Nancy Falls: An interview by Bob Morris

FallsNancy Falls, CEO of The Concinnity Company, helps companies succeed by transforming the way boards and leadership teams work together. She has spent more than thirty years in and around the C-suite and the boardroom, having held executive roles in both public and private companies, from early stage to Fortune 1000, served on numerous boards, advised some of the largest healthcare and industrial companies and coached dozens of C-level executives. A magna cum laude graduate in economics and sociology from Wellesley College, with an MBA from Adelphi University, Falls is a Governance Fellow of the National Association of Corporate Directors. She currently serves on the boards of Avenue Bank, Agrin Health, and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Her book, Corporate Concinnity in the Boardroom: 10 Imperatives to Drive High Performing Companies, was published by the Greenleaf Book Group Press (June 2015).

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Morris: Before discussing Corporate Concinnity in the Boardroom, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Falls: I would have to say my parents. My father was an entrepreneur who grew a family business while tending exceedingly well to all of his stakeholders, including his employees. He served on numerous boards and was a leader in civil rights activities in the south in the 60s & 70s. My mother was a full time volunteer who validated my professional pursuits by telling me that she would have been working outside the home were she in my generation. Both of my parents were deeply faithful people, and my mother’s experience of widowhood at a young age was invaluable to me when I was widowed at 38.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Falls: Three men and a woman: My father, my late husband, my current husband, and my executive coach. All provided what good boards provide their CEOs: advice, support and challenges.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Falls: My father was an accidental entrepreneur. He wanted to study law, but after the depression had to help his father with the family business…..selling farm implements, something that did not bring him intellectual stimulation. So he sought stimulation in politics and outside businesses. I figured early on that if I wanted to have a family I would have to get my intellectual stimulation and my paycheck with one stop…so I picked banking and finance, which combined my love of economics and sociology.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

I do not believe there is a better college education to be found than at Wellesley College, a women’s liberal arts college with about 2,200 students. There I received an incredibly rigorous & individualized education in economics and sociology and was taught that I could do anything as a woman. By the way, Wellesley graduates are overrepresented in executive suites & boardrooms and places like Harvard Business School. (You can check it out here.)

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Falls: All leaders fail, a lot, and the best ones fail without fear or shame and are grateful for and gracious about the lessons learned and remember that in the long run things work out exactly the way they are supposed to.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey was a businessman with a heart who left the world a whole lot better than he found it. He is a counter point for Old Man Potter who epitomizes everything wrong with business. I swear the movie is a metaphor for life in general. I have memorized almost all of the script.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Falls: Probably Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, the daughter of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead. It profiles the lives of five extraordinary women and the importance of improvisation and the lack of linearity in women’s careers vs. men’s.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Falls: Don’t assume the best next idea is in your own head.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Falls: You can’t do or have it all.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Falls: Remember that being on the right side of history often involves departing from conventional wisdom, and you want to be on the right side of history.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Falls: Or, “that doesn’t make sense”, a phrase of mine that drove an early boss crazy, who swore it was one my own kids would torture me with.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Falls: Acquisitions are not easy, but integration is the hardest part.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Falls: Never automate or add technology to a process until you’ve re-engineered it for efficiency.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Falls: If an organization had adequate diversity I think this is true, if not you just get groupthink. Homogeneous groups don’t make the best decisions…they just think they do.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Falls: “Let me tell you a story about my dad….”

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Falls: I have a whole chapter on this in my book. Leaders must own the culture and it must include change readiness. Expect diversity of thought about change, practice change resistance awareness, consider using interim leaders in times of great change, remember that change is always personal to your personnel and know what and how much change your organization can handle.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Falls: Getting increasingly diverse leadership teams and increasingly diverse boardrooms to work together well. The most common leadership and governance mistakes are rooted in the failure to recognize differences and be deliberate about seeking consensus. As diversity grows this will be even more of a challenge. This is exactly what the Concinnity Framework is designed to address.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Corporate Concinnity in the Boardroom. When and why did you decide to write it?

Falls: I had been threatening for years to write a book about the two attributes that differentiate companies that thrived from those that crashed and burned. The most common leadership problems are just that, common, and they don’t just wreck companies and wreck lives. It made me crazy. I knew they could be avoided with awareness of the problems, with intention to resolve them and a tool to facilitate it. Thus the Concinnity Framework was conceived. We can only help companies and executives at our company one at a time. With a book I could help more.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Falls: The last chapter completely re-wrote itself. I had never intended to write about wisdom, or include it as one of the concinnity imperatives. But I just woke up one day and realized that cultivating wisdom was the ultimate tool in the leader’s kit, the duct tape that holds all of the other imperatives together.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Falls: The working title was How to Lose a CEO in 10 Days. The publisher wouldn’t let me call it that. The Concinnity Framework applies to all sorts of leadership teams, be they in the boardroom or the C-suite, as well as to individual leaders. The book as it evolved became focused on the boardroom.

Morris: Please explain the background of the word “concinnity” and then its relevance to the contemporary business world.

Falls: True story. (“Let me tell you a story…!”) I had been working on the imperatives needed to avoid the most common business mistakes and the word “concinnity” scrolled across my computer screen. I realized the word captured exactly what we were trying to accomplish, pulling together different people, ideas, organizational elements in a skillful way that produced harmony. The word captures an idea as well as an ideal, and provides teams of people with a rallying cry, if you will, for what they are trying to achieve.

Morris: You suggest that there are ten “imperatives” that drive high-performance companies. By what process did you formulate them?

Falls: I started with the most common governance mistakes and analyzed their root causes and what needed to happen to avoid them.

Morris: Which of the ten seems to be most difficult to master? Why?

Falls: Wisdom, hands down. I taught a class recently, about 75 people in it, and asked for a definition of wisdom. There were a few answers so I asked people to close their eyes and think of one or a few people they’d known in their lives who were truly wise. It transformed the class. It’s hard to cultivate something that is so hard to define, you really have to be a student of it and then emulate elements of those people you know who have it. But without a doubt, leadership teams that consciously cultivate it work better.

Morris: Here’s a question I have been eager to ask you since I read the book for the first time. Was it written primarily for governing board members and C-level executives?

Falls: I sought to help organizations with the most common leadership and governance problems. Corporate leaders are not alone in this, but they have incredible power to do good or evil from their lofty platforms. And I guess I feel like governance is the final frontier in making organizations work well for good.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of Corporate Concinnity in the Boardroom, I think that – with only minor modification – much (if not most) of the material could also be of substantial benefit to leaders in privately-held companies. What do you think?

Falls: Good leadership and good governance are organizationally agnostic. So the Concinnity Framework is absolutely applicable to privately help companies and also to not for profit organizations. It is also good for companies large and small. Some people complain to me that best practice in governance is geared to large public companies. To them I say, what’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, you just have to right size it for your organization.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your book, you focus on ten “imperatives” that drive high-performing companies. Please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in the chapter devoted to each.

First, “Draw a line in the sand”

Falls: Clarity of roles and responsibilities is essential to efficient and harmonious teaming.

Morris: “Don’t go overboard”

Falls: You have to get the right people around the table focused on the right agenda.

Morris: “Assemble at the same starting blocks”

Falls: You must have consensus about not only where you want to go, but about exactly where you are starting from, otherwise you will not agree on the how of getting there and what’s needed to get there.

Morris: “Mind the stakeholder gap”

Falls: Leaders must actively identify all of their stakeholders and be deliberate about knowing their interests and considering them.

Morris: “Manage your information appetite”

Falls: Teams must not only agree on their information needs, but in a world of information overload they must actively seek to limit their information appetites.

Morris: “Be prepared: culture and change readiness”

Falls: Leaders must accept their responsibilities for their organization’s culture and take an active role in shaping its readiness for change.

Morris: Peter Drucker once observed, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Do you agree?

Falls: Absolutely.

Morris: Here’s #7: “Don’t leave compensation to the experts”

Falls: Compensation schemes are a big driver of culture, so while counsel from compensation experts is critical, failing to gut check their advice with your own knowledge of your organization and values can be disastrous.

Morris: “Bench your inner coach”

Falls: Board members and bosses usually get where they are because among other reasons they are smart, know a lot about how to succeed, and attract followers — and they love coaching. But a boss is usually the worst person for leaders to have as an individual coach or advisor. WHY? Because you can’t be totally candid with your boss, either about your own challenges or theirs!

Morris: “Off-board well”

Falls: Departures are inevitable at every level in an organization. They are never easy but they don’t have to be as bad as many organizations make them, and bad departures are far more costly than people realize.

Morris: “Cultivate wisdom”

Falls: Define wisdom for yourself, pursue it in your own life’s work, and seek/encourage it from the others with whom you lead.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Corporate Concinnity in the Boardroom, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Falls: The most common leadership and governance mistakes result from a failure to recognize differences and then build a consensus to accommodate them. Differences are a reality and diversity is only going to increase. In fact, diversity of experience and thought will bring power to those who can harness it. You and your team need awareness of differences, a commitment to addressing them, and a methodology to make addressing them practical. The framework in my book is the backbone of our methodology at The Concinnity Company, so small companies can really benefit from it. But an independent advisor can see things that you can’t and excellent advice is a lot cheaper than mistakes.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Falls: “When should companies reach out to you or someone like you for help?” During times of transition, which come along more frequently than ever, it is imperative for teams, in the boardroom or in the C-suite, to be working in harmony and getting every last drop of benefit from their diverse and sometimes competing ideas. But it is during times of change that teams often don’t work well together. We can help in ways that drive performance and change lives for the better. How cool is it that we get to do that?

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Nancy cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Concinnity Company link

Amazon link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

Chief Executive link

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