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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Cutting through the mystique of leadership

Renee Quinn knows a lot about leadership. As Business Manager for Northern Ireland’s public sector Chief Executives’ Forum and overseeing the Women and Leadership programme, Renee sparks some refreshing ideas about where great leadership really lies…

What has been your own personal experience of seeing inspiring leadership in action?
A leader who I met quite recently, talked about improving the standard of quality control within his organisation and how his leadership skill drove that change, but what was most obvious to me was that he handled it in a compassionate, evidence-based and empathetic approach. He won over hearts and minds by approaching change on a small scale, which built trust, then he widened the scope, and over time systems started to change. Now, that particular organisation is an exemplar within the UK for quality control. I don’t think the term quality control does it justice, because what it actually comes down to was the vision that inspired that change and the leadership style used to achieve it.

The leader, in this particular case, transferred leadership to team members. He didn’t keep it within his own confines. He put himself into that vulnerable position and empowered his staff. You can tell the difference when you go to a meeting with any of his staff. They all display individual leadership; they absolutely live and breathe the strategy and the corporate values. Every decision they take will come back to that. They are very confident in their conversation about what will fit with their strategic aims and they are empowered to take decisions, which is fabulous, because they will come to a meeting trusted to be able to make that decision, so it doesn’t have to go back up the hierarchy again.

Obviously, this leader has said, ‘Listen, we’ve employed you to do this job; I’m going to trust you to do it to the best of your ability….now just get on and do it’. It’s the autonomy to act ethically within the corporate structure and his transference of power to front line staff that was very visible to me. It really did change the culture of that organisation in a relatively short space of time. So, I would say that he was a shining light and an exemplar of inspirational leadership in action. To me the key learning that I took from that experience was the trust and autonomy he bestowed on his staff and his demonstration of compassion when things didn’t go as planned, you knew he had their back. To me that empathetic leadership style gets the best from colleagues.

With your work supporting leadership development, which types of skills or leadership approaches need developed most?

Authentic leadership: I think there is a façade and a mystique around what leadership is. It’s not helpful when people see it as some mystic, god-like influence that they can’t grasp or aspire to achieve, when in fact it’s about recognising the leadership qualities in all of us.

I firmly believe there is a leader within every single one of us just waiting to be discovered and that’s where there is a responsibility with current leaders to spot those ‘glowing’ individuals and nurture them towards leadership positions.

Leadership is just not one thing and as a society, we need to recognise that leadership is not all about whether you are ‘Personality A’ type person or ‘Type B’, its more nuanced. I would like to see a conversation around leadership that values the more difficult parts of leadership skills, those softer skills, which is a misnomer in itself, because they are the hardest to achieve and they are not in the least bit easy to master. Rather than the dominant, autocratic style, which is still so widely evident, it’s around Emotional Intelligence and servant leadership. It’s about having empathy, showing vulnerability, being authentic and warm and not forgetting to have fun.

Some of my most productive work has been with teams where we’ve had a blast working under pressure, so fun is an all-important leadership ingredient as well. People come to work for eight hours a day and they want to enjoy what they do. If it feels like a grind, people become stressed and won’t enjoy the experience and they won’t give you the outcome your organisation desires and so not to have an eye on those skills, in my view, is folly.

I think that there needs to be a loosening of those 1950’s Taylorism leadership styles of command and control. That style does not work for the generation of workers that we have now or indeed the generation coming next. It might have worked in the industrial age but we now have knowledge workers who demand more from their work; as many treat work as an extension of their social networks. If you could unlock more emotionally intelligent traits it would go some way to address the mental health crisis that is sitting beneath the radar.

Allowing people to embrace their own projects and giving people the freedom to do so is very important. Those organisations which allow their employees to try new things and fail without consequences, I believe, are the most successful.

Creating the type of culture that allow employees to be creative in finding solutions is vital. It shouldn’t be about an organisation driving hard on innovation, I believe a leaders role within an organisation is to provide the optimum environment for employees to flourish, to allow employees to genuinely feel empowered to try something and fail and having the passion to give it a go without fear of repercussions.

It’s back again to structures: the rules and regulations of how things are done in an organisation. There needs to be more openness and honesty about the need for some rules. We need to have a conversation about what the rules and regulations are supposed to achieve and do they work for the majority of staff? There needs to be more honesty about the structural set-up of an organisation.

A great example of a leader turning an organisation on its head is Ricardo Semler from the Brazilian firm, SEMCO. He empowered employees to decide amongst themselves about how they worked, their time and environment were all decided by the staff. Staff were able to make informed decisions about their work because they were expertly trained in understanding the budgets and financial statements, so they could see the effect of their work on the bottom line and their job security.

I believe there also needs to be more bravery around challenging the status quo and asking those hard questions; such as why is it done this way? Could we do it better? Is it demotivating staff? Is it actually improving productivity or making a difference? Does it really matter where someone works or what times they work? The focus should be on the output and that’s what we should measure, otherwise you get presenteeism setting in.

Having worked across all sectors, what could each sector learn from each other in terms of leading effectively?

Having worked in each of the sectors and as a small region, I have found that’s there is such passion within each sector, enthusiasm and goodwill and I believe we are not harnessing that and pulling our intelligence together to make this a better region. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to develop a cross sectoral leadership programme with CO3. I recognised that the siloed approach to work needs to be debunked and I wanted leaders to walk a mile in the other sector’s shoes to be able to understand the commonalities that exist. I think you need to be able to get under the skin to understand what makes a CEO in the third sector tick compared to a CEO in the private and public sector. From my experience, what you’ll find is they are all coming from similar places of wanting to do the best for their organisations. So why don’t we therefore focus more on breaking down those barriers that hinder this process? In my opinion, it just requires a will to want to do so and to possibly relinquish some control. I think if we can get over that, there could be great things which could happen for the region and our citizens.

It’s also about leaders being curious, taking time to lift their head from the day-to-day grind, looking around them to see who they could collaborate with to help for the betterment of their organisation or society and this is where I think the draft Programme for Government has really helped to spark that conversation. The Programme for Government has given us the framework to work towards, so now the challenge is how do we do this? And who do we need to work with to make great things, that matter, happen?

Leaders need to recognise that power doesn’t just rest with them. They have to be curiously vulnerable to a certain extent and relinquish that power to achieve greatness. It’s a little bit about putting yourself into a more vulnerable position and acknowledging that you don’t know it all.

There’s also the possibility that you might lose power. You may not have the budget to do this type of work but as I see it, when you understand people’s values and they want to make it better, that’s as good a starting place as you’re going to get.

I believe values are what drive you to do a good job. If your job aligns closely with your values, it doesn’t seem as if you are going to work and that’s where passion is derived. If you truly and passionately believe something, you can convince people from a place of passion and that actually hooks people in.

What would be the most exciting or innovative step we could take to shape our local leadership for the future?

I would like to see leaders taking their sons or daughters to work for the day showing them what they really do, and how they are making a difference to their children’s future, or else what is the point of work? I would like to see them opening up their office environment to kids from underprivileged areas and for leaders to go out to schools and talk to children about self-esteem, resilience, believing, failing and talking about their leadership journey. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if leaders could go out and talk to children about what they think leadership is, what it looks like, and inspire each child to recognise that they have leadership abilities within themselves; daring them to dream ! This also helps to break down this concept of leadership being some ethereal skill that is unachievable for most.

I think this myth-busting is important because a lot of our society looks upon leaders as an elite that cannot be challenged and a leader is someone who just wields power. This is so vitally important, particularly, for our younger female generation who don’t see themselves as leaders and don’t recognise themselves as someone who could lead an organisation.

There is a well-used phrase: “You cannot be, what you cannot see” and it’s certainly one that has resonated with me. My personal goal is to change that concept for my children. I have endeavoured to make changes within my own work, by making gender equality a personal priority and have created several strands of new work to help address this trend.

I am currently very passionate about delivering the first pan-island conference on ‘Budgetary Impact Analysis: A Catalyst for Economic Growth’, which is really about making financial decisions based on what the evidence tells us; so I am excited to bring over leading experts so that we can learn from them over the year. Also over the year I have organised several round table discussions with senior female leaders to discuss how we can make more progress on women’s positions within Northern Ireland’s leadership levels and am currently very excited about the launch of a new, year long, Women’s leadership programme. I hope these initiatives go some way to addressing an increasing area of concern and I’m hopeful that my small part will assist in that improvement.

Another area which adds to shaping our future and which leaders can impact is when organisations are commissioning services, creating policy or in control of a budget, you need to go out and meet with those who are going to be affected by your decisions and have a discussion on the issue.

Getting out of the office and speaking to service users, say, in a mental health charity who are going to be affected by a certain approach is critical. That does not mean that you are going to shy away from taking those hard, budgetary decisions, but you have to leave your office and walk a mile in their shoes. If you can convince service users of your well-reasoned argument, you will have a group of people supporting your changes.

People don’t like things being done on them, they like to feel a genuine part of the decision-making process, which develops the trust that is required to make effective change stick and generally garners greater buy in. You need to convince society that it is the right approach. It’s back to your values again. If your values align to what you are trying to achieve your passion will shine and you can create that persuasive argument more readily. Your litmus test for that is going out to the people who are going to be affected and explain your rationale with passion and integrity. That type of honesty shines through and once you win people around, they can be your champions. It’s again about transferring that leadership to people within communities to transfer and actively champion that message more widely.

What leadership legacy would you like to leave behind?

I would like to be considered as an empathetic and understanding colleague who has the well-being of colleagues at heart. I would like to be seen as a compassionate team player and someone who is energetic in delivering on things that matter. I thrive on being curious and listening to others; I don’t have an ego about knowing everything. In fact, I am quite happy to admit that I know very little about some subjects; but I am always eager to learn and listen to those that do know and I enjoy listening to diverse opinions, which, I think helps me form better opinions and decisions.

Where my strength comes from is by listening to other people, learning about them and what they can bring to the table. I am there to get people around the table and connect them; I get a real buzz from collaborative work. Any of my previous colleagues would say that when I get involved in a project, I really give everything and get very passionate about it. That overspills then to connections with other people.

It’s also about not knowing everything, that cliché that ‘every day is a school day’ gets me up in the morning.

I think about what today is going to bring and what am I going to learn: what little gem or nugget can I learn from my next encounter and put into my treasure box? Ultimately I would like my legacy to have made a difference in some small way to make society and my children’s lives better. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m eager to keep discovering and trying.

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

My family is my first true love. I have my husband, my two girls and my mother. My mother has always been a strong and supportive woman who really helped me to see from a young age, the art of the possible. She taught me to see the future as something better than what she had come through in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 70s.

She painted a picture for me very early in life, that education was the pathway to success and diversity of thought was something to be embraced and to take pride in; she firmly believed that was the road to greater and better things.

She was my first encounter with a true leader and I think that’s an important point for parents to realise; that caregivers in those crucial early years have a strong influence on their children. The poem praising motherhood, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World!” by William Wallace expresses this sentiment more eloquently, than I could ever do and is so appropriate for caregivers today.

With my family then, and especially with my two young girls, I am trying to recreate that for them. To always strive for better, to be curious, to not be afraid and to reach out for better things. The spark for me, is whenever my kids turn around and they inspire me with their work and the things they think, they are at the stage where they are forming their own little opinions about what they think. So it’s inspiring me, as I am now learning from them.

My husband is very supportive in everything that I do. When I went back to university and studied for my MBA, I had baby at 18 months and another one at three-years old, studying would just not have been possible without the support of my husband and my mother. So, they have always had my back and facilitated my escapades. So they would also be my spark, as I explore more ambitious adventures.

What also drives me is to try and make society and life easier for my children in the future. I want to try to improve things for the next generation coming through. So, I really put my heart and soul into breaking those barriers which exist for my kids and to try to make it, well not necessarily easier for them, but to make society kinder. That’s what I would aspire to change, to try to make society kinder for my two children.

How do you think coaching could assist in leadership development or living your life authentically?

Coaching to me is the person who has your back. Coaching helps you to find that little piece of quietness amidst the storm of work life, helping you to take stock and to lift your head above the trenches and stand still in the moment; they help you to recalibrate back to your values.

The coach is the person who helps you keep the equilibrium in your life, to bring you back when you are losing your head in a project or work environment.

They are a sounding board to actually bring you back to ‘why are you doing this?’ and bring you back to your values. They are integral to any great leadership journey.

Look at any sports athlete; they are surrounded by nutritionists, doctors, coaches and psychologists. Equally we have leaders in our region who really are athletes within their sector. We don’t, however, give them the same latitude to make mistakes and improve. We seem to think that once you are in a leadership position, you have all the answers and therefore why do you need to be surrounded by the right people. In our current culture it is seen as a sign of weakness to have a coach, whereas in top performing countries, it is an anathema to not have a coach.

This is back again to myth-busting about leadership. We seem to think that they should know it all or that they shouldn’t need any extra input. But if you look around at athletes or Olympians, there is acknowledgement that they need to be surrounded by good people. This helps keep your leader and your athlete healthy and well.

To my mind, our leaders are corporate athletes and they need to be surrounded by experts to help them and keep them performing at tiptop levels. It a lonely place, they can’t do it all and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that.

It’s about society recognising that leaders can be fallible. It’s also about leaders acknowledging and being vulnerable and seeing that they need to be surrounded by the right people to help in their quest. It’s about having a coach who challenges you, stretches your abilities and helps you to unpick the issues and repackage it and to go forward with energy.

One of the big things a coach can give you is energy, to know that you are on the right path and to continue doing what you are doing and to be your champion!

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

What makes for great Board leadership?

Eileen Mullan is founder of Strictly Boardroom a website that profiles boardroom vacancies across the public and third sectors.

As a Governance Practitioner Eileen supports boards and CEOs to maximise their boardroom effectiveness. Eileen is an advocate for the value diversity on Boards brings to decision making and believes fully in enabling and empowering others to take on board roles across the public and third sectors. She has nurtured and supported aspiring Non-Executive Directors, and Trustees , where they are now centrally involved in decision making across Northern Ireland. In doing this many boards have gained the valuable skills, knowledge and qualities required around their board table to make a difference.

Eileen’s current Non-Executive Director roles are: Chair of Age NI, Member of Northern Ireland Committee for the Big Lottery Fund, Health and Care Professions Council and Southern Health and Social Care Trust. She holds an MSc in Management and Corporate Governance and an IoD Diploma in Company Direction.

A champion for boardroom diversity, a believer in anything is possible, civilly partnered to Fidelma and a servant to four rescue dogs, Jake, Woody, JJ and Jess.

What for you builds positive leadership?

For me leadership is based on honesty, trust and respect. So, I have to see it, I have to feel it, I have to evidence it. When I don’t capture all of those in an individual, then I don’t recognise leadership.

We can have leaders that are not heads of parties, organisations, chief executives or managers. We have leaders everyday who get on with it and do their work, but they do it and inspire others and don’t even realise that they are doing it. Those are the ones which interest me most, the ones that don’t say to themselves ‘I am a leader’ but that it’s quite obvious that they are.

On ‘irresistible leadership’

Recently I came across the concept of ‘irresistible leadership’. It’s when a leader gets people – their hearts, minds, hands – behind a cause to give their absolute best. When have you experienced or seen irresistible leadership?

In the simplest format and I’ll expand upon what I mean by that. There was a situation a few years back where a government minister made a decision to close NHS residential homes for older people. There was one older lady who went on the radio and told her story. I think here name was Betty. She told her story in such a powerful way that it was a very simple story; that this was her home. This was her home, this was her stuff, nowhere else is her home. She put the call out the minister that if he wanted to close the home, he could come and talk to her. By that phone call and that conversation what she did was that she got a forcefield of people behind her. That meant that the minister had no choice, no choice but to change his course of action. That’s a very simple thing. For me what that lady did was put her heart out there. She told exactly how she felt as a result of someone making a decision about her, without involving her in it at a very simple level.

At another level, you have your organisations and causes that tug at people’s hearts, whether that be cancer, whether it be children or animals etc. Then you see those individuals who have had an experience of some kind. They have been able to enrol and engage a wide range of people to bring about change. They might have done it on the basis ‘I’m not too sure what the path is’ but they’re clear on what the change needs to be. You see how they have been able to slowly build this mountain of people behind them to say ‘You know what, we need to bring about change’ and they’ve done it.

On the other side of this you have what I would refer to as bad leadership based on manipulation and coercion. If you have a cause for example that I am interested in, I should be a willing participant which means that it’s my decision to join it. The leader’s role is to enable me to do this and identify where I can play my part. You allow me that space to enable it to happen but you don’t say ‘You’re coming and this is what you are doing.’

It is something in the language of leadership that is not spoken about very often. It can be exactly like that…

That’s a space I find incredibly uncomfortable and I will avoid it all costs. That brings me back to the trust, the respect and the honesty. Because if I am in a room and I’m fighting for a cause and if I am not greeted with honesty, trust and respect, I know there’s no point. Time to leave. I have to then think who do I need to talk to next because it’s quite obvious that people I’m trying to engage don’t want to be engaged. Their engagement will be at their own level of benefit.

I sometimes get frustrated at politics here, so much seems to be about horse trading and saying what others do badly instead of what they do well. I do appreciate that Parties represent a constituency of the 1.8million people in Northern Ireland – that voters have expectations of those they elect.

Negotiating is an aspect of being in government in determining priorities but I don’t see enough leadership that is about the greater good of the whole population. I don’t see leadership based on trust, respect and honesty – maybe that’s just politics but politicians are called leaders, so I would like to see more of those qualities in the way they govern.

Personally, what have been your best times and most challenging times in leadership?

That’s honestly a difficult one to answer because you know, I would see leadership from how others would view it. How others might view my leadership might not be how I view it. Yes, I am told for example that I am an exceptionally good Chair. I am told that what I was able to do was pull a group of people together to be clear on what their role was and to deliver on fully for an organisation. I was able to do that without having to drag anybody, they were all very willing participants. I was clear on this is what we were there to do. Now, all I felt that I did was go in and did a bit of re-organisation but that was good leadership.

Yes, but that’s not how I viewed it. Now, I walk into meetings, whether that be a public level or a third sector level and put positions on the table and be very clear, articulate and negotiate to a point, that’s viewed as leadership. I view that as a conversation to get an outcome. That conversation is about how I can ensure that people are hearing the message that I am giving and the message needs to be clear. I suppose this goes back to when you asked me about this interview and you pitched it on the basis of me as leader and I took at breath at that as I wouldn’t envisage myself as a leader. But I get it as there are things that I do, and I may do them in a very soft, not-in your face way, but there are many things that I do which is leadership.

The TEDx Talk for example, that was about me being able to speak for 14 minutes without a piece of paper. I also had to get a strong message across not just for the people in the room that night but for a wider audience. That was me putting my head above and putting myself in a space to be criticised and be challenged.

On thought leadership…

The best conversations I have had is when I start out and go ‘I’m not sure what this might look like, but here’s my idea and I think there’s a role for us all to play and I would love to hear what you think about it.’

And those are the best conversations I would have. When I walk in and say ‘Here it is!’, it doesn’t work. You know, you learn this as you go. It’s about being self-aware and I am incredibly self-aware. I analyse, analyse and analyse myself and do the critique afterwards and go, ‘what did I miss?’ which I will probably do this afternoon!

I would get asked a lot for advice. I think it’s lovely and sometimes I wonder, why on earth are they asking me? Now in one regard, I say it as it is and I’m very direct and direct in a nice way. To think that people would want to pick up the phone and say ‘Listen Eileen, I need your advice…’ is an incredibly humbling experience. And, you know, this is where I find leadership extremely difficult as most leaders like to showcase themselves. They love the fact that someone calls them a leader, and a ‘thought leader’ and all that stuff, they love that. What was the term you used earlier on, that new one, ‘irresistible leadership’? I am sure that they would fall over themselves at that but that’s not my style.

So, when I was talking to you earlier about the people who do it, you know I am one of those. Sometimes I put my head up, and then I get a knockback and I have to go and lick my wounds. Then I have to look at what happened, try and assess it and come up with a strategy of how I ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Are you not?

No, not a joiner. And the reason that I’m not a joiner is that I find it’s very much about ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. How I do business is that if my work is good and you want me, then fine but I won’t coerce you in a networking event to give me the chance do something. For me, that’s not leadership, but for loads of leaders, that’s how they interpret leadership because they are able to wheel and deal.

Leadership is about people, fundamentally about people. If you can’t motivate people, then you’re not clear on your message and it’s not going to happen.

How necessary do you think it is for a leader to nail their values to the mast and be clear about what they stand for?

It’s imperative. I wouldn’t accept it any other way. If their values are not evident, it’s just a non-starter really. I have on many occasions put my trust in people and to find out that it has been abused. And you talk about emotional intelligence and you talk about self-awareness, there’s two ways that that can go. It makes you very hard and sceptical of other people and cynical. Or, you guard yourself and you will be very clear about who you will and will not work with and just not rule everybody out.

So, I need to do a test on values before I engage in conversations. What I was finding was people wanted information, they took that information. Where I was offering the opportunity for collaborative working, they were quite willing to have that conversation on collaborative working to the point that they wanted to go it alone and take it with them. So, that hurts. You’re not meeting values with values. So, what I had to do then was to make sure that I was seeing the values really early on before I would start to engage.

Are values a litmus test for you?

Yes, it is, and if it doesn’t, or is not evident for me I would give it a bye ball. It’s not worth it for me personally: I’m not going to compromise my integrity or my self-worth for somebody who won’t reciprocate the values.

I just see too many people in leadership positions where they believe in their leadership position but they are there for the wrong reasons. It’s a bit like Boards, people go on a board just to be on a board. Or they go on a Board because it passes the time for them. Or they go on the board of an organisation because the cause interests them and they actually want to contribute. The latter one is the one you want. The other two are not. And in many Boards, there’s too much of the first one because they are on for all the wrong reasons. And when I have conversations with government about the challenges with their arm’s length bodies, it comes down to trust and respect. If you have the right people sitting around the table for right reason and there is trust and respect between a department, a minister and a Board, you wouldn’t have a problem. But sometimes what we have are egos: ‘I don’t like what he’s saying or she’s saying, so I’m going to do something about it’ and then its fighting within, about power struggles rather than delivering for the citizens.

I think we have a natural tendency here of not being able to recognise or not to understand what leadership actually is. It can be as simple as the person on the bus who tells the guy to stop doing something to the person beside them. It’s very simple, nothing fancy about it!

What insight would you give to someone who is an emerging leader just stepping into a new role which you think would be most useful for them?

Don’t be afraid. Making mistakes is OK. Making mistakes and not putting your hand up is not OK. Making mistakes is OK and then do something about it. It’s a cycle, you have to be self-aware when you are doing it. Emotional intelligence, deal with it when it goes right and wrong and then understand that it’s not just you on your own. There are other people you have to engage with and how you treat them with honesty, trust and respect will reflect on your leadership.

Leading your life, what has sparked for you the most sense of personal fulfilment?

I would say honestly since I had my kidney transplant, that it has given me a level of confidence that I did not have before. When I allowed myself to talk about it, I realised that it was OK to talk about it. Because what I was doing was triggering thoughts for other people and I realised it was one of the most powerful things I had to share. I’m not one for talking about me.

So, I suppose there are a few aspects to it. I had this new dynamism of energy as physically I was able to do more and the smog had cleared in the head as a result. So, then I was able to do more, so when the opportunity came up, I said yes. I said yes to everything. I allowed myself then to be open to opportunities, events and people that popped up. Each of those then triggered another step and another road to do something else. Every bit of that built confidence.

Would confidence have been directly related to your condition and how you were feeling before the transplant or would it have been a wider thing?

I think probably a wider thing. I can appear extremely confident: It appeared in TEDx that I wasn’t shaking in my boots but you know, you do that; you get those first few minutes and then you get it over with and then you’re on a roll. But you know from a confidence perspective, and this comes back to being on your own as self-employed, I had nobody there telling me if it was doing it right or wrong. That’s a very lonely place to be. Sometimes I just needed somebody to tell me ‘Actually Eileen, you know what, that was spot on…’ Or that I could be tweaking it differently. So, from a confidence perspective, I had to build that up myself. But, my interventions are interventions and my observations of others have enabled me to do that as well.

I heard a guy who was up here talking about 10 or 15 years ago, about those three things you know opportunities, events and people here. You know, you can stand in a bus station and not talk to anyone or you can stand at the bus station, smile and say hello. And that conversation can trigger something else. Or for those few moments at least, you have created a human interaction and that in itself has value.

There are people out there who are leaders and who have not got the ability to interact with people. They are in a position that gives them the leadership role and they will believe they are leader. Their understanding of leadership is the position. But the position alone does not reflect leadership.

People can walk over people very quickly. What was it somebody said, always be nice to people on your way up as you will meet them on your way down? There is a lot of it out there and I suppose this is why I shun joining. For me it can feel wrong because of the culture that comes with it.

When you have had a significant event in your life, it wakes you up. It doesn’t make you immortal, but what it says is that you take every day as it comes and you just make the most of it.

So, for me there’s no need for being a controlled by structures anymore and I would have been very structured. I am still structured and organised but now I enjoy more of ‘let’s just see where this goes.’

It’s goes back to what you said earlier about how you start your best conversations…

And I’ve stopped having those other conversations where I would identify ‘I have…’ I don’t have. I have got maybe an idea that I can talk to you about to see what you have and we can maybe put that together. People jockeying for position, from a leadership perspective, that’s somebody who feels the need in the room to the be ‘the one’. Then it’s very evident that trust, honesty and respect might not be there as they are coming at it from the wrong place.

How would you see coaching assisting in people in their leadership or lives?

It needs not to be too structured or formal. It could be a phone call one day and a Skype call the next week or it could be a quick text. It doesn’t have to be this thing that it looks and feels that it sounds like counselling. For me it’s always about enabling people. People already have the solutions, they just can’t see it so I help them to get rid of the fog. You’ve got to be honest, no ‘flaff, flaff, flaff’, there’s just way too much of it.

I was a mentor for Politics Plus ‘Women in Leadership’ programme. Some of the women were outstanding in what they achieved in a short window of time. They move jobs, got promoted, and changed their life. For me, all I did was that I met with them three times and we had a conversation and I turned around and said ‘What are you talking about, that’s nonsense’ or question them, ‘Is that what you want to do? What are you doing? What are you doing to get it?’

There needs to be more of programmes like this and people being able to access support based on trust, honesty and respect.

There are people out there who don’t realise that they are leading every day and who don’t realise that they’re doing outstanding work. Every day they’re doing great stuff and they don’t know it – the silent leaders.

To learn more about Eileen’s work supporting Board development and leadership, click on her website Strictly Boardroom 

Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

A masterclass in resilience from Clodagh – #beatinglockedin

We hear stories where after a life-shattering event a person navigates huge obstacles with incredible resilience and a breath-taking determination to live life positively to a ‘new normal’. The remarkable recovery journey of Clodagh Dunlop supported by her partner Adrian Simpson is one such story.

In April 2015, Clodagh, a PSNI Officer from Magherafelt, at the age of 35 suffered a massive brain stem stroke which led to her experiencing locked-in syndrome for three months. As a Life and Leadership Coach with a specific focus on resilience coaching, I was truly delighted to have the opportunity to interview Clodagh and Adrian.

Two years on from her stroke, Clodagh and Adrian share their experience, insights and how they now live life as a result.

Clodagh, can you summarise the big milestones in getting to this point from the initial brain stem stroke which resulted in locked-in syndrome?

I took a what’s called a mini stroke (TIA) while I was on duty on the Wednesday night prior to Easter Monday. I went to hospital, they carried out checks but what they explained it was possibly fatigue as I was working a lot of shifts. I spent the weekend in Scotland with my partner Adrian. He was at a police rehabilitation facility as he had been in a road traffic collision and hurt his back. I spent the weekend with him. I generally didn’t feel great all weekend but nothing untoward happened all weekend.

It was Easter Monday, I felt completely fine, so fine that I decided that I would run as I love running. I got up like any other day and put on my clothes to go for a run. I was going to run to the Ponderosa which is the highest pub in Ireland and 13 miles from my house. When I looked out, the sun was shining in through the windows and I could see that the rain had left them all dirty. So, I went inside, put on my flip-flops, went outside, sang and cleaned the windows and decided that I would run 13 miles tomorrow. But, little did I know that tomorrow I would be on life support fighting for my life.

It was that evening then that I sat on the sofa and ate an Easter egg. I see my sister arrive at my house and I thought ‘This is a real pain, I’m going to have to get up off the sofa and open the door!’ As I ran to open the back door, I suddenly felt really unwell, that death was upon me. I could barely make it to the back door. As I opened the door I said to her ‘Call an ambulance please, I’m not joking, I’m not joking!’ as I collapsed to the ground. She would always say that I just sounded like a garbled mess more like ‘Ruarrgh.’ She phoned an ambulance. By the time the paramedics arrived, I was back to normal again, fit and healthy.

I went to Antrim A&E, waited there and said ‘I think I’m having a stroke.’ But again, everything about me didn’t look as if I was. As with mini strokes, when you have a TIA the psychical symptoms can disappear. By the time I presented at hospital, my speech had returned to normal, the weakness I had experienced had gone. I sat there looking fit and healthy.

As I waited, my condition started to deteriorate, then I took a massive seizure and felt as if I did die. My sister was screaming. I felt I had died only she screamed and shouted and hit my face and brought me back. I had a massive seizure. I remember the seizure completely. It’s strange, when you have a seizure you are aware of it all. I was aware of everyone in the room. I can remember the nurse, blonde hair and her fringe and her shouting at me, ‘Clodagh, what drugs are you on?’ and I wanted to shout that ‘I’m not on drugs, I’m not on drugs.’ She was saying ‘Stop that, stop that’ as I was writhing on the bed being sick. Then everything went black.

They put me in a medically induced coma. They didn’t know what was wrong with me. For the first few hours they thought maybe I had meningitis. It was several hours later when they scanned me they realised I had had a stroke. I had a weakness in my artery in my neck, in the weakness a pocket formed. In that pocket, the blood formed a clot. I had been exposed to at work and at home were little spurs of that clot dispersing to the brain, so I was having mini-strokes. In the hospital, a large blood clot dispersed into the brain stem.

As they were not sure what it was initially and were treating me for meningitis, parts of my brain were starved of oxygen. Parts of my left side of my brain started to die which is why now my right side has the weakness. I had a procedure – a relatively new procedure – a thrombectomy. Normally that procedure is carried out in a four-hour window but the procedure carried outside of the four-hour window. Undoubtedly, that procedure saved my life. It’s not carried out in many hospitals in the UK but it’s now becoming more commonplace. We want it to be more available to everyone.

When you came round, you describe Clodagh how you were totally aware. What was that like?

Absolutely. You can hear everything, see everything, feel everything. All your senses are there but you simply can’t move. I’ve always said that I was a silent observer to the world around me like no-one knew I was there but I was there. You could feel every ache, every pain, you could see all the nurses scurrying past.

When they told me that I had had the stroke, there were so many questions you want to ask. I simply however had to just lie there and listen. One of things when someone said to me ‘You’ve had a stroke’ I wanted to ask ‘Well what type of stroke have I had?’ A stroke normally affects one side but there I was completely paralysed. I remember initially feeling really angry because I thought ‘I told them, I told them I was having a stroke but nobody listened.’ So, I felt angry but I also felt a great sense of satisfaction that ‘I can’t wait to tell them that I was right.’ I am the type of person that I do like to be right! I was lying contented that I was right. Later was to prove after months lying locked in that I didn’t like being right.

I knew what I had was no ordinary stroke because when I woke up, I remember thinking, ‘What’s going on? Where am I?’ I always say it’s like being on a spaceship because ICU is all machines, all the beeps and everyone scurrying about. I heard nurses with a Belfast accent. I was in hospital, I knew I had not died, I was in intensive care. Belfast accents made me realise that I was in Belfast not Antrim. A nurse spoke to me and told me that I was in The Royal.

It was surreal just knowing you were in intensive care as I realised I must be very ill. I could feel that I was ventilated. I could feel the tubes in my mouth. But one of the first things I realised is that I could feel this tube in my mouth but my tongue is pressed on my teeth. I realised that I can’t move my tongue off my teeth. I realised that my tongue wouldn’t move at all. I remember then looking down and realising that I couldn’t move my head, but I could move my eyes. I looked down and saw lots of drips and machines hooked to me. It was then I realised how bad my condition was.

I do remember thinking that I must be quite ill but I had a real curiosity. I thought then that I must be going to live because it was realising too that my family weren’t there. Because, if I was going to die, my family would be there sitting by my bedside. I remember then thinking what time of the day is it and trying to strain to see a clock. I realised that it was early in the day and that they would not be visiting. I had to go for scans.

The first day I was in incredible pain and I remember feeling like my body had shut down. You could hear people discussing with others – as my body was in spasms – trying to work out whether I was having seizures. I remember thinking with the pain, this is so strange.

That evening my partner arrived. He asked me ‘Clodagh are you there?’ and asked me to blink once for yes. I remember looking at him and thinking, I can’t get this wrong; I need him to know that I am here. I closed my eyes, shut them really tight, counted to three, opened them and remember looking at him and seeing him really happy saying ‘I knew you were there!’ Straight away we worked out a system of blinks.

You spent three months Clodagh like this. One day, as you say, is a long time being locked-in. How did you keep yourself going?

When I got the first movement I think people misunderstand. When I broke out, there was no functional movement and I could barely make a sound. When I went to Musgrave after 6 weeks in the Royal, it took months and months for me to being able to press the nurse call button. We got a button with an audio recording that said ‘Hello it’s Clodagh here, can you help me?’ I could turn and hit that with my head. Nights were terrifying. Unlike you, if you were in hospital and you needed help, you could just hit a button. Suddenly I became aware just how vulnerable I was because I could not or press a button or shout for help.

But I would say that I was able to explore my own memories, relive my own life vividly, visit my memories from my childhood. I had travelled a lot. I was able to recall places almost more vividly than at the time I was visiting them. I could remember the smells, the sights, the sounds and would just close my eyes and lose myself.

Adrian and I had travelled down southern Africa before I had taken ill. I can remember the red sands of the Namib desert. Initially, when I had my stroke, my temperature gauge broke. They were concerned that I was going to die with heat stroke and I could hear them say that. I just took myself to remember everywhere I had been and travelled which was exceptionally hot. I would lie there and dream of the Namib desert and remember how the sands were under my feet. I’d remember I’d travelled round Ayres Rock. I have been in Cambodia teaching and remember the classroom being stifling hot. I would lie back and remember all those times where I had been places which were exceptionally hot. It was strange, I could almost remember the colours and the heat more vividly than at the time I was there. I could conjure up the sounds.

I would play my own life like movies in my head. I would spend time with what I would call my favourite memories.

How did that all help?

I had to do it. I knew myself, I would think of people and how they survive ordeals. I could not lose my mind. Also, as police officer, you are always taught about fight or flight and people’s responses either are fight or flight. I thought that, well, flight isn’t me so I am going to fight whatever this is. So, I went into my memories to keep myself sane. I had no television, I had no music so I could not pass time like you might in hospital watching television or reading a book. I had no stimuli so I knew it was up to myself to keep myself occupied so I would relive memories over and over again. It was like a rerun of my favourite movies, I would just rewind and start again from the beginning.

What did you learn about yourself as you reflected on everything in your life?

It was one thing I would say is that before I took ill, I always thought that I was never good enough at anything I did. I always wanted to be better. I had the time to look back and realise in fact I was quite brilliant. I always thought that I don’t run fast enough. As I lay there I thought, I did run fast enough. I thought I should have done better at work as I always wanted to do well. But as I came to lie there I thought, well actually, I did do a wonderful job. You have the time to reflect.

Most people don’t realise how terrific they are and appreciate all they have in their life. Suddenly I lay there and realised what a wonderful life I had had and didn’t actually appreciate it fully.


Adrian and Clodagh, before locked-in and after locked-in, what has changed in how you approach and see life?

Clodagh: I think that I appreciate every little thing now. As I said, there was a point where I couldn’t press a button or brush my own hair. When I had an itch on the end of my nose, I couldn’t scratch it. I appreciate every little small thing now like every day when I can get up out of bed, brush my hair, brush my teeth, make a cup of tea and just go to work.

On a Monday morning, when I drive to work, I am probably the only person in the country who drives in smiling! I am sure a lot of people think that I’m crazy because I drive in. I had to learn to drive in a different way. I hobble in and everything is a huge effort to get to work. I really appreciate that I can do it, that I could still be locked in. I feel that I have been given a second chance of life. We just now live every day to the full.

Adrian: I think before you could kind of just go with the flow in a lot of things. You could get wrapped up in your job and your life and making choices but you’re not really making choices; you’re just kind of doing the things that happen day to day. You just go along with things. You do get very burdened down and very stressed with work and life and all the rest of it. I think now, after what happened Clodagh, we do make choices now.

How conscious are you now Adrian about the choices you both make?

Adrian: We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. We actually will make the decision, ‘No we don’t want to do that.’ Instead it’s now this is what we want to do, this works for us. We take everything now at our own pace. There’s a little bit of acceptance of Clodagh now has disabilities. After a while, you have to come to terms with that this is different. A while ago we talked about the new normal.

This is now our life. This is the way we live. It’s not that it’s different than before, it’s the way it is now. We’ve accepted that and we enjoy it. We’re making the choices now doing the things we like and about doing the things that we want to do. There were times before when you felt obligated to do a lot of things. Your job can put a lot of pressures on you and you would feel obligated to do all these things.

Personally, now, I feel less obligated to anything. I feel very much that life’s thrown this at us, we didn’t ask for it, we didn’t choose to have it. So, everything we did prior to this didn’t change anything, this happened. I think now personally, I do make very conscious decisions about what I would like to do, where I would like to go, the time I would like to spend on things. I feel better because not much has changed but that I am doing what I choose to do.

It’s a very powerful thing in itself.

Adrian: It’s kind of how you accept things.

Clodagh: For me, I feel that my biggest achievement to date has been acceptance. I have to accept that it has happened, I can’t change it. Most people with serious illness or life changing illness or bad things happen to them, one of the biggest things to conquer them is accepting that it has happened.

Adrian: We have done that now and said let’s move on from here.

A lot of people find that incredibly difficult to do.

Adrian: When these things happen and from other people that I’ve met through this, there is a mourning period. Like a death, there are stages of mourning. Everybody goes through it and if you don’t go through it, you’ll never let go. You must let go as everything that you’re doing, you’re doing differently. You do make choices to do it. It is different than it was before but you have to let go.

You mentioned this Clodagh, allowing the time to be sad on that day, the anniversary when it happened.

Clodagh: I think when bad things happen, you’re allowed to feel angry and upset but you can’t dwell on them. It’s about allowing yourself to be angry and a little bit sad on the anniversary when it happened.

Adrian: It’s part of it. It’s like the anniversary of my mother’s death. On the day of her death every year, you’ll be little bit solemn and think about her and miss her.

Clodagh: I think it’s one thing people sometimes feel bad for being upset or angry. They feel that they must always be happy and positive but no it’s fine, you’re allowed to be sad. It’s OK to be angry but then move on from that. You can be angry and be sad and then it is a question of rechannelling that energy somewhere else.

Adrian: You’ve got to move forward.

What message or insight would you most like to share with other people who are struggling to overcome a problem in their life?

Adrian: Stop looking at the top. We have a new baseline where we started from two years ago so we never looked too far into the future. We didn’t look too far into the past either as we had that baseline. So, all the positive changes that happened were coming from way down at that new baseline. We can see improvements that we made. Because we are not looking at the top of the mountain, we don’t know how far there is to go.

You can take your positive feelings by last month this was different. This month we’re maybe walking a bit better, a bit further on the beach than a couple of months back. That is a real improvement. That brings us a little bit of happiness each time.

Clodagh: I think one of the big things is don’t compare yourself to other people. Just ensure that you as a person enjoy your day. If you enjoy your day, it doesn’t matter what somebody else is doing whether they are running faster or if they have a bigger house. Just as long as you personally enjoy your day and do what makes you happy.

Adrian: You know, recovery does – everyone talks about the recovery plateau – well, I don’t know if I will get any better. Little things do change: it’s the day to day things. I will come home from work and Clodagh will say to me ‘I walked around the house brilliantly today. It was just for half an hour but there was a period when like, that was really good. I was standing at the kitchen counter and reached for an apple and put my right arm out.’ It’s all snippets and we know that there is not going to be momentous change now. Everything is very gradual. There’s little changes all the time.

Clodagh: I think one of the great things to now is that all the time you want miracles to happen. A lot of people would say to me that I am a miracle. I would say yes, that I had survived, that part is a miracle but everything else has been hard work. I have worked really hard, three to four hours a day every day.

If  both of you were to describe your view of resilience, what makes resilience?

Clodagh: Don’t expect miracles. If you want something, you have to work at it. I knew that if I was going to talk again, that wasn’t going to magically happen, you have to work at it. It was going to take hours, months and weeks.

So, like everything in life, if at first you don’t succeed, keep at it, keep trying and don’t give up.

If I want to run again, it’s knowing that it won’t happen overnight. If I keep working and working and putting the effort in, it will lead to it. The big thing is accepting that there is only so much other people can do for you. It’s a personal responsibility. I think that I have to go out to the gym and work. Adrian can help me, physicians can help me, everyone I need will help me but I have to personally want to do it myself. If I don’t get up and do it, Adrian can’t make me do it.

Adrian: You have your goals. The focus is not running. The focus is today and getting to the gym to walk along the treadmill, that is the focus. You don’t lose focus. If you think of what she’s doing today and what her goal is, it’s so far away, you just might think, why bother? That’s too far and that will never to happen. So, you don’t think like that. You think that’s the goal, not the focus. If you are walking on the treadmill at level 1 today, the focus next week is that you’ll be walking at 1.5. It’s incremental. It is that shaving the door: you don’t notice the difference taking off little bits of wood but eventually you will.

It’s the same when I work with people coaching. The goal can appear big and ‘over there’. You need to take it step by step as some days are better than other. The focus is on each step.

Clodagh: You have to not be afraid of failure, don’t be afraid of failing.

Adrian: Yes, like smashing your teeth off the floor! (laughing).

Clodagh: I smashed front tooth and have a chip in my front tooth as I have fallen many times but don’t be afraid of failing. Pick yourself up and just give it your best.

Adrian: The other thing I also have to do as a carer is that I have to let Clodagh fall. You know, it’s like a mother and toddler thing, you can see the fall coming but you think ‘I hope she doesn’t hurt herself!’ And she does fall, and you go ‘Are you alright?’ and the answer is ‘Yeah, yeah!’ And you know she’ll learn from it.

Adrian, how do you avoid the temptation in a carer role to ‘fix’ or ‘rescue’?

Adrian: You see young mothers, often called helicopter Mums hoovering around their child constantly. The child doesn’t learn anything. It’s that as a carer, you have to stand back. I know Clodagh wants to get up and run out here and to be honest, if I let her, she would try it!

We go for long walks on the beach. She’ll go a that little bit further and I ask her ‘Are you up for this today?’ Clodagh will answer ‘Yes, absolutely’. As long as we have walked on that beach, we have never reached halfway. You’ve got to keep that in your head, you’re never halfway until you turn around. So, Clodagh will walk, walk and walk and I’ll go ‘Turn around now.’ And I know that you’re nearly busted: we’re halfway and then we’ll start to walk back. Then before we hit the car Clodagh will say ‘I’m busted!’ And you think, now she’s knows her limits that she can go halfway and has a better understanding of her abilities. But if I am constantly telling her, ‘We need to turn around now’, Clodagh wouldn’t know or learn limits for herself. It’s something Clodagh sets and does herself.

Clodagh: It’s nice to push your limits. Every time you push your limits you get new limits. It’s the same with the driving. I found at the start I could only drive a short distance. I might drive to Antrim. Last weekend I drove as far to Newcastle and back again and that was three hours.

Adrian: We would go out in the car and I would take the passenger seat. When it would get to the point Clodagh would say, ‘I’m tired, I can’t do this anymore’ and I would say ‘At least you know how far you went.’ And Clodagh would know how far she could drive and her limits. I would then just drive the car back again. We have just built it up and built it up. Clodagh will now say ‘I’m just going ahead here.’ As a carer, it’s easier for me as I know that Clodagh when driving alone sees her limits. If Clodagh wants to push her limits, we’ll do it together. I say, ‘I know you can safely do this, if you want to do more, let’s do more together.’

Clodagh: That’s been a huge part of my recovery. Adrian has been really helpful as with every problem I faced, he will always find a solution. It may not be the solution you choose. Initially in Musgrave hospital, I wanted to go to the beach to see the sea. All my therapists and nurses, everybody said no. But eventually, the top consultant, said ‘Yes, if she wants to go, she can go.’ But I couldn’t at that point do car transfers. I could barely sit up in my wheelchair. Adrian said right, if he’s allowing you to go, I’ll take you.

Adrian got in my wheelchair. My legs spasmed at that time so we didn’t know how to keep them strapped down. He bought industrial Velcro. He stuck my feet to the footplate of the chair. I couldn’t drink normal fluids as I couldn’t hold them in my hand. He took a special cup and brought the fluids thickener with him in a bag. He wheeled me on to the train. We took the train from Musgrave to Portrush. Every problem has a solution. So maybe I wouldn’t have wanted my feet stuck to the wheelchair but it’s what we had to do to get there.

Adrian: We thought if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes because we wanted to go to the seaside.

Clodagh: We got to Portrush station. Adrian bought an ice-cream and held the ice-cream for me.

Adrian: We brought the nurses back sticks of rock!

Clodagh: When everybody looks at the photos of me and my first trip to the seaside, they think ‘Oh that’s lovely!’. What they don’t actually see is that I couldn’t sit up in a wheelchair. I couldn’t speak. I kept falling over in the train as I had no core control. I was incontinent, my legs kept spasming, I couldn’t drink normal fluids. I could barely hold an ice-cream cone. Adrian was my team mate. I was willing to do lots of things just to get there and so was he.

The choice was hospital or beach. I was way happier with the beach.

How did you feel afterwards? What difference did the trip make?

Clodagh: It was a wonderful part of our recovery. It’s why I didn’t remain in hospital as long as I thought. Effectively, Adrian was my teammate. Together, there was nothing we couldn’t do. Everyone says that I am very determined as a person. I am very determined. However, when you are completely paralysed and can’t talk, you can be as determined as you want to be but you’re going to need someone to help you. Adrian has been that determined person beside me always. No matter what I wanted to be, he would work a way out and find a solution. And I think that is being a policeman: knowing that you have to, you can’t run away from anything, you must find a solution. It might not be a solution that you would choose but it moves things forward.

Clodagh, you had three big goals, return to work, driving and running. Two down and one to go. What else would you see looking forward, for both of you, which gives you a sense of expectation and joy?

Clodagh: I am looking forward to next month we are going to Barcelona for our birthdays. We don’t look too far ahead but I am really looking forward to that. I am looking forward to the small things in life. I enjoy my nephews and nieces. I look forward to spending time with them.

In many ways, I think I have changed a lot as a person. Before I took ill, if I saw children running and screaming or being mischievous, I would think, ‘Could you not get them to sit down?’ Now I get real pleasure in watching kids and people busying about, talking and running and shouting.

Nobody is promised their tomorrows so do enjoy today. You don’t know what’s out and around the corner or what’s going to happen. Some things you just can’t do today, for example you might save up for a holiday. Don’t be putting everything off for years and years. If it’s something you really want to do, just make it happen.

Clodagh: I find real pleasure in other people’s happiness. When I see other people smiling and happy, that gives me real pleasure. I know that a day can bring a lot of change. Maybe tomorrow something bad will happen. So, when I see a family passing and smiling I think, ‘That’s lovely, they’re happy.’ That makes me happy.

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Author: Maire McGrath, Director, FutureSpark Coaching

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