The most swearing I hear at work is in coaching discussions with Partners in professional services firms and directors in PLCs. The confidentiality and trust of the coaching relationship creates a safe place for them to say exactly what they are thinking, feeling or sensing to me. Most work very long hours, in some cases across multiple time zones, dealing with issues at weekends and even when they are supposed to be on holiday. They are required to maintain their composure, make rational decisions (that take account of the human angle) in short time scales sometimes with incomplete information. The response of the PLC or Partnership can be quite brutal if they don’t deliver…

I don’t believe that there is a magic bullet to senior executive wellbeing in these environments. There are many approaches to take, however, all too often the advice is aimed more at the mid-level employee and misses one of the key nuances that I find is so key to more senior executives: personal drivers. With all coaching it is important to understand the individual’s personal drivers; but with executives the personal driver can be even more pronounced.

Extreme competitive drive

I recall coaching sessions with a Partner from a law firm a few years ago – let’s call him Michael. The context was he was a very strong business developer; however, he would get angry easily. He would display this anger in an aggressive manner and there were a number of good associate level lawyers who did not want to work with him.

Michael had developed a range of habits that were bad for his mental and physical health (e.g. late-night junk food, missing exercise, instantly replying to messages over the weekend that were not urgent) and he was taking out his frustrations on colleagues. He had convinced himself that he had no choice but to maintain these habits in order to be successful. He even believed (incorrectly) that his lifestyle was key to gaining a competitive advantage for his practice.

“He had convinced himself that he had no choice but to maintain these habits in order to be successful”

According to research by Deloitte, poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year and is made up not just of absenteeism costs but presenteeism and staff turnover. And the highest costs are in the Finance/Insurance and Professional Services sectors with the cost per employee being on average £2,013 (1).

The reality for the firm was that Michael’s wellbeing was key to building a successful and sustainable Practice. However, no starting point of wellbeing statistics would have influenced him to change his lifestyle or behaviour. As his coach, I needed to really understand his personal drivers if I was to successfully work with him to shift his mindset and improve the performance of his team.

Michael’s sense of purpose at work (and life) was to be better (within a crude win-lose construction) than others. My role was not to judge that; however, it was critical I understood it.

Through coaching, Michael’s mindset shifted from being ‘well enough to work’, to accepting that wellbeing was fundamental to building a positive culture. Diagram 1 illustrates his journey:

Is wellbeing part of your philosophy for life? Take the holiday test…

Michael’s sense of purpose is very different from a leader who sees wellbeing as a philosophy or mindset to balance different aspects of their lives. For Michael, initially anything to do with wellbeing and addressing the physical, psychological, social or environmental factors was about how they could support him in winning.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, wellbeing and a focus on a healthy balance between all these factors is a basis for existing.

“At the opposite end of the spectrum, wellbeing and a focus on healthy physical, psychological, social and environmental factors is a basis for existing”

Try the Paolo Test – next time you, or one of your colleagues, is about to go on holiday, how do you/they speak about it?

A. I need a break to recover because I am exhausted but call me anytime, I won’t be off my phone for long and if I am slow to get back to you it will be because I am in the pool with my kids.

B. I am pleased I am having a break. I need some rest and I am looking forward to having some time with my family.

C. I am looking forward to my holiday. I want to visit/I want to do/I am excited by…

 

The three types of responses indicate different mindsets around a holiday:

A. Recovery to maintain performance

B. Recovery to refresh, gain perspective and enjoy

C. Focus on enjoyment (not recovery)

 

These same three categories apply to the next question. When you, or they, return to work, which of the following most closely describes the response to the question “how was your holiday?”:

A. It was really important to take the break. I ate healthily, got more sleep and I managed to get a lot of work done when the kids were asleep. Luckily, I was in the same time zone.

B. I am feeling refreshed, it was just what I needed. I am looking forward to getting stuck into the new project; the break helped me get some perspective.

C. I really enjoyed meeting/doing/visiting.

 

When you are honest about how you see a break from work you have a starting point to explore other options (if you are not happy with where you are).

You can make choices about your habits

It is quite normal for us all to have a series of habits that we repeat each day both at home, at work and when transitioning from one to the other.

Habits are helpful because they enable you do things without thinking about them. If you didn’t have habits and you had to consciously think about everything you do it would be very time consuming and exhausting.

We develop habits at a point in time because they are helpful, necessary or even fun. However there is a danger we maintain those habits even when they are no longer helpful or in fact counterproductive. An example I have come across many times relates to idea generation. Imagine a person who has worked in an environment where there are lots of hazards. Lives are at risk if they are not cautious. The person developed the habit of always starting with what could go wrong and stating it (because that was required and positively reinforced). Now put that person in a brainstorming session and each time a person makes a suggestion they quickly tell them what is wrong with their idea. The habit is no longer helpful, it is not productive and, in this instance, can lead to people excluding the individual.

The same principal applies with wellbeing habits. Michael had a number of habits that were bad for his wellbeing and the impact was a reduction in the effectiveness of his team. However, I could not have got even close to understanding the origins and meaning of those habits without understanding his aspirations, mindset and what he understood by wellbeing.

His initial meaning of wellbeing was simply ensuring he was well enough to ensure he had a competitive advantage over others. Through coaching, over time he saw wellbeing as fundamental to building a positive culture. He recognised the links between looking after himself and others and high performers wanting to work in his team; stay in his team; and deliver exceptional service to clients.

by Paolo Moscuzza

paolo.moscuzza@oecam.com

 

References:

  1.  “Thriving at Work: The Independent Review of Mental Health and Employers” The Stevenson / Farmer Review (October 2017)