Thom Dennis is a former marine and founder of Serenity in Leadership (SiL), a consultancy agency focused on promoting discussion on tough topics in business including health, mental health, sexual harassment and power.
Being grounded very firmly in the here and now helps Thom maintain his inner peace. He holds himself responsible to set an example in society: his ideals drive him and are indeed the values he strives to help those with whom he works closely, find for themselves.
How did the idea for Serenity in Leadership come about?
SiL came to me as a kind of inspiration following my attendance at a retreat in January 2017. The experiences I had in the retreat combined with a thought process that had been gestating with increasing energy through my life but certainly for perhaps 30 years, punctuated by particular incidents. The abuse that I experienced as a young boy has informed my thinking and perhaps given me a level of sensitivity to sexual harassment and similar kinds of trauma and their aftermaths. I am profoundly motivated by the concept of justice (fiat justicia).
How has your training as a Marine affected how you run your business?
You find Royal Marines in almost all walks of life, particularly entrepreneurial ones. The training gives you resilience, determination and a willingness to go that ‘extra mile’ and also a sense of service. The importance of ‘the mission’ leaves a very strong discipline. Some Royal Marines are more structured than others, though, and I probably sit at the end of the unstructured scale! I have a deep respect for ‘professionalism’, a trait that characterises the Royal Marines and which is often lacking in organisations.
Can you explain more about how you work with businesses and individuals?
I don’t like to be prescriptive. So much consultancy and also training work is formulaic and addresses the presenting problem without any depth. I work on the principle that issues must be approached at a systemic level if there is going to be any chance of bringing about real and meaningful change. This principle applies to my consultancy, facilitation, coaching and constellation work.
It’s also important to me that senior management engages with the change initiative so that credibility and confidence in the programme are maintained (when one works exclusively with the lower echelons of a business, the absence of real support of senior management undermines any attempts to bring about change).
What are your own experiences with the tough topics you encourage businesses to talk about?
My job is not to know all the answers. My job is to ask the penetrating questions which often require leaders to look more broadly, deeper, and sometimes in a completely different direction than they would naturally. The result is that leaders work out their own solutions and are therefore much more likely to take the right action. I have had a coach almost throughout my 27 years as an independent consultant, and they have helped me do the same.
In all that time of running several businesses and also a period being a non-executive chairman, I have had challenges of cash-flow, managing extremely challenging teams, in fast-changing environments, in different cultures, through periods of crisis brought on through both external factors as well as my own mistakes. My experience enables me to see deeply into situations and to ask the right questions.
Why do you feel it’s important for businesses to discuss the tough topics?
This is the function of leadership, to engage with and to lead through the tough issues; if it was easy, there would be little requirement for leaders. If you don’t face a problem early, it is unlikely to go away of its own accord. The more important skill is to look for the underlying problem, rather than to seek an immediate solution.
It’s important to discuss the tough topics because if you have a team that’s been well-constituted, each person will have a valid input that can help to point the spotlight in the most effective direction. Review the information you can garner, explore the unintended consequences of any potential decision, take the best one you can at that time, and then move on. Hesitancy and no decision are decisions in and of themselves.
What areas/topics do you often think are overlooked by business owners?
Companies so often use the phrase: “Our people are our most important asset.” With some notable exceptions like Aviva and Severn Trent, many make these statements platitudinous, and you will normally find that people below the C-Suite will regard their leaders with cynicism—and that doesn’t bode well for customer service (companies tend to treat their customers the same way they treat themselves internally).
Few leaders invest time in exploring the unintended consequences of their decisions, which is what leads to the statistic of 35% of management time being taken re-doing things. Many business owners build a successful business and don’t let go of it when they need to in order to allow it to grow beyond a certain threshold. Sometimes they become so focused on servicing their financial backers, they lose sight of what the company has been set up to do, which rarely has much to do with money. In these circumstances, decisions are short-term and often flawed. Another trap is to hire people who look and sound like you—it’s very comfortable and extremely damaging.
How can leaders address inequality concerns within their own businesses?
See everyone as people, and come from a place of love. There is less leadership by fear than there used to be, but there’s still plenty of it about, sadly role-modelled by the majority of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Love creates mutual respect and trust and in environments so underpinned, long-term profitability is enhanced: people come to work because they want to and believe in the company’s ethos—they have a real sense of worth.
If there are inequality concerns, then leaders need first to look at their own behaviours and to insist on creating a culture in which people feel psychologically safe. If it’s unsafe in the company, the important messages won’t get to the key decision-makers. Another point is that focus on difference, whether it be gender, colour or ethnicity, tends to highlight that difference whereas some forward-thinking companies are now focusing on inclusion.
When my father ran a company, I recall how important it was to him to walk around the shop-floor every evening and to talk to those who were making the products the company sold. He was both loved and respected and the business flourished.
What advice would you give to people who want to improve their leadership skills?
Listen. Get out, get the widest spread of views; listen without judgement. Be really interested in your people and care for them. Meditate, at least 20 minutes a day—you can’t hear your own inner guidance if there is so much ambient noise—and if you don’t have 20 minutes a day, then meditate for an hour each day.
Get a coach, or at least some form of detached mirror who will help you face the less palatable sides of yourself, and listen to you; being listened to is extremely empowering. Take time out to look after yourself physically and each year review your life priorities, in writing; if you are clear, the people around you will be clear also. Read, read works by people you admire and also by those with whom you don’t agree—there’s far too much polarisation today with people only exposing themselves to one narrow viewpoint. It takes courage to listen to contrary views.
What advice would you give to people looking to approach their boss/ management about mental health?
There is a paradox here. When you most need help, you are unlikely to feel empowered, and for those running a business, they typically will have the least amount of time and attention for people who appear like a burden. Their normal expectation may be for those with a problem to come to them with the solution, and that probably isn’t clear to you.
If you are with an organisation which is underpinned by love, then all you have to do is seek help, and the earlier the better. Some principles to work with: be honest and as open as you can; it’s so much easier as a boss to deal with a situation when you have the facts in front of you before a crisis arises. If you have a difficult relationship with your boss, seek out who can assist you; this may be the HR department, or someone else—it might be a valued friend or a professional like a therapist or doctor.
In short, seek support early, and reveal what you feel safe sharing; it’s much easier for people to help you if they have timely and sufficient information.
There’s been a lot in the news about sexual harassment in the workplace, how can businesses safeguard against this?
This is a difficult question because the issues are so, so deep-seated. It’s a clear leadership challenge, and leaders, both men and women have first to look to themselves, their mindsets, biases, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. They are the role models, and it is they in the first instance who must begin a dialogue to expose amongst themselves the dynamics they are living out. Once they are clear and open with each other, then they are in a position to encourage similar behaviour in the organisation with ongoing dialogues to surface issues early.
This is not about regulation—we have way too many rules and laws already—it’s about instilling a maturity of behaviour and mindset from which unacceptable actions can be called out with justified rigour.
Do you feel a lot of the toxic masculinity we experience in the workplace could be solved if those people were more emotionally intelligent and connected to their intuition?
If people were more emotionally intelligent, it would certainly help a great deal, so yes. Connection to intuition is a different aspect and in this instance is not a prerequisite. The term ‘toxic masculinity’ is an unfortunate one, and while there is much behaviour that one could describe as ‘toxic’, its use is producing negativity, creating confusion and defensiveness in many men and a justification for anger in women when what we need is engagement.
It could be described as the immature or unhealthy masculine, and it walks hand-in-hand with the immature feminine. What we are witnessing is warfare that is coming into the open, bubbling to the surface when it has been simmering for many years and it’s a battle that won’t be won—if the parties engage, it will lead to a lose-lose. What is called for is a much greater level of emotional intelligence so both sides come together to listen with curiosity, without judgement, to acknowledge each other and celebrate the different strengths they bring.
As Bryan Stevenson said: “Truth and reconciliation are sequential. We can’t get to where we want to go if we don’t tell the truth first.”