with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this Best of Series episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we feature Isabelle Nüssli, author of the book, “Cockfighting” on the CEO-Chairperson relationship and overcoming the drivers of conflict.

I interviewed Isabelle for this podcast in 2018. She is the former US CFO and chairperson of the NUSSLI Group, a leading international provider of portable and permanent infrastructures for sport and cultural events like the Olympics. They built the iconic Bondi Beach Volleyball Stadium at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and have been involved in FIFA World Cups.

Isabelle is the author of the Amazon bestselling book “Cockfighting: Solving the Mystery of Unconscious Sabotage at the Top of the Corporate Pyramid“ and “Beyond Corporate Governance”.

Drawing on the latest research and interviews with more than 70 chairpersons and CEOs, Cockfighting presents Isabelle's findings on the conscious and unconscious drivers of conflict, and provides invaluable tools for overcoming differences.

Isabelle has an MBA from Kellogg School of Management and she also sits on a number of Boards, including as Chairwoman of the European chapter of the Chief Executives Organization.

In this episode we talk about:

✅  The sheer simplicity and beauty of a handshake, but why you still need a contract

✅  That doubting yourself is absolutely normal, and how to use these thoughts productively

✅  The contradictions of power and its relationship with your actions, and

✅  How she developed the Chairperson-CEO Collaboration Contract to build trust.

Connecting with Isabelle Nüssli

You can reach Isabelle on LinkedIn.

Books and resources

“The Dean of my business school looked at me and said one word: “Jump.” He said by joining the company now, I can grow with it. That was very good advice.”


On what she has learnt about power

  • When I look back, early in my career I did not always fill my potential; I was almost afraid of success, or of power, because – that's an unproductive pattern in hindsight but these patterns aren't conscious – I thought whoever is in power tends to misuse or abuse power. And then I realised that of course that's not the case, and that I can very well take on leadership positions that come naturally to me, often. And I realised to live up to the position and to the function, that's a pattern that I have discovered, and that I largely managed to overcome.
  • When I asked people about the meaning of power, many interviewees said they were not in favour of power for the sake of power, but in order to achieve goals. And some contradicted themselves a bit later, saying they didn't like to play number two as it's nice to receive applause and get the laurels. But I also realised that the level of self-awareness was also quite different when it came to the answering of that question. But again, I think in general, the relationship around power has an ambivalent tone to it.

On the impact of a simple handshake

  • We had a strong value system in place growing up. Of course we all need a contract, but it's still beautiful, still today, if you can go with a handshake.
  • I volunteered at the World Economic Forum for almost 20 years and I got to know the CEO of a very large organisation, and he taught me the power of a handshake and what it reveals about a person. He said that the perfect handshake is when the sweet spot between the thumb and the index finger meet. 
  • Often, when you start paying attention in a handshake, sometimes you just hold the tip of the fingers, or part of their finger, but you do not reach the sweet spot. And it does actually tell something about the general openness and willingness to trust, even momentarily. 
  • He taught me to be more open, to try to meet the sweet spot. When you see the hand is closed, the fingers, you can only wrap the fingers. And after a meeting, the hand is open, and you actually reach the sweet spot. It's interesting. So just pay attention.

On trust and corporate governance

  • Corporate governance of course is a mechanism about the processes. It's about the “what” of the role, and that's what I call the rational part. But what's not talked about, or hardly ever, is how are these roles filled?
  • I had one chairperson who grew up in a family where trust was always undermined, so there was a lot of mistrust. And of course trust is important to that person. But he or she starts off mistrust, and then needs to see the proof, and positive activities, and slowly but surely opens up. And this chairperson was interacting with a CEO who grew up in a family where trust was very, very important. So that person gives the benefit of the doubt, and provides trust.
  • They both believe trust is important, but the way they approach trust and trust-building – and also trust breach – is very different. For example, how much time do you provide a person in order to complete a task? How much control do you exercise? How far do you go and how is it perceived by the other person?

On the CEO-Chair relationship

  • What makes this tricky is that there are unconscious drivers. For example, how much our upbringing has shaped us, the worldview we have, the value system we believe in, the definition of and relationship to power.
  • Or the amount of time these two spend together. The chairperson is hardly ever full time. That's by nature, so they spend less time together. But very often if they don't get along that well, or if there's a slight mistrust, they tend to spend less time together. But if you spend less time, it also means inferior quality of communication, which is likely to harm a relationship. So, time spent is also an unconscious driver.
  • There are also intensifiers – for example, birth order. Firstborns tend to acquire certain characteristics and traits. So when you look at the unconscious intensifiers such as power, you learn that firstborns tend to engage in power struggles. It almost explains part of why, at the very top of the corporate pyramids when exposure is there and power is involved, they might engage into conflicts.
  • I call it the second part of the leadership equation – the workforce – because it cascades down. Power lies at the top of the corporate pyramid, so relationships at the top are important in the way of how the tone is set. Positive and less positive behaviour gets cascaded down the pyramid.
  • So I developed this CCCC (Chairperson-CEO Collaboration Contract), which is a type of psychological contract, meaning it's not written. So, the two of them sit at the table and talk through different topics such as trust: “What does trust mean to you and me? How are we going to increase our trust level? How do we go about it? What does power mean to you? How are we going to treat a division or power? For example, at the press conference, who takes how much airtime? How do we fill senior roles?”
  • So they should spend time together, get to know each other, but also work through these topics. And ideally, this process is facilitated by an independent moderator, because if not, either one person is superior, so it's important that that person does not exercise power.
  • And this contract also includes a part that's directed towards self-reflection. So that's a part that's not talked about. Each person thinks about what their patterns are, what their worldview is and how it has been shaped and how does it affect the way they act and behave. And is it still productive? And when does my ego kick in, and do I want that or not? And is it beneficial for the relationship or not? And how can I contribute to the improvement of the relationship?

On balancing self-reflection and action

  • I always try to find time or make time for reflection. And I'm not talking about hours. Sometimes it can be like seconds while waiting for a train or a bus. Sometimes it can be minutes, just between meetings.
  • No athlete works out 12 hours, but in business you see often that meetings are scheduled back-to-back without time for reflection. That's important in my life, because it helps me increase self-awareness and I believe when I know what's going on, and which direction I'm going in, why I'm taking better decisions and I'm more focused.
  • Which brings me to the action part. A good leader, I believe, balances actions and reflections but also makes time for downtime. Because we're trained early on that being busy is great. I don't know if your parents or teachers taught you or proclaimed that doing nothing is good, probably not!
  • So of course I do catch myself, like once in a while, and then I fall back. But I've become better and better. And then I smile, because it's just so, it's fascinating, if you catch yourself and say no, that action of feeling doesn't add any value.
  • When you have an experience, maybe a not so good one, it's still on you on which part of the balance sheet you want to place it, and I think that's quite powerful. Because it stays with us, and we have that choice. In business you cannot play around the balance sheet. But in personal life you can. And that's great.

On using doubts positively

  • First of all I realise that doubts are absolutely normal. So human. So I'm not harsh on myself and you're not supposed to be, so when they come up I grab them, I sit with them for a minute, but then I try to make an empowered decision. So I take these doubts, I take them seriously. But then I often realise that they have to do with patterns that are no longer productive. Or shaped in childhood or a bit later, but as an adult they are no longer productive.
  • We all have patterns, and they're neither good nor bad, but it's a matter of getting to know them, and working with them. And the ones that are no longer productive try to overcome them.

On her first book, Cockfighting

  • I conducted interviews with 70 chairpersons and CEOs, which produced novel insights and led me to the writing of the book Cockfighting. What was really, really interesting was that I got a glimpse of something more profound behind the machinations of leadership that neither law nor corporate governance could explain, and this something was the human element, a part that I've always been fascinated by.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • Become aware that one day your life will flash before your eyes. So make sure it's worth watching. Which means build self-awareness, and a lot will follow. 
  • We talk about qualities of future leaders, curiosity and humility, listening, but I think a lot will follow automatically if you become aware of your situation, of your environment, at work, at home. And if you increase self-awareness, it'll be very likely for you to make the right decisions coming out of it. And building the right capacity and qualities.

Deal hope,