30 October 2019

Why is leadership so difficult? A talk with Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan coming to Bristol to do a talk was something we didn't want to miss.

Bristol Media recently put on one of their brilliant vision keynotes, with Margaret Heffernan talking about what leadership looks like in today’s ever-changing working landscape. Our behavioural strategist Chloe went along and has rounded up her key takeaways from the talk…


When I heard Margaret Heffernan was talking about leadership in Bristol I jumped at the chance to go along. I’m a huge fan, but not only because she’s super smart, self-effacing, forthright and funny, but she has also written three bestselling books, run multiple global companies in the UK and US and is a fellow geek on all things organisational and behaviour change (hence her recently crowned doctorate).

Margaret kicked off by saying that leadership is hard, which of course, we all know. We’re in particularly difficult, uncertain times. A ‘limbo-land’ of indecision and shifting sands. With a nod to our current political climate, Margaret added that when it comes to business and leadership, Brexit can be used as a ‘displacement activity’. 

As individuals, we’re often expected to do more with less cognitive capacity, in a constantly changing world. Things are increasingly unpredictable and the pace of change is rapid, making it hard for leaders to know what correct leadership looks like or how to plan for the future. 


Planning for change

Margaret went onto say that, as a leader, the maximum you should be planning for is 400 days and that beyond that, it’s hard to know what might change. Any business planning for longer than this could be at risk of unforeseen changes which have not been forecasted for. 

When Oliver Burrows, lead data analyst at the Bank of England, was trying to think of ways he could do more with less resource, he struggled to come up with anything useful. He realised he needed help and with so many different capabilities and resources all under one roof, took his thinking outside of the boardroom. He called out for ‘strategy on the ground’, a rally cry for ideation, gathering insights and ideas for the future from the people at the coalface. Leaders bringing people into decision-making like this shows an openness to learn from their workforce. 


“Because, when it comes to the future, no one has got experience” – Margaret Heffernan.


Test and learn

At a nursing home in the Netherlands, Jos de Block faced a similar challenge – more outputs, more pressure, less resource. He had around 40 patients who needed care from only a handful of nurses. The nurses’ morale was low and as a result, patient care was falling.

In order to minimise costs, Jos started out small by figuring out what was working and doing more of it. He tried one simple thing: giving autonomy to the nurses, allowing them to do whatever they wanted to care for patients, making their own decisions on what was best.

The result?

35% reduction in costs and improved recovery times for patients.

People thrive when they’re treated like humans, not just a ‘resource’. It’s important not to let ‘business-as-usual’ get in the way of good people doing a great job. 


Innovation is key

Successful companies innovate. They try things out, experiment and sometimes fail. The value lies in trying new things, seeing what works and doing more of it. Good leadership will often involve a trial and error approach. 


Strategic planning through uncertain times

As leaders, it’s hard to know where to start with a business strategy in times of constant and unavoidable change. It worth thinking of the different scenarios you could encounter, and planning for them all. 


  1. Plan for several different eventualities.
  2. Decide what the key influences are on each scenario.
  3. Prepare. What do you need to do to prepare for the scenario actually occurring?


Margaret particularly piqued my interest when she mentioned the ‘Centre for Epidemic Preparedness’ who, as we speak, are busy preparing for hundreds of biological possibilities. Their mantra, “just in case, not just in time” is a good one to remember in all scenario planning, whether it’s Brexit, biology or business transformation. 

The very nature of scenario planning is that you challenge everything. It forces co-curation around a future of the unknown. So invite the divergent thinkers, the sceptics and the pragmatists.

CEO responsibilities are changing; logical evidence and creative possibilities can converge. We need to move away from keeping decisions at board-level, include more diverse minds and celebrate great leaders who can speak to all and galvanize the intelligence of all.

At Synergy, we’re working with clients on Brexit scenario planning, leadership communication style and lots more, come and chat to us.

Post image source: http://www.mheffernan.com/media.php 

Similar Articles

9 February 2023

2023 predictions: Employee Experience takes the lead

On the back of a brilliant 12 months in 2022, and as a definite sign…


19 December 2022

2023 Employee Engagement trends

As we move into what we hope is a short recession, employer brands which are…


15 December 2022

The Truth about Britain

Recently, I went to McCann Worldgroup’s ‘Truth Central’ series which are deep research studies into…


14 November 2022

How businesses are redefining workplace culture

Humanity has burst through the corporate layers and demanded its rightful place at the centre…