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Interview with Dr. Graham Ward, INSEAD, on how founders and CEOs can embrace the end-of-year rush to stay aligned with their teams and themselves

11 min read
Trends & Research

Interview with Dr. Graham Ward, INSEAD, on how founders and CEOs can embrace the end-of-year rush to stay aligned with their teams and themselves

As we approach the end of 2022, our People Management Partner and executive coach, Marianna Krell, sat down with Dr. Graham Ward, Adjunct Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD Business School, to discuss how this end-of-year period affects startup founders, CEOs, and their teams, and what strategies they can apply to enter the next year refreshed, recharged, and ready for the new challenges ahead. 


Dr. Graham Ward has been a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD Business School and an executive coach to C-level leaders for over 15 years. He designs and implements large-scale leadership development programs across geographies, with a focus on top-tier leaders. Dr. Ward has an extensive business background, which includes co-leading a pan-European business for the world's leading investment bank for 10 years.

Marianna Krell is a people management partner at Embria. She is a Certified Change Management Practitioner (PROSCI) and an executive coach for teams and executives (ANC, ICTA) with a focus on enabling and delivering organizational transformation and team performance. She has designed over 20 successful transformation programs. Marianna is the author of multiple papers on transformation and people management and a regular speaker at international conferences such as TEDx.


Marianna: Graham, I wanted to talk to you about the end-of-year vibe and its impact on business founders and C-level top management. I know you work with these professionals worldwide, and I'm sure you've noticed some trends within the years of your experience as a business coach. Do you see any particular patterns? 

Graham: Yes, I see some things. There is a physical element to ending the year, which manifests itself in a few ways, such as finishing the books, making sure that customers have been serviced the way we want them to, wrapping up loose ends like Christmas parties, and potentially thinking about the distribution of bonuses and salaries for the coming year. All of those things are predictable, and you can plan them intentionally. 

The part that starts to intrude a little bit on all of that is the psychological element. The end of the year is an artifice. On the one hand, it's just another day, but on the other hand, it holds a lot of weight for many people. In the Western hemisphere, it's the Christmas period. It's a time when people get together and spend time with their families. It can be a time of great stress as well as a time of great joy. 

People are trying to be more purposeful about how they live. They are trying to be more structured in how they organize their time, which means their whole time, not just their business time.

What I've experienced in the last couple of years as we've come out of COVID, and particularly this year, is that people are trying to be more purposeful about how they live. They are trying to be more structured in how they organize their time, which means their whole time, not just their business time. This transition from 2022 to 2023 is a pivot where people will take a fork in the road and more deeply consider what it means to them to go into 2023. 

So it's not just New Year's resolutions, which have been around for hundreds of years. It's about how a person wants to live the following year. It is especially true among the younger generations, those aged 25 to 35. These are the people who are mostly reporting to the CEOs or the top team. The requests I've had over the last three to four months have almost always centered around the following:

  • How can we manage Generation X because we find it a real struggle?

  • How do you keep them on board?

  • How do you secure their hearts and minds?

  • How do you keep them motivated?

And I think the new year—the turn of the year—is almost like a pinch point for that. 

Marianna: That sounds interesting. I see two intertwining trends approaching the end of the year based on my own experience and the experiences of those I work with. For some people, the end of the year is a painful period. As you said, we must close the books, summarize the bonuses, get the families together, organize presents, etc. And for others, it's the joy period. It's "hurray, we are going to get bonuses" or "we've completed the plan, we've made everything we wanted" period. Does this psychological weight that people put on this turn of the new year depend on the country, on the culture, on their social status, or is it just a personal thing?

Graham: Great question. It may be denoted by national culture, but there is undoubtedly an individual element and a cultural or corporate imprint. On the one hand, founders and CEOs spend their lives thinking forward. They are living in the future for the most part and thinking about what's next and what they need to do. At the turn of the year, they are already thinking about where they want to be in the middle of 2023 or maybe even at the end of 2025. While other people, just employees, are thinking, "What does it mean for me? What am I getting out of this?" The problem is a psychological disconnect between what the founders and CEOs think and what their people feel. And in that dissonance, founders and CEOs miss the opportunity to truly connect with their people, as opposed to doing the kinds of things they think will make the connection but miss the target. 

It can feel exhausting if there's always the next goal—the next hill we must climb. Let people rediscover their energy during this quieter period, then come back and double it down the following year.

Let me give you an example. I spoke to someone recently who said: "It's been a fantastic year, and we're looking into moving into 2023! I'm thinking about some strategies and things we will be doing." He decided to present it at the end of the year's town hall. What he missed (and the feedback he got from what he said) was that people were tired and wanted a psychological rest break to reflect on and celebrate their achievements. 5% of his presentation was about what a great year it's been, and 95% was about the following year's goals and how he expects everyone to come in full of energy and ready to make them happen. It turned out that people weren't ready for that.

So, before moving on to the next right thing, CEOs must address what has been accomplished, celebrate it, and acknowledge it. Or, at least, let people sit back and feel good about what has happened. It can feel exhausting if there's always the next goal—the next hill we must climb. Let people rediscover their energy during this quieter period, then come back and double it down the following year.

Take an opportunity to take a moment to give your people the gift of celebrating what they've done rather than trying to project them forward into what's next." It's very tempting to do that, I know. But as I said, it's just a day; it's an artifice. So you don't have to make it such a big deal. But it's a moment when we can sit back and reflect.

Another problem that we have is that, existentially, we're living in exhausting times. The global economic situation is not great. There is also insecurity in many different geographies, just in terms of wars and struggles. People feel and experience that. Let's not forget that the whole world collectively, everybody on the planet to some extent, has experienced the trauma of COVID, and we're only just emerging from that. We've come out of it and re-emerged very quickly. Have we allowed each other to discover and think about that? I think if I were going to make a suggestion to the executives and founders that I work with, I'd say: take an opportunity to take a moment to give your people the gift of celebrating what they've done rather than trying to project them forward into what's next. It's very tempting to do that, I know. But as I said, it's just a day; it's an artifice. So you don't have to make it such a big deal. But it's a moment when we can sit back and reflect.

Marianna: I fully agree with you. You made me think of a hidden conflict that is there the whole year, becoming sharper and more evident at the end of the year. In these conversations, we say that founders have to do this and that, slow down, be flexible, and so on. But it's the founders of businesses who have enormous energy and resources that they elaborate and provide to make their business alive. It all comes from the founders. But what if we separate the founders' two distinct roles: the founder as the role model for the organization and the founders as human beings who also get stressed and tired and have lots of things like, "What is my purpose and why am I doing this?" 

The conflict I sense here is that employees are looking at founders and putting their expectations on them, saying that they (founders) have to understand them, provide high salaries, have nice offices, etc., and all those other "what's in it for me?" The founders look at their team and put their expectations in place. When we are all in the process of working together, this conflict is underground. It's hidden because we are busy with KPIs, clients, new products, and operations. But at the end of the year, everybody asks, "Where are we, and where do we go next?" So the conflict comes to the surface and adds to the psychological weight of the end-of-year date, which is just a simple date. Could it be so heavy because of these questions: "Do I want to be here? Do I want to be with these people? Do I want to follow this culture? What am I contributing to this culture?" 

Graham: Yeah, that's true. This idea of purpose has become a hot topic for the last five years, especially since COVID. It is especially true for the younger generation. Whatever they are doing, they want to feel like they are making a difference. This contribution doesn't have to be lofty but has to feel important. When you align people's internal purposes with the purposes of an organization, you get the most from them. Now, what does that mean? 

It's very unattractive to say, "Well, great to see you back here in 2023; we're looking forward to seeing you hit your KPIs in March." No one wants to hear that speech. And any CEO that would give such a speech would instantly demoralize their people.

Founders typically have a vision for what they want to do. The problem is that they need to articulate it more. They work with PR; they think about it; they create it, and it appears somewhere. They usually announce it, and that's it. Then it sits somewhere, gathering intellectual dust. What makes people excited is to continue to adhere to a vision—something that feels big and important and gives people hope that they are changing the world in some tangible or intangible way. 

It's very unattractive to say, "Well, great to see you back here in 2023; we're looking forward to seeing you hit your KPIs in March." No one wants to hear that speech. And any CEO that would give such a speech would instantly demoralize their people. We want to remind people that, for example, we're creating drugs that save lives, and we're well on our way to doing something outstanding in the space of Hepatitis B or diabetes. Or we're building cars that will eventually save the planet because we're moving to net zero faster than we used to. Whatever it is, we need to make sure that we're connecting people to the organization's purpose and their inner purpose. And once we get that alignment, we're in a good place.

Founders typically have a vision for what they want to do. The problem is that they need to articulate it more. What makes people excited is to continue to adhere to a vision—something that feels big and important and gives people hope that they are changing the world in some tangible or intangible way.

My admonition to CEOs and founders is to repeat their vision often. Remind people why they are there. Remind people what you care so much about or what you're trying to build because that gives people inspiration and hope. 

People's motivation is a very human thing. And I think founders particularly forget that. They feel that the product sells itself, and if you want to be part of their company, you are excited about the product. But people are motivated by four or five different things. According to McKinsey research, they are inspired by the following factors:

  1. What's in it for me?

  2. What's in it for my team (because many people want to be part of a high-performing team)?

  3. What's in it for the customer?

  4. What's in it for society?

People have very different motivations at different stages of their lives and their careers. And CEOs and founders must address that with their teams. That way, you get the best from everyone. That is when you get real leverage. And this is an opportunity during this quiet period to have those conversations because when you're at full speed in March, it's going to be too late. 

Marianna: I agree. I’d continue this idea by saying, "Share your passion for your business." This energy, this spark in the eyes of a founder, is something that people connect to. However, I know that not all founders have a space where they can still feel human because of all the expectations that everybody puts on them. When they come home to their families, I don’t think they share their pain and stress there because it's not the right place. If we remember that founders and C-level executives are human beings, what could help them regain their passion, energy, and purpose?

Graham: It's a great question! I’d say create points of demarcation where you can reconnect with yourself and your energy and think it through. What makes you do this again next year and bring all these people because you are responsible for them? And how does that show up?

Firstly, ensure you're physically, spiritually, and psychologically intact. Look after your body and mind to ensure that you sleep when you need to, eat well, and do not binge and destroy yourself.

Secondly, create places to reflect. One way to do that is by doing the things you love, which can take you away from the business and allow you to be in a state of flow. For example, you like to sail, or you like to walk in nature, or you like to go for a run. It can be any place or space where you tune out everything else, and your mind enters a different state where the thoughts you're generating come differently, and you're not actively thinking about the business. You're in a different place. 

Create points of demarcation where you can reconnect with yourself and your energy and think it through. What makes you do this again next year and bring all these people because you are responsible for them?

The other way would be to have a thought partner. Make sure that you have an opportunity to reflect with someone who is not necessarily embedded in the business so that they, once in a while, can hold up the mirror and ask you: "Do you mean that? What are you thinking? Do you care about that, or do you convince yourself that you care about that?" This is where executive coaching comes in handy. Because the most senior and high-performing people—the CEOs, founders, and business owners—have a coach. Like elite sports people have a coach, so do elite business people. And that coaching is for them to take a step back, think about the game they're playing, and tune it from 95% to 100%.

Marianna: Or 150%, which can also be the case. 

Graham: Yes, and in that case, the coach's role is to dial that back a little bit and say, "You're running too fast and too hard, and that might kill you in the end. Maybe you need to dial back a little bit."

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