Episode 5: Learning from startups, and achieving better board dynamics

David
Welcome to Transformation Talks. My name's David Lancefield I am here to explore the topic of transformation through the lens of a diverse group of people who have driven, lived through or studied transformation in their own ways. By transformation I mean moving from being a laggard to a leader, from analogue to digital or from behind to bold. And my hope in these podcast series is that we give you some ideas, some research and experience to help you develop better strategies, more effective leadership and healthier cultures in your organisation.

I'm delighted to welcome. Jacqueline de Rojas, a non-executive on the board of Right Move, Costain and AO World, an adviser to fast tech Start-ups and a Business Mentor with Merrick. A board adviser to Accelerate-Her and an adviser to Girl Guiding on how they can become more tech savvy. Jacqueline is the President of techUK, Chair of the Digital Leaders board and Co-chair of the Institute of Coding. And indeed you were awarded a CBE for services to international trade and technology in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in 2018, many congratulations. And what a great set of roles. 

David
We talked earlier about how if you are trying to transform all those different organisations, all those different places, you sort of have to start with yourself, right. Perhaps you can just tell me a little bit more about that?

Jacqueline
I strongly believe that if you set out to change the world, make a difference, whatever you label it as, the only person you can really change is yourself. And I have done a lot of work in that area. A lot of self-reflection, a lot of work in terms of being present, being in the moment. I think in a fast moving technology industry it is super tempting to be in the future.  

David
How have you tackled that both yourself and with the individuals you interact with? Because all your different roles you have got a range of people who probably want to be, not only in the future, but now, now, now, push, push, push, very ambitious. How have you, if you like, kept a handle on who you are with all those different pressures on you and the environments you work in?

Jacqueline
I am really good at working to deadlines, just saying.

David
Note to self!

Jacqueline
And the way I handle it personally is I spend a lot of time in yoga and meditation. My husband conveniently happens to be a yoga and meditation teacher. He teaches special needs children the art of yoga and relaxation really and taking control of something as simple as their breathing. And when you go down to something as important as natural and fundamental as breathing, that is where you start to get pretty basic about what is important in life. It grounds you.

David
It does. Your advisory or mentoring roles, with people who are perhaps are headstrong, driven, ambitious, challenge in terms of their styles. How do you coach them and support them in a way to be more grounded without losing the edge, the passion and the drive, because that is quite a difficult attention. How do you coach them to be more present?

Jacqueline
I am going to qualify all of this by saying it is so much easier when you are 55 looking backwards than perhaps it would be 25 looking forwards and I think that is a degree of confidence in terms of how you handle yourself in the workplace. I often, when I am coaching or mentoring people, start with a short meditation to still the mind.

David
How does that go down, does it shock, is it something they enjoy?

Jacqueline
Depends who it is.  I would often position it as an opportunity to create space to be amazing. And I think when it turns into something for them then it changes and reframes what you are doing rather than some crazy, let’s sit on a mountain and think big thoughts. Which by the way is not a bad thing to do either.

David
How do you take that concept and idea and apply it to perhaps an organisation, say on a board where there is a start-up or a traditional organisation? Because the days are busy, the agendas are full and I think most people if you talk to them about these practices, they say of course, but they do it in their personal time and they don’t often do it in their work time. So how do you try in your roles?

Jacqueline
Gosh there are so many ways in which I want to answer that question. The first one is having a diverse board helps because you have different influences around the table. So having a diverse group around the table matters and makes a difference to a better outcome. So I think that is where I would start.

The second one though is, I met the Dalai Lama once, and he told me to go and meet a man called Jeffrey. And Jeffrey is an ex-UN Hostage Negotiator and he was running a workshop called Non Violent Communication in the Workplace. And I thought, gosh I really need to understand what that means. And it was so fascinating. He started his workshop by saying ‘I was in Afghanistan and I came out of my tent one morning and I was confronted by my guide who was being held hostage by a terrorist with a Kalashnikov to his head’. And he said ‘When all you have got are your words, you tend to choose them rather carefully and that starts the journey on non-violent communication’.  

So I then found myself on a 10 day course in Montpelier in France at the Peace Factory learning about non-violent communication. It was incredibly intense, it was all about how to meet everyone’s needs around the boardroom table without offering compromise. 

David
Wow, that’s a real skill.

Jacqueline
And I loved that. I think that is just so inspiring and the bottom line for those of you who will not go and do this course, but the bottom line is that as human beings we have something like 10 fundamental needs. The top two though are about being heard and being significant. And sometimes around the boardroom all you need to do is make sure you really listen with intention and that is what I tend to do in meetings - this goes back to the idea that being fully present matters. And when you’re asking a question and really getting to grips with what is being said, the person feels heard. There may not be anything else that they need other than that. And it may also feed their need to be significant.

David
Significant meaning?

Jacqueline
That you have acknowledged that they have something to say, that they have a role to play in the group. It might just be that you have acknowledged that they are there. And also it is about giving clear instructions, which in leadership we are quite poor at. For example, sell more. I don’t actually know what that means anymore. But we say it to small children as well ‘get a grip’. And when you are the child receiving that instruction, that is a ridiculous idea when you think about it. Giving a child an instruction to get a grip, how do you even do that, what does that mean?

David
When you are on different boards, that degree of listening, appreciation and giving people the sense of significance does require others to at least do the same. How have you, I guess when you have been in situations where not everybody gets it, convince them of the benefits of doing that?

Jacqueline 
Firstly I choose boards that I love.

David
So you choose well. 

Jacqueline 
So I think leading a choiceful life is important.

David
l love that phrase, ‘choiceful life’.

Jacqueline
So I would not go onto a board where I thought there is a huge misalignment in the people or style. That doesn’t mean to say that influence isn’t important. But I wonder whether you can think of a time when you really connected with someone. There is a lot of eye contact, there’s a lot of alignment. What happens in that moment when you are really hearing or you are really listening is that you tend to match pace and you tend to mirror behaviour. It’s kind of infectious. And as someone in a boardroom, who’s quite clear about her views, I find that that works enormously. I’ve studied a lot on neuro-linguistic programming and how to move agendas through language and suggestion and I find all of that comes into play in the boardroom, especially when there is intention. Intention matters. I think if you are half listening in a meeting, you are half on your phone, half doing something else, your mind has wandered off and you are not in the moment, then I think it is really easy to create a chaotic scenario.  

David
And so just sort of shifting a little bit; there aren’t many executives who have worked in both large organisations trying to reinvent themselves and start. How do you bring together some of these organisations in your different roles to try and connect?

Jacqueline 
I think it starts with what outcome are you shooting for? So I am a big believer in ‘solve problems that are really worth solving’. And I will give you an example, a technology example. So we had the tap and go card reader technology 14 years ago. But nobody used it. Today you hardly need to carry cash. And the reason it went viral was because two years ago they put it into the London Underground and you don’t have to break a stride when you go through the barriers anymore when you tap your credit card on entry.

But a year before that we were thinking, I’m not waving my credit card around because some nutter is going to clone it. So there was this fear. However convenience overtook risk because we actually solved a problem that was really worth solving. There was so much friction, so many queues and some of the tourists were making the tube impossible to use. And now who queues for a ticket. And that is an example of solving a problem really worth solving.  

Now, even as a nation of queuers, which the UK is of course post rationing and the war, we tap our feet and tut loudly when someone gets cash out or even dares to put their card in the machine. It is an extraordinary switch.

David
Very quick.

Jacqueline 
It is very quick and so we can see big strides when we bring small pieces of technology teams together to large organisations to solve big problems. And that works all the time. When you have a start-up that is operating with a large company, lots of companies have incubator programmes and the reason they have them is because if they find a great idea then they will use it right across their global business and that is an absolute win-win. You can teach the small scale-ups all the management skills that they absolutely don’t have, or rarely have, and you can incubate that great idea and grow it at scale. 

David
So how do you pick those problems? Because after that, that is a brilliant story and we can all relate to it, but how do you find those moments? Is it, some people talk about creating the conditions when people, start-ups, larger organisations can talk and collaborate and it just sort of emerges. Some people talk about leaders having the wisdom to say, right there is a big friction. In your experience how do you find the problems, how do you pick them?

Jacqueline 
I think listening to the market is really important, what is the customer saying? I will give you another example. You are sitting in a restaurant, a pizza restaurant. You have had your pizza, you have had all the glowing, lovely service from the waiting staff, you are ready to go. You now for love nor money cannot get them to make any eye contact with you because you want your bill.  They are focused on the new people coming in. So you sit there ten more minutes, they eventually bring the bill because you have managed to catch their attention and yet it takes another ten minutes for them to bring the machine. And honestly, kill me now. That right there is a frustration in probably most lunchtime experiences. 

So recognising the frustration is an enormous source of opportunity. And I think it is about being present. I think it is about being connected with what is going on. And when you realise that there is a tiny app that you can install and on that app you can put in your table number, pay your bill and go without doing anything else that you would ordinarily have to do. That is an example of when small meets large in terms of food chains, you can get this friction removed.

But you are right, recognising the friction is something we often just put up with and I think the best entrepreneurs are those that are really connected with what is going on.

David
You listen to these examples and you think, that is so obvious once you’ve heard it. Why is it that large companies lose sight of it. They talk about being customer centric, all those sorts of terms, but they lose sight of actually what matters. What gets in the way?

Jacqueline
I think when you look at any organisation you are going to have superstars and people who are just busy. And I think the superstars are those that are super connected. So there are I think in all organisations people who get it, but maybe others who are just so immersed in the process and business of their day that they miss that. And I would just suggest that if you want to change the world, being connected with your particular sphere of customer connection matters. 

David
That is very clear and very simple. You’ve talked a number of times about creating conditions for great people to have their say, make an impact and so on. And I know that is an area of passion for you in terms of inclusion and diversity in all forms as well. How are we doing, paint us a picture for the landscape you see and if you had to wave a magic wand what are the one or two things you would really want to change?

Jacqueline 
Well I work in an industry that is moving at such pace that it is ungovernable. So it is hard to regulate a business where we are creating pieces of tech in every single moment based on algorithms that for sure have bias in them. 

Because if our voices are at the table we won’t get the scenario where when the seatbelt was first invented, women and children died. Why? Because they were invented by men. And it is obvious that we have to create diverse teams in that design function. And to do better in that, to answer your question, how are we doing with diversity and technology? I think it depends which country. I think it depends which industry. We certainly have a great opportunity to tell the story today. There are conditions created today where it is probably the best possible of all times for anybody of any diverse group to follow their dream, especially in technology. We are very welcoming I believe.

Now having said that, I think we do a lot of things that sabotage our success. One of them is that we wall ourselves up against people coming into our industry by using three letter acronyms all the time, that are senseless to any other normal human. So the language again matters, how we talk about our industry and that is more inclusive. So you know ‘software engineer’ could also be ‘problem solver’. And that might be more inclusive to women returners as an example because they are mothers who have gone on a maternity break, or fathers actually as well. They are the saviours of the universe because they can multitask problem solve every two seconds. And they are brilliant in that software engineering environment.

So maybe the language is somewhere we need to go. Also the hiring teams. 

David
Yes the teams themselves?

Jacqueline 
The hiring teams themselves I would suggest they could be more diverse.

David
It has to work through the whole picture right?

Jacqueline 
It does.

David
You can’t have a weak link.

Jacqueline 
You can’t and you can’t have a machine doing it with an algorithm that is biased. And lots of students and job applications are now run by a machine and therefore an algorithm has to be tested and retested. So we probably need something like a ‘tribal elders group’ which is not the government, but a group of tribal elders that helps us oversee that we are doing the right thing. This is about changing culture and changing a narrative. If you want to make seismic shifts the narrative has to shift. And that narrative is that the more diverse a team is, the better business and human outcome you will achieve.

David
I’m just reflecting on the fact that you will have in your roles worked with a whole range of different leaders looking to create that culture. What are the things they have done well to genuinely make a difference in creating that culture? Are there things that you have seen that they have mastered along the way?

Jacqueline 
I think, I start from the premise that we are all role models whether we choose to be or not. So people watch us, watch our behaviour. And that doesn’t matter whether you are a leader or anyone else in the organisation. Your behaviours are watched good or bad.  

David
And more than you think.

Jacqueline 
More than you think and so when a leader walks out of the office at 3pm to pick up the kids from school, that is an acceptable behaviour in my opinion, but one which in the past might not have been deemed to be doing the right thing because ‘the harder you work the better an employee you are’, in inverted commas. So there is a question of cultural shift from how leaders behave as well.

There is another thing. I was working in a company in the Technology Industry and I asked one of the team, ‘Why do you like working at this company?’ She said, I love working here because they allow me to manage my home life with my children as well as work. And I came back as part-time. And I noticed after about a month of working with her, I said, but actually you are putting in full time hours, you are just not doing it here, but we are paying you part time? But she ‘it’s great, I feel like I can go and do what I need to do, I don’t mind working hard’. And I said, ‘I am uncomfortable with that so I am going to shift you to full time pay and flexible working. Would that make a difference to you?’  And she just burst into tears. But that sort of leadership attention, to what is going on, makes a difference.

David
You are working with a whole range of organisations, you have achieved a lot, you are also careful in choosing in terms of where you spend your time. How do you sustain yourself as a leader?

Jacqueline 
So the first thing I do is I have set my life up so that it works. I categorise it like when I walk through my door at home I can be a small person. And externally I am a different person in one way. Although I think as I’ve got older that ability to be more vulnerable openly, more authentic travels between home and work and I wonder how much of a line there is between work and home anymore. I’m not sure. 

I feel that I sustain myself through learning. I am currently on a coaching course. 

David
Me too.

Jacqueline 
And it’s really wonderful because it’s all about them.  

David
Yes indeed.

Jacqueline 
It is about asking world-class questions. 

David
I have to say it has been an absolute privilege and pleasure speaking to Jacqueline. And learning about how you make conscious choices, having that mindset of a start-up, and skilful intervention in terms of nurturing the people who perhaps don’t have a voice or have a say. That’s the fuel for transformation, change and amazing things.

Thank you ever so much for your time. 

Please do check out the other podcasts on iTunes, acast and SoundCloud and our Blog Business in Transformation, too which gives you more details of transformation. 

End.

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David Lancefield

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