Why I Gave Up The Power Of Being a CEO
Two years ago I gave up the power of being a CEO to be part of a self-managed team. It all started with a book recommendation. In 2015 I met Susan Basterfield, when we were both part of Seth Godin’s course, the AltMBA. We instantly connected and my Tuesday evening routine includes a call to Susan in New Zealand. I love books and am always interested in book recommendations, so I asked Susan for hers.
One of them was Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux I ordered it, but somehow the book title (there are hundreds with similar titles) and the butterfly on the front (what’s going on with a butterfly and a computer?) resulted it ending up at the bottom of my reading pile.
When I eventually started to read it it made me shake. It was both a sense of coming home – here was someone who could articulate so much that I had felt but not been able to express, and a realisation of what is possible.
At the time I was CEO of a H S A, a small, international, health and care consultancy team. Laloux would describe our team as a ‘green’ - we saw ourselves as a family, had a strong focus on the culture of our team, our values and how we work together. I didn't see myself as a typical CEO, but many team members still referred to me as their boss.
- I thought we were already a great team.
I thought we had bring the whole person to work nailed.
I thought we were clear about our purpose, our why.*
Moving to self-management
So moving to self-management – how hard could that be? Do I sound smug? I was. I thought it was like adding an App but in reality it was changing the operating system. The answer is very hard, but worth it.
Several of us trained to be Holacracy practitioners and we use elements from this, in particular tactical meetings and governance meetings.
The tactical meeting process is a way to ‘triage’ workplace tensions and quickly decide what the next step will be to move forward. A tension represents something in the gap between where we are now, and where we want to be. It could be a challenge, or equally something that we see we could do better.
The process keeps the ownership of the issue with the person, and the facilitator simply asks the person who brought the tension, “What do you need?”. No background and explanation required – simply what do you need to address this tension. This could be asking for ideas, problem-solving together or specific information.
For example, one team member wanted to know how other people were managing the size of our files on Dropbox. He learned who was only using it on the cloud, and I took an action away to reduce the number of duplicated Powerpoints in my ‘Keynotes’ folder.
For others, it was more about getting some support. Another team member needed help to write up detailed trainer notes, and the solution was simple, for two other team members to spend 40 minutes thinking this through with her at the team meeting.
Another team member wanted ideas about what to do when they deliver a 2-day course that relies on people completing e-learning before they arrive, and four people have not completed it. We came up with a range of ideas, and actions that followed.
It is an amazingly efficient process and in our first tactical meeting ten agenda items were completed in 70 minutes. Tactical meetings felt brutal at first, and now they are short, punchy and effective.
We used governance meetings when we wanted to explore changing roles or policies. This uses the Integrative Decision Making process which brings together multiple perspectives, and ensures everyone’s reactions and objections to a proposal are heard and responded to.
It is specific and precise, and enabled us to continuously develop and refine how we work together. It liberated us from continually seeking consensus in decision-making.
Fast forward two years later and we now have a different degree of honesty, freedom and accountability and therefore happiness. But full self-managed teams are not for everyone, and as with Zappos, some people left as well.
One of the biggest changes for me, in moving from CEO to self-management was that it gave me a different head space to focus on new ideas.
The next level
When I read Laloux’s book I was inspired to read about the almost fabled Buurtzorg and how they are leading the way in such a radical new way of working in health and social care. My team at H S A have taken self-management to the next level and have become a collective, and look more like Enspiral.
We have been inspired by Buurtzorg to develop and test the same principles, but developed for the UK context, called Wellbeing Teams. I have moved from being a consultant to setting up a provider organisation to learn from experience how to change the way we deliver health and care through self-managed Wellbeing Teams.
Like Buurtzorg they are small, self-managing neighbourhood teams, with coaches, and no managers. The first team has started and we are excited about what we learning.
I believe that self-management, and teal organisations are the new operating system for the future of work. I want to be part of creating it in health and care too.
Helen leads HSA, an international consultancy and training team founded in 1999, and co-founded the charity Community Circles. Inspired by Buurtzorg she founded Wellbeing Teams in 2016. Helen is ‘Working Out Loud’ and post 2 minute films of what she is trying and learned each week on LinkedIn – you can find her there. She blogs about her journey at helensanderson.net.