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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Shut up, and listen

Last night I attended an RSA and University of Brighton event on the question ‘What is the role of men in supporting women into leadership?’

This was a follow-up to a larger event a few months back entitled ‘How women lead’. That was a great session, with a lot of energy. Creating a follow-up must have seemed a very logical next step.

All the panelists seemed to agree that there is a problem: there are not enough women in leadership positions – in both public and private sectors.

And as Simon Fanshawe, OBE, pointed out ‘complex problems require difference and diversity’. Many of our most significant problems today, from the social to the environmental to the economic are complex problems, problems that require different ways of thinking and acting.

Some good points were made.

Fairly obviously, ‘structural problems’ prevent women acceding to leadership positions.

James Rowlands, Violence against Women Commissioner, illustrated the importance of language by telling us about ‘mansplain’ – the phenomena when a man in a group takes it upon himself to explain what a women just said.

There was talk of the ‘fat, white middle-aged man trap’ and of re-framing what it takes to be a senior leader.

Giles York, Chief Constable of Sussex Police, pointed out the importance of holding people to account. Walking the talk is more important than talking the talk?

So why didn’t we, the audience, hold the panel to account? What might have been the structural problems that prevented that?

Structural Problems?

Firstly, it was an all male panel. That was interesting. Don’t women have a say in answering the question ‘What is the role of men in supporting women into leadership?’?

Secondly, with one exception these appeared to be very traditional leaders: a consultant, two CEOs, and a Chief Constable. We didn’t get to hear much from James Rowlands.

Thirdly, the room was set up in traditional lecture style. Chair and panellists at the front, (hiding?) behind a table. They had water, and microphones, we didn’t. Were these signals of power, showing us exactly who was in charge?

But if we had been brave enough to deal with those ‘structural problems’ what might we have held the panellists to account for?

Reframing Leadership?

Might we have asked what does ‘reframing leadership’ mean?

One possible reframing is towards a more enabling style of leadership, one that involves listening more than speaking.

Business theorist Chris Argyris, amongst others, has spoken of the difference between ‘advocating’ and ‘enquiry’.

Advocating is when we hold a position and tell others about it, and essentially recommend what others should think.

Enquiry is radically different. Enquiry, as I understand it, is a place of vulnerability – of not knowing. Starting from that place of vulnerability and exploring a topic. Engaging in dialogue, back and forth, while really listening. Trying to empathise,  to understand another’s point of view.

And possibly, just possibly, updating our own.

A lovely Argyris quote: ‘People don’t listen, they reload’.

Not only were there ’structural problems’, but there also seemed to me to be a lot of advocacy. Again and again, the consultant, the CEOs and the Chief Constable, assisted by Penny Thompson (CBE, CEO of Brighton & Hove City Council) told us how it was, leavened by a few jokes, statistics and stories to help keep us entertained and in thrall?

Questions from the Floor?

Yes, there were some questions from the floor. But might we have asked whether these were part of the enquiry? Or just further advocacy?

I am not saying this happens with every question. But sometimes it is worth looking for the advocacy hidden in a question. ‘Does the panel think X, where X is what I think, and what I really want is for you to agree or expand upon what I have just said, confirming it and making me feel good’. Advocacy or enquiry?

Or ‘I’d be interested to know what the panel thinks about Y because that demonstrates how knowledgeable I am and I would love for you to talk to me later and even perhaps employ me to help with your problems.’ Advocacy or enquiry?

Yes, enquiry is difficult. For all of us. Families and school teach us about power, and they teach us about the importance of advocacy. Sometimes with force. Sometimes with violence.

When we’re anxious, in front of a crowd, maybe advocacy seems the easiest path? Perhaps it’s especially difficult for men in traditional leadership roles to be vulnerable? Maybe it means giving up power, and status, and position?

Reframing Leadership?

And maybe it takes real courage to ‘walk the talk’ – to reframe leadership, and to hold each other to account, to be vulnerable? Perhaps it means allowing vulnerability – in ourselves, as well as others?

Someone in the audience asked the question ‘What is the change we’re all afraid of?’ That is a great question, and I’d have loved to have heard a real discussion, and heard people’s views.

But I couldn’t see the chance, that particular evening. I was sad about that. It felt like a missed opportunity.

Where were the young women – Gen Y or Gen Z – in all this, I wonder? I would have liked to have heard from some younger people. Maybe they would have been able to give us some pointers, some good ideas?

Maybe they would have said that the role of men in supporting women into leadership is to make sure that a genuine dialogue takes place, to make sure that as well as appropriate language, there is equivalence of opportunity to speak? For all – the young, the old, the extroverts, the introverts, the women, and the men?

That’s obviously what I think. I’m advocating that position. But I’d genuinely love to hear some other views. I’d love to be contradicted, to hear I was wrong. Or maybe just not quite right, not in command of the full picture? Maybe I could add some new ideas, maybe I could throw out some old ones? Only then can I learn.

I am really encouraged that these conversations are taking place. But I agree with Giles York, we need to ‘walk the talk’, and hold each other to account.

Creating that kind of dialogue requires real leadership – it can seem hard to rearrange the furniture, to make a circle, to stop, and to listen.

Maybe that’s where the (young) women were? Talking together? And waiting for the men to shut up and listen?


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Conscious Business parts 1 and 2

A little over a year ago Rob Warwick and I, with great encouragement from Bob MacKenzie at AMED (the Association for Management Education and Development), started the process of writing two special editions of the journal eO&P (Organisations and People) on Conscious Business.

The first edition was published in 2013. It includes six diverse pieces around the topic of awareness from Dick Davies, Jack Hubbard, Paul Levy, Alison Donaldson, J Kim Wright and Patrick Crawford. We explained our caution about the way that Conscious Business might be reduced to formulaic frameworks and schema that play down the attention that we give to everyday practices and how people relate to each other.

The second edition is out now. Building on the first edition, the second leads into a discussion of purpose, practice and community.  We focus on purpose, including the reasons why we should bother with Conscious Business. And, linked to this, we give a taster of some further elements of practice – the means by which we can bring this about.

The journal features pieces by Steve Hearsum, Sam Zubaidi, Lasy Lawless, Deb Oxley, Nate Whitestone, Natalie Wells and Giti Datt.

You can read the editorials for free. Or if you wish to support the work of AMED you can subscribe or, I believe, buy individual copies of the journal. Check out AMED.org.uk for details.

Happy reading.


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Research and Practice in Organisations and People

If you’d like to get a handle on some of the deeper thinking around Conscious Business, you might find it useful to buy and download a copy of the latest issue of eO&P.

We think this is probably a world first – an issue of an academic journal dedicated entirely to Conscious Business.

e Organisations and People is the quarterly journal of AMED – the Association for Management Education and Development. If you download a copy you’ll be supporting its work:

“AMED is a long-established membership organisation and educational charity devoted to developing people and organisations. Its purpose is to be a forum for people who want to share, learn and experiment, and find support, encouragement, and innovative ways of communicating. Our conversations are open, constructive, and facilitated.”

What I really like about AMED  is its focus on research and practice.

Remember Everett Rogers’ bell curve – the diffusion of innovation? If you’re at all interested in Conscious Business you’re probably an innovator or an early adopter. Conscious business is still very early in the adoption life-cycle – indeed the term only really emerged a few years back.

Rogers' Bell Curve

Rogers’ Bell Curve – Source wikipedia

Now research is really useful, but I believe that research combined with testing, practice, experimentation is the way to really get to the heart of a new innovation.

To find out what it is good for. It’s strengths and weaknesses. How to mitigate those weaknesses. How to refine it – and pivot if necessary.

I believe it is only through real immersion in the practice of something that we can properly get to know it.

eO&P is not a peer-reviewed journal. I like that too.

Peer-review has its strengths. But Kuhn’s famous work on paradigm change has shown us that there are dangers too – that elites can, for example, suppress the emergence of new ideas. And that this can slow innovation and hence paradigm change.

And boy do we need a new paradigm for business 🙂

Most of the academic publishing houses seem to be very conventional businesses. Where will the energy to overturn the existing paradigms come from, if not from us?

Not being peer-reviewed doesn’t mean that we (@smilerob and @peteburden) didn’t work very hard to ensure the quality of the pieces. We did.

And the authors did a fantastic job too. Some had written for journals before but for others it was a  totally new experience. All brought their practical, hands-on experience as well as critical thought to the project. We’re really proud of every piece, and of the overall outcome.

I’d also really like to thank the publisher of eO&P, Bob MacKenzie and everybody at AMED (especially David McAra) for their massive help and support during the publishing process. We’re currently starting work on the next edition and we’re looking forward to that collaboration too.

So please take the trouble to download a copy, or better still if you are really interested in supporting the development of management and leadership education please consider joining AMED. There’s an annual subscription option at their website.


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Systems Thinking and Conscious Business

Today one of my sons told me he had been trying out the text-to-speech option on the Kindle. He thought it funny it couldn’t speak properly – all it does is read the words with no intonation or sense of meaning.

This led to a discussion of the difference between a series of words and a sentence. The computer can read each word individually but has no sense of the bigger thing – the sentence. Nor of the next bigger thing, the paragraph. Nor the next – the chapter, or indeed of the whole book.

It is very clear that a book is much more than all the words in it added together.

Take a piece of paper and draw 5 boxes. Arrange them in the rough shape of a circle. You can see the boxes. You can also see the circle. But where exactly is the circle? It doesn’t really exist in one sense – there are no lines on the paper which make up a circle. The circle only exists as an emergent property of the individual boxes arranged in a particular way.

2 + 2 = 5. Or in this case, 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 = 6.

These examples illustrate something that is central to thinking about business in a “systems” way.

This has little to do with IT systems, by the way; nor systems in the sense of processes that are used to deal with issues methodically or “systematically”. We’re using a different meaning of the word – this is systemic not systematic thinking.

These examples illustrate that businesses are complex systems. They are made up of “just” the individuals that work in them, but they are also much more than that. They are all the relationships between the people as well. And the relationships externally too.

And they are even more than that. They are wholes, and also part of a bigger whole. They’re integrated and connected into that bigger whole in ways that may even be difficult for us to comprehend.

This may all sound rather ethereal.

But it has some very practical implications.

For example, when trying to improve profitability in a company managers are often tempted to play around with metrics or KPIs. Adjust a few simple things like how hard people work, and surely profitability will increase?

I’m afraid it just isn’t so. A business is a complex system, and playing with one low level metric is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

Much better to think systemically. I have blogged before about Donella Meadows and her (fairly) famous list of the best points to intervene in a complex system. Be it a business or any other system.

According to Meadows, the least powerful are the ones we most often think of, presumably because they are easy to grasp and grapple with: constants, parameters, and numbers. Often we rearrange these “deck chairs” while the ship is sinking.

Transparency – who sees which information – comes in at number six from the top.  Transparency is a core part of developing a conscious business. It does work to radically change behaviour – and is certainly much more powerful than changing low level metrics themselves.

But the really powerful levers (in Meadows’ view, and mine) are:

  • The goal(s) of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Consider that a business that chases short-term profitability has a different goal from one that is interested in profitability over the long-term.

Asking questions like “what is a business for?”, or “what does competition actually mean?” is the kind of activity that can lead to a shift of paradigm or mindset.

And realising that how we see things changes everything is the ultimate lever. That, of course, is what consciousness is all about.

PS To get started in systems thinking I’d really recommend the late Dana Meadows book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Or try the Systems Thinking wiki. Or more recently I really enjoyed The Gardens of Democracy if you want to explore how (eco) systems thinking relates to areas beyond business.