When the going gets tough………

A well functioning team can be a powerful force for your company’s success. A team in disarray, on the other hand, can be a distraction, causing missed opportunities and creating liabilities for the organisation.

‘When the going gets tough; the tough get going’ – as those of us, of a certain age, will remember Billy Ocean singing out. It was a favourite of my first real business mentor, a senior exec at M&S, at the annual bash…….it’s stayed with me!

Never more so than in a challenging market is ‘the tough getting going’ important. But what does tough actually mean – for us as individuals, as teams, as boards? Tough can have negative connotations such as insensitivity or even aggression however to have mental rigour and be tough in action can surely only be a good thing?

In my role as an executive coach in the current climate, the attitude to risk, perhaps ‘fear of’ is a common theme in conversations. Making ‘tough’ decisions that impact on both business and the people within can have some difficult consequences. Not insurmountable but certainly requires some mental ‘toughness’.

Lately, I’ve been observing various teams and boards behaviour – working with some who are operating very effectively and successfully together and others, shall we say, on the journey towards. The teams that have found their level, have animated, heated debates and discussion and I observe many things going on around the board table that could be described as ‘tough’, amongst many other descriptors! However, where it works is when there is a sort of unwritten code of conduct/ ethics if you will, which is all about ‘how we behave towards each other’; respect, trust, candour to name a few and it doesn’t get personal. Thereby keeping the agenda for the board or team (and company) on track and therefore being much more likely to succeed.

At the end of last year, one of my clients recently said to me’ I’ve sanctioned something that maybe I shouldn’t have – it instinctively feels right and I believe in my team but I think I may have burnt my bridges with the board’. This was my clients’, first board appointment. ‘What have you sanctioned?’ I asked, intrigued…..


‘One of my team has proposed a new product that she thinks will enhance the company’s sales and profitability. It’s really interesting, doesn’t appear to be anything quite like it out there on the market and she’s great at what she does. If she says she can do it, I believe her. However, the first reaction I got from the board was quite dismissive. The CEO told me that not only would it never work but would also take four years of man-hours to even bring it to the testing stage. Then, it most likely won’t pass that phase.’

‘Not the most positive or open-minded response then.’ I replied.

‘Undeterred, I pleaded with the board to give us six months to prove the point. The board reluctantly went along and allowed me to give her a leave of absence from her regular job and devote her time solely to this new idea.’

Now fast forward a few months. The upshot of all of this is that he came back to the board within four months with a software project that was unique, exciting and eminently doable.

This lady on his team had succeeded well beyond the board’s expectations. The product is now being sold – and sold profitably. Additionally, it has made quite a positive difference in the company’s bottom line.

There’s a mental toughness! This guy risked losing his credibility and senior position (not to mention first board appointment) within the company; he got out of his comfort zone and intentionally put himself at risk; but most importantly, he thought differently, dared to be different, utterly believed in a member of his team and took a risk despite the consequences ‘if’ it failed.

Equally, the board, as a group, demonstrated some toughness, took a risk, backed him and the software developer and supported the decision. A tough call for those who weren’t sure and indeed those that were!

All boards and teams need at least one member who is some sort of a maverick. He or she should be an independent thinker and be willing to risk derision when introducing new ideas to the board. A person of this type is indispensable during these extremely competitive and trying times.

Strategic thinking, trust and collectively agreeing to something is not always an easy task. I know for sure that two members of the board patently disagreed with supporting this new idea however they collectively agreed and therefore as a board, they supported and encouraged the decision (outwardly anyway!). When the going gets tough for boards and teams, fresh thinking is essential. A team usually has nothing to lose when adding a new ‘mind’ to their members. The addition of a fresh vitality and robustness is rarely a bad thing.

For thought:-


Are you agreeing collectively and then standing by that decision even if you personally don’t agree?

What are your behaviours displaying to the rest of the organization? Do you collaborate, trust and commit as a group?

Do you trust your instincts?

Do you build consensus – finding the balance between active listening and active participation.

Can you cut to the core issue and identify how to move forward, how to bring discussions back to action?

Do you actively pursue outside relationships with board or team members?

Have you a mentor?

Treat team and board meetings as seriously as your job in terms of preparation, participation, and follow-through: do your homework, show up and contribute. The team meeting and/ or boardroom is the place for collaboration, not competition.

Competitive skills may very well have enabled you to get to your position of leadership, they’re less helpful when bringing a team or board together to achieve great things.


Are you getting going?


Have a great summer.

Kate Tojeiro works with boards and teams across a variety of businesses from FTSE 250 and Fortune 500 to small venture backed businesses. She is an Executive Coach and MD of X fusion.