“There’s more around us than we typically take time to see but if we ask better questions, we would see more.”

One of the things I enjoy about my guest, and as she describes how she shows up in conversations, is how “fresh, raw and unpackaged” her thoughts and commentary are. 

My guest is Margaret Heffernan. Multi-time TED speaker, an award winning author, and former Chief Executive herself who now mentors other CEOs and senior executives of major global corporations, among other many other achievements. We can all agree that her latest book “Uncharted” is timely. 

I don’t know about you but I can hear Margaret’s distinctive voice in anything she’s written. She‘s the antidote to corporate jargon and theoretical leadership. She’s very much the mentor with whom leaders can feel both validated and safely challenged. In her words, perhaps she is giving them permission to pay attention to their own thoughts or hunches or observations rather than preaching must-do’s and should’s. After all, isn’t that how we really grow? By listening? Whether that’s listening to others or listening to our own voice?

In this conversation, Margaret talks about the value of asking questions, the power that leaders have and the dilemmas that presents them with, the value of listening and holding spaces for others to speak honestly and how she has learned to do that and the surprise impact it had on her own ability to influence people, our relationship with conflict and disagreement and complexity, and what makes people loyal to their leaders. 

A theme that permeates all her books is social capital and how important it is in life and work — she’s explored it extensively and something tells me it has been the golden threat of many of her conversations. In her latest book, Margaret comments, “going into a crisis with years of generosity, reciprocity and trust already deeply embedded provides reliance and stamina.”

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Jump Spots

3:25 – Margaret’s audience and clients, who she writes for; not business manuals; how we can “achieve better ends more easily”

4:59 — Jargon-free; how jargon gets in the way of thinking (not “engagement” or “purpose”); word-nerd

8:05 — What has influenced how she tells stories: reading other books, English language graduate, other writers like George Orwell and George Packer, fiction

10:05 — “Fresh, raw and unpackaged”, “rough round the edges”, honest — validating

11:14 — Validating thoughts, rewarding, giving people permission to listen to their thoughts, hunches, instincts and observations, “it may well be that you know more than you know”; choosing to suppress

11:40 — Thinking as a conversation with yourself; story of advertising chief executive

14:40 — “If they’re missing so much about us, what am I missing about them?”, story of advertising chief executive — habit of mind

14:50 — “There’s more around us than we typically take time to see but if we ask better questions, we would see more.”

15:05 — Listening and asking questions; how power takes you further away from the coalface or lived experience; how to know what’s good for society and diverse stakeholders

18:42 — How to step outside the data and get closer to the problem; staying in touch

19:45 — Lived experience for impacting thinking; Uncharted, Alberto Fernandez, Mexico; find mechanisms and make time to make sure you do know the society you serve

23:00 — Loneliness, friendship, success; existential crises, resilience, social relationships, identity by contrast; opportunity cost of hard work; competitive cultures are insatiable; toxicity

28:10 — Depth of relationships and capacity to influence; incentives and rewards; from relationship to politics; culture and “engagement”; mistaking the shadow for reality

35:10 — Hiring for values, quality of conflict, representative of society; creativity, groupthink; conversations about differences between us; “values alignment”

40:52 — Richness in variety; deliberate effort to draw it out; attitudes to spending time getting to know people; leaders taking it seriously; surviving periods of stress

42:55 — Not how to avoid conflict but how to do it well; stress testing decision-making by debate and argument; difficult to ‘do’ conflict remotely so the risk is that the easiest decision is readily accepted

45:22 — Threshold theory, Alice Stewart and George Neal; collaboration, “Tell me where I’m wrong. Tell me what I’ve missed…” Safety to be able to argue and debate

48:49 — Formal education prepares us poorly for handling conflict; language skills; dispute resolution, most executives admit to not voicing disagreements and concerns because of fear of retribution or futility (“why bother”)

51:40 — Regulating our emotions, being responsible for keeping channels of communication open; “What is this telling me?” How easily we do that comes down to depth of our relationships

55:00 — Experimentation: Uncharted, “the great advantage of experiments is that they stop you from being stuck”; opportunities for change; Bank of England, John Lewis Partnership; potent energy of locally sourced ideas or direction of change, giving people hope, identity and cohesion

1:01:50 — What to expect from Margaret in conversation: not routine, unpredictable and go to unexpected places, stories backed by data, narratives that illustrate ideas; learning to listen better, respect from her colleagues, people feeling listened to

1:07:25 — Advice to leaders: listen and ask questions; why leaders talk too much sometimes; why being brilliant is not enough to get people to listen to you; struggling to influence

About Margaret

You can follow Margaret Heffernan on LinkedIn and Twitter, and her website is here with details of all her videos, broadcasts and books including her latest, Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together.

Better Conversations with Sehaam Cyrene

Better Conversations with me Sehaam Cyrene where we have conversations about good conversations, rubbish conversations, and thought-provoking conversations. My guests are candid, open and disarmingly intimate about their conversation habits. 

If you’d like to appear on the show or have a burning question about conversations, do drop me a line – podcast@betterconversations.co – I’m all ears. Or book a 30-minute chat with me to explore conversations.