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Episode 163: Helping C-Suites Excel in an Disruptive World—with Jacqueline Conway

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. So on this week's episode, we're going to talk about CEOs and other executive leaders in the C-suites, and the type of things that they need to become fluent in, in order to operate effectively across their entire enterprise. And particularly when they're in an environment of disruption and uncertainty, and which of course they're all still in. So I was blown away by my guest, Jacqueline Conway, who walked through what these different fluencies are and got into really amazing detail about the ways that she and other consultants can help them be able to do what they have to do and be able to make the changes that will enable them to thrive as they move forward as they forge their future. So anybody who's working with folks in the C-suite, this is a fantastic episode to go deeper into how to do that effectively. So let's get started. I want to welcome to my show today, Jacqueline Conway. Jacqueline, welcome to the show.

Jacqueline Conway: Thank you for having me,Deb. It's great to be here.

Deb Zahn: So let's start off, tell my listeners what you do.

Jacqueline Conway: Well, I am the founder and managing director of Waldencroft, and we are a specialist consulting practice who works with CEOs and their executive teams of mid to large size corporates to help them elevate their executive leadership, to elevate their enterprise-wide leadership, as they try and lead in this really disruptive and turbulent world that we live in.

Deb Zahn: So that was perfectly said because that's exactly what we're going to talk about because certainly for consultants like myself who work with CEOs, and work with executive teams in this period of high uncertainty and disruption, it'll be really helpful to hear from you in terms of what types of things should we be looking for, paying attention to and encouraging. So let's start off. So CEOs and executive teams, what is it that they're facing now as they head into the future that they need to pay attention to, and develop a new fluency to contend with?

Jacqueline Conway: Sure. Well, what we found with executive teams is that typically they are promoted on the basis of their technical expertise. And so by the time they reach the C-suite, they are really strong in their functional area. They are in fact the leader of their own organization where that's the finance, ops, marketing, or whatever part of the organization that might be. Now, when they reach the C-suite, what we think is that is the biggest shift in leadership capability, from their entire journey, as they have moved up and through organizations, whether it's the one that they're moving into the C-suite from, or they've had their career elsewhere. And the thing that we're trying to encourage executive leaders to do is not to see themselves primarily as functional leaders, but to see themselves as enterprise leaders.

Because the thing that organizations need now more than anything else are people who are not necessarily looking in and down, in the here and now, which is the responsibility of functional leaders, but they're looking at the up and out, and the there and then, what are the things that are coming down the line that are going to be the major trends and disruptors for the business that they face? What are the things that they have to consider from a deep complexity perspective? So things that coalesce far in space and time that have a massive impact in the organization, how do they create an organization that adapts and evolves the organization so that it matches the turbulence that's happening in the external environment?

And so the work that we are doing is really trying to encourage executive teams to really take up that enterprise role and to move into their up and out enterprise long term leadership, rather than the primary focus of being functional leaders, looking in and down and they're part of the organization. And so one crucial thing to say about that, is that one of the other distinctions there is that enterprise leaders, it's not a solo sport. So where you might be able to say great CFO or CMO or COO, can still be a really great individual contributor the minute you move into the C-suite, it is a team game and collectively leadership is what it's all about.

Deb Zahn: So what you're describing, I've seen that happen where that's a fundamental, huge shift that somebody has to make in who they are as a person, as part of the organization and the skills and things that they have to bring to bear. What are some of the big struggles you see executives and new C-suite folks make in having to make that leap?

Jacqueline Conway: We see that to make that leap, a C-suite executive has to adopt new ways of thinking, acting, and being. They have to become fluent in these new ways of thinking, acting, and being to really fully occupy their executive leadership at the enterprise level. And in some research that we in Waldencroft have just completed with 17 chief executives from a range of organizations across the UK and the Nordics, we identified four areas of fluency. So four areas where we thought that those executive leaders needed to become fluent in order to lead way on. And the first of those fluencies is cognitive fluency. So when you are leading in a technical enterprise, further down the organization, you're dealing with technical complicated types of issues that require specialist expertise, but there is typically one best answer to it.

And by deploying the right expertise, you can find the solution to that. Good data helps you make good decisions, but when you get to the C-suite, you are increasingly dealing with complex problems and complex problems are structured differently. They emerge differently and actually they are structured differently. So for example, with complexity, we see those complex problems defy the logic of cause and effect and linear solutions, and technical solutions, and stakeholder impacts have a huge impact on how the problem is actually solved. So the cognitive fluency is the ability for an executive leader to know, are they dealing with a technical challenge or an adaptive challenge because complex problems, adaptive challenges, actually oftentimes require different values within the organization. A completely radically think about what is it we're here to do, who is it we're here to serve?

And so the first thing that we're asking leaders to do is actually deploy some flexibility in their thinking, both in diagnosing those different types of problems, and then deploying different methodologies and different forms of leadership in solving them. So that's the cognitive fluency. The second of the fluencies is futures fluency. So what we see typically in corporate organizations is that they are running on quarterly cycles. But if they're publicly owned, they're having to go to the analysts and present on a quarterly basis, they perhaps have one and a three. And if they're really long-term thinking five-year strategic plan, that's usually changed at the three-year mark. But there's really not much work being done, saying what are the massive ways that both technologies, global trends, and different changes in values as the younger people come up and have a different idea about what's important in the world.

How does that potentially impact the business that we are in? And also, how do we, as leaders want to be good ancestors? How do we want to create an organization that goes beyond profit, but which actually does some good in the world. So that in 10, 15, 20, 50 years time, the stakeholders of the organization then will look back to the leadership now and say, these people did good work. And they created an organization that has contributed something positive to society. And so futures fluency is the ability for executive leaders to really think long term, and to think about the values that are important within the organization on a really long term basis, in order to make the organization more than just what we are doing today, and is it all about profit motive? So the third fluency is ethical fluency. And the idea of ethical fluency is there is a much stronger requirement for executive leaders to lead well, to create morally good organizations, and our stakeholders require overs.

The market now requires overs in the UK, this idea of ESG environmental, social and governance is absolutely huge. It's kind of replacing corporate social responsibility. And we all know about the idea that sustainability is now at the heart of what organizations are trying to create in the companies that they are creating. So ethics really needs to come front and center. And one of the things that I've found in the work that I often do with executive teams is they'll have ethical conversations, but they don't know they're having ethical conversations. They're having a conversation about, will we go this way or will we go that way? But they haven't actually framed it as an ethical conundrum. And they're therefore not talking about it in a way that would be most helpful to them. And so ethical fluency is the ability to both recognize when you're in an ethical conundrum and also to work with the fact that at that level, we're not talking about simple, yes, no, black, white, right, the wrong type of answers.

The issue is always in the gray area, it's always in the messy middle as it were. And so that's the place that executive leaders need to be grappling with. The other simpler stuff can happen elsewhere in the organization. And so ethical fluency is the ability to discuss this and also to talk about it, it really brings the values of an organization to life. We all know that organizations typically have a set of values and whether or not that's embedded or not is very patchy, but really in ethical fluency, that's where value is really... The rubber really hits the road. So we see that as hugely important. And then the fourth and last fluency is emotional fluency. And what that's about, isn't just, are you emotionally intelligent, but actually are you tuned in to your own emotional process and the impact that has on your decision making?

So by way of an example, one of the things I often see with the executive teams that I'm working with is when they're faced with a conundrum, a problem, a decision point that is difficult. It's quite anxiety-provoking for them. And one of the things that sometimes happens is that the team then rush to, let's make a decision, any decision. And the decision is as much about dissipating their own anxiety as it is about solving the problem. But if we accept that there's more complexity, there's this future fluency that's required, this future outlook, and that we have to be making more ethical decisions, then executive leaders need to be able to sink into that anxiety and stay with it longer in order to find the right solution, not just any old decision.

And so that's about becoming really aware of what's your own internal process. When do you rush to make a decision? When do you become grumpy or difficult when you are confronted with something that's anxiety-provoking, and how do you manage your own internal processes? So that's the four fluencies and we think that they are really important for executive leaders, as we are leading in this disruption and this turbulence.

Deb Zahn: So I love everything you said. And just so you know, I'm personally going to listen to this podcast again, so I can soak more of that in because I think everything you said is so critical and I've seen the absence of those, and I've seen the impact of the absence of those. So how does that work? Because I also know you folks look at the teams of executives. So as you said, it's a team sport once you get to the C-suite. So how do those things play out? Because individually, it certainly makes sense, but now it has to work across a team of folks that are leaving the enterprise. How does some of those things play out once you get other human beings involved?

Jacqueline Conway: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we see the fluencies as team fluencies. So as you rightly say, I mean, of course we want people to embody them and internalize them personally, as much as possible, but they come to the fore when the executive team is together making enterprise decisions. So when the executive team comes together and has a conundrum, that's where the way that the team has a conversation, the space that they allow themselves in order to grapple with these things, these are the ways that the fluencies come to life. So for example, one of the things that we do with executive teams is we work with them first and foremost on what do you see yourself here to do as an executive team? What is your team purpose? Not what's your organization's purpose, but as you, as an executive team, if you cease to exist, what wouldn't get done because you are the only place that it can get done?

And when we ask that question of executive teams and we get them to really think critically about that, we realize that so many things on their agenda could be done elsewhere. And when they devolve so much of the busy, day to dayness, to other places, in order to focus on their own purpose. Then they simultaneously create this capacity within the team, the space within the team to have these more expansive conversations, to haveDebate that involves spending the time having the ethical conundrum, rather than having a 32 point agenda, and you've got seven minutes to discuss something, that's got a huge impact on the business. So it doesn't just come in, in terms of the individual or how the team interact. It also comes down to the kind of structural impact of how is the team set up? What does it think it needs to talk about? What does it see is its primary task within the organization so that it creates the space and the capacity to have these more strategic enterprise-wide and expansive conversations?

Deb Zahn: I love the deliberateness of it because again, what I've seen too many times is we meet because we're leaders and that's what leaders do, as opposed to you having a distinct purpose that needs to be well defined and agreed upon by the group itself. Otherwise, it ends up being an exercise in the weeds.

Jacqueline Conway: Absolutely. And one of the things that we see in executive teams, in terms of its purpose before it's really done the work on purpose, is that the executive team isn't actually a team at all. It's a group of people who are the direct reports of the chief executive. And so when you see these 30-point agenda items, what they typically are is a series of round robin updates for the chief executive on what each functional area is doing. So it's a series of bilateral conversations rather than a really multi later conversation within the team. And then there's a whole series of another kind of updates to say, here's what we did. Can you ratify it? And we in Waldencroft believe that is a massive waste of time within executive teams because although updating your colleagues on what you're working on is important, there are much more effective and efficient ways of doing that. And we try and guard against spending quality time together, doing those mundane tasks and actually seeing the time that the executive team works together as being as much as possible about high-quality conversation.

Deb Zahn: I love that. Oh my goodness. I love that. So one other thing I wanted to ask you about, you talked about being able to look into the future as one of the fluencies that C-suite folks and collectively need to have. And I know you talk about strategic foresight, which I love that expression. I know during the pandemic, which of course at recording, we're still in, there has been so much uncertainty and disruption, but interestingly, what I've seen recently in the areas that I work in, is everybody put forward-thinking strategy on hold because they had no idea what the future was going to look like. But now they're starting to say, all right, well now let's go back to strategy, but it's going back to it the same way they did it before the pandemic, instead of taking advantage of the disruption and doing things differently. So when you talk about developing that strategic foresight, for an organization you're working with, what does that look like that's different than, oh, we're going to do a strategic plan.

Jacqueline Conway: Sure. Well, what we see is that the future leaves clues. So most organizations that don't do good strategic foresight work, but do forecasting work is the forecast on the basis of historical data. And then they extrapolate that and model that into the future, with three or four different of mild scenarios of where it might go with different percentage points, but essentially it's extrapolated from history. And that assumes that change happens in an incremental linear way. And it is true that some change does happen like that, but the most disruptive change doesn't happen in an incremental way. It happens in sporadic bursts that hugely knock us off course. So a pandemic, riots on the street, a climate crisis, there are moments where these things percolate for a long time and then they bubble up. Now, when we say the future leaves clues, what we mean is that those things ought to be a surprise to us.

We didn't know that there was likely to be a pandemic. We did see the impact that racial inequality was having in the US, and the UK, and elsewhere, and the fact that there would be a tipping point. And so it was a mess of us not to plan for those things. And strategic foresight doesn't try to predict the exact point at which issues will coalesce to bubble up and create the circumstances of a crisis or a global event. But we can at least see how those things might come together through good scenario planning, through looking at trends and disruptors. And in being able to say these things are either possible, plausible and which for us is preferable, so that you can have a range of potential actions that you would take depending on which one of those potential futures come to fruition. And so what we would say about strategic foresight and about future fluency is it requires creativity.

It requires imagination. It requires anticipation and what-if types of questions. It requires us to hold the future lightly because it could go in a multitude of ways, but it can't go in any possible way. There are limits to where the future will go, whereas if you take a more linear forecasting type of approach, and I'm not suggesting that that's wrong in all cases, but if you only do that work, then you miss the discontinuous change and you end up not being ready for changes that are coming down the stream. And so organizations quite recently have been talking about how do we become agile and responsive, and what we would say about futures fluency is that in order to be really agile and responsive, you first have to have been able to anticipate what it might be because it's no good being agile and responsive once the thing has happened, the cats are already out of the bag at that point.

So the first point in being agile and responsive is actually seeing there is a likelihood that it'll go this way. There's a likelihood that it might go this way or this way, what are our responses to each of them? And then as you see that particular future coming to fruition, you're able to pivot much more quickly.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And I love the examples you gave in the notion that the future leaves cues because yeah, climate crisis has been talked about for decades, the protests that we saw in the states related to racism and the murder of Black folks, if you didn't know that was coming, you had the privilege of having your head in the sand and not paying attention to it. But lots of places have been noticing and paying attention and saying, “What does this mean for us? What's our role in this? How do we position ourselves to do the most good in this situation?” So I love that because none of those were a surprise to anybody who had been paying attention and the list goes on, there'd be a number of other things you could look at. That's wonderful. Now, managing change is the other part.

So if you anticipate things that might occur and you think through the scenarios of how you might respond to those, and then there's when either you decide to make a change or things happen and now a change actually is coming to you and you have to make it, but you have to manage it. And typical change management is you have to communicate, people have to understand the benefit and just change management is almost by rote, as opposed to, how do you do change management in a dynamic situation? And so what would you say to that? What is change management in this future fluency and the other fluencies? What does that look like?

Jacqueline Conway: Yeah, I mean, great question. So I like you, really reject this idea that you can have an eight-point plan to manage change and create a guiding coalition and just work your way through the plan because any of us who have been involved in any complex change in an organization. I know that it never ever turns out that way. Now that's not to say that planning isn't helpful, but we all know that then the minute you start to implement the plan and it interacts with the real world. Then we have to bend and flex. And so there's two things I would say about how we would encourage executive leaders to manage change. And one is to get much closer to it and it's almost to dance with the change rather than to try and treat it mechanistically.

So you're not the wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pulling the levers as if the change was separate from you. If the change is happening in your organization, then you are the change, and the people are the change. And so you have to be much more closely involved in this dynamic dance between the thing you're trying to change and the people. And the second thing I would say about change is that when it involves other stakeholders, the old world view of stakeholders was, that stakeholder management was basically getting the stakeholder to agree to our view of the world and do the thing we want them to do. And that's a successful change.

And I think we're coming to the realization, the reason that it's complex is because stakeholders have a much bigger say now in whether or not they want to accept that change. They genuinely have a stake. They hold a stake in the change itself. And therefore, the way that we treat and interact with stakeholders is fundamentally different when we really accept complexity, when we accept that the world is not machine operated in the way that we perhaps have wanted it to be in the past, in which old linear traditional models of change assume we can do.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, no. People can't see me. I'm smiling ear to ear because I think of so many examples. And I've said this before on a podcast where I was working with someone on implementing something. And she said, well, things aren't going according to plan because people just aren't doing it. And I said people are the plan. You can't think that this is just going to be something you put in place absent human beings engaging with it. The job is the people. And so I love that you approach it that way. Now, one of the things that I see leaders in organizations and companies struggle with also is getting to the root of what they actually need to change, what they actually need to do differently, and get beneath the surface. So they get at what's really going on and what are the things we need to change? How do you help folks get to the real deal and get beneath the surface?

Jacqueline Conway: Well, that's really interesting because of course, it goes back to the sort of emotional fluency, which is that sometimes we diagnose their own problem. What we talk about in Waldencroft is that we perfectly solve their own problem. We deploy all of this fantastic methodology, resource, brainpower, people power to solve something that was effectively misdiagnosed because we didn't sink into the problem first off. And what typically happens when we experience that, is that we diagnose the presenting problem. So the organization presents with some pain, and we say, let's solve that pain point by doing something. And what we would say about complex problems is, there's a beautiful saying that I really like, which is you never solve a complex problem directly. So you're trying to say, what is this presenting issue that we are seeing in this organization symptomatic of and how might we deal with it in an indirect way that might just tip the system towards where we want it to go, rather than wholesale thinking that you can change the system and that the presenting issue is actually what the problem is.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I just love that. So if you were standing in front of some consultants who are working with CEOs and they're working with C-suites, and they need to think about their own fluency in order to be effective helpers, what would you tell them to do?

Jacqueline Conway: Gosh, that's such a good question. I think I would tell them to do their own personal work as part of their ability to become a good consultant. So there's a really nice idea in organization development of self as instrument. So when we are doing good consulting work, we are the instrument. When we're working with culture, we're working with leadership, we're working with complexity, the consultant brings themself. And therefore, if you want to have, the best tools in your toolkit, then you have to have developed them. They are internal tools, ways that you operate with your head, your hand, and your heart. And so I would encourage consultants therefore to develop those things in balance, the head, the hand, and the heart. So the head, understanding the way that organizations work, understanding the best theory that's being developed in our universities and elsewhere.

The hand, so how do we implement those things well in organizations? How do we design organizations in order for us to make these things happen in the most human and effective way possible? And heart, where do we create the capacity for people to bring their authentic and whole selves to the leadership task so that it's in balance with them showing up authentically? I think that's what I would encourage younger up-and-coming consultants to do, in fact, all consultants to do. And certainly, that's an ongoing piece of development that me and my colleagues in Waldencroft are doing.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's just wonderful. So this is all just fabulous stuff. Where can folks find you?

Jacqueline Conway: Well, we are at If you wanted to receive the fluencies research, then on the website, you can just click on the link and you would be able to receive the CEO report. So go ahead and do that. But I also have a podcast called Advanced Executive Leadership, and it's biweekly, and you can hear more about the fluencies and more about the work that we do in Waldencroft there.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. And I will have links to all of that in the show notes. I have already signed up at the taping, the report hasn't been released yet, and I've already signed up to get it. And I'm just so ready to read that. So we will have links to all of that in the show notes, so anyone can grab it. And I listen to one of your podcasts and I just thought it was fabulous. So anybody who's working with C-suite, I definitely encourage you, this is a podcast you should be listening to.

Jacqueline Conway: Thank you, Deb. I really appreciate it.

Deb Zahn: Oh, certainly. Let me ask you my last question, which you know is coming, which is how do you bring balance to your life, however it is you define that?

Jacqueline Conway: Oh yes. So this is an ongoing challenge I think, for people who love their work and particularly for those of us who find ourselves working from home a lot, from COVID, whole days can go past and your commute has been, a flight of stairs. So balance for me is there are two things that I found have really made the difference. One is, I started to lift weights. So I have this personal trainer and she shouts at me twice a week and I lift weights. And I have just found that, that has been hugely important for me in terms of physically lifting heavy weights and just pushing my body. And the other is being outdoors, being in nature, having time to completely switch off and relax. And I'm fortunate enough to live in the Clyde Valley in Scotland, right by a beautiful river, beautiful woodland. And so I find balance by getting outdoors and just trying to soak up nature as much as possible.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Wonderful. And you live in a gorgeous place. So Jacqueline, this has just been incredible, and I really appreciate you coming on and sharing all this with us. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

Deb Zahn: And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up. So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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