Leading with humanity in challenging times

20 February 2024

Aidan Rave reflects on GGI’s latest monthly breakfast webinar, ‘Forget the Structure—it’s the People’

The title of GGI’s latest monthly breakfast webinar might have been slightly misleading. We’re not advocating structural anarchy and yes, structure still very much has a role. However, as Sir Ciarán Devane, Chair of the Health Service Executive in Ireland, and Sim Scavazza, acting chair of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West ICB, remined us in very clear terms, there is an important issue resonating across the UK public and third sectors: the critical role of human connection in effective leadership.

Drawing on their vast experience in both executive and non-executive roles, our speakers offered insightful perspectives on navigating complex challenges by prioritising a people-centric approach and reminded us that, whatever else they may be, organisations seeking to do public good are at heart people businesses.

Sir Ciarán, whose background includes senior executive positions at Macmillan and the British Council, emphasised the importance of understanding the lived experiences of those served. He argued that effective leadership requires walking in other people's shoes, fostering empathy, and building trust with stakeholders. This resonates in the current climate, where many institutions face public disengagement and cynicism. By fostering genuine connections and actively listening to concerns, leaders can cultivate stronger partnerships and ensure their initiatives serve the intended needs.

Sim Scavazza, who has served on the boards of Miss Selfridge, Smartworks and London University of the Arts, echoed the emphasis on human connection. She stressed the need for leaders to create safe spaces for open dialogue and feedback, valuing dissent and diverse perspectives. She highlighted the power of vulnerability and authenticity in building trust and fostering collaboration. By showing their human side and acknowledging challenges, leaders can build stronger connections with teams and inspire greater engagement.

Both speakers acknowledged that current organisational structures can hinder connection. Bureaucracy, siloed work environments, and performance metrics can prioritise efficiency over human interaction. But Sir Ciarán argued that "structures should serve people, not the other way around." He advocated for dismantling rigid hierarchies and creating more flexible, collaborative structures that empower individuals and encourage open communication.

The discussion delved into practical strategies for fostering human connection in leadership. Building strong relationships with colleagues, actively seeking feedback, and celebrating individual contributions were highlighted as key practices. The speakers also stressed the importance of fostering inclusion and diversity within teams, recognizing the value that different perspectives bring to decision-making.

The message of the webinar was clear: while structures and systems are important, it is ultimately the human connections that form the foundation of effective leadership. By prioritising empathy, vulnerability, and open communication, leaders can inspire, collaborate, and create lasting positive change.

GGI’s Andrew Corbett-Nolan drew from the insights of Harvard academics David Nadler and Jeffrey Sonfeld to comment on the importance of the human element of governance. He said that good governance involves facilitating mature interactions among board members to fulfil various accountabilities such as agreeing on strategy, selecting leadership, and ensuring transparency.

Key features of effective boards include the ability to engage in constructive challenge, welcoming diverse perspectives, promoting a fluid portfolio approach, and fostering accountability among both executive and non-executive directors.

Andrew emphasised the importance of board development through facilitated sessions and the need for trust, candour, and respect among board members to enable constructive dialogue. He advocated for embracing diversity of thought and encouraging members to step outside their portfolios to engage in comprehensive discussions. Understanding the organisation's intricacies and complexities is also vital, he said, which involves more than just reviewing reports but also immersing oneself in the organisation's environment and culture.

With almost 150 people online, this was an energetic discussion with a welter of comments and questions from attendees, which always boosts the value of our webinars. As ever, an hour passed within what felt like the blink of an eye and while the discussion could have gone on much longer, everyone left with the passion of our speakers and the mission of people-centric leadership at the front of their minds. This was an absolute cracker of a session – I hope you’re able to join us for the next one.

Meet the author: Aidan Rave

Principal Consultant

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Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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