In June 2022, Graham spoke at the 3rd World Mental Health Congress webinar on the subject of 'Mental Fitness for Business Leaders'. In this blog, we share the transcript of his presentation and Q&A.
Hello, I'm Graham Wiley. I'm a certified mental fitness coach and I’ve also been a qualified executive coach for well over 20 years now. I've been coaching business leaders, business owners, and their executive teams, their senior teams, and I thought it would be insightful today to share with you how through those years, and in recent times, the subject of mental fitness in those coaching programs with those senior teams has become increasingly important and increasingly the centre of the mind.
The starting point is that long-time business leaders have understood the importance of being physically fit; many of them have got very good diet regimes, and they're very committed to staying fit, whether it's going to the gym running or whatever sport they enjoy, and they understand where that fits into their diary - where it fits into their lifestyle.
I've seen in recent times that are changing to also incorporate mental fitness. Now, I think it's true to say that the pandemic has clearly accelerated the importance of mental fitness, not only for yourself but for your organisation. I think it's also true that as an executive coach, I saw this coming probably around five or six years before the pandemic.
The times are gone, I believe, where admitting to stress as a business leader, admitting to some of the symptoms of stress, is seen as a weakness and indeed not helpful for your career development. I think those days are gone and they were going before the pandemic. What I now see more proactively is business leaders recognising the direct link between their personal mental fitness, the mental fitness of the rest of their team and the ability for them to stay at the top of their game, for them to be really inspirational leaders, to show by example that the effect of that is for them as individuals to thrive, and the other members of their organisation to thrive.
One of the challenges as an executive coach, particularly in the workplace, particularly in the senior leadership area, is to recognise the symptoms as they manifest. Sometimes it's pretty easy. Sometimes it's a bit more hidden. Physical illness is well understood; the link between that and stress and mental fitness is pretty well established, but often people who are not in control of the way they're feeling, not feeling confident about the way they're approaching their work, develop a very poor work-life balance - They're not disciplined enough in working out what their priorities are between being at work and being at home.
Imposter syndrome is the classic feeling that you've been over-promoted; you're not worthy of the role, how come you're in this privileged position when others are not? It leads to a general lack of confidence, and that can be quite debilitating. If it gets in the way of being a strong leader, clearly indecision can be a very big problem.
If you are the leader of an organisation, the leader of the team, we understand the importance of stress. We understand what stress does to people, but it manifests in different ways when you're a business leader and it can come to the fore both in terms of lack of patience, inability to tolerate others and so on, which leads to damaged relationships, both at home and at work.
Another symptom of lack of mental fitness is also very poor time management; the inability to prioritise the things you spend your time on, and the inability to actually focus on the things that really matter. Getting them done and moving on to the next one is a really big feature that we see with leaders that have perhaps lost their way in this context. If you are really struggling and finding it difficult to be confident, the ability to delegate becomes equally difficult. If you don't know what you should be prioritising on, it's increasingly difficult to give others direction and hold them accountable for what they're supposed to deliver for the benefit of themselves, as well as the organisation. All of this leads to a huge feeling of overwhelm, which as a coach, you need to peel back – a bit like peeling an onion to get back to the root cause. The root cause is very often a lack of mental fitness.
The consequence of all of this is clearly poor organisational results, not producing the performance that was required and that leads to unhappy people, both in terms of the people that we're coaching and the people around them inside and outside the organisation.
I think it's quite important to say that as a coach, these symptoms can often be very, very extreme. People suffering from imposter syndrome can often do quite extraordinary things. A lack of confidence can lead to them micromanaging everybody and everything around them. Or indeed, it could lead to a sense of hubris that they have to resist any form of criticism or advice because it's a sign of weakness, which they're trying to cover up because they don't feel they're really the right person in the role.
Ultimately, the root cause of all of these symptoms is fear of failure, fear of rejection, and fear of poverty. It's quite a long list, but fundamentally negative thoughts are in their head. The thing that's undermining their confidence and making them feel worthless is themselves.
I think this is really important; most leaders that I'm working with can easily grasp important concepts. We can give them a definition. We can tell them what mental fitness is - it's the ability to cope with life's challenges positively or more positively than you might have done otherwise. That's an easy thing for someone to quickly become aware of. Resilience isn’t about strength or assertiveness or aggression, it's about the ability to recover from setbacks quickly. And if you can combine those two definitions, you're starting to give a framework to business leaders as to what mental fitness looks like.
You can take it another step; You can start to show them that the person that's putting them under stress is themselves, that they're choosing to react to the world's challenges in certain ways, which is compounding the situation, not helping them overcome it. And therefore, if that is the case, they too can choose not to do that. It's summarized very simply in a little formula; E is the event R is your reaction to it, and that produces O which is the outcome. One of the simplest analogies for this is road rage. If you are driving down the highway and someone cuts you up the way you respond to that, will produce an outcome - If you respond aggressively, if you return the bad behaviour, you can't move up. That's not likely to end well. If you ignore it if you let it go by, and you get on with the rest of your day, there's a pretty good chance, that nothing untoward is going to follow. And those choices are entirely yours. The point is that the event happens and you can take that analogy and put it into the workplace environment.
Once we've established the definitions, once we've given them a framework in terms of what's really happening, we can start to build and help them developmental fitness. Our coaching programs run in two work streams simultaneously. We have the traditional one-to-one executive coaching, which is all goal-based. So as an individual, they've said, I want to improve in certain areas over the next six to 12 months and I'm committed to doing the things that it takes for that to happen. And these are often a combination of hard skills and soft skills. So it could be that I want to become more skilled in financial management and that could do with some study or some research. It could be I want to be better with people and that could be a soft skill around interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. It could be that I want to develop a much more strategic thinking capability. But each of these goals can be fairly well defined. And as a coach, you can help them build on their experiences through the coaching program to become more proficient in each.
In all of those areas, our mental fitness work is built around the work of Shirzad Chamine and his organisation, Positive Intelligence, Inc. Through both of those work streams, we give them the tools to take back control of their life. The way they're thinking, the way they’re approaching their challenges. None of its easy and like physical fitness, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more fit you become.
And so, through the program of both work streams, we can help them become much more proficient, much more capable. Indeed, putting both work streams together is absolutely transformational for many people. Many of the people that we've coached through both programs simultaneously have come back to this end of it and demonstrated to themselves and to us that it's been a fundamental life changer.
The mental fitness program element at the workstream starts with a six-week intensive program. It's a program that's led by a coach. So, they have availability of one-to-one support. If they need it, they've put in an action learning group, typically five to eight people - we call it a pod - and they share experiences. They share what's working well, and what's not been so successful, and they understand that by working together, making themselves vulnerable, everybody benefits.
We have an app which is downloadable onto a phone and a laptop that gives a combination of daily activities. During the day it's broken down into four 10-minute spots where they break their day up and are able to focus on themselves and what's going on around them in a way which helps to build mental fitness and the ability to cope with challenges during the day. It also delivers other aspects of learning - there are books and videos, and that enable them to do this at their own pace, to go at the speed that they're comfortable with.
When the six-week program is finished, the app continues on the phone and the laptop, and they're able to continue their journey in much the same way that someone learning to run a marathon might start by learning to run 5k to start with. Then, once they're in the routine of regularly running and being comfortable with the concept of being on their own and keeping themselves fit as a long-distance runner, they can continue to build on that, and build on that, and build on that until they get to 26.2 miles, which is the marathon distance.
Shirzad’s work combines a lot of concepts that many of our executives are familiar with - not necessarily all of them, but elements of them - and that gives them a huge amount of familiarity and comfort when they first start on the program. And many of them know how neural pathways are relevant to the way in which you can create new habits. Many of them often are well experienced, and well-practised. Some of them have struggled, but most understand the importance of being present. Virtually all of them understand the holistic approach to well-being. We can show them why the mind often is inclined towards seeing threats in advance of seeing an opportunity, and therefore the importance of positive thinking, being more positive, and being in favour of positive thoughts is a reinforcement of mental fitness.
We can show them how to recognise stress. We can show them how they are effectively putting themselves under pressure and what they can do to reduce that pressure. All of this can come together to show them that all of this produces an improvement in their performance and their teams and the organisation.
The research that's gone into the six-week program is a combination of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, form science, and positive psychology. It's quite literally been worked on with hundreds of CEOs and executive teams, students at Stanford, and world-class athletes and it's multicultural. It covers every person around the world and it applies not only in the workspace. Shirzad Chamine wrote a book containing all of these learnings, of this understanding, which is now a worldwide best seller.
In 2021, we took well over a hundred executives through this program at The Executive Mindset. So regardless of anybody else's research, regardless of whatever else other people have experienced, what we know from our hands-on personal experience is that improving mental fitness is totally possible in business leaders, executives, and business owners and the transformational change that they experience is enormous.
When we do this in organisations with more than one person at a time, for example, the whole of the leadership team, you can imagine the compound effect that it has throughout the whole of the organisation and indeed beyond. Customers see a change, suppliers see a change, and other trading partners see changes, and it absolutely leads to a reinvention in many ways of the way the organisation works and the performance that it produces.
To bring my presentation to a conclusion; mental fitness in the workplace for senior executives and their teams is absolutely now front and centre. It's much more well understood. It's embraced and there are now tools out there that exist that enable people like me as an executive coach to give these strengths to people; to help them work on these strengths and give them the chance to transform what is otherwise a career-threatening situation, a health-threatening situation into an opportunity.
That's the conclusion of what I had to say today I’m happy to take any questions?
I'd just like to ask Graham about returning to the office after the pandemic - How would you advise people going back to the office after the pandemic to look after their mental health on their return?
That’s an interesting question. It's a multidimensional question. There is the reality that life has changed. Working-life routines have changed. I've been working from home. All of my domestic routines and my work routines have been completely reinvented and I've got to go back to work and I've got to recreate or recommit to these new situations and that leads to an awful lot of conflicted stresses and pressures, priorities, and so on from the employees' point of view. I would say, try and stay as flexible as you can, recognise that you are going through a change period and try and find, slowly, the right new blend that will work for you.
If I was coaching a business owner, a business leader, I'd be saying something very similar, but with a slightly different perspective; if you are talking to your team and you want to continue to win that commitment, continue to benefit from all of the skills that they bring to you, then you've got to recognise that the world has changed for them substantially as well as for your organisation. And so being dictatorial, saying ‘you will come back, you will work this way. You will do these things’ is not conducive. We're on a journey. The pendulum, as it were, is swinging back, and we need to move together carefully back to what will become the new way of working that suit everybody - both the organisation and the employee most effectively.
So, flexibility, try and take it slowly, take it in a way which works for everybody. Try to keep an open mind and try not to feel that there's pressure to go back to any preconceived work format if that's possible.
I would like to ask you a question regarding the pandemic and the impact on the mental health of teachers. Can you tell us a bit more about how can we actually help teachers overcome the challenges that they have gone through after the lockdowns - how can we use this mental fitness for leaders for them?
As far as teachers as a profession are concerned, they've been presented with quite extraordinary challenges; the need to keep education going, and yet the children or students are not in the class in the normal way. So, they've had to invent new ways of communicating and new ways of inspiring their students. And as we come out of that, there's a pressure to go back into the old way of working. I think that the key thing here is to learn what worked really well previously through the pandemic. And that might be the whole series of different things and understand what didn't work so well, what were the things that were less successful? And recognise them, be open about them and embrace both of them, learn what worked well and avoid what didn't work so well.
Then I think the second part of all of this is the impact on the students. The students will be returning to the classroom, whatever format that's in, and they're on a journey of change as well. Anything that can be done to facilitate that and make that journey easier for everybody is to be encouraged.
Now, in terms of stress, the tools we talked about in terms of the mental fitness program will help principally the teachers, but also the students start to understand that the pressure they're putting themselves under is largely driven by themselves and they can choose not to do that and to understand that when they're under stress when they're being pressurised, these difficult behaviours will manifest, and they can choose therefore to control that if they want to. I hope that helps.
That was the latest edition of The Coaching Conversation. I hope you found it interesting. I hope you found it useful. You can find out more about our coaching programmes at theexecutivemindset.co.uk
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