I spent the early part of my career as a corporate lawyer, working for large companies in different parts of the world. For a long time I was happy in my work, finding it fulfilling and meaningful. Over time, however, I became troubled by the vast disparity between the lives led by my colleagues and me and most of those whose lives we affected. I traveled widely and could not ignore the relative poverty that many people lived in and the increasing and negative impact that human beings were having on the natural world.
In 2002 I could take it no longer and left the corporate world. I felt baffled and bemused at how the intelligent and responsible people I was working with could collectively behave so stupidly and irresponsibly in relation to society and the planet. They (or rather we, for I was no better) were mindlessly and selfishly pursuing growth without caring about its impact. I left to try to understand what was going on. I had a hunch that a big factor in all this was the way businesses were structured – the invisible architecture of the corporation that subtly affected our behaviour.
After leaving my corporate job, I spent time in the not-for-profit world and I noticed similar dynamics. NGOs like ActionAid, Amnesty International and WWF have far more in common with the likes of HSBC or BP than they would like to admit. In particular they are over-sensitive to the needs and whims of funders, and too insensitive to the real needs of their beneficiaries. Every now and then, we see symptoms of these problems – Amnesty paying huge fees to dismiss incompetent executives, Oxfam ignoring sex exploitation issues in Haiti. These high profile cases are indicators of deeper, systemic problems in such large institutions – this becomes clear if you talk to people who have worked in large NGOS or corporations.
If we are going to find more sustainable and caring ways of living on this planet, we need large scale organisation. But large organisations will have to shift to a more enlightened way of being and operating – currently they are not serving us.
I see this as a question of evolution. Our governance structures are still relatively immature, and need to evolve to a more mature state to respond to today’s world. If you think about a company, for example, which is by far the most common legal form, it is a very simple structure – there are two sovereign bodies: owners (otherwise known as shareholders or members) and a board of directors/trustees. Corporate governance focuses on the dynamic between these two bodies. If companies are to be fit for purpose, they need to evolve to a more complex form.
In recent years in my legal practice I have increasingly found myself developing such complex structures for clients. They have included:
- hydrogen car company Riversimple,which is committed to sustainable transport and wanted to embed a commitment to a meaningful purpose into its structure;
- the group of entrepreneurs and academics who founded Dataswift, offering a new technology in the personal data space, who wanted to create a business that has trust and integrity built into its DNA; and
- the Library of Things, founded by three young entrepreneurs, Rebecca, Emma and Sophia, whose business encourages the sharing of goods and who aim to serve both investors and the community, profit and purpose, people and planet.
These innovators are not shy about embracing a complex structure since they recognise that their aims and approach are complex.
Here’s my attempt to draw out some of the key shared aspects of such structures:
- power is distributed. Modern corporations are, not infrequently, compared to one-party states. The next evolution of company will be more like a democracy, where no individual or group can be said to be in charge and power is shared amongst different groups that interact in complex ways. In Greaterthan we created a “minimal viable board”, shifting most decision-making to the operational parts of the organisation and reserving only a small number of governance and finance questions to the board.
- tolerance and diversity is encouraged, in recognition of the wisdom to be found in hearing diverse and sometimes apparently opposing views. For example, in Riversimple, the board is made up of two parts that have different but complementary roles. The operating board is focused on leading the business forward, the stewards board is focused on the needs and views of stakeholders. In joint board meetings, they bring together these different perspectives, which encourages rich dialogue and a broad perspective. In Dataswift, we established two companies, a for-profit and a not-for-profit, and created inter-dependence between them. Such hybrid structures are reminiscent of the way the human brain is structured, with two chambers that perceive the world in different ways. The magic comes from the weaving between the two, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
- information flows freely. Traditional organisations (and repressive governments) recognise information as a source of power, and seek to control it. Enlightened leaders encourage the free flow of information, and this can be formally encouraged through the organisational structures. The British retailer John Lewis does this through its constitution, stating that any employee can write to the company newsletter, even anonymously if they wish, and the responsible director must publish a response;
- deliberative decision-making for major decisions. Such decision-making is sometimes described as consent-based, or no objection. This can be contrasted with more familiar approaches such as voting (the tyranny of the majority) or consensus (the tyranny of the minority). Einstein famously said that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Deliberative decision-making is a way of accessing a different level of consciousness.
- ownership is not the exclusive domain of a separate group of distant investors, but is held by and on behalf of the collective. In a business this might mean, for example, that voting shares are held by trustees on behalf of the community and investors are issued with non-voting shares.
One notable aspect of these developments is that such organisations are far more differentiated one from another than traditional organisations. This I feel is another indicator of evolution. Mature adults vary hugely in appearance, dress, behaviour and character, whereas teenagers are far more likely to look like and copy their peers.
Do you have a complex initiative, and are struggling to squeeze it into a conventionally shaped box? Let’s have a chat!
“Doctors…still retain a high degree of public confidence because they are perceived as healers. Should lawyers not be healers? Healers, not warriors? Healers, not procurers? Healers, not hired guns?” Warren Burger, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (1969-1986)
It sounds almost preposterous, the idea of a lawyer being a healer, doesn’t it? If it wasn’t someone as eminent as Warren Burger who suggested it, we might simply laugh and dismiss the idea. My question is, what if we didn’t laugh? What if we were to take the idea seriously?
Actually, the idea of a lawyer as healer is not such a new idea. Robert Benham, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, once noted that the first professions in society were, the clergy, who healed the spirit, the doctor, who healed the body, and the lawyer, who healed the community.
I recently spent a few days in the company of a healer (but not a lawyer), a spry 87 year old called Mike Boxhall who has a twinkle in his eye and is in demand around the world for his work with individuals and groups. He explained that when he started out, he used to take the classic healers’ approach – to seek out the cause of the problem and try to get rid of it. Over time, he has learned humility, as he gained a deep faith in each person’s innate capacity to heal him or herself. These days he sees his role as providing space in which self-healing can happen. His work includes working with very young babies.
Babies, he explained, need two things – to be heard and to be held. His job is to treat the baby within everyone who presents him or herself to him. He pays attention to making the person feel heard and held, by tuning in to what is happening within their body, while gently holding them with just the lightest of touches. This may sound strange but, as I have experienced myself, the results can be truly profound. In his presence I experienced a true sense of deep relaxation, peace and wholeness. Apparently the word “wholeness” comes from the same root as the words “hale” and “healthy”.
I have been pondering how this might translate into my own work. Could I help my clients feel held and heard in a similar way, and thus in some way heal them?
Typically people come to me with a question or issue, something that’s troubling them. Their first need, I notice, is to be heard. It is rare in our society to be truly listened to. Mostly, when you talk to people they are waiting for you to finish so that they can say what they want to say. So, this is something I can do – I can be silent, and listen.
Secondly, they are often seeking re-assurance. They are unfamiliar with the law, and are worried of taking a wrong step. The law can be mystifying and intimidating. It also carries power – behind the law lies the whole might of the state. Not uncommonly, lawyers play on this. They weave a mystique around the law, perhaps to justify their exorbitant fees, or simply because they don’t quite understand it themselves. The best lawyers I have worked with cut through the verbiage – they clarify and don’t confuse.
Because I have worked with the law for so many years, I can usually provide the re-assurance my clients need. I might offer a remedy (typically a contract, or a tweak to a governing document, or a suggested course of action) – something tangible people can go away with. But mainly, I sense, I am there to remind them that, at a deep level, everything’s ok and that they are ok.
In recent years my practice has changed. Firstly, I less and less feel the need to claim to provide answers. Instead I join my client in a joint enquiry – when we combine our energies, the right answer can more easily emerge. This is much more satisfying work – the client is far more likely to know what is the right way forward for them. What’s more, it is really important that they “own” the solution to their problem.
The other significant change to my practice is that I have started working more with groups. In a group setting it is even more clear to me that the answers, and the healing, lie within the group, not within me, and thus my main role is to hold the space and to listen, not to claim to know the answer.
This healing work is about the most rewarding work you can do. And less and less does it feel like the practice of law. It simply feels like being human, in the company of others.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine challenged me with the following question: “You talk about good governance of large businesses. Have you applied it to your own business?” The answer was I hadn’t. New Forest Advisory is modest in scale – surely too small for any complex governance. Yet the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense.
For years I have been observing how large businesses, struggling with the speed and complexity of the modern world, have adopted governance mechanisms designed to increase their capacity to care, to listen and to reflect. They set up advisory boards, stakeholder councils, intranets and social spaces for sharing information across hierarchies, run strategy away days, give their staff “Google days” (days where staff can work on anything they like), cross-departmental committees and so on.
It had never occurred to me that what such an approach could work at small scale too. But why not? I have plenty of complexity to deal with. So I set up an advisory board. In practice what this meant was that I contacted three friends and asked them if they would be willing to be on my advisory board. To my delight, they all agreed (they seemed pleased to have been asked). It must be said that their responsibilities are not very onerous.
I update them in writing every couple of months, and we meet once a quarter at my house for dinner. Last night was the seventh gathering.
My board is made up of three friends who live locally. Jonathan is a therapist who was formerly an independent film-maker. Emily is a mother of two young children and a former lawyer. Only one, Gwyn, is what you might properly call a business person. Each is a sensitive soul with something to contribute. Each cares enough to come along and listen to me and to offer questions, views and comments on where I and my business is going. They are not paid – I suppose they do it because I asked them, because they find the discussions interesting, because they like the company and because they appreciate my cooking! And because they care. They know that I am trying to run my business purposefully and consciously – if my main aim was to make money, I doubt they would keep coming.
At first it felt a bit strange to share details of my business with friends. I was exposing myself, sharing information that would normally be private. Perhaps there was a bit of pride too – surely I should be capable of running my business without help and advice from others? Yet, I soon got used to it, quickly seeing the benefits and realising that there was nothing to be shy about. I find the more truthfully I share, the more I benefit. In truth, what I get from the “advisory board” is not so much advice but a space to be heard.
I find the advisory board best for the questions that nag me and that I don’t quite know what to do with. How can I market myself with integrity? What sort of clients should I be working with? How can I manage my time effectively? How can I best measure how I am doing?
They are very supportive, practical and encouraging. It really helps that they know me outside work, know my family and my values. Their advice takes all this into account. They are a nice combination and they usually complement each other in the advice they give. For example, one evening I was talking about the book I am writing. Emily advised me to think about what I would need in order to achieve this task, to make sure I’m resourced and supported to achieve it. Gwyn challenged me to think about different possible ways I could distribute it. Jonathan offered a couple of helpful resources to refer to. Last night was another good session. I talked about how I am getting busier and the challenges that brings. They gave me re-assurance, advice and useful feedback.
What makes a good advisory board? For me, it’s a combination of things. I looked for a balance of skills, backgrounds and perspectives. Gender diversity is part of this (I am just contemplating inviting a fourth person, a woman, to make it two men and two woman). I looked for people who are good at listening, who can put their own ego to one side in service to something bigger. It helps if you enjoy being around them too! Having fun is pretty important in my book.
Perhaps the most important qualification for anyone on the board is that they understand what I am about. Fundamentally I am in business to play my part in the transition to a more sustainable world. It is impossible precisely to measure progress against such a vague yet ambitious goal. My advisory board, who all understand this goal, help me stay on track. For that and for everything else they bring I am really grateful.
– organise – “form into an organic whole” (Oxford Dictionary).
For many years I have been interested in, nay fascinated by, organising and organisations. I feel I have something in common with Sisyphus who, in the Greek legend, was fated to spend eternity rolling a large rock up a mountain, only to watch it roll down again every time he approached the top. Likewise, just when I think I am on the verge of making a profound breakthrough in my understanding, I learn something that humbles me, that makes me realise how little I really know.
I am in good company. Great management writers including Peter Drucker and Charles Handy have acknowledged the awesome complexity of the subject. In the words of Handy: “The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.”
So with that in mind, in all humility, I want to offer up here my integral model of organisational regulation. Read more
I have, not surprisingly, been musing about lawyers, after the death of one of my heroes.
Nelson Mandela was, of course, so much more than a lawyer but he did practice law for many years. And I notice that several outstanding individuals who fought for social justice previously practised as lawyers. Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, Fidel Castro (!), Thatcher (oh no, forget that last one…). Is this just chance?
It seems to me that it is, in part at least, to do with power. As a lawyer you get to see how power dynamics play out in society. This has a couple of consequences – it gives you power in your own right (the power of knowledge) and it obliges you to make a choice about where to place yourself – on the side of the oppressors or the oppressed. Read more
“Did you clean your teeth, Lucas?” “Erm, yes.”
”Are you sure?” “Erm, no” “Go and clean them please.”
My son, I’m glad to say, is a pretty poor liar. It is written all over his face. It is also, in general, pretty easy to test if he is telling the truth. If we suspect he did not clean his teeth, we can simply check his toothbrush, and the mere suggestion that we will do this tends to make him admit the truth.
His lies tend to be small lies – the sort that most scandals in our society are about. ”Did you sleep with her?” “Did you tap those phones?” “Did you say such and such to so-and-so?” When people with power tell little lies, we get very excited. If it can be proved that they told a lie, they often lose their post (Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment for lying about having sex in the White House. It wasn’t so much the sex that got him into trouble, it was the suggestion that he had lied about it). Read more