CEO Interview – Dr. Léa Cléret, The Leadership Trust
In the latest in my series of interviews with business leaders, I am exploring the skills necessary to make an impact in long-established organisations…
Dr. Léa Cléret is the CEO of the Leadership Trust, an international company specialising in high quality experiential Leadership Development.
She has a Ph.D in Philosophy, and specialised in ethics, particularly in the field of sport. She spent ten years working with athletes on large scale behavioural change programmes, trying to understand how they engaged in prohibited behaviours and setting up evidence-based prevention programmes.
She then studied Criminology to gain insights to the criminal mind.
Léa passionately believes that personal development can enable the world to change for the better, and is keen to provide access for those who are ready for life-changing and business-changing experiences.
In her spare time, Léa manages teams to high performance in equestrian sports.
Q: Léa, you grew up in France and had quite an academic start to life. What brought you to the Leadership Trust, in rural Ross-on-Wye?
I first came across the Leadership Trust when I was working on a large scale anti-corruption programme in sport. That is where I got interested in leadership, governance and organisational culture because we can’t ask athletes to behave if the ones at the top aren’t leading by example.
The Leadership Trust has a unique methodology and know-how which uses emotions as a route to learning. We developed a pilot course called Ethical Leadership in Sport. It was a success and great fun to watch major names in sport being groomed for corruption and feel what it is like, in order for them to be able to identify early what is happening and take action from it.
I was offered the CEO position whilst I was working on that project so I moved from Paris to Ross-on-Wye. It was a big change for me: every single aspect of my professional life was flipped upside down. I went from working in enormous international not-for-profit organisations to running a small rural company in a foreign country. I had no major business experience but I jumped in at the deep end. I am so grateful for the opportunity. It has enabled me to grow beyond expectation both personally and professionally.
Q: This is your first CEO role. How did you approach it and win “hearts and minds”?
I was involved with the Leadership Trust before I was offered the position, so I had the opportunity to observe the staff dynamics. There are some truly incredible people who work here. All I wanted to do was give them the right conditions to be able to fully express their talents. That is actually pretty much the reason I took the job.
Leadership development often gets a bad name because companies invest vast sums of money and then see very little return on expectation. It is therefore a perfectly legitimate assumption that leadership development doesn’t work. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to test on ourselves what we sell, which is about “using personal power to win hearts and minds to achieve a common purpose”.
So all I did was apply the Leadership Trust principles and see if they worked, and if ultimately financial returns followed. And they did! We almost tripled productivity in less than two years. However, for me, profitability is a by-product of having a high-performing team, so focussing on making individuals and teams function to the height of their potential has to be the priority. In the end, business is people.
Q: What challenges did you face?
It has been an incredibly interesting project because of the complexity of the organisation and its history. I feel like I was handed lots of variables which I had to compute into a single beautiful equation.
One of the key challenges I faced was managing a culture change from the organisation being a foundation to being a commercial entity. Even though the Leadership Trust had been a limited company for more than two decades, most of the employees had transitioned from a not-for-profit to a for-profit company. Many were still struggling with what that change meant, and whether they were betraying their ideals particularly because our field is education and personal growth. But doing good is not defined by the legal set-up behind a group of people, and making money is simply one of the indicators that you are getting the basics right.
Q: You have a passion for personal development. How do you think this can improve and “fix” businesses (and people)?
Humans are absolutely incredible beings, hugely powerful, but don’t get given the user guide to themselves at birth. We are just expected to function.
Most of us spend our lives just about getting by and aren’t even aware of what we could achieve. It can even be worse, when our education and subsequent beliefs limit us.
Personal development also often gets a bad name because of the popular belief that if you are going through therapy or coaching, you are doing so because you have a problem that needs fixing. I don’t think anyone believes Roger Federer has a coach because he has a problem with his tennis. Roger Federer has a coach to support him perform even better. That is all personal development does: it helps you perform better in everything.
Businesses are always a group of people, a sum of individuals. The dynamics within the teams are always linked to the inner settings of each individual. Every personal insecurity will impact the dynamics and performance of the team. The bigger the decisions of the individual, the more impact on the business the insecurities will have.
Therefore, if you want an organisation to function at its full potential, you need to ensure the “functionality” of each part individually. As a leader in business, you have a duty to look inwardly in order to ensure that none of your personal insecurities can put anyone else at risk.
Q: You spent many years asking “What is the right thing to do?” What are your thoughts on the ethics of the modern business world?
I think the modern business world is not different from previous eras. Human nature has not changed one bit over the course of history. Whether you read about the history of Rome, or Shakespeare or the papers today, it is the same story, which is all linked to the paradox of our existence. Philosophy is a great help in making sense of things and making the right decisions.
I also don’t think that the world of business can be singled out from politics, academia, government, religion, charities… the same human logic applies to all these fields because humans are the common denominator. Some areas might make it easier for excesses to happen, but from what I have seen, the set-up does not protect from the dark side of humans.
You can be the head of a massive charity and still be driven by personal interests and you can be the CEO of an enormous multinational and be driven by progress for humanity. That is why it is so important for all of us to do our personal development work, to ensure that we are comfortable in the decisions we make, which are motivated by the right reasons.
Q: Sport has been very important to you. What lessons did it teach you?
Sport has taught me that rules are only conventions. Even though you have to respect them at the instant, if they no longer serve their purpose of establishing fairness or safety, they have to change.
We often take rules at face-value, and these can be extremely damaging if they are outdated or not properly thought through. Anything man-made can and should be constantly reviewed.
My thanks to Léa for sharing her thoughts.