Dec 13, 2018
For full show notes go here: www.chiefmaker.com.au/93
This week we are joined by Isabelle Nussli. She is the former US
CFO and chairperson of the NUSSLI
Group, a leading international provider of portable and
permanent infrastructures for sport and cultural events at
exhibitions just like the Olympics. They built the iconic Bondi
Beach Volleyball Stadium at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and have been
involved in FIFA World Cups.
Isabelle is the author of the Amazon bestselling book "Cockfighting:
Solving the Mystery of Unconscious Sabotage at the Top of the
Corporate Pyramid". Drawing on the latest research and
interviews with more than 70 chairpersons and CEOs, Cockfighting
presents Isabelle's findings on the conscious and unconscious
drivers of conflict, and provides invaluable tools for increasing
self awareness, overcoming differences, and facilitating
collaboration for those at the very top of the corporate world.
Isabelle has an MBA from Kellogg School of Management and is
currently the Chief Energising Officer for Leverage-Your-self.com,
where she leads a team of experts in business, behavioural
economics, and applied psychology that support business in
navigating change and capitalising on their organisations' full
KEY POINTS & QUOTES
- I conducted interviews with 70 chairpersons and CEOs, which
produced novel insights and led me to the writing of the book
Cockfighting. What was really, really interesting was that I got a
glimpse of something more profound behind the machinations of
leadership that neither law nor corporate governance could explain,
and this something was the human element, a part that I've always
been fascinated by.
- So we had a strong value system in place, that I mentioned the
handshake, which is something beautiful. Of course we all need
contract, but it's still beautiful, still today, if you can go with
a handshake. But I also learned where money came from. So while I
was still in school I started to work, because I earned my bike, I
was folding cardboard boxes for a potato chips producer and I was
so proud that I had my first bike.
- During business school when my, at that time partner, now
husband, asked me to follow in his footsteps. And I thought wow,
quite big footsteps! So I approached the dean of my business
school, former dean, and I laid out my options, and things I could
have like, I thought ... It was not my plan to go back to
Switzerland anytime soon. I thought maybe China or India or US.
So he looked at me and said one word: "Jump." So asked him why, and
he said look, you'll never be really, how much you hone your skill,
whatever you do. Join the company now and then you can grow with
it. That was very good advice.
- First of all I realise that doubts are absolutely normal. So
human. So I'm not harsh at myself and you're not supposed to. So
when they come up I grab them, I sit with them for a minute, but
then I try to make an empowered decision. So I take these
doubts, I take them seriously. But then I often realise that they
have to do with patterns that are no longer productive. Or shaped
in childhood or a bit later, but as an adult they are no longer
- We all have patterns, and they're neither good nor bad, but
it's a matter of getting to know them, and working with them. And
the ones that are no longer productive try to overcome them.
- When I look back, that early in my career I did not always fill
my footsteps. So I was somehow almost afraid of success, or of
power, because I learned that, and again that's an unproductive
pattern looking back. But something these patterns aren't
conscious. So learned that I thought whoever is in power tends to
misuse or abuse power, and then I realised that of course that's
not the case, and that I can very well take on leadership positions
that come naturally to me, often. And I realised to fill footsteps
and live up to the position and to the function. So that's,
for example, a pattern that I have discovered, and that I largely
managed to overcome.
- When I asked about the meaning of power, many interviewees said
oh I'm not in favour of power for the sake of power, but in order
to achieve goals. And some contradicted themselves a bit later,
saying I don't like to play number two, it's nice to receive
applause and get the laurels. But I also realised that the level,
or amount of self-reflection, level of self-awareness was also
quite different when it came to the answering of that question. But
again, I think in general, the relationship around power has an
ambivalent tone to it
- Corporate governance of course is mechanisms about the
processes. It's about the what of the role, what is the role? And
that's what I call the rational part. But what's not talked about,
or hardly ever, is how are these roles filled?
- What makes this a bit more tricky is that there are unconscious
drivers. For example, how much our upbringing has shaped us, the
worldview we have, the value system we believe in. Or for example,
the definition of and relationship to power.
Or, the amount of time these two spend together. And it's not just,
for example, the chairperson is hardly ever full time. That's by
nature, they spend less time together. But very often if they don't
get along that well, or if there's a slight mistrust, they tend to
spend less time together. But if you spend less time, it also means
inferior quality of communication, which is likely to harm a
relationship. So, time spent is also an unconscious driver.
- So intensifiers are just, let's say birth order. Let's say
functional firstborns. So when you occupy a niche within your
family, you tend to acquire certain characteristics and
- So when you look at the unconscious intensifiers such as power,
and you learn that firstborn and firstborns tend to engage in power
struggles. So I think that's interesting, it almost explains part
of why, and too, functional firstborn, at the very top of the
corporate pyramids when exposure is there and power is involved.
Why they might engage into conflicts.
- I call it the second part of the leadership equation, the
workforce, because it cascades down. Power yes lies at the top of
the corporate pyramids, but as we heard from the relationships and
as we probably all know, the relationships at the top are important
in the way of how the tone is set, and how, positive too by the
way. Positive and less positive behaviour gets cascaded down the
- So I developed this CCCC, Chairperson-CEO Collaboration
Contract, which is a type of psychological contract, meaning it's
not written. So, the two of them sit at the table and talk through
different topics such as trust, what does trust mean to you and me?
How are we going to increase our trust level? How do we go about
it? Or another topic is power, what does power mean to you? How are
we going to treat a division or power? For example, at the press
conference who takes how much airtime? What if, what if? And all
the role clarity, what does it mean, to fill the roles?
So I developed this, it's the idea in it is really for the two of
them to talk through, and it's important that they get to
communicate. So that they spend time together, get to know each
other, but also work through these topics. And ideally, this
process is facilitated by an independent moderator, because if not,
either one person is superior, so it's important that that person
does not exercise power
- For me it's a balance between action and reflection. So I
always, I try to find time or make time for reflection. And I'm not
talking about hours. Sometimes it can be like seconds while waiting
for a train or a bus. Sometimes it can be minutes, just between
meetings you know? No athlete works out 12 hours, but in business
you see often that meetings are scheduled back to back without time
- And what I also believe, when you have an experience, maybe a
not so good one, it's still on you on which part of the balance
sheets do you want to place it, you know? Was it a good experience
or a less good experience. And I think that's quite powerful.
Because it stays with us, and we have that choice. In business you
cannot play around the balance sheet. But in personal life you can.
And that's great.
- Become aware that one day your life will flash before your
eyes. So make sure it's worth watching. Which means build self
awareness, and a lot will follow. We talk about qualities of future
leaders, curiosity and humility, listening, but I think a lot will
follow automatically if you become aware of your situation, of your
environment, at work, at home. And if you increase self-awareness,
it'll be very likely for you to take the right decisions coming out
of it. And building the right capacity and qualities.