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“I started a movement to ban the ‘cockfighting culture’ in business”

With Author Isabelle Nüssli


“All too often, the relationships between chairpersons and CEOs are filled with tension, affecting organizations as a whole. To create a more productive atmosphere, senior leaders need to identify the source of their issues and build a new bond based on trust and respect.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Isabelle Nüssli, bread lover and chief energizing officer. Aside from 3 master degrees in business from Kellogg, law from the University of St.Gallen, and coaching for change from INSEAD, Isabelle brings insider knowledge to her current practice as a leadership and personal coach. Building her platform, Leverage-Your-Self, she directs a team of experts in business, behavioral economics, and applied psychology that supports business leaders and startups in navigating changes and capitalizing on their organization’s full potential. This also includes a conference platform called Self Leadership Days. Isabelle’s skills as a relationship builder and team motivator are characterized by inclusivity, inspiring positivity, and a passion for developing strong organizational dynamics at the human level.


Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in a 600-year-old flour mill and into a family business of 5 generations. This entrepreneurial spirit has shaped me greatly. My parents always stayed grounded. I grew up with a handshake-mentality, which, as I learned later, not only builds trust but also has a second powerful element to it — see later.

From a young age, I’ve been interested in people. But I was also fascinated by building and growing a business.

In hind-site, I consider myself very lucky to have had diverse, unusual and also painful business experiences at a fairly young age from which I learned a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am today without these challenges. As Chairperson of an international company, I not only learned about the market in an ever-changing world but also about the extreme of organizational politics and power games.

Having lived through a tense/toxic top-level leadership relationship, I experienced a tumultuous time that could provide material for a great thriller. Having had an MBA, I was left with unresolved questions such as what makes a person act a certain way and why do people have an ambivalent relationship with power (fascination and aversion). As I spoke to other people in senior positions, I learned that most of them had experienced similar turmoil but had never spoken about it. It seems that admitting issues of this nature was viewed as a taboo. To understand what could be done to improve on top-level business relationships that are crucial for any organization, I decided to dive into studies in business law and applied psychology which allowed me to combine my interest in people and business. Aside from my coaching, I conducted interviews with 70 Chairpersons and CEOs, which produced novel insights and led me to the writing of the book COCKFIGHTING. I got a glimpse of something more profound behind the machinations of leadership that neither law nor Corporate Governance nor Business Administration could explain. That something was the human element. While the business world is constructed as a rational system, its practical functions are full of irrational behavior. I’m fascinated by helping tap the human potential to reach positive impact on all levels, professionally and personally.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I have worked as a volunteer VIP Dispatcher at the WEF World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for 20 years. I know the ins and outs of this yearly conference. I’m over and again amazed by the unexpected and inspiring encounters one makes. Here’s two of them:

1. The powerful message of a handshake

The CEO of one of the largest international organizations taught me the power of a handshake because of what it reveals about a person:

A handshake tells a lot about the person who extends it. Pay attention when you shake somebody’s hand. How open is his/her hand? And yours? A “perfect” handshake means that the sweet spots of two hands (located between the thumb and index finger) meet. This action/touch is quite intimate. If you receive such a handshake (and give the same back, otherwise it wouldn’t work), it means that your opposite party is open and provides trust and so do you.

Often, however, even if you reach out openly, your counterpart does not show full openness so that the sweet spot cannot be reached. His/her fingers are bent so that you shake the person’s fingers or parts of it. It can also happen that the quality of a handshake improves within hours. For example, a person might be inhibited or mistrusting when you first meet but opens up after the meeting. But in general, it stays the way you experience it because it provides a glimpse of the person’s personality.

A handshake is an unexpected yet surprisingly reliable indicator for the openness and (initial) trustfulness of another person. Become aware of the handshake you receive but also of the one you extend. It also teaches you something about yourself.

2. Treat everyone with respect

Not too long ago, a Chairperson of a Fortune 100 company approached me at the end of the WEF week and asked if s/he could have coffee with me. Apparently, s/he had observed me for a week and had been amazed that I was having an inspiring and fun conversation with everybody that crossed my path, people from very different backgrounds, positions, and walks of life. That Chairperson was curious to learn what type of person I was and what background I had. Interestingly, when I was observing him/her interact with people at the WEF, it became clear that s/he treated every person the exact same way, was genuinely interested in the conversation, showed presence and a tremendous respect for each human being. It was beautiful to see. The moral of the story: this is how it is supposed to be, but, as a person apparently sticks out with the behavior described, there seems to be a lot of room for improvement, especially when high positions and fame are involved.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

1. Self Leadership Days

Today’s world has become more fast-paced and interconnected than ever and leaves us with little to no time to look inside. How can we be great leaders if we don’t know ourselves well-enough? Sometimes, we get so busy making a living that we forget to make a life. This is why we are developing a conference & workshop platform that

● Teaches self-leadership: the ability to consciously influence thoughts and behaviors in the process of achieving personal and professional goals

● Fosters the developing and nurturing of qualities needed not only to survive the pressure of today’s business climate but to thrive in life, professionally and personally

● Equips the leaders with a toolset to initiate and manage change sustainably

2. Implementing the CCCC Chairperson-CEO Collaboration Contract

The Chairperson-CEO relationship is crucial for an organization, but the majority of these relationships don’t work well for reasons I describe in my book. I developed a CCCC Chairperson-CEO Collaboration contract, a type of psychological contract: orally discussed, not written. Key discussion points are roles (how they shall be assumed and executed) trust (its definition and meaning), and power (what shall the division of power be like). In brief: how should the relationship be lived and nurtured, so that trust can be built and relationships flourish. I recommend that an independent moderator facilitate the process and am currently facilitating a few co-leader relationships. It does work, which is highly rewarding for all parties.

3. Personality Coaching of Startup Teams

I work with investors and startups in Switzerland and the Silicon Valley. The number 3 reason why a startup fails is team issues. Investors that have realized that it’s worth investing into startup coaching early on. Why?

● Startup founders face a high degree of pressure and uncertainty and the need for getting into the weeds. They often confront the emotional challenges they don’t share with teammates, investors, advisors or even friends and family. A coach creates a safe space to talk through struggles.

● Each team member has his/her unique story, history and experiences, including baggage. This is why perceptions differ. A good personal coach helps identify differences in personality and work styles and helps improve and stay focused on the company’s overall objectives.

● A personal coach supports the development of leadership skills and leadership style that work best for each member, evaluating individual strengths and weaknesses (ahead of when the growing team will need them). A coach can do so more readily than anyone inside the team.

● The founders who succeed over time are the ones who learn the fastest about themselves.

4. Completing a comprehensive textbook

Among others, Cockfighting reveals the impact of birth order in business and describes that functional firstborns form an overwhelming majority of leaders in business. Cockfighting is my functional firstborn book. I’m still working on my biological firstborn (book), a comprehensive textbook. It looks at why Corporate Governance has fallen short to reduce conflicts in business and how understanding change, the human element, and leadership can help prevent conflicts.

5. Advising family businesses

I work with two family businesses and am excited to see how much their business can benefit if hidden drivers can be analyzed and understood and unproductive patterns overcome. It is rewarding to see how relationships within families improve, which impacts the dynamic, atmosphere, trust, and performance.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Different people inspire me for different things. For example:

Roger Federer: humility despite stardom; a sense of humor, love for what he does and the continuation of hard work.

Sir Winston Churchill: the power of words, visionary innovations, wit as part of one’s armory.

Joan of Arc: courage and belief in one’s mission.

Albert Einstein: not just for his achievement in science, but also the ability to think outside the box and apply creativity and imagination to science. He didn’t accept reality as it presented itself.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I lean on Confucius who said, “you cannot open a book without learning something”.

I enjoy a diverse pool of reading, from business to philosophy, to psychology. Authors such as Yuval Noah Harari, Manfred Kets de Vries inspire me, but I also get inspired by a newspaper with great research quality such as the The New York Times, the Economist, DIE ZEIT, The Frankfurter Allgemeine, The Neue Zürcher Zeitung or journals such as Harvard Business Review. But I love readings that involve humor. I have experienced countless situations change because of a smile (received or given). It helps to relax, bond, open up and lighten up.

In general, I get strongly inspired by powerful quotes, such as:

Be where your feet are.

One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.

You only live once but if you do it right, once is enough.

Remember, if you’re headed in the wrong direction, life considers U-turns to be legal, in all jurisdictions.

Make today so awesome yesterday gets jealous.

Let your smile change the world, not the world change your smile.

Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark.

Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

The VUCA world has drastically increased requirements on leadership. The power lies at the top, and the impact leaders have on their companies’ cultures, people and results are substantial. The relationships at the top are critical, especially the one between the Chairperson and the CEO.

All Chairpersons and CEOs interviewed for my book considered the Chairperson/CEO relationship as crucial (not just important) and perceived that 2/3 of these relationships don’t work well. When such relationships are bad, the conflicts they generate can ultimately be destructive, both to the individuals involved and to the company as a whole.

Companies frequently talk about making the world a better place, but what does that really mean? If we do not have good relationships at the business levels, how do we expect to translate our efforts into a big impact? With better relationships in the workplace, goals and values are better served by the business.

As leaders learn to create better relationships within their professional life, that ability will extend into their personal, social, and family life, ultimately generating a profoundly positive impact on their overall well-being. Progress is addictive. There is huge financial and personal potential that can be tapped by fostering and working on healthy relationships.

Cockfighting is an opportunity for a fresh start. It is intended to help readers become the person they want to be remembered as. My book offers insight into how the conscious and unconscious drivers of conflict and their intensifiers such as role models, role clarity, family structures, and birth order can cause antagonism. It also provides tools and concepts that can help increase self-awareness and to facilitate collaboration to improve business relationships. As these relationships improve, so does an organization’s culture, productivity, and performance. While circumstances vary, at the end of the day, it comes down to how human beings function in relationships, especially where power is an element.

Once an individual tastes meaningful improvement, it is addictive. My self-improvement has motivated me to actively help others, a desire that fuels my practice as a coach and board member. Having been on the other side of this leadership tension field, I want to help others embark on the lifelong journey of developing the self, tapping their potential and experience the rewards of growth in the same positive ways that I did. This is a life whose “film” I believe it will be worth watching when it flashes by one day.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

● Ask yourself why would you want to become an author?

● Don’t primarily focus on becoming an author for the sake of becoming an author or known.

● Be inspired by / passionate about a topic or a field, find a message that you want to get out to the wider public.

● Don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to write and especially to complete a book.

● Enjoy the journey.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that a whole lot of good can be done to/for a whole lot of people if cockfighting gets banned. Although the term comes from the mostly illegal sport that should get banned completely, I address the power games in business, especially on the top levels, but also in the private life. Thus, it has been my dream to create a bracelet that can be offered (if sponsored) or sold to as many people as possible. There are at least 3 different wordings to choose from: “ban cockfighting”, “human leaders”, “less ego”.

Also, since I believe in the power of a smile (given or received), one of the bracelets could say ‘I smile’.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Bad experiences most often turn out to be great ones

As I have experienced myself (and used as dedication in my book) while experiencing challenging situations or shortly after, we often cannot imagine how these experiences can be benefited from. There’s a saying “I’m not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”. Sometimes, a setback prepares us up for something even bigger. If we learn from our experience, we become stronger and more resilient. To quote Richard Branson “do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.”

2. The beauty of imperfection, the power of a smile

Fear of failure is omnipresent. Many of us want to be perfect in our actions and our appearance.

But let us look at nature. Isn’t it beautiful? Take any two leaves of a tree. Do they look the same? Are they perfect? No! It is “the beauty of imperfection.” We, human beings strive for perfection, but nature doesn’t. Because it is perfect the way it is. It is time to reflect and ask why we do this? For whom? When are we satisfied and for how long? We will then realize that we are already perfect the way we are.

A smile goes beyond mere silliness. It helps gain new perspectives, cope with extreme situations, release tension, soothe wounds and connect people. Laughter has been proved to serve as a stress reducer and immune system booster. To quote Mark Twain: “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing”.

3. One never sees behind the scene

We tend to put others on a pedestal: leaders, celebrities. We believe they have it all and aspire to become like them. This is exhausting and unsatisfactory. However, as I see over and again, as soon as we get a look behind the scene of a supposedly perfect person, we realize that they all have their burdens. Either they don’t sleep well, have doubts and fears, or else. They are human beings like we all are. Thus, we can relax more often and focus on our own development and growth.

4. Get the balcony perspective and take time for reflection

Because experiences shape people’s perceptions and perspectives, any two people can look at the same thing and see it differently. Therefore, one needs to strive for objectivity by getting on a ‘balcony’ to gain some distance. From up there, one can observe oneself and others in the organization in action.

The ability for critical self-reflection and/or getting from the stage to the balcony to change perspectives allows people recognizing the consequences of their actions, which can greatly benefit themselves and others. Reflection enhances self-awareness, the key to many things in life.

5. Nothing lasts, everything is perishable

We often take ourselves (too) seriously, trying to hold on to things and assets and put ourselves under a lot of pressure. If we realize that nothing in life lasts — we neither, nobody has ever survived — we might begin to relax and get more detached to things and actions. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care. It might just help us take ourselves lighter, gain distance and change perspective so that we get better.

6. Stay grounded — family and friends are the best reality check

Historically, the wise fool or jester presented honest feedback to the king. Today, however, leaders seek out feedback from employees and colleagues, but actually, family members and close friends usually are best suited to this role. They know the leader the best, including their background and upbringing and can provide insights into their unconscious drivers. They help stay grounded.

7. Adapt to the ever-changing world and change your attitude

“The future has a way of arriving unannounced” (George Will)

“When you are finished changing, you’re finished” (Benjamin Franklin).

In an increasingly VUCA world, the fundamental skill set of adaptation includes agility, openness to change and the ability to handle it. The word ‘change’ is only one letter different from the word ‘chance.’

Because change does not come naturally, and everybody has habits/patterns related to the self or the organization, deliberate action must be taken to build capacity to deal with the many demands:

● Admit and accept mistakes and make changes to an approach that is no longer productive.

● Never stop building the capacities to learn, adjust, transform and adapt to something new.

● Be open to new ideas and consider diverging views before you make important decisions.

Our quality of life will not change when we change the content of our life (job, clothes, food). It will change only if we change the context, our attitude. When we go to work to make an important contribution, we change the meaning of the work. We do not go to work for 30 days to earn our salary, 29 days to be unhappy, also on the last day, because the salary is not high enough. The question is not what we do or don’t, but how we tackle things. We are always looking for a way out. But we don’t know the way inside.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

RICHARD BRANSON

Not only is he a highly successful entrepreneur and a visionary, but also does he care about and inspire people. “Having a personality of caring about people is important. You can’t be a good leader unless you generally like people. That is how you bring out the best in them. While I love technology and social media, a text or a tweet can never replace the real value of conversation.”

His attitude and mindset strongly resonate with me. In today’s VUCA world, we need downtime, time for reflection: “If you’re finding it hard to be in the moment because you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to take a break to recharge. We all need time to rest.”

Great leaders like him believe in “train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to. If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.”

He has left a footprint and still does. But he does not forget to live life: “you can only live once. And I just don’t want to waste a minute of my life”.

Yes, I would love to meet him in person.

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