VSi Executive Education and ZOUD - University of Salford, Media City, UK Stamp

VSi Executive Education and ZOUD - University of Salford, Media City, UK

April 2020

As part of my ongoing work with VSI – the pioneering executive educators for those who aspire to be leaders in sport – I was recently asked to take part in a ZOUD session with the new 2019/20 MSc Sporting Directors cohort.

ZOUD, which stands for ‘The Zone of Uncomfortable Debate’, is a means of generating candid conversations that question the status quo and drive deeper, more meaningful, and often uncomfortable discussions. These sessions are often combative in nature and can make people defensive or closed to vulnerability.

The session I participated in was facilitated by VSI at Salford Business School, where I was joined by Ian Blease from Salford Red Devils and Dave Callan from Team INEOS. Over the course of three hours we were challenged on all things related to ‘High Performance’ by the group. The cohort asked some uncomfortable questions and posed us with some challenging scenarios related to our own organisations and the industry as a whole. It was encouraging to see the majority of the VSI cohort really open up and show humility and vulnerability during the session, particularly when Ian, Dave and I had the opportunity to return the favour with our own questions and challenges to the group.

On reflection, these are my headline takeaways from the session:

  1. There was too much perceived hierarchical respect in the room for my fellow guests and I. We volunteered to be in the room and expected more rigorous and challenging lines of questioning about our learnings. The most successful leaders have made more mistakes than most and are usually comfortable with sharing them – sometimes brutally so. Seize the opportunity!
  2. Positive conflict should be encouraged, instigated and valued by leaders across all industries. As Kim Scott says: Radical Candour = Care Personally + Challenge Directly.
  3. As a leader it’s important to show humility with confidence. Be prepared to listen generously and have substantive opinions about the things that matter to you, but also embrace learning in the moment.
  4. “Vulnerability is about uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” (Brené Brown)

As individuals, we need to get comfortable with both challenging and being challenged. For most of us, these aren’t our favourite things to do, but sometimes moments of uncomfortable debate can provide the impetus we need to take us to a better place in the long-term.


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