Team Resilience at Work – Team Perseverance

What do we mean when we talk about team perseverance?

Staying optimistic, solutions-focused, navigating difficult curveball and managing emotions within the team all contribute to team perseverance. It’s not all about the negative.  Teams which celebrate the good times and enjoy fun and laughter are also those teams who persevere.

How can you nurture more team perseverance?

Protect and nurture team leaders’ optimism

A team draws optimism from their team leaders and managers.  What happen when the team leader’s well is dry?  How are they supported to bring the optimism?  All team leaders need a genuinely safe space and support to work through their own doubts before they can bring it.  Creating this safe space for team leaders and managers is crucial.

Exercise realistic optimism

To maintain team optimism, you need to know what their job involves and the real issues they are facing and worried about.  We can wish for the best outcome as much as we want but if this doesn’t connect with reality, ambitious visions for a team instead becoming demotivating.

Know what you can control and make a difference in

Teams can find themselves thrown into fraught situations due to external factors (e.g., such as industry changes) which they cannot control.  Feeling powerless in such situations can quickly deplete team energy and resilience. Knowing what to persist with and how long is key to deciding how far you take something as a team or let it go when facing a set-back.

Think carefully within your team what you can collectively influence. Resilient, persevering teams work hard to focus on what they can do rather than is beyond their sphere of influence.

Harness humour

No matter how weighty or serious your team’s work is, if you don’t have ways within your team to help you lighten up or if humour is something which doesn’t feature, think again. Moments of fun and humour help a team persevere even in the darker moments. What are the opportunities in your team to have fun, lighten up and cement team connections?

Manage emotional contagion

In difficult times when team energy and motivation is low, negativity can quickly ripple and affect the whole team from only one or two cynical colleagues.

Vital to remember, creating the space for genuine critique is healthy and essential in teams and very different to the contagion of pessimism.  The ever-pessimistic teammate always has someone else to blame, quickly highlight past failures or always responds ‘that will never work’ at every new idea.

Be aware of and limit airtime given or your exposure to perennially pessimistic colleagues.  You may never change their mind but you can change how much impact they have on you and others.

The art of problem-solving

A team is collective of many assets, perspectives and talents.  If a team is to persevere and overcome tough times, spaces where the team can step back, discuss problems, ask questions.

There is a rich array of problem-solving and decision-making tools which teams can use to tackle problems together and bringing out the best in the team’s skills and experience. Think about how you can apply these in your team discussions.

How we about difficulty in our team makes a difference.  Rather than stay in the ‘this is dreadful’ space, kickstart solution-focused thinking with curious and powerful team questions such as:

  • What’s the first step we could take to fix this?
  • What have we done in other situations which has worked before and might help?
  • Who else can support our work in this?
  • What other inputs would be useful to move this forward?
  • What parts of this problem can we explore ideas on together now?
  • What could we commit to doing today in our meeting to shift things forward?

To learn more to help your team…

We work with teams to build their resilience and every team is different. For additional information on how team resilience workshops, resilience assessment and coaching could work for your team, click here.


Source:  McEwen, Kathryn, Building Team Resilience,(2017)

Is your team as resourceful as Aesop’s Crow?

On the hottest of days, the Crow dying of thirst, stumbled upon a pitcher of cool water.  The pitcher was high and had a narrow neck.  No matter how hard he tried, the Crow could not reach the water.

Then, an idea came to him. Picking up some small pebbles, he dropped them into the pitcher one by one. With each pebble the water rose a little higher until at last it was near enough so he could drink.

Aesop’s Fables are wonderfully short but everlasting on wisdom.  Just like Aesop’s Crow, we see often see impressive agility and creativity in teams.  Resourcefulness is another essential aspect of team resilience but what does it look like in everyday teamwork?

What makes a team ‘resourceful’?

A resourceful team will really harness team member strengths and resources whilst nurturing a culture of continuous improvement.  The team will also have effective ways of working that enable it focus clearly on priorities.

There are many things which help a team to enhance its resourcefulness as we can see below

How can you develop your team to be more resourceful?

An excellent starting point to gauge just how resourceful your team is this checklist of key questions to ask about your team.

  1. How do we optimise our team resources when work is unpredictable?  A team optimises resources best to it’s agreed priorities, not just what pops up.
  2. How do we manage underperformance in the team?  How do we use underutilised resources in the team?  Ignoring or glazing over team members not pulling their weight can cause resentment in the team. Fostering clear lines of individual and mutual accountability for results enhances teams.
  3. How we pull and share resources across our own team / with other teams?  Knowing the strengths, qualities and talents within our team to draw on is central to navigating challenge.
  4. What is our attitude like to change: are we nimble in responding to changes around us?   Rather than seeing people ‘for’ or ‘against’ change, talk as a team instead about how you can build flexibility to solve new issues and situations.
  5. How good is our team at creating a climate of continuous improvement?  Resilient teams not only look at how they adapt to change but also for how they can drive it. How do we process changes (e.g., political, financial, social, environmental factors) which impact on the team’s work?  Sharing ideas, innovations and review how the team deliver on outcomes is a key here.
  6. How do we manage our workloads? Unrealistic expectations about capacity to deliver can quickly demotivate a team.  Creating a healthy team environment where we can raise and safely discuss issues of capacity serves a team well.

To learn more to help your team…

For additional information on how team resilience workshops, resilience assessment and coaching could work for your team, click here.



Source: Resilience at Work TM


Team Resilience – the ‘Robust’ Team

Team Resilience at Work – the Robust Team

It’s a story many of us know but it’s a good one.  During a visit to the NASA Space Centre in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”

“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

It is an unexpected and memorable reply!  What the janitor’s answer demonstrated was a deep-rooted sense of shared team purpose.

What makes a ‘robust’ team? 

A robust team is aligned in their purpose and goals as well as being quick to adapt to change and work through setbacks.

What can you do to strengthen your team to be ‘robust’?

In leading your team, key things to observe to see how well the team:

  1. Understand the ‘why’ of their work.  Do they know both where their personal and team role directly helps the wider organisation?  How well do they link their team contribution to the success and impact of the whole organisation?  Knowing how their value, input and achievements as a team in this wider context helps team resilience.
  2. Know exactly why their team was created, who they serve and are accountable to.
  3. Work to shared values and mission. Do the team’s values actually influence how they communicate, make decisions and behaviours?  How are values shared and communicated within the team?  If you are leading the team, how are you living and modelling team values?
  4. Connect and work on shared goals. How are different team members’ effort, performance and time allocation on shared goals?  Are members of the team carrying others?  Is there accountability for delivering built in across the team?
  5. Are able to deliver on their purpose with the necessary skills and knowledge. A team’s capabilities and talent need to flex to meet shifting demands.
  6. Navigate team ‘skeletons’.  What elephants are in the team room which might stop the team from aligning and delivering on its purpose and goals? Resolving issues is not solely a team leader’s problem.  Promote where possible joint responsibility for resolving team issues.

In short, robust teams have solid intention with agility.  How would you rate this in yours?  In our next blog we will be unpacking the next vital team resilience factor resourcefulness!

To learn more to help your team…

For additional information on how team resilience workshops, resilience assessment and coaching could work for your team, click here.

Source: Leading for Resilience Workbook, Kathryn McEwen, Working with Resilience

A Powerful Team Resilience Framework to Help Any Team

Anyone who has led a team will recognise these ‘ 3 am and still awake’ signs:
• Mulling over that team problem
• Rewinding conversations with the team
• Phrasing emails you will compose on waking

This list could go on! What these signs are telling you is that you are most definitely under team strain. Hard-working team leaders can find it hard to recognise their own limits. They listen, absorb and try to resolve so many issues with so many.

These signs however are also warning signs that there could be a better way for everyone. Rather than a team leader simply gets better at navigating more, what if the team could?

What exactly is team resilience?

Team resilience – like individual resilience – is a layered and nuanced concept. The three key themes of resilience are:
i. Mastering stress
ii. Adapting to change
iii. Being pro-active

Our resilience can be challenged in many different ways. People and teams will also respond very differently to the same challenge. One of the best definitions of team resilience is:

‘‘The capacity of a group of employees to collectively manage the everyday pressures of work and remain healthy, adapt to change and be pro-active in positioning for future challenges.’ – Working with Resilience

A powerful framework to guide you and your team

We can delve even further below these key themes to explore the seven areas they cover which shape our team resilience at work (R@W); a teaser of the R@W 7 above!  In each of our next seven blog posts this month, we will unpack for you a vital factor of team resilience.

We want to spotlight what you and your team are already doing well for team resilience. We want also to offer you insights, tips and small steps to boost your team.  Later this week, we zone in on our first team resilience factor, the robust team!  Find out more from our next blog post on team resilience.

For more information on how we help overwhelmed teams build resilience, click here

Source: Leading for Resilience Workbook, Kathryn McEwen, Working with Resilience




It’s your goal but are you still aiming for it? Your checklist for goal setting.

“A goal properly set is halfway reached.” ~ Zig Ziglar

I can’t think of a better quote to get us all thinking about how well we decide and set goals for ourselves. In short, there is an art to goal setting. This is your quick guide to recheck your goals to make sure they stay motivating and true to you.

Check 1: Is your goal concretely outlined?

Be specific about what you want. A lot of coaching conversations can focus on unpacking broad goal hopes such ‘I just want to feel more fulfilled which could mean so many things. Starting to think in broad terms about your goal is good but it doesn’t help you set a focused course for action. Narrowing down to ‘I want to feel fulfilled in my work’ instead now starts to sketch your goal more crisply.

Check 2: Have you framed your goal positively?

Avoid negative language in describing your goal such as ‘I want to stop / quit / reduce / lose…’ etc. Negative words only amplify our human negativity bias. Negativity naturally grabs more attention. Negative goal descriptions will not sustain your motivation in the long run especially in times of challenge. Writing your goal in aspirational language does. Compare the two goal statements below as an example.

‘I should work less to stop missing out on time with my family.’

‘I will have a healthy work balance to enjoy spending more time with my family.’

On a bad day, I know which of those would work better for my goal ‘stickability’.

Check 3: Is your goal ‘worthy but dull’?

Some of the goals you have in mind may feel virtuous in your quest for a better you. Here’s a crunch question which will ultimately determine if you will stick with your goal. Does it actually excite you? Is it really in tune with your personal values and what makes you tick? If it doesn’t, ditch it. Set a goal which does. Dutiful can be admirable but it is never compelling.

Check 4: Does your goal engage your senses?

Following on from exciting, writing your down your goal should also trigger your imagination and wider senses. If you achieved your goal, how would it actually feel? What would you see? If for example your goal is to move to live beside the sea, think about waking up there and describe it. What do you see, hear, smell, feel and touch? By painting a vivid picture about reaching your goal you can feel more emotionally connected and invested in it.

Check 5: How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?

What will tell you that you’ve reached your goal? Vague goals such as ‘being happier’ will not ultimately work if you don’t actually outline a definite measure or marker to show an increase in your happiness. This is where the SMART criteria come into play (Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timebound). Have an end point which will without doubt show that you have triumphed.

Check 6: What does your goal need?

Aspirations are great. Not thinking through what you practically need to make that goal realistically achievable is already undermining your ability to reach it. You’re not to climb Everest with the idea but none of the gear. Think of what you might need to have in place to support your goal aspirations (whether time, money, skills or other people / resources) and factor it into your goal plan.

Check 7: Does the goal belong to you?

This may seem like an odd question but it’s a forgotten factor. Many of us have been in a situation where we find ourselves doing something not because it was our idea. We have entered into something to please someone, felt obliged or been nagged into it. I’ve done it, set a ‘shared’ a goal which never felt like mine and I struggled to feel a deep connection with it. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Whatever you are working towards, make sure it’s yours and that it ticks all of the above boxes for you and you alone.

Good luck with your goal!

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

7 ways to spark positivity as a leader

How much do you show positive leadership?  

Ongoing change, a myriad of competing pressures, uncertainty about future, the constant need to be inventive and agile are all part and parcel of leading. All test your ability to stay positive as a leader. Drawing on the wisdom of Kim Cameron, FutureSpark Coaching brings you 7 ways you can show more positive leadership.

1. Show an attitude of gratitude

Think about the last time someone showed real gratitude towards you. How did it feel? Positive psychology research evidences that gratitude has a powerful impact on well-being. Demonstrating openly to your colleagues genuine gratitude for their contribution or achievements assists significantly to enable a positive atmosphere and really encourages performance.

2. Be a positive energizer

Have you had an experience of connecting with a negative energizer, someone who sucks the energy from a room or conversation in record time? Remember it! Being over critical, inflexible and focused disproportionately on your own individual needs characterizes the core credentials of a negative energizer.

The energy you put out there as a leader is seen and felt. Create a crackle of positive energy by directly building into your interactions optimism and ways to enable the vitality of others. Alternatively, support the those who beam positive energy by encouraging them to have wider interactions across the team, giving them a platform to influence or supporting as mentor or to lead on an aspect of team or organisational development.

3. Be present and show compassion

Notice and acknowledge when someone is clearly struggling and experiencing upset or real difficulty – express some care and concern. People notice that you notice and will feel more valued as it helps to create a more caring working environment. In the words of Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

4. Pay more attention to strengths

Emotionally intelligent leadership will connect what a person wants, enjoys and is strong in delivering aligned with organisational goals. As a leader, you do not evidently ignore weaknesses and what could be improved. The approach however to addressing is all.

A good exercise to do is think about your leadership style. Question how much time you spend looking at the deficit in your team / organisation. How aware are you of organisational and team strengths? How much do you communicate with your team about their strengths? How do you combine this to give constructive feedback setting positive targets for performance based on strengths? Create the image of success highlighting what others should do and strive towards rather than only pointing out what they shouldn’t do or aren’t doing.

5. Communicate positively

If you have ever completed a 360-degree feedback, you will know that how you communicate as a leader usually takes centre-stage in shaping how others see you. Leading inevitably involves communicating on difficult issues and giving negative messages. Communicating positively in such circumstances needs your attention and awareness.

Keep communication as supportive and objective as possible. Faced with an issue, zone in on the facts and avoid judgement or subjective evaluation labels on the person ‘I think that you are…’ Focus on describing the action, event or behaviour not the person. Explain the consequences / reactions calmly and then offer or invite suggestions to resolve and move forward.

6. Connect purposefully

We enjoy and thrive in doing something which we find meaningful. What exactly does being meaningful entail? Something becomes meaningful if it helps us upholds our values, something we hold dear or live by, if it helps us achieve a personal goal or if it makes a positive difference to someone else or reaches out beyond us as part of a bigger picture.

As a leader, one of the great rewards of leadership is seeing someone fulfilled in work. When this happens, they have experienced work as purposeful: it has connected with something that is meaningful for them. Take time to see how you and your team connect your work to a purpose which has meaning for you. If you don’t know what is meaningful to your key team members and teams, get to know.

7. Build in one-to-one time

‘The only time I really see my director is when something goes wrong which I might be able to fix.’

This is not the type of comment an accomplished leader wants really to hear: the lack of value this employee feels attached to them is clear. Making time for regular one-to-one meetings with colleagues who are your direct reports is an investment. It builds relationships, clarifies expectations and unearths more about values and motivation. It is also a great opportunity to communicate supportively about development and performance. One-to-one time is a valuable two-way exchange and shows positive leadership at a very personal level.

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

How public speaking helps you to be a better human being

This may at first appear a rather outlandish claim. However, learning the fundamentals of public speaking is not just about producing presentations with panache. To step up, stand alone and speak in front of others can feel like a cringe-inducing chore. On the flipside, learning public speaking skills is one path – like no other – to grow in unexpected ways, impact on others and can be life-changing. Here’s how public speaking can help you be a better human being.

You learn how to put others first

Some of the most lacklustre talks I have been to were delivered by overconfident and complacent speakers, i.e. the talk is more about them than the audience. One of the most important parts of public speaking is not the talk itself but how you prepare for it. Simply put, know your audience. You have people in front of you who have gifted you time to talk. Any good speaker will think of themselves sitting in the audience. Who will be there to listen? What’s in it for them? What matters to them?

As you learn the skills of public speaking and practice them, your ability to focus on others, their interests and their reactions is constantly sharpened. These skills of imagining yourself in the shoes of another and learning to ‘read the room’ by giving talks are powerful. Central to leadership, relationships and emotional intelligence are empathy and awareness of others. All of this is part of being a better human and our best selves.

You learn that you can inspire

Speeches have triggered revolutions, sparked societal transformation and rewrote history. I don’t need say any more here about amazing oratory. Many of us in reality will probably feel far away from being the next Martin Luther King. All of us however will remember a talk which has motivated us to do something positive for others or the world around us.

When you hear someone speak in a way which is genuine, with feeling and real spirit, it’s arresting and you listen. Public speaking shows you how to harness the power of your story or passion. You learn the techniques to speak in a way which impacts, is memorable and energises others.

Being you and true as a speaker will ripple out and touch others so much more that can imagine. Whether promoting personal change, communicating about causes or reaching out to others to share a human experience, we all have the power to speak to inspire. Even if your talk changes one small thing, it’s one small thing you did to contribute to the greater good and already that’s about being a better human.

You learn the value of you

Aside from being a coach, from life and work experiences, I have seen and know how easily people can lose confidence through life events or more darkly, have their self-esteem shredded by the actions or words of others.

Feeling underestimated, undermined or undervalued is something we have all felt at some point. Coming back from these experiences and rebuilding our sense of self-worth can sometimes a slow process. Yes, true you may think, but how is that connected to public speaking?

Ponder this for a moment. The thought of stepping up to do a speech strikes fear into the hearts of many even when they feel good about themselves. When you lose confidence in yourself, you can also lose your voice. You may not even feel that what you have to say or think is worth listening to.

It was emerging from one of the lowest points in my life after an emotionally abusive relationship that I thought about learning public speaking. I started by attending a public speaking workshop and then discovering and joining my local Toastmasters Club (public speaking clubs).

To give a speech, do it well and connect with people is simply exhilarating. It’s one of the biggest confidence kicks you can have. Coming from feeling broken to get that feeling from speaking was a confidence catalyst and a turning point in my life. For me and I know from many others, learning how to and then giving talks radically reboots your self-belief and so much more.

Being a better human is understanding that each and every one of us has something to say and share of value. You matter and what you say matters. That’s what public speaking teaches you and when you start to believe this, you’re already on your way to greater things.

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

Know thyself, know others and don’t take yourself too seriously…

Delving into the human and the humorous, from her wealth of experience in health and social care, Levette Lamb shares her insights on what makes great leadership.

Levette is the Regional Patient Safety Advisor with the NI HSC Safety Forum (Public Health Agency) which works collaboratively with stakeholders to drive improvement in safety and quality in health and social care using internationally recognised theory and practice. She is a registered nurse who has worked in a range of nursing and management posts including time spent at DHSSPS leading on a range of multi-professional improvement projects across the region.

Levette is also a founding member of the Health Foundations “Q” programme and also lead for Q in N Ireland, and a graduate of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) improvement advisor programme. She has facilitated a range of training on Human Factors, which is about understanding human behaviour and performance and using this to optimise the fit between people and systems to improve safety and performance.

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the NHS. What stands out for you as the best examples of leadership you have seen in health and social care services?
The first thing that springs to my mind is that everyone should be a leader in healthcare. Sometimes when we put individuals up on a pedestal, it makes other people feel that they can’t reach it. Some of the best leaders that I have seen have been the porters in the hospital who see the way how we are organising our appointments structure and suggest a way that it could be improved. Or the domestic supervisor who is struggling to retain staff in a low-paid job and is able to motivate them to do more over and above what their job description says. And, also it goes right up to the CEO who has to stand up and take all the flack for all the rest of us when things go wrong.

​I think for me, the main thing about leadership is making people feel safe, allowing them to flex and have that ability within their role but knowing that there is that safety net for them there in the background. We never go through anything but periods of change in healthcare; it just feels unending that there is something new around the corner all the time. That can be very uncomfortable for people if you are just not comfortable with change. Leadership roles are just vital in holding the whole thing together.

How then can a good leader bring stability and reassurance to people?
As I said to my daughter the other day who is nineteen and who was in a panic about something, I told her that the first thing you need to do is to shut up; you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. I think a really good leader in time of concern and flux listens, just sits and listens to people’s fears and concerns and is able to empathise with them that they have either been in that situation before or that they are going to get them through it. That ‘I have your back’ type role; the rock in the never-ending stream of things that is going past you gives that feeling of stability.

​Feeling safe is so important and we spend a lot of time in work to feel unsafe. That transfers into clinical leadership. Clinical leaders are vital and they maintain the morale of our system out there on the ground when things are really busy and chaotic in terms of low staffing numbers and agency staff. Having that really solid clinical leadership is vital. It permeates the whole system and from your chief executives to your frontline leaders whether that be your ward sisters or others. ​

One of my favourite lines from one of my staff nurses has always been ‘Levette, the mood you come in in is the mood we go home in.’ She was absolutely right! Knowing yourself – ‘know thyself’ – as how in how I affect other people in that leadership role is absolutely vital.

People look to you, whether you want it or not, people do look to you. If you’re in bad humour, if your head always down, if you look afraid, if you look like you might bend in the wind, then there is no psychological safety for your staff who are having all of their own issues at the same time as you. So, sometimes you just have to steel yourself at the bottom of the stairs, put your game face on and then you go!

You work with a wide range of people locally and regionally in networks and forums inspiring people to collaborate and innovate in networks and forums such as the Q Community. What for you makes for great collective leadership?
​A central purpose. I’ll take it from my clinical background to start. As a Ward Manager, we always set out at our team meetings with the first question, ‘What is our purpose?’ and that has not changed. People may laugh at you for that and think, well as a Ward Sister you should know what your purpose is but sometimes that purpose can change on a fluctuating basis depending on your client, the targets or the objectives of the organisation. So, having a clear purpose and then everyone setting out their stall in agreement that that’s what they have to do and being able to look outside their own boundaries is key.

I was a Hospital Co-ordinator for a while which meant that I had oversight of the whole hospital and it was a fascinating job. You saw everybody’s troubles. I wonder if we sat everyone down and asked if we know our collective purpose if we would have had the same answer? I once asked that question ‘What is your purpose?’ of senior ambulance crews and it was really interesting to hear the different responses to it. Some said that their purpose was public health, some said that it was transporting people from the scene of something to hospital, others said that they were the front face of the NHS. Very different responses! It’s an interesting exercise to do. If this is our purpose, what does that mean to me?

You know the NASA example when someone who is the domestic is asked that question and they reply ‘I’m here to put somebody on the moon.’ We used to say to our domestic teams on the wards that your job is infection control not cleaning the floors.

It’s where people see themselves fitting into that greater good and see their contribution I think is where you get collective leadership.

Where you don’t get collective leadership is where people feel isolated, that their contribution is not valued. This is where they don’t see where they fit or they feel like a maverick or a somebody who is not essential to the organisation and that they are treated in that way or they are also not given information.

That cohesion of a team, knowing what team you fit into, knowing that team has each other’s backs rather than ‘Here comes the physio today, they are bothering us,’ but rather that everyone is seen as part of the team. The respiratory nurse for example is not just coming in to see patients but that her contribution is there to help the ward. I think that then transcends into where we are now.

My greatest example at the minute is where we do our work with the maternity team. We have a maternity collaborative here in Northern Ireland who has been going there over eight years. If I said that when we started we didn’t like each other very much, that would have been an underestimation. At that point there was not a lot of trust, not a lot of sharing, not a lot of cohesion. It was very a much a lot of maternity units who talked about things but didn’t do much. It’s the usual story of a journey: we’ve been through the peaks and the troughs of a lot of stuff. However, at the end of it, we have a maternity collaborative who exemplify collective leadership.

With the maternity collaborative, if for example, there is a serious adverse event in one Trust, someone will ring to ask if we can put this on the agenda for the next meeting as there will be learning from it. If there is new NICE guidance, this is the first port of call so we can do it one way for Northern Ireland. This is true collective leadership where people are willing to share openly about things which have gone wrong and willing to stand up in front of their peers and do that knowing that they have the psychological safety to do it. So, for me, that is all a matter about building trust.

What for you was the turning point in the maternity collaborative for you which told you this is working and people do feel safe and have trust?
We had one learning session where one of the Trusts stood up and presented a serious adverse event. I felt the support from other people in the room coming forward for those individuals who were standing up there and sharing it. We didn’t do as a dry presentation; we did it point-by-point as in ‘It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, this is what’s happened, what would you do now?’ It was like a lived experience for people in the room. The support for the individuals standing up and sharing a difficult case was palpable. I think there was a turning point there where people felt that that was a really worthwhile exercise and think maybe they could do that too.

In collective leadership, the trust has to be there and I don’t think that you can underestimate the time it takes to build trust. That’s not to say that there are still hurdles along the way with some ‘robust’ professional conversations!

There is also something about collective leadership about getting small wins that people see they can trust the model that you are selling. The worse thing that you can do is to shove in another buzzword, i.e. ‘We’re here to do collective leadership!’ and watch people running for the trenches thinking ‘If I hang on long enough, she’ll go away!’ whilst they wait for the next buzzword. There is also something about ownership in getting collective leadership and getting those small wins early and hanging on to people.
What insights would you give to someone who is an emerging leader in health and social care which you think would be most useful for them?
I think probably the first useful insight is the one I shared earlier, the mood you come in in and the one others go home in. The thing that sets the tone and the culture within your unit, your ward, your organisation is your current and potential, future leaders. Knowing that that is your power base rather than the traditional power base; knowing how you can influence the morale in a unit, the production in a unit, the performance of staff is really vital. ​
If you are a new leader, getting to know yourself first of all is absolutely vital. Things like doing Myers Briggs was a revelation to me. I work with a colleague who is the polar opposite in her Myers Briggs from me but that’s really useful knowledge for me. Before I would have thought oh, come on because I am your typical big picture person, your connector, your linker and don’t bother me with detail, it just irritates me. In contrast, my colleague is a details person, they want all the details and that big picture stuff is too fussy. So now that we both know that, it’s a symbiotic relationship: whereas I might have the idea about something, my colleague is the grit on the ground and will make it happen. Transferring this into a work scenario of planning a conference or a learning session, I’m all about getting the speakers and the focus for the conference and my colleague is about things like how are we getting the speakers there, what do the numbers look like etc.

Back to the crux of the question, knowing yourself is so important to be a leader. I could be irritating the bejesus out of my colleague and may not realise it then, but now I do and am very aware! So now I would say to my colleague ‘Listen, I’m going to annoy you now and be big picture because I haven’t thought through any of the detail yet…’ By putting that out there though it opens things up. ​

The other insight I would give is knowing that every interaction with a member of your team counts. We talk about every interaction with your patient counts but every interaction with your team member counts.

Looking beyond your current boundaries is another thing. We can sometimes be very insular in our thinking. Maybe it’s my big picture stuff but I always like to look beyond what we are doing now: what could we be doing in 6 or 10-years’ time? We need to set ourselves big picture goals because if we haven’t got something set out for that time, how are we going to know how we are going to get there and how do your staff know?

You need to harness the energy of others to be a good leader and knowing up front that you can’t do it all. Look over your shoulder now and again because if there is nobody behind you, well, you know that you’re doing something wrong. A colleague of mine, Mary Hinds taught me that. She said to me one day as we were walking up the backstairs one day at the Mater Hospital ‘You know, every now and again I look over my back shoulder to make sure that you are all still there because if you’re not, I’m not a good leader because everyone needs people there with you, behind you.’ There’s none of this rocket science or there’s no mystique in this. We’re not all Bill Clintons or Barak Obamas who can stand on the big stage but those local leaders are the people who count most and make the difference.

Walking the walk is the other important thing. Do not take yourself too seriously, number one. Be able to put yourself out there with whichever team of staff you are working with, understand their context and their working environment. The worst thing you can do as a leader – regardless what level of the organisation you are working in – is to lock yourself in an office and see yourself as untouchable.

I think it happens because people can get sucked into ‘I have to be here in the office, I have to respond to every email that comes in within a 5-minute turnaround and that may not be the important thing. The important thing might be taking yourself out of your office and walking down to your staff team to have a conversation.

The other thing about the mood you come in in is that it also can apply to emails. The mood I receive an email in is the tone I answer it back in. The whole reliance on electronic communication has removed the so much of interpersonal relationships with people. It can be very easy to interpret an email when it comes through in a negative way when it was not sent with that intention. It could have been just that somebody who was just short of time just dashed it off. However, if you read it in a bad mood, before you know it you’re then into tapping these responses back and forward instead of getting up of your ass and speaking to the person.

We talk about leadership development programmes and training programmes when sometimes it’s just the small, common sense things. Things such as at least once a week, walk down and just see your team, know yourself, check yourself, have you got a central purpose, give yourself a bit of breathing space and don’t take yourself too seriously. A laugh a day is essential as also is laughing at yourself once a day which is vital!

On a personal level, what is the most useful thing you have learned in to lead a fulfilling life?
Just getting a good balance between life and work but knowing that you should always put family first is it. We can all get sucked down the rabbit hole of ‘If I wasn’t here and this wasn’t be done etc.’ However, we are all replaceable. Sometimes it takes a little bit of wisdom and experience to get to you to that stage as it can be difficult to explain that to somebody for example new in a management position because you have to live it.

Again, it also goes back to having good role models as leaders. I once worked for someone who said ‘You know I don’t expect any of you to be on your emails after 6 o’clock at night’. Great, but then they would spend all evening sending you stuff on email after 6 o’clock at night. Then it’s a situation everyone getting sucked in as if one person then answers it then do I need to do the same to look efficient etc. So, walking the walk and having good leaders around you is key to getting good balance between life and work.

Loving your work is another thing. If you don’t love it, leave it. If there’s no love for it, it just sucks the life clean out off you. I knew my time in one role was up when I was just seeing different faces but the same problems and I thought that I’m no good for this anymore because I’m burnt on it so it’s time for me to go rather than me stay and make everyone else miserable.

​When people are in that situation of disliking their work or job so much, they just suck the mood out of everything. You are never going to get anywhere with those people because they will never motivate or inspire anyone as they cannot motivate or inspire themselves. There is always a way of going and finding something different to work at so if someone is so unhappy in their job, they should plan to leave, don’t stick at it.

The other thing is being able to motivate people which keeps the fire in you. Being able to see things getting done, being productive in what you do, being able to light that fire within people and not underneath them.​

To keep that balance, you do need to find the funny in every day. I think that as a leader, you need to be seen to have a sense of humour so your staff feel that they can show one! With this, work is more enjoyable: you’re not fearing coming into work and it’s a pleasant work environment. When it gets busy, it gets really busy and we’re all there working hard with our heads down but you know tomorrow might not be as bad as that and we’ll have a laugh tomorrow, go for a coffee and take a break.

Who has inspired you most in life/work?
In a clinical role, patients can inspire you everyday as they are going through difficult times as are their families and they just put their heads down and get on with it. You see miraculous things happen on a regular basis. I noticed the other day on Twitter which made me smile, was a staff nurse from one our hospitals, or it might have been a Junior Sister, had written and recorded a song for dementia patients. I thought fabulous! People like that, people who go that little bit extra inspire me.

​From a work perspective, an inspiration would be a paediatrician Don Berwick who set up the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in the States based on his experience of something going very badly wrong. He always tells his own personal story of the night when something went badly wrong of him as a doctor working with a child. He’s a great motivator. When you hear him speak you want to leave the room wanting to do something and wanting to challenge yourself. He is absolutely superb.

If you were going down the celebrity stage route, it would be Ellen DeGeneres. I never used to watch her at all then I watched something on YouTube and wouldn’t that be just a wonderful job! She’s always giving things away to people and making a difference even in small way to people which I think is great. I think she’s fabulous! What she has done for the whole LGBT community is huge as such a well-known personality who can carry that whole message that we’re all the same; it’s just the labels that others give us which makes us different.

How do you think coaching can help people in leading their lives and work?
I suppose it’s a summary above of all that we have talked about. Our greatest resource is ourselves and the people behind us. It’s about how we can keep ourselves on track and others on track. We’re very good at teaching the technical skills such as how to put in a line or a drain. I think that we have been less on the softer side of knowing yourself, knowing others and team interactions. We’re learning a lot more now from aviation about team and crew resource management.

Still underpinning it, we still have a lot of lone wolves out there but it’s just the way they’ve been trained and brought through the system.
Bringing in the coaching model, more of that, the coaching conversations helps to get back on track. It’s very easy to go down that rabbit hole and get shoehorned into something where you can’t see the wood for the trees and you don’t where you are going. It’s about being able to have those structured conversations if you like. It helps to have that space to be able to think through things, to unpack things and repack them in a way which makes sense to you or to others.

The things that I see people crying out for at the moment in the health and social care service are information on data, how to present data, how to get it through to people, how you can do it, work on human factors and the third one is coaching.​

Of those three things, the data one; it’s about how we can use data to change hearts and minds, so at the end of the day it’s all about people. It’s absolutely all about people. They’re not crying out for technical information on how to do XYZ. The greatest resource we have in healthcare is people. If we don’t know how to motivate them, how to keep them, how to retain them and how to challenge them to change things, we’re going to get no transformation. ​

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The leadership art of speaking truth unto power…

Brett Hannam, Chief Executive of the Strategic Investment Board shares his unique insights and experience on the big ticket facets of leadership – change, trust and collaboration – in uncertain times.

Brett has been Chief Executive of the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) since 2012, having joined the organisation as Chief Operating Officer in 2006. He holds honorary fellowships of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Prior to joining SIB, Brett had a variety of roles, including Russian Interpreter, Head of IT for a Whitehall Department and Chief Executive of Northern Ireland’s Forensic Science Agency. He holds degrees from Oxford, the Open University and Queen’s University Belfast. In his spare time he enjoys writing and has published two books on the history of County Armagh.

Brett, as CEO of the Strategic Investment Board shaping and delivering major programmes and infrastructure projects for the public sector in Northern Ireland, what for you makes for great collaborative leadership?

There is a word which we don’t talk about a lot which is trust. Whatever we have done which is working across boundaries and organisational boundaries mainly, it has always boiled down to a question of trust. By trust, in this context, my definition is a willingness to open oneself up to the adverse consequences of someone else’s actions. A willingness to do that is both very difficult to do and is not part of a culture of the public sector at all until fairly recently.

However, the whole point as you will know from understanding the theory and practice from organisations is that bureaucracy has very clear lines of accountability and responsibility and very clear definitions of spheres of action. What collaborative working requires is to put all that to one side and commit to working in a different way. We are not going to work to those clear boundaries and hierarchies, we are going to focus on the outcomes, what needs to be done and then go away and do it. What that may mean is that I am working in my sphere of influence and the impact of that is to make you over here succeed in your piece of work and look really good!

​A lot of what we do in SIB is to enable other people’s successes. We can’t achieve anything on our own: we are there to help other people achieve their objectives. In order to do that you need trust because you can’t proceed otherwise if you are constantly expecting other people to let you down or act in ways that they are going to stop you doing what you want to do then nothing will ever get done.

What makes great collaborative leadership for me is a willingness to start to build that trust.

You cannot command trust, you cannot just say ‘trust me.’ It just doesn’t work that way and because trust can be lost so easily, so often on the basis of misunderstandings. It starts to make you feel that what you actually need to build trust is a personal relationship between people.

Trust can also be one-way: I can trust you but you needn’t necessarily trust me. Building that trust involves personal contact, getting to know people as I’m not sure you can trust people you don’t know. I think the idea of one organisation ‘trusting’ another organisation is very difficult to support.

So, what do you need to do in order to encourage that relationship? Well clearly, communication is very important. You’ve got get to the point, the litmus test that when something goes wrong, what is your reaction? Someone has made a mistake, you’ve got to deal with the consequences, what is your reaction? Do you immediately think is there a conspiracy against me or someone trying to make me look bad? Do you suddenly think that you’ve lost all trust in this individual? Or is it ‘I know this person and I know they wouldn’t do that’ or ‘this must be a mistake therefore it’s something we can work on together.’ So, the communication and the avoidance of blame culture is so critical to maintaining that trust. In order to that, you need opportunities to build relationships.

One of the best things I saw in doing that was when the civil service set up a collaborative working group as one of their outputs for outcomes-based planning. They created a course for all their senior civil servants. Although the overt reason for doing this was to learn about what outcomes-based accountability was and the systems it requires etc, I think the other reason for that was to really get people together in a room talking to each other and getting to know each other who otherwise would not have met. If they would have communicated at all in the past, it would have been in writing, very formally and not talking together as they were there. They were then starting to build relationships in a supportive and non-threatening environment and they could then go away and build upon this, which I thought was a really, really good idea.

Finding those opportunities to work closely and effectively together to build trust is really important and it can’t happen overnight. When the OBA was brought in, perhaps even more time would have been necessary as there was a recognition that it wasn’t going to go from one state to another without a transition period. That has all sorts of implications for the way we organise ourselves. If you are constantly moving people on, you only have perhaps two people in a work relationship for a year as then they move every two years. The first six months is spent building up that relationship and then you’ve really only got another effective six months to work together before you start all over again. What does that tell us about the need to change the way in which we move people around? To have that sort of thinking is very practical.

A very interesting point you made Brett was the concept of whole organisations and systems trusting each other. What other things do organisations need to think of in addition to that building of personal relationships and trust to work collaboratively?

​You have to recognise the reality of the politics. One of the few advantages we have at the moment by not having ministers is that ministers aren’t in competition.

Competition is bad for trust. If you have for example a minister from one political party being asked to act collaboratively in a way which might put a shine on another minister who is their political opponent, it’s asking a lot for that to happen. The structures within which we work make that challenging.

Part of SIB work is to champion reform. What are the key factors leaders need to be mindful of to achieve successful change initiatives? ​

​I think the first thing that everyone recognises who have been involved in major change programmes is that most of them fail. It’s just a fact of life. Understanding why change programmes fail is a very important competency. The expectation however is normally that change programmes will succeed. Everyone of course doesn’t start off something expecting it to fail but the fact is that they can and you do have to understand why.

There is often a failure to understand how much people dislike change, how much more they feel ‘lost’ than embrace the potential benefits. That psychological reality is sometimes discarded.

Change mangers often look at things in purely logical terms such that it makes perfect sense. There are arguments for this set of changes, the logic is inescapable, this is what we need to do and how we’re going to do it etc. It entirely sets aside the emotional quotient which is so important to success.

One of the critical success factors for change from my experience is gaining the discretionary support of people. Ones who might be the victims of change who are going to pay the cost of change. There are going to be winners and losers unless the change is transient or superficial. Somebody said it’s not really change unless people are crying which is cruel thing to say but it’s probably true. Then you have people who are leading change and getting them to understand all of that.

​There is still reluctance on the part of those change leaders to take risks. That stems from the same cycle of reasons why people dislike change in the first place. They are stepping into the unknown. They are putting their own personal capital at risk and people are often reluctant to do that.

​So how do you build confidence in change leaders? The traditional way is to do it in an incremental fashion. My experience is that that sort of approach leads to programmes that last forever. They have relatively low impact. They are more easily rolled back. They engender acquiescence rather than support. They don’t last for very long once the impetus for change has been removed; people revert back to the steady, safe operational mode that they had before.

Change initiatives that I have seen that work have been relatively short, relatively sharp with very specific measurable outcomes. They make a shift between Status A and Status B and do little to enable a roll-back. Long change programmes are oxymoronic. You can’t have a long change programme. You can have a sequence of short, sharp change programmes which deliver something which is worth having. The idea that you have one big long change programme which goes on for two to three years, no, it will never work.

In terms of that phrase ‘discretionary support, what would quantify Brett as discretionary support?

​In the command and control environment, your leader can go out there and say ‘You will do this’ and people will, by and large, go along with it. They will go along with it just as far and with as little as they can. They will comply with the instruction and often do it in such a way that follows the letter of the requirement but ignores its spirit. Suddenly then you will find yourself bogged down, finding resistance and difficulties.

​If on the other hand you have gained the discretionary support of the group, then they want to follow and make the change. They will want to embrace it and take the risk but it’s a staggeringly difficult thing to do and it is really, really hard work. Without that discretionary support however, I think you’re on a highway to nothing.

What is the biggest barrier you see to self-confidence for change leaders to take the risk?

​It goes back to that earlier idea of investing your own personal capital. If it goes wrong, you feel you will be blamed. There is so much of that in the work environments we live in or at the very least, it’s not going to be good for your career. People tend to take the easier option to go for the smaller, more incremental change or water it down.

There has to be a culture within the organisation that is prepared to back people in those change circumstances. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be scrutinised – of course they should – the risks should be calculated. That means that a lot more planning and preparation has to go into it.

Lots of change programmes go off at half-cock as people want to see low hanging fruit taken first. It’s an unfortunate way to think of things like that.

The consequences of thinking in this way are that things need a lot more thought, a lot more piloting where pilots can be thrown away. It needs a lot more focus on explanation, communication and emotional engagement.

It’s not saying that this is going to be wonderful but saying that this is going to be hard work. You’re almost getting back to Churchill saying blood, sweat and tears. People were able to relate to that. I think the truth of that was that people understood what was at stake, what they needed to do and then gave Churchill their discretionary support.

​What have you personally learned about leadership to date which you feel would be most useful to share with others?

​I don’t pretend to be a leadership guru at all but hope that these thoughts will be practical! Firstly, what I have seen is that not all CEOs are leaders, not all leaders are CEOs. I have been fortunate enough to see leadership exerted at virtually every level I have ever worked at. There were leaders who were not necessarily in leadership positions of being top dog or top cat but people who within their own sphere of operations clearly were leaders. They all had similar characteristics I think which goes back to trust. They enjoyed the trust of people around them. They were able to influence their actions and behaviours through that.

Certainly, in my line of business where you have 120 experts, most of whom, if not all of whom, know more than I do about their specialist areas, you have to be able trust the skills and competency of the team. If they haven’t got that competency, you’ve failed because you’ve employed them, it’s as simple as that. Here at SIB we put in a lot of effort to ensure that we get the right person for the right job at the right time. A lot of work goes into ensuring that before anyone ever arrives because it’s the sine qua non.

Secondly, integrity, it might sound like an old-fashioned word, but it’s crucial in our line of business. We have to be trusted by our partner organisations. If there’s the smallest question hanging over our integrity we would be out of a job. We are party to all sorts of sin and vice of which we are repositories which we do not talk about at all.

We do not seek in any way to take credit for other people’s successes which is why for example you don’t see our logo on anything. We are simply there to enable others’ successes. It goes wider than that. I was speaking to people who have just joined us about this.

It’s the importance of speaking the truth unto power. It could be so easy to tell people just what they want to hear and we’ll get lauded for that, how excellent our judgement is and how helpful we have been. We wouldn’t however really be doing our job. You’ll get away with it once but you won’t get away with it twice.

People if they do come back to you will wonder if you are telling them truth or rather what they think that I want to hear?

Speaking truth unto power so important. To enable that, we have to create a culture where that is possible. If you have someone out and embedded in an organisation and their job depends on satisfying the needs of a person above them and that person isn’t at the same level of integrity, they are risking their jobs. We have to give them the ultimate back-up in that context to tell the truth to say actually that ‘I don’t think that you are doing the right thing here, this is what we believe is the right thing to do in these circumstances…’ For people who are exposed in that way – which many of our staff are – that’s a really difficult thing. We have to ensure that people who are in that difficult position that they have the support of myself, the Board and their colleagues when they do the right thing. They will have our support no matter how hard it is. It’s not easy for anyone but if you lose that component part of the trust then you might as well not be bothering.

The third thing is what I would call attitude. It’s more of an approach to ensuring that things get done. It’s not coming in at 9 o’clock and going home at 5 o’clock just fulfilling your hours and thinking that the job is done. It is recognising at times that you just have to throw everything at it and then at other times realising when you don’t have to.

The type of culture we build here is encouraging people to work at home as much as possible. On the other hand, we also want people to think of the office here as home. We want them to achieve a work-life balance which suits them: have no start time and no finish time. If people want to go off and watch the school play, they don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. If the car breaks down and they have to go the garage, they don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, just do it. We trust them with so much else so why on earth wouldn’t we trust them with little things? That side of it is so important; we give our staff a huge amount of autonomy. They are very aware of what needs to be done in terms of outcomes and results. How they go about that, they have to be able to decide on that themselves.

Most people respond positively to these two things. Having a good job where they can see that their results are important and achieving social value in what they are doing are such motivating factors for everyone. We are saying to them to do this in the way that you think is best and when you think it’s best as you are in charge of your life. We hold people accountable for that. They have the delegated authority to go away and do that but if it goes wrong, they also hold responsibility. In my experience, I can’t think of single occasion when this type of approach has been abused. In our circumstances, it works so well.

In working alongside such a wide variety of stakeholders, organisations and interests, what keeps you focused in staying true to your own leadership values?
Just as I have shown how important it is to trust my colleagues, it is vital that they trust me. That requires there to be a really small gap between what you say and what you do. So, if I am saying to people, encouraging them to work from home as it’s good for you and good for the environment, I have to do this too. If I also say to someone that once they have finished their work they should go home as we don’t want presenteeism, then I go home at 4 if I have finished at 4. Sometimes I think I that can’t do that as it goes against everything which was so inculcated in me working for the civil service!

​These may be small examples but the point is that we show these in action. We want to you to feel that when you are doing the right thing that we will always back you up as an organisation. If it becomes a question of having to focus on those values, then there is something wrong because they have to be so much a part of you that it’s just the way you are.

The way things are done is just so important, it’s a personal culture.

However, you don’t necessarily start off that way. I most certainly didn’t because I came from a very different command and control culture. The idea of letting go initially was very difficult for me. Would I feel much happier issuing orders 24 hours a day and constantly checking up on people and maybe sleep easier, no. When intellectually I realised that a different way was the only way to work, then I did and practiced and practiced it until it became something I identified with emotionally as well as intellectually. I then proceed on that basis because if you are only acting out values constantly and not being part of you, how long can you really keep that up? Eventually you will crack as no-one can maintain that façade forever.

When you join an organisation in a new role, you don’t know who to trust, how the organisation works, you have to understand that first and then how your colleagues operate. I was fortunate in that I had 4-5 years before I became CEO that I got to understand how things worked. Having seen previously where the organisation had positioned itself, I was very clear on where I wanted it to be. I had a very clear objective and I wasn’t just trying to replicate what went before so that makes things a lot easier.

I shudder for someone coming straight into a new organisation to lead it and then having to bed in and to really understand the existing culture before you try to change it. Having said this, if you come as an outsider, the government have these things called ‘Gateway Reviews’. They are very short and sharp assessments of the state of a particular project or programme. Very experienced individuals will come in who have no contact with the project before. They come in and for three days they have conversations with everyone involved in it. I did a lot of that before I took up this role and it was staggeringly useful. It was so surprising how you could pick up on the culture of a project such as the attitudes and the approaches and learn from that. It can be done quickly therefore if you approach it like that though it’s not the normal way of doing things. You could take that approach if you were joining an organisation to lead it. It did however take time for me to understand this organisation with its work and all the complexities.

What for you are the most important things for a fulfilling life?

​We can use Maslow’s model, self-actualisation, here I go with the experience of being in work 40 years now! It took me less than six months to realise that I would never reach that state of self-actualisation by work alone. I’m just not that sort of person. I’ve seen people who do and that’s wonderful: their work is their life and their life is their work, they are happy and that’s great.​

I really enjoy my work and am staggeringly lucky in the people I work with who are just universally brilliant and I am so proud of them; it makes me get up in the morning.

​However, if that was all I did in life, I would not be happy. I have a huge array of outside interest, clubs, societies and the like. I also love history as a real interest. Local history is so much more important than people give it credit for. I also took up exercise late in life so I’ve gone from being a slob to slightly less of a slob! It helps to get into and think about other things.

​How do you think coaching can help people in leading their lives and work?

​I am a relatively recent convert to this and I coached some years ago. I seemed to get more out of it than the person I was coaching which was really rather odd! I think however that the person I was asked to coach was doing it as part of a course and that they had to do it. They had a very clear idea about where their career was going and a very clear understanding about the steps they needed to take to reach to where they wanted to be. You then have to think what value am I adding here?

The process is really useful for working and thinking through things and I have been converted.

We are very lucky that we have two coaches here working internally in SIB trained at the Tavistock Institute. It’s a service we offer in our organisational development. We have now created coaching opportunities for all staff if they want it and it’s entirely confidential. It will be good to see how this goes.

Coaching is a space where you can articulate things out loud and when you do this, nine times out of ten you reach a solution yourself.

I think I’ve been coached without me even knowing it! I have been so fortunate to have had the input of people as CEO who are simply brilliant and very impressive. They did it in a way which advised me which was so close to coaching by creating a safe space in which I could discuss ideas.

One of the problems of being CEO which it takes you a while to realise, is that people can tend to agree with you. It can just be a natural tendency in people to tell you what they think you want to hear. So, having someone talk with you whose career is not in any way invested in talking through something is good. This is someone who has experience and has perhaps been through the things that you are going through. With them you can have that ideas space. They can help you with the things that you might need to consider or think about in shaping up your ideas and you can come back to them when you have thought about this. That is just so invaluable. I have high hopes for our coaching.

The mighty Maitri – finding your calm space starting a business

Yoga and therapies on a Belfast interface is where Maitri Studio invites us to find our calm space with its bold and visionary entrepreneur founders Claire Ferry and Geoff Moore.  Four years on, Claire and Geoff share their refreshingly honest experience of setting up a new business.

From overcoming mental health adversity, fusing a distinct ethos and business acumen to craft one of the most revitalising community spaces in East Belfast, Claire and Geoff’s journey sparks inspiration about leading life and work authentically.

What inspired you both to set up Maitri Studios?

Setting up the studio was one of the ways of trying to create a positive community.

Claire: There are probably two parts to this story. I had been a yoga teacher for a number of years. I also had a job which I loved in nature conservation. I had got to the stage where I didn’t want to move up the career ladder into management but I had done enough in my current job. I found then that I wasn’t very happy and was quite stressed which was unusual for me. I decided that the obvious thing to do was to leave my job and become a freelance yoga teacher. This was around the time that Geoff was starting to get better.

Even when I left, people had said about opening a studio. I thought that this wouldn’t be for ages. However as an Iyengar yoga teacher you have to carry around all the blocks, ropes and bricks. So, after lugging equipment around everywhere I began to think ‘Well maybe a studio is not such as bad idea!’

Geoff: Claire’s yoga teaching built up over the seven years had also been going really well.

Claire: Yes, I had a good clientele built up. So that was a very practical point. Then Geoff chipped in with always wanting to come back to Northern Ireland and doing something positive.

Geoff: Yes, that was partly what brought us back to Northern Ireland. I met Claire in England. One of the reasons coming back was to try not to be part of the brain drain. I understand why people left. They were part of a generation of quite high-achieving people who went away because understandably it wasn’t a nice place to be.

I thought that it was a good time to go back to Northern Ireland as there were positive things happening. I had an education and had seen the outside world and wanted to bring some of tha back as I think it’s good for Northern Ireland to have an outside perspective. We had moved back about ten years before setting up the studio.

Claire: We got back for a couple of years and all was fine then Geoff had his breakdown. I was working in nature conservation, we had made lovely friends and we felt very much part of the community.

Geoff: I had a previous career before that. I had worked in IT, corporate IT so I had been out there doing lots of stuff.

Claire: So then, when I started thinking ‘Well, maybe a studio…’ Geoff was very supportive. We started looking around together to find premises. We knew what we wanted. There wasn’t that much discussion on our part as we knew each other well and what we wanted. We had a very clear idea of the ethos for Maitri. There was also a practical element that I could not teach all classes myself and would have to start sub-letting the rooms. Our ethos was very definitely to create a welcoming, all-encompassing, quiet, calm, friendly place.

Geoff: We wanted to have a non-exclusive place. A lot of the studios would tend to just specialise in one type of yoga to the exclusion of most others. We did not want to do that. We wanted to have all traditions and all types of yoga and lots of other stuff. We have a lot of other things in the studio which aren’t yoga related.

Claire: That’s not a criticism of other places. It makes sense to have your branding that yes, we do this (deep flow yoga, tai chi, pregnancy yoga or whatever it is). There is an Iyengar focus at our studio as I am an Iyengar teacher and you need to have all the equipment there in a studio which other Iyengar teachers may want to use there.

Geoff: Our location was important. We wanted the studio to be central and not on the edge of the city.

Claire: Choosing east city centre was quite good as there wasn’t anything in the area. We ended up on an interface and for what we were trying to do, we thought that was quite appropriate! We knew what we would call the studio straight away as Maitri means loving kindness.

‘Find your calm space’ was our strapline for Maitri. Your calm space is already there, you just have to find it. Yours, because everyone has already got one. Calm, it was about not saying that everyone is happy or bright because you are not always happy. However, somewhere beneath, you can have a calm contentment.

Geoff: There is calmness in there already if you manage to just let yourself find it.

Claire: And space, this reflects the fact that Maitri is a space with rooms and also that you have space in you, in your heart and your being.

How much of a role do values still play in your business four years on?

Claire: They are written down in our business plan. We felt strongly enough about our values that they are actually written down in our terms and conditions for everyone who hires the rooms. I talk about them when I meet people interested in using Maitri as they are important to us.

Geoff: It’s partly how we choose what people are going to be in the studio. They have to be part of that ethos otherwise it’s not good for them as they would not feel at home there and they may not find an audience. We have that audience now there and it’s important to keep that core ideal.

Claire: Talking to our financial advisor they ask us to plan ahead over the next few years. It’s almost like you write a business plan for your life. You have an overarching ethos will drive the plan. It’s the same thing. We want to leave having made the world a better place in our tiny sphere. What else is worthwhile doing?

Geoff: Maitri as a project was instrumental in my coming to some sort of peace. It was a very important part.

What helped you most focussing on it as a project?

Geoff: It was the sense of being able to work with Claire on a very productive project. That instantly brings you together as it was a wonderfully positive thing to experience working as a partnership. It was also about feeling that what you are doing is worthwhile. That may sound very simple but it’s actually for us quite important. If you are having a bad day it’s nice to be able to go, ‘Just hold on and bring it back’. If you are having a really stressful day you then go into the studio and meet people and then remember why you do what you do.

Claire: Everyday we will get people who go ‘I love coming here, I feel so calm, I got a better night’s sleep last night, thank goodness you are here!’ We get that all the time which is lovely.

What have been your high points / proudest moments so far?

Geoff: For me it was that staff get together just last Christmas, getting the staff to introduce themselves to each other as there were quite a few people who had not met. I personally found it strangely quite moving seeing all the people gathered. That was also just a subset as there were a lot of people who could not make it. There was just this amazing sense that we are all in this together; it’s not hierarchical, it’s a real community. Claire teaches, there is a strategic role for her and me as well. However, we don’t have that sense as we see it as a community. Seeing everyone in the same room was special as often we don’t see everyone together.

Claire: It’s often unexpected moments sometimes. There can be really busy days when people are in and out of the studio and workshops and there’s a real buzz which makes me feel really happy.
When sometimes I am in the studio all day, we might get a random drop-in from the street to pick up a leaflet and would then have a conversation. The number of times that this has led to something serendipitous! I remember being in there one day helping John McKeever set up a taster session. Then someone came upstairs who happened to be a t’ai-chi teacher and knew John. They had kept seeing the studio and noticed that the door was open so decided to pop in. Julie-Anne now teaches four classes here a week! She had been looking for a base.

These little things are really nice. I often get little thank you emails after classes and I always love coming back to tell Geoff. Geoff is really good at saying ‘Write that down, keep that email…’

Geoff: I used to do that when I worked in IT since when you are working in the corporate sector, you mostly get contact from people when something is going wrong. You can be ground down by it eventually. So, I started keeping mails from a business or IT manager going ‘Thank you so much!’ I would keep it and go back to it on those bad days and go it’s alright, they are calling us for a reason, they need our help and it’s us just doing our job.

Making the decision to start up a business is a life decision. What has been the most valuable things you have learned in your journey date?

Claire: Right at the very beginning, making the decision in the first place was probably the hardest things as I was really stressed. Once I made the decision and articulated it to my previous employers, it was almost like a weight lifted of me. You then have the headspace to put in and decide what you are going to do. Because, when you are in the other job, no matter how hard you try, you don’t have the headspace or heart space or time or calmness to put all that stuff down. I then had the time to get my ideas together.

We were very lucky getting the space we got.

Geoff: Yes, it took us about six months to find which was pretty quick. There is definitely luck involved in finding somewhere. When we first viewed it, it was a dark space with drop ceilings, a dingy office with lots of partition walls everywhere. However, within ten seconds of being in it, both of us started seeing the potential and thought that this place could be incredible. We also got a really good feeling about our landlord talking with him. We felt trust with him.

Claire: That also gets me thinking about having trust in people. We had other people very much involved, like another teacher whose husband was an architect who then linked us with a builder who was wonderful. We had another yoga teacher who was also a project manager who acted as our critical business plan friend. Meeting the right people at the right time to do the right jobs has been so important.

Geoff: Time management has been really important too because sort of inevitably for the first two years it was just so full on. Almost too much, completely unsustainably crazy! You get carried to an extent by just the sheer exhilaration of a new project and seeing the potential of it.

Claire: Geoff was on the mend at that point. So, in a way it was also a bit of a retreat for me when Geoff was down if I am being completely honest as I would just bury my head in work. That was good in a way. I was doing things that I loved, feeling productive and that also gave time for Geoff to establish routines which happened, routines which him stable. So that in the beginning was fine. As Geoff got better I realised that I couldn’t do this forever. I started monitoring with our business friend adviser how much time I was spending on doing the different things. I was forced into doing that but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Geoff: We also started then putting social stuff in the diary again in advance. We didn’t leave it until Friday night otherwise we wouldn’t bother: if we didn’t we would get back and not do anything. However, it’s nice doing other stuff and just getting out and seeing people. If it’s not in the diary we will not do it as we might be too tired.

Claire: We re-established doing stuff we did in Cambridge which is where we started having home weekends in our diary. It’s a really good idea.

Geoff: It happens months in advance. We will pencil in home weekends. It doesn’t mean stuff can’t be planned for that weekend but it means that you have to give a very good justification for why something else is having to go into that weekend. So, there’s a bit of wriggle room but it makes you stop and think. We need to be able to have time to go off for walks, time together but it’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s instead a strong indicator to think about things and balancing time.

Claire: I have the plan that I have two home days per week and where I only work one weekend per month. Sometimes they are going to slip but it does really help you with that planning. We’re good at not talking about work all the time. If one of us wants to talk about work and the other one doesn’t, we’ll tell them!

Geoff: We don’t do the same thing and have complimentary roles so that really helps. I do a lot behind the scenes, the IT, the design work; lots of the invisible things which have to happen or it all falls apart!

How do you stay motivated and resilient as successful entrepreneurs?

Claire: I have to do my yoga practice. If I don’t do my personal practice, I can’t teach, end of! I don’t end up practicing every day because stuff happens but I practice several times a week. Every time, even though I have been doing yoga for decades, I will come down after a good yoga practice I come down and say to Geoff, ‘Ah, I wish I could remember this all the time!’ It’s that feeling I get from yoga practice.

Geoff: I’m similar. It’s keeping in place all the healthy habits I have managed to put in place over the last ten years and gradually learning what works for me. I am now on the right anti-depressants which took me ages to find. That in conjunction with playing the piano again. I am and have always been a big musician.

That used to be a signature thing that I would stop playing whenever I was down and stop singing and not wanting to do it anymore. That was one of the key breakthroughs really early on. When I was down at the bottom of the barrel working with a counsellor from East Belfast Counselling, that was the theme we came up with. We looked at it and said, well, you’re at the very bottom at the moment, let’s just find five minutes of practice a day. It was horrible at the start as I just felt I couldn’t play anymore and I catastrophised about it. But I improved from that small starting.. In conjunction with that I started feeling fit as I walked a lot…even in bad weather, I still walked.

My piano practice is now sacrosanct: that’s not an optional exercise now. It’s gradually increased to half an hour to an hour every day, sometimes more. Those two things for me now, my exercise and my piano are no longer optional. If something happens and I don’t do them, t hits my mental health, my resilience and my sense of self and happiness.

As I’ve got better, I am now able to deal with something happening where I can’t do the practice and that in itself is part of my own resilience building. Overall, I try to make it non-negotiable to miss it. I have managed to build my will power to the point now where if my mood changes, because it can still bounce and hit a low,I will still push through and do it. I might have a horrible practice one day but then the next day, I feel better and play better as I made myself practice the day before and have a really good session! The mind can be remarkably resilient.

All of it has made me feel intelligent again. When I was feeling down, I felt that my intelligence had dropped massively during that patch. When you are down, when you are tired and not just thinking straight, you feel submerged that you can’t breathe or come up to the surface. Now, I feel like I’m back to feeling like I am a relatively intelligent man again and it’s so reassuring! My memory’s better than it had been. It’s increased my mental function having all those things happen in conjunction makes doing the work so much more easy and enjoyable.

Claire: All of this has had a great knock-on effect as well. I have learned so much from seeing Geoff and how he has practiced. I talk all the time to my students about practice. Watching Geoff do his practice at close quarters really made me appreciate the value of my own yoga practice.

Imagine speaking to someone who has a passion and wants to start up their own business, what useful insights would share with someone starting out?

There can be a lot of nervousness around money. Have budgets, do a budget. Know what you need and work out the worst-case scenario. Know what you actually need to live on; that was a fundamental thing to know. How much do you need for the mortgage, to live on, for food and to pay the bills? Even if there is nothing else, know what you absolutely have to earn.

​Claire: You can do ad hoc calculations. And, if your business doesn’t cover costs, well then know you will have to work somewhere to help cover the basics. Know that to start with otherwise it’s all just pie in the sky. You have to put something down on paper.

Geoff: Also, be prepared that at the start it’s going to be difficult financially. I compare it to threading a needle: you’ve got all of the start up costs, your household budget is running on zero. Basically, you have to get through that needle and out the other side. That might take at least a year or a couple of years and then things start to come back. Don’t freak out unnecessarily during that phase as that’s pretty universal.

Claire: At the same time, it’s about being sensible. We had debts and loans but they were very controlled. We knew how much we were paying back each month and did not stop paying back, we had it planned.

People can say that they are passionate about something starting a business in an airy-fairy kind of way but you actually have to nail the numbers. You need to be quite specific about what you are going to offer. What is this thing you are going to offer? We initially thought of lots of offerings in our original business plan then thought that we were never going to be doing that.

Geoff: Yes, it’s what they call in IT ‘feature creep’. When people are writing software, it’s the tendency to want to add more bells and whistles as you go along. So, by the time you get to the end of it, it’s a piece of software which doesn’t do anything particularly well, is impossible to find your way around and runs massively over budget. That’s what you have avoid. You have to be super focussed. Don’t let your business suffer from feature creep. Think through things carefully. Do you really need to add this something to your business or are you just diluting your brand and losing what little time you have as you need to keep that core?

Claire: Geoff is great at keeping me in check. I’m an ideas person and he will question me, ‘Do you really have to do that? There are many things you could do but what are you actually going to do?’

Geoff: Yes, there’s also a right time to do things. We might do that thing in three or four years’ time or down the line but now isn’t necessarily the time.

Claire: Another thing I would highlight to people starting up their own business. Our business also gave us a different appreciation of value. Part of it as a freelancer, I was initially getting paid in cash and I could actually see what I was earning. Then you start to know how much you charge yourself out at and what you rate is. It makes you think then, OK, am I going to do two hours of housework today or pay someone else to do that? Because if someone else likes their job and doing something you don’t, think about how you use your time in business.

Your time does become your money and you can actually see the value of your time which I think is so useful. By paying other people for things you want done, you start making the world go around in your little corner.

Geoff: One of the other things that comes to me is that we come across younger people who are stressing out about what to do in their lives. Our experience at our age, looking at our friends with similar experiences is that it’s actually almost the default now to have multiple careers. And that’s OK, you don’t have to freak out if you have to change careers. There is plenty of time for anyone to change course if they find themselves doing something they don’t like. You can find something else. I’ve probably have had four careers so far, roughly. That’s not unusual nowadays.

Leading your life, what sparks a sense of real personal fulfilment for you?

Claire: Everybody else being happy! For me it’s also the outdoors, open sky, trees, birds!

Geoff: Being with friends and being with the community in Maitri. Getting out, meeting new people. Also, making time for my music.

Claire: Food!

Geoff: Food is a shared passion!

Claire: It comes down to the basics doesn’t it? Your environment, the people you are with and somewhere nice to live and eat… I know what I like doing and have made a life doing it!

How do you think coaching could assist anyone to realise live and lead their lives to be true to themselves?

The power of somebody else listening is that: a skilled coach or friend who asks the right questions, doesn’t give you an answer but helps you realise by questions what is it that you need to do.

Claire: We had met people and had friends who we went to for help. That was great, almost like mentoring. One, it was good to have someone to talk to and then two, to hear yourself say something out loud.

Geoff: In our partnership I fulfil that role as I am the one asking the really annoying questions! It’s annoying but it’s really important.

Claire: A coach will give you a balance of the kickstart but also help you find the confidence to get started. Like Geoff’s counsellor by listening and asking acted as a great reflection to him of himself.

Geoff: Yes, you do sometimes need someone to come along and say to you what you have said yourself already. Having a bit of distance from things is very beneficial. Like coaching, to have a critical friend for the business plan has been very helpful. That distance and professional mindset is so useful for looking at a problem analytically and asking awkward questions which you may not have thought of or asked yourself.

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