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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This week we are joined by Isabelle Nussli. 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 at exhibitions just 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“. 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 increasing self awareness, overcoming differences, and facilitating collaboration for those at the very top of the corporate world.

Isabelle has an MBA from Kellogg School of Management and is currently the Chief Energising Officer for Leverage-Your-self.com, where she leads a team of experts in business, behavioural economics, and applied psychology that support business in navigating change and capitalising on their organisations' full potential.


Book Cover


  • Buy Isabelle's book here.
  • Her business Leverage-Your-Self is here.
  • Connect on LinkedIn here.


  • 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.
  • So we had a strong value system in place, that I mentioned the handshake, which is something beautiful. Of course we all need contract, but it's still beautiful, still today, if you can go with a handshake. But I also learned where money came from. So while I was still in school I started to work, because I earned my bike, I was folding cardboard boxes for a potato chips producer and I was so proud that I had my first bike.
  • During business school when my, at that time partner, now husband, asked me to follow in his footsteps. And I thought wow, quite big footsteps! So I approached the dean of my business school, former dean, and I laid out my options, and things I could have like, I thought … It was not my plan to go back to Switzerland anytime soon. I thought maybe China or India or US.
    So he looked at me and said one word: “Jump.” So asked him why, and he said look, you'll never be really, how much you hone your skill, whatever you do. Join the company now and then you can grow with it. That was very good advice.
  • First of all I realise that doubts are absolutely normal. So human. So I'm not harsh at myself and you're not supposed to. 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.
  • When I look back, that early in my career I did not always fill my footsteps. So I was somehow almost afraid of success, or of power, because I learned that, and again that's an unproductive pattern looking back. But something these patterns aren't conscious. So learned that 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 fill footsteps and live up to the position and to the function. So that's, for example, a pattern that I have discovered, and that I largely managed to overcome.
  • When I asked about the meaning of power, many interviewees said oh I'm not in favour of power for the sake of power, but in order to achieve goals. And some contradicted themselves a bit later, saying I don't like to play number two, it's nice to receive applause and get the laurels. But I also realised that the level, or amount of self-reflection, 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
  • Corporate governance of course is mechanisms about the processes. It's about the what of the role, what is 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?
  • What makes this a bit more 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. Or for example, the definition of and relationship to power.
    Or, the amount of time these two spend together. And it's not just, for example, the chairperson is hardly ever full time. That's by nature, 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.
  • So intensifiers are just, let's say birth order. Let's say functional firstborns. So when you occupy a niche within your family, you tend to acquire certain characteristics and traits.
  • So when you look at the unconscious intensifiers such as power, and you learn that firstborn and firstborns tend to engage in power struggles. So I think that's interesting, it almost explains part of why, and too, functional firstborn, at the very top of the corporate pyramids when exposure is there and power is involved. Why they might engage into conflicts.
  • I call it the second part of the leadership equation, the workforce, because it cascades down. Power yes lies at the top of the corporate pyramids, but as we heard from the relationships and as we probably all know, the relationships at the top are important in the way of how the tone is set, and how, positive too by the way. 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? Or another topic is power, 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? What if, what if? And all the role clarity, what does it mean, to fill the roles?
    So I developed this, it's the idea in it is really for the two of them to talk through, and it's important that they get to communicate. So that they 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
  • For me it's a balance between action and reflection. So I always, I 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 you know? No athlete works out 12 hours, but in business you see often that meetings are scheduled back to back without time for reflection.
  • And what I also believe, when you have an experience, maybe a not so good one, it's still on you on which part of the balance sheets do you want to place it, you know? Was it a good experience or a less good experience. 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.
  • 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 take the right decisions coming out of it. And building the right capacity and qualities.