Three Heads are Better than One: The future role of the CEO by Dr Anton Baumohl FRSA, SHEA
Merely stating the importance of ‘heads’, whether one, three or one hundred, is clearly stating the obvious. On our bodies they represent the home of that unfathomable organ, the brain. The brain which is the source of all other activity and indeed of all that makes us human. Heads of organisations may be seen to fulfil a similar function, providing the ultimate guide over the activities and conduct of the world in which they operate. Brains and how they function are key to the business of organisations as well. What CEOs, MDs, and Senior Managers think and how they translate those thoughts into actions is ultimately what makes or breaks the organisation.
Human organisations have become more and more sophisticated over the centuries and decades with greater complexity of purpose and operations, greater geographical spans of influence, greater density of connections and greater speed of engagement with clients or customers. Heads and brains have had to adapt to these complexities by becoming more sophisticated in the ways they think and act. But have heads and brains developed fast enough to keep up with the volatile environments that the business world in particular has to face? There is plenty of support for the notion that humans do change and adapt and therefore have the potential to ‘keep up’. The most recent research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology however would suggest that we need to be more cautious about our human capacity to cope or at least to cope on our own - and how often does the CEO feel that they are on their own?
What we can be clear about is that the thinking that emanates in our brain and that results in actions in the real world relies heavily on two very human mechanisms. In the first place is the brain’s need for, and use of, reference points around which any new thinking and actions occur. These reference points are like marks in the sand or benchmarks from which understanding and truth can be verified and the consequences of actions tested. These reference points are formed from past experiences including things we have been through, things we have heard and read, from our professional training and education, from our families and upbringing, from intense happenings that have left a deep impression, from the good and from the bad, and from the enjoyable as well as the painful. They are stored ready for re-use in our remarkable human memories. Without even realising it, our pasts influence our present. They are made use of in every decision we make and every problem we have to solve. These reference points guide our present activity on a daily minute by minute basis from small matters to big life issues.
Our past experience is therefore key to our futures. This is as true for the CEO and their organisation as it is for us as individuals. But, and here’s the big caveat, that experience can act as a prison as well as a vital resource. it becomes a prison when it ties us into patterns of thinking and behaving that prevent us from seeing the new, when the reference points that are in constant use act as chains, restraining and constraining our thinking. To some extent we are all prisons to these past experiences from time to time, in particular situations, whether we realise it or not. Our minds are not always free agents and the worse part of it is that we may not be conscious as to when this is happening.
The second key influence on the working of our brains is our emotions. Those powerful undercurrents of pleasure and pain, anger and calm, hope and anxiety that occasionally bubble to the surface but which no human can escape. Even those who feel they have their emotions in check will be subject to the unconscious influences of their emotions on almost all actions they
take and the more important the action the stronger the emotional undercurrent. These emotions are useful to our leadership endeavours when they bring energy through our passion and enjoyment, when they result in justifiable caution through our anxiety and fear and when they drive motivation through our curiosity and the persistent search for results fuelled by our need for satisfaction. But emotions don’t just accompany actions, they are also attached to, and influence, the thinking we do before we even get to the action. They may so influence or bias our thinking that the resulting actions appear irrational, unpredictable or illogical and hard for others to fathom. They have an impact on others who have to relate to us, making us easy to work with or difficult to work with.
Both of these key influences exist, not just within individuals, but at organisation and business levels. They are true of CEOs, MDs, Board Chairmen and women and senior managers and they have more impact on the way the organisation works than we can imagine. Not only do these influences or mechanisms contribute to the uniqueness of the human race but also contribute to the uniqueness of each person.
It is the growing understanding of these dimensions of our brain’s activities that have led to an important piece of research that suggests that when it comes to heading up an organisation three heads are better than one. Three heads because they can represent three different sets of experience and as a result three different ways of thinking and acting. They provide three different sets of reference points for decision-making and problem-solving. Three heads because they respond differently to their own emotional maps and triggers and bring a range of emotionally charged thinking and acting. Three heads because they allow the right depth and intimacy of shared knowledge and understanding and can still operate without slowing the organisation’s operations down to a snail’s pace. In a group of three each person can develop a profound insight into the other’s thinking and acting, can be clear about their own contribution to those thoughts and actions, can develop appropriate levels of trust that ensures open feedback between each person without being met with defensive behaviour, and can be open to learning from each other as well as contributing to each other.
The three-fold range of experience and emotional responses can make a powerful and collaborative force that ensures that the head of the organisation delivers with wisdom. They can become a powerful creative resource that far outweighs the creativity of a single person, able to take a business into new untried waters. They become a model of positive challenge and support for the organisation as a whole to emulate. They can establish a broad base for influencing and for encouraging engagement with all other parts of the organisation.
In response to this research a new executive programme has been developed. The Power of Three is a new form of executive team coaching in which the coach facilitates the working relationship of three senior players. During the sessions the executives learn to get inside their own heads and to understand their own thinking and action practices. They are helped to uncover their own points of reference and how they utilise these in their approaches to leading and managing. They explore how they utilise their own emotional responses helpfully and unhelpfully. Each person gains an understanding of the other two to a similar depth. Together they are supported to develop deeper trust and to work collaboratively knowing how to utilise their differences to be a power house within the organisation. Together they learn how to recognise and work with each others’ biases. Facilitation ensures that the three remain individuals and continue to retain their individuality rather than adapting to become like each
other. Facilitation also ensures that they remain open and connected in positive ways to the rest of the organisation, developing the optimum relationship with the whole and not becoming a closed exclusive group. The three might be the CEO, COO, CFO or equivalent. The three might include the Chair of the Board or Trustees and the CEO. Equally the three might be key players in a large and demanding team or department. The Power of Three programme not only ensures a closer working relationship between key people but provides a model of co-operative working that establishes itself as part of the culture of the organisation and is replicated throughout.
The programme is powerful and for those who see the value of developing closer working relationships and are prepared to put time and energy into the process. It will not work for people who want to hold onto their personal power, knowledge and ways of operating. It will not be a favourite with those who are ego-centric in their leadership. It is in fact not for the faint- hearted. The results of the hard work will pay huge dividends for the individuals involved and for the organisation. The programme consists of eight dedicated sessions spread over four to six months. The facilitator is Dr Anton Baumohl who has a background in organisational behaviour and leadership development, who holds a visiting senior lectureship in leadership development, is a trained coach and facilitator and has experience of utilising psychotherapeutic approaches in ordinary work situations.