How to encourage your people to speak up

Former CEO of McKinsey Switzerland, Christian Casal, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai about what it takes to manage expectations with honesty, and to create a safe environment that encourages people to speak up.

Christian Casal on The Agenda Podcast
Christian Casal
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The Agenda Podcasts

The Agenda brought to you by Sherpany uncovers the journey leaders take from facing challenges to making decisions. In this unique series of podcasts, leaders talk candidly with former BBC World Service interviewer, Nisha Pillai. #Leading together

In this podcast episode, you will hear:

Former CEO of McKinsey Switzerland, Christian Casal, as he discusses managing expectations with honesty, and creating a safe environment that encourages people to speak up. For Christian, being a dissenting voice is essential in management, especially in meetings, and people need to feel comfortable speaking up and telling the truth. In a candid exchange, Christian shares a few practical tips to help create such a space in meetings, and also learnings from his experience as an investor. Here are some of the topics covered in this podcast that help you to speak plainly and encourage your people to do the same:

  • The importance of dissent in management, and enabling people to speak up
  • Practical tips on creating a safe environment: The example of meetings
  • Brief predictions on the future of virtual work spaces, and on the post-COVID period
  • Leadership challenges of today, and the lessons learnt as a seasoned investor.


How to encourage people to speak up with Christian Casal

The importance of dissent in management

"I think in management it's absolutely essential because one has to understand that the roles that people play define a leader as somebody who is managing a process, managing a group of people, but he or she can never know all the details. So the people attending a meeting have a very important role to bring in their knowledge, expertise, analysis, etc., and if they have opposing opinions to the leader and have facts which the leader does not have, it's really important that they bring them up otherwise the whole process falls apart and doesn't work. 

So I think dissent is not something which is like a skill or something which could be valued, it's actually the reason why you are in a meeting . And I think that's so important and there's a tremendous amount of stories of big, big mistakes that can happen and afterwards you do an analysis and you find out people did not speak up. So I think that's why dissent is so essential in management."


Creating a safe environment in meetings

"First of all, there are meetings where you have to rush through an agenda with 30, 40 points. That's just the essence of work. And I think you have to take away that time, pressure or agenda terror of these 30 pointers, otherwise you could never have a good environment we could speak of.

I think a second practical step is that meetings cannot be too big. If you have 20, 30 people in a room, every leader is challenged just by keeping this herd of cats under control [...] I actually don't think beyond five, maybe six, seven people in a room will enable such an atmosphere. So it has to be small. 

The third thing I think is that you have to pick the right people . But then once you have that sort of no time pressure, not too big a group of people and an atmosphere where you have people that you can trust and work together, then I think you can do that."

There's a change in the environment and leadership models have to adjust to that. We don't even have to talk about the technological environment or other things, but they also change the mindset of the people. You have to adjust to what people want.

The challenges and lessons of an investor and a decision maker

"I learnt a lot. First of all, investing is not something you're skillful that you're just born with. You have to do your homework and do mistakes, but you also have to look at the people and if I have meetings with leaders of start-ups or mid-sized companies and I see them not taking notes , I'm always surprised because I know they have like 20 other meetings a day. 

If they don't make notes, how can they remember everything? And then I sort of say this person is what if he has a meeting with me, he would like to get something out of it, otherwise he would not meet me, then why does he not make notes? So that's sort of small things that I'm sure is not super strategic, but it's sort of small markers of how somebody works. [...]

I think one mistake is probably not spending enough time to really understand the potential of the leadership of the investment that's always difficult. And sometimes you rush into an investment. That's something which I should have, in some investments, spent more time on. 

I think the other mistake was not spending enough time to understand exactly what the value of these products and services were for the customers of the company I was investing in. So that's maybe the two main mistakes. 

Maybe a third one could be acting faster. So if things don't go well or if the environment changes and everybody's innocent, it's just a change of environment or the pandemic is a good example, move faster. Don't hang in there for three months if it's already clear where we are. [...] I think every generation has its own challenges and I think the challenges that we have now are real and we have to adjust to them. But I don't think that these challenges are much bigger."

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Christian Casal on The Agenda Podcast
Christian Casal
About the author
Christian Casal is a Member EMEA Advisory Board of JP Morgan, Member Chairmen Circle of the PE firm Altor, and an Investor and Board member in various mid-sized companies, for example, Odlo and Evalueserve. He is also a supporter of Swiss start-ups, including Spiden and Attolight. Christian worked at McKinsey & Company from 1988 to 2017, where he held various senior roles.