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7 Questions with Mike Edmonds
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7 Questions with Mike Edmonds
Name: Mike Edmonds
Current title: Founder
Current organisation: InBetterCompany
I started my career as an advertising copywriter who was insanely curious about how business (and humans) worked, and over several decades evolved into a kind of hybrid brand expert & business consultant. I've just cut the apron strings with the advertising industry and am now dedicated to helping business owners find their true purpose and align their entire organisation to it. To help them grow and to help foster a better kind of capitalism.
1. What have you found most challenging as a board member?
Sticking to our awesome long-term, purpose-driven goal in the face of unrelenting (and tempting) short-term wins. My experience of working intimately with companies of all sizes is that all their problems arise from veering off their true purpose when times get tough. They get sucked into seeking solutions from the outside (asking customers what they want, reacting to competitor activity, second-guessing trends, etc) instead of trusting their own intrinsic wisdom. I've always tried to use that experience in the way I behave as a board member.
2. How did you become a board member? Can you please briefly tell the story?
Like a lot of successful young ad guys, my first experience at being a board member came about because an ad agency wanted to stop me from being poached by the competition. It was the usual "Don't leave! We'll make you a partner!" play. And hey, it worked. I was made a director/board member at 34 and began my lifelong study of business ownership and leadership. I learned a lot (eg: boards of more than 3 are hard work) and it really helped me when it came time to start my own ad agency and chair the board of an experimental business in a rapidly-changing industry.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Despite reading The 5am Club (and really enjoying it), I get up at 7am, have a light breakfast and head off to work as soon as I can. My most productive hours are in the morning, so I'm always anxious to get going. At my previous ad agency I would often arrive at the office at 4 or 5am and be insanely productive until 11am and then just hang around being a pest until home time. These days though, I seem to be able to spread out the creativity til mid-afternoon. Then it's off to the gym, or on my bike for a ride along the river or beach. My home city is an absolute gift for cycling. Every few days I'll go for a 5km run at dusk (too hot otherwise). Then it's dinner with my wife, or out with my daughter or friends. Most nights I'll read, play Xbox or watch something on TV and get to bed around 10 or 11pm. I write and draw to relax, but again, I only seem to be motivated to do those things in the mornings. Not exactly a powerhouse role model, am I? But hey, it's my truth.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
I recently sold the company I started in 2004. It was the first company I'd founded and I spent 16 years putting everything I'd learned in my career into that one crazy, experimental ad agency; all my passionate beliefs about how to treat people and about pursuing an honourable goal in business that transcends money. It was terrifically successful and grew into a highly regarded company with an incredibly strong culture of honesty and humility. But it led to me learning an incredibly difficult lesson and about purpose and people. What I learned was this: at some point, the founder of a purpose-driven company has to choose what is the ultimate driver of decision-making: the purpose or the people. That is, either you believe that the end benefits of your purpose are so worthwhile to the world that you must keep striving to find the very best people to make that purpose happen, even at the expense of loyal employees who reach the limit of their abilities; or... you decide that your pathway in life is to gather people around your purpose and, together, you will all do the best you can and be happy with whatever level of impact that results in. In short, is it more fulfilling to pursue the ultimate potential of your purpose, or the ultimate potential of the group of people you gather around you? I took the former route and I gotta tell you, there were times when I had to sit down with some incredibly loyal employees and explain to them why they won't be that team leader or dept head they wanted to be because they just weren't good enough. Like, after giving them many, many genuine opportunities to prove they were up to the task. And that was tough, man. It really made me question my priorities. And it taught me to be honest about which of those two roads my company was going down. I know of many companies that put their people before their purpose and they are wonderful organisations. And I love those sports movies where an underdog team of misfits believes in itself and ends up winning the cup. But in the end, I felt that our purpose had just so much potential to change lives for the better, beyond our own staff list, that when push came to shove and we had to choose between advancing our mission, or appeasing one of our team, we knew what we had to do. That, folks, one tough lesson to learn.
5. What are some of the keys to doing governance well in a organisation?
I think just this: by all means be a responsible board member; lead your organisation with diligence and authority. But for goodness sake, develop a good internal barometer for when governance starts to strangle a company. Like, have a truly open, unfearful mind about it, so you can tell when the act of being a responsible, governance-oriented board member is beginning to work against the purpose of the company; for when it starts to kill your originality and bravery and make you behave like everyone else. I'm a creative by profession, so my board persona is often the cheeky street kid who likes to burst the bubble of bulldust that sometimes descends on a board. I am often more prepared to step out onto the very edges of accepted professional behaviour in order to keep the flame of our company's passion alive. In the face of suffocating governance, I mean. It's not because I'm braver or more visionary. It's just how my brain is wired. The enormous pressures of corporate obligation and fiduciary responsibility that fall on the shoulders of board members can sometimes overpower the original intention of the company they are guiding. I've found that the boundaries of governance are way more flexible than fear and stress would have you believe. And I don't mean toying with illegality. I mean sticking to some principles TO THE LETTER out of fear than anything less would make you feel vulnerable.
6. How do you differentiate between the role of board member and the roles of CEO or executive team member of a organisation?
This is the subject of much debate right now. I am increasingly dismayed at the structure of many boards. Too often these days I'm coming across a board that is made up of worthy people, but is structured in such a way that they have only a few hours a month with which to guide their respective organisations. It's also becoming more common to meet people who have several board positions; almost like being a full time board member is a new profession. Too many board members these days seem to be handpicked for their specific skills and then plopped together with other qualified individuals and told to somehow unite and guide. I believe under this approach, it's possible for a board to be told an organisation's aims, shown a strategy to achieve those aims and then asked to make sound judgments as to how well aligned the two are. But they are not best placed to form those aims and strategies themselves. Certainly not as well as the people who are immersed in that company and the sector it operates in - 24/7 - the CEO and exec team.
That, for me, is the critical difference between a board and a management team. But those lines are often blurred and lead to a lack of authentic communication between the two bodies, noses out of joint and often a lack of respect for each other's roles and opinions.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a board member so far?
I believe the board room should be the ultimate safe place for truly open, effective communication between emotionally literate humans who have their egos in check. A tall order, I know, but that's what I believe delivers genuine impact, action, growth, change, advancement, etc for the organisation they are supposed to be leading.
So a meaningful story I remember well is when the Creative Director of my agency was presenting some new campaign work for one of our clients. It was part of a regular Board Update to keep us abreast of the agency's work. The CD was sharing a TV campaign that I thought was just okay, but that he kept describing as 'amazing' and 'fantastic'. My fellow board members were nodding and grunting along with his accolades, but eventually I just had to ask him point blank "Do you really think this is amazing work?". He replied "Yeah it's awesome". I told him that I totally disagreed and thought it was just okay and that if he genuinely thought this work was exceptional then we have a major misalignment of ambition and that's a huge problem for me. Long story short, it turned out that he didn't think the work itself was extraordinary, but that the team involved had done a terrific job of pulling together a decent campaign within a tight timeframe and to a tiny budget. Which was a huge relief to me. Because I totally agreed that the team's effort was extraordinary. I just couldn't agree that the work itself was great. The thing I found interesting though, was just how crestfallen the CD was with the whole discussion. Even after we'd cleared up the misunderstanding and found that we were in fact aligned in our definitions of excellence, he was angry at me. My reflection on that event is that I strongly believe board members have to find a way to speak the truth about what they are hearing and seeing in that room, no matter how big the risk that someone's nose is going to be put out of joint. Yes, try to be diplomatic. Try to empathise and soothe. Be the inspiring 'team player' but if an inconvenient thought aligned to your company's ultimate ambition pops into your head, don't leave it there. I believe that's your responsibility as a board member - to 'go there'.