The Fish Rots from the Head

Why a focus on inclusion and disruption keeps senior leadership teams fresh.

As a child I grew up in one of the UK’s largest fishing ports. Our neighbour was a trawler-man and would come around to our house to give my Mum the freshest of fish straight from the dock. I remember saying to my Mum once that “It didn’t smell like fish.” only to be informed that the fresher the fish the less it smells. Recently I was reminded of these words at several different conferences I spoke at in the UK, Europe and the US. At each event it transpired they all used the same phrase as an analogy for a specific business issue. The phrase: ‘The fish rots from the head.’

Working with senior leaders in global businesses I am increasingly hearing the need to actively encourage positive disruption. Disruptive thinking, along with feedback and diversity, has become another organisational goal which everyone knows they should embrace but few can embed into their culture.

So why do we find this challenging? I believe that it fundamentally comes down to fear. Fear of change. Fear of challenge. Fear of losing equilibrium.

But all is not lost as millennials and post-millennials are far less restrained by the constraints that the majority of current leaders appear to be inhibited by. They have grown up in a society that is forever changing and is incredibly challenging. As for equilibrium? ‘What is that and why would we want it?’ This group source information from a variety of channels, they seek instant feedback and are quick to offer solutions. So with the millennials and post millennials now making up the growing majority of the working population you would be forgiven for thinking cultures will now shift and positive disruption will be welcomed.

However many still fail to achieve this because the senior leadership teams lack diversity of thought, don’t respond well to feedback and would prefer to not have the boat rocked. They appear incapable of creating inclusive environments. And as we all know culture is set from the top.

In January 2016 53.5% of working people in the UK were unemployed.

So lets return to the conferences I mentioned before. They were in Berlin, Paris, New York and Vienna and at each of these I discussed the challenge of shifting the mindset at the top of organisations to one of inclusivity. To a mindset that welcomes diversity of thought. At each event, despite the cultural and language differences, and unprovoked by me, people used the same ‘The fish rots from the head’ phrase to describe the consequences of failing to make this change and make it soon.

So it appears this is a saying that resonates around the world and used in this context it articulates well the fact that businesses fail when leaders fail. When they block disruption and feedback the business ceases to move with the times. From Blockbuster to Toys R Us, Napster to HMV, corporate history is littered with examples of this.

For me the solution is simple, foster inclusive environments. Create leadership teams and boards that are truly diverse, have diversity of thought and where individuals freely give feedback and positively disrupt.

Women make up 51% of the population yet the percentage of women in senior leadership roles was just 22% in 2018.

As one of the more influential senior executive leadership businesses in the global market Equiida is enabling organisations to do just that. We are developing long-term partnerships with CEOs and Chairs, to improve performance, board alignment and mix; particularly as it relates to inclusivity. We are focused on delivering improved business outcomes for our clients and provide them with sound commercial rationale behind the methodologies we help them adopt.

Now considering my Mum’s original comment again it resonates with me and the work we do; fresh minds, fresh perspectives, fresh strategies will prevent leadership rot and enable companies to thrive. We wont be able to help everyone though and many major organisations already have C Suite teams that are, to continue the theme of my analogies, like fish out of water. Where the smell of fish permeates through an entire organisation and where unless dealt with swiftly these organisations will cease to be fit for consumption.

Author: Marc Woods

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