“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. 

Margaret is 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.”

Highlights

  • Jargon-free; how jargon gets in the way of thinking (not “engagement” or “purpose”); word-nerd
  • 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, thinking as a conversation with yourself
  • “If they’re missing so much about us, what am I missing about them?”
  • 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
  • Lived experience for impacting thinking; Uncharted, Alberto Fernandez, Mexico; find mechanisms and make time to make sure you do know the society you serve
  • Loneliness, friendship, success; existential crises, resilience, social relationships, identity by contrast; opportunity cost of hard work; competitive cultures are insatiable; toxicity
  • Depth of relationships and capacity to influence; incentives and rewards; from relationship to politics; culture and “engagement”; mistaking the shadow for reality
  • Hiring for values, quality of conflict, representative of society; creativity, groupthink; conversations about differences between us; “values alignment”
  • 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
  • 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
  • “Tell me where I’m wrong. Tell me what I’ve missed…”
  • 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”)
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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

About Dr Margaret Heffernan

Dr. Margaret Heffernan produced programmes for the BBC for 13 years.  She then moved to the US where she spearheaded multimedia productions for Intuit, The Learning Company and Standard&Poors. She was Chief Executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and then iCast Corporation, was named one of the “Top 25” by Streaming Media magazine and one of the “Top 100 Media Executives” by The Hollywood Reporter.

The author of six books, Margaret’s third book, Willful Blindness : Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was  named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times. In 2015, she was awarded the Transmission Prize for  A Bigger Prize: Why Competition isn’t Everything and How We Do Better, described as “meticulously researched…engagingly written…universally relevant and hard to fault.” Her TED talks have been seen by over twelve million people and in 2015 TED published Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes. Her most recent book, Uncharted: How to map the future was published in 2020. She is a Professor of Practice at the University of Bath, Lead Faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Programme and, through Merryck & Co., mentors CEOs and senior executives of major global organizations. She holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Bath and continues to write for the Financial Times and the Huffington Post.

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.

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While we’re gifted with speech, conversations, really good conversations don’t happen as much as we’d like. In Better Conversations podcast, my guests and I deepdive into all the corners of what makes a conversation painful and terrible or warming and memorable.

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Sehaam Cyrene PCC

About Sehaam Cyrene PCC

Business leader, entrepreneur and Executive Coach, Sehaam Cyrene PCC is the Founder of Better Conversations and the creator of a game-changing online course for leaders — Leaders Who Coach™. A regular speaker to digital communities, leaders, board directors, and teams, and producer of BC4Leaders events, she also hosts her own podcast series Better Conversations with Sehaam Cyrene.