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).

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Nancy.

* * *

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?

Falls:
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 & 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.

Morris:
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.

Morris:
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.

* * *

To read the complete interview, please click here.

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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