being a controlled by structures anymore and I would have been very structured. I am still structured and organised but now I enjoy more of ‘let’s just see where this goes.’

It’s goes back to what you said earlier about how you start your best conversations…

And I’ve stopped having those other conversations where I would identify ‘I have…’ I don’t have. I have got maybe an idea that I can talk to you about to see what you have and we can maybe put that together. People jockeying for position, from a leadership perspective, that’s somebody who feels the need in the room to the be ‘the one’. Then it’s very evident that trust, honesty and respect might not be there as they are coming at it from the wrong place.

How would you see coaching assisting in people in their leadership or lives?

It needs not to be too structured or formal. It could be a phone call one day and a Skype call the next week or it could be a quick text. It doesn’t have to be this thing that it looks and feels that it sounds like counselling. For me it’s always about enabling people. People already have the solutions, they just can’t see it so I help them to get rid of the fog. You’ve got to be honest, no ‘flaff, flaff, flaff’, there’s just way too much of it.

I was a mentor for Politics Plus ‘Women in Leadership’ programme. Some of the women were outstanding in what they achieved in a short window of time. They move jobs, got promoted, and changed their life. For me, all I did was that I met with them three times and we had a conversation and I turned around and said ‘What are you talking about, that’s nonsense’ or question them, ‘Is that what you want to do? What are you doing? What are you doing to get it?’

There needs to be more of programmes like this and people being able to access support based on trust, honesty and respect.

There are people out there who don’t realise that they are leading every day and who don’t realise that they’re doing outstanding work. Every day they’re doing great stuff and they don’t know it – the silent leaders.

To learn more about Eileen’s work supporting Board development and leadership, click on her website Strictly Boardroom 

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

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