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Author Archive for carole – Page 2

Are you reflecting or ruminating: the key difference in staying resilient

Talk of being stressed by work has become a norm. The blurring of lines between work and non work because of technology, means there is no longer a buffer between work and home. The volume of work constantly increases because of what technology can deliver. The demand to do more with less at speed and the complexity of many problems with no clear answer are all markers of the pressure to perform. But does pressure mean stress? Two people facing those same pressures will react differently. One will seem to take it in their stride; the other will experience the demands as stressful. Even if they do not admit to their feelings, the stressed worker will notice changes in their ability to control their emotions, to work productively and to maintain a sense of optimism about outcomes. It may even make them ill as their immune system is unable to support the demands they are making on it.

Or consider the converse, someone whose work seems to involve little pressure, but who shows every sign of being stressed. So what is the difference between pressure and stress? This is the question Dr Derek Rogers, a research psychologist from the University of York has been exploring for the last 35 years, and his conclusion is that the difference is simple. Stress and loss of resilience come from the propensity to ruminate rather than to reflect. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with pressure. It is simply the expectation of performance, and many people say they thrive on that pressure to deliver. Stress comes when the demands produce thoughts which are played in the brain like a scratched record. The thoughts generated by the emotions in the moment of demand become trapped in the faulty groove of the vinyl, and we cannot change the record.

What does rumination look like? You have had a bad day. One team member announces they are resigning at a key point in the project. Your boss calls you in at the end of the day and tells you that you need to get the project finished even earlier, and as an afterthought adds that you did not get the tone right when you presented to the Exec Committee earlier in the day. On such a day it is understandable if your thoughts as you go home are dominated by anger at the team member for making your life more difficult and concerns about how easily you will replace them. Add to this your feelings of failure at not delivering the presentation well and possible consequences for your career in terms of how you are seen by senior leaders. Then there is anxiety about how your boss will appraise you if you don’t deliver on the delivery date.

Those reactions are normal, and a good night’s sleep can provide perspective. Rumination starts when you cannot let go of the thoughts and feelings. When for days and weeks after you are worrying about your reputation and you are seeing catastrophe ahead in terms of the project’s delivery. You hold onto the emotions the events of one day generated. You do not sleep well and when you wake in the middle of the night your brain immediately fills with negative thoughts. On the bad day your body recognised you were feeling threat and prepared you to fight, flee or freeze as adrenaline flooded your system. Weeks later if you are still replaying the situations in your brain your body replays the same reactions. It is now also calling on cortisol to help you deal with the danger which it thinks you arefacing, and cortisol called on over time both compromises the immune system and lays down fat. More causes for negative rumination.

One of the differentiators between humans and other species according to York and his co-author Nick Petrie is our ability to ruminate, and to re-experience emotions and bodily sensations long after the event. If you surprise a pet cat by walking into the room quietly, it will spring into the air, arch its back and be prepared to fight. Once it recognises you as its loving owner it will relax lie back on the rug and go back to sleep. It will not be asking itself questions such as ‘’Why did I not notice the door opening?’, or ‘What would have happened to me if it had been a big dog? The cat simply recognises the reality of the situation as it is.

So rather than the pressures of the job in themselves causing stress, it is our propensity to ruminate which is a key contributor. Our ability to deal with pressure without becoming stressed lies in being able to reflect rather than to ruminate. So what is the difference?

  • Reflection comes from dealing with the present moment. It comes from focussing on ‘what is the situation right now?’, and then drawing up plans that deal with that reality. It is the difference between constantly thinking about the possible cost to the project of a member leaving and becoming anxious, and wondering what you could have done differently to keep them, and focussing on the reality of what you can do to minimise the impact of their leaving ,and what you can renegotiate to make the project workable.
  • Reflection starts from noticing when you are in what York and Petrie call ‘waking sleep’ i.e. spending time trying to rewrite history or predicting the future, and then asking yourself how useful those minutes of thought have been to solving the difficulty. It is a practical application of mindfulness: a noticing of the emotions and thoughts which are filling your brain, in order to be able to challenge the process, by bringing you back to the present.

So how do you shift from rumination to reflection, given that going over things in our head as though we can change what has passed or write what will pass is an engrained practice in many of us.

Get out of Waking Sleep

Waking sleep is when we are not focussed on the task in hand but are daydreaming about the past or a projected negative future, with all the emotions that go with those thoughts. Getting out of waking sleep and into reflection means:

  • Notice yourself. Mindfulness asks you to notice your thoughts as just thoughts and not the truth. Catching yourself and being able to say ‘I’m daydreaming again’ is the first step.
  • Question yourself. Notice how long you have been in daydreaming mode, and then ask yourself how useful those minutes have been. What new ideas or solutions have come from the replaying of emotionally charged thoughts.
  • Ground yourself. What is the situation right now? Rather than ruminating on ‘Will I have a job next year?’, or’ What if the deadline is not met?’ Ask yourself – ‘What is the reality at this moment, and what does that enable me to do?

We can never work without pressure, but those who succeed have the ability to stop themselves derailing by focusing their energies on reflection, rather than rumination.

Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success Derek Roger and Nick Petrie. (McGraw Hill Education)

Confessions of a Failed Mindfulness Practitioner

Zen stones in water

What if you know mindfulness is good for you, but you still find reasons why it can’t be fitted into your day.   What if you have studied innumerable raisins close up in the service of mindful attention but you still don’t like raisins.  What if your mind is always full but not of the thoughts and feelings that are helpful.  What do you do instead?

Mindfulness has entered the mainstream.  There is hardly a leadership programme that does not include it.   Major plcs as diverse as PWC, Glaxo SmithKline and Google provide programmes and even special space for mindfulness breaks during the day.  Harvard University offers it to students, and  state schools include it as part of examination preparation.  The 8 week programme of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat Zinn to help clients with symptoms of stress and anxiety is now offered far beyond its original mental health setting.  When high street retailer, Tesco, teaches mindfulness to staff at store level it is a signal that it is now so commonplace that a backlash is inevitable, and it is beginning to happen.  Why is that?  There is plentiful evidence of its efficacy when it becomes a committed practice.  There are MRI scans which show how by regular mindfulness practice the brain is changed to think more positively,   but the truth is most of us are not committed practitioners.  We enjoy it whilst on a programme and when done with others.   We recognise its value at times of stress, and then we forget.  It takes up too much time, it becomes another thing to do, or our practice is so intermittent that we feel little value.  Who am I talking about when I write this – me.  I have done the 8 week programme, I have downloaded guided meditations, I have numerous mindfulness books sitting on the shelf, and yet I don’t continue to do the work.  It’s not because I don’t need to, it’s because I am a natural resister of regular disciplines.

 

I kept my sloth quiet when amongst those committed to mindfulness, until I found an ally in the work of Emma Young.  Her book ‘Sane’: written by a science and health journalist who shows a resistance to doing many of the things which she is told she should do in the name of well being struck a chord in me.  In setting out to establish what really works and is supported by science, she filters out many of the contradictory messages we are given, and identifies the essentials for improving mental strength.  Inevitably, she examines mindfulness, and concludes after talking with a range of researchers,  that it is the disruption to mental thought processes which is key.  Some may get it from mindfulness, others from running, playing a musical instrument, or making a cake.  It is the value of the activity in keeping us in the moment, undistracted from any other thought or concern that gives the activity its recuperative power.

 

Now,  I have discovered my form of disruption in the work of Heartmath®.   Heartmath® is at its simplest a breathing technique to reduce stress and build resilience.  However, it is based on the growing neuroscience evidence of the intelligence of the heart.  The heart is not just a pump, it is an organ with neural circuits that it is continually in communication with the brain, informing it of our level of stress or relaxation.  All those sayings which refer to the heart:  heart broken, heart sore, heart weary , bleeding heart, heavy heart  or heart to heart, are not accidental, they recognise that the heart is an active organ of emotion and communication. It is directly linked with our limbic system.

heartmath

By learning how to breath in a heart focussed way, we can control the variability of our heart rhythm and bring it into a smooth coherent pattern which balances out our need for energy with our need for relaxation.  In doing so we  enhance our performance and ability to handle the demands of the day. What is powerful for those who like to see science in action is that with Heartmath® you can observe your own heart pattern through a bio-feedback application linked to smartphone technology.   You can see how when you change your breathing you change the neurotransmitters which are driving  emotional responses to events.  And, of course, whilst engaging in managing  breathing more effectively, you are not focused on the thoughts that were causing us negative emotions.  It works for me, because I know that even 3 minutes of focused heart based breathing will support me in dealing with the demands of the day, and when the demands increase, a top up can be done quickly and inconspicuously.

 

Once I discovered its value for a failed mindfulness practitioner, I decided to use it with  clients as another means for supporting their resilience.  Clients like it, because even in the most demanding of situations they notice that by changing their breathing, they change their response (and no one even knows they are doing it).  So, while mindfulness has undoubted benefits, if you cannot quieten your mind one way, simply find your way.

 

 

What is Grit?

li-syria-refugees-rtr3a7ge

Images of exhausted refugees determined to succeed  in their quest to reach Europe in the hope of safety, have shown us people with admirable grit.  They have refused to give in or be deflected by danger, cold or hunger.  They meet difficulty  with a determination that challenges us to ask ourselves, “could I do the same  in the same circumstances?”

So what is grit, and what enables people to access it?  Grit is not the same as resilience, but it is an important part of it.  Resilience is an outcome,  it is the process of  recovering from setback.   Grit is what keeps people going when the going gets tough.  It is grit which keeps individuals determined to achieve a goal, and  we  need resilience when the reality of the goal makes high demands of us.  The refugee who attains their goal of a new life, then has to live the reality of a life apart from their family, of finding work, of learning a new language and living with new cultural norms.  They  need to access resilience in the same way as an ambitious person who has given up everything in order to achieve a career goal then has to live with the pressures of it, and the risk of failure. It is grit which makes a professional tennis player refuse to concede a match and hang on in, in the belief that their opponent will eventually crumble, rather than accepting the figures on the score board.  It is resilience that same person needs when they fail to win and have to get out of bed the next day and start training all over again.

 

So what is it that gives people ‘grit’?  According to Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, it is holding long term goals: goals that take months or even years to achieve.  Grit comes from having a vision of the future which goes beyond the immediacy of the moment. Wanting to escape physical danger provides a short term goal, but wanting to provide a life for one’s children so they can thrive, gives an additional impetus for sticking with discomfort.

 

Most of us will never face the life challenges of refugees, but we all still need grit. In studying groups as diverse as West Point Academy student cadets, contestants in a national spelling bee competiton and sales people,Angela Duckworth has concluded that grit is a  better predictor of success than IQ or EQ. To succeed we need grit.

 

So if you want to develop your ‘grittiness’ what can you do:

  1. You need to really want something and know why it is important to you.
  2. You must want to achieve the goal for yourself, not in order to please parents, partners or win the approval of our boss.  When we do things for others  when the going gets tough we can blame them for burdening us with their expectations.
  3. You need multiple goals that you keep in focus during the ups and downs, and which take you beyond immediate rewards.  A principle of having 3 goals helps move from the short term to the longer term.  A goal of going to the gym regularly is more likely to be stuck with if it is allied to a goal of being able to run a half marathon, which is in turn supported by a goal of having the energy to be a good parent.
  4. You need to develop your willpower muscle.  Willpower is built with practice. Everyone loses willpower at times, – but with practice it becomes easier to reconnect with willpower rather than seeing one setback as a reason for giving in.
  5. Stop thinking and ‘do’.  The energy we put into finding excuses for not doing things is enormous. Closing down the brain and just doing, denies us the possibility of a ‘let out’ clause. In the doing and the discovery that we can do something despite it being difficult or painful, we increase our grittiness.
  6. Confidence and grit are linked.  When we stick at something which stretches us, and in the process discover we can do something we never believed possible, our confidence grows.  When we allow ourselves off the hook in order to gain an immediate relief, we unconsciously erode our confidence in our own potential.

 

 

 

 

If you can’t find a supporter find an imaginery one

 

 

Doreen Pemberton receiving her nursing certificate

Doreen Pemberton receiving her nursing certificate

Today is a special day.  Through the post arrived copies of my new book Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches (McGraw Hill).  The title makes  clear what it is about and who it is written for.  I obviously hope it will help coaches do good work with their clients, but my excitement is about more than seeing the front cover and hoping it will do well  in Amazon’s rankings.  It is the excitement of realising that I have written  something that I could not have imagined doing 5 years ago.

The genesis of this book came from working with a particular client who I felt I failed.  I did not recognise that his resilience had left him, because I was used to seeing a man who was confident, successful and achieving.  When he seemed changed, I assumed I was meeting him on a ‘bad day’ and worked with him on the symptoms of that day, rather than realising what was really going on.  When he eventually became ill, I was shocked at what I had not seen, and it jolted me into action.  I began reading on resilience, I went on workshops and eventually I signed up to do doctoral research on resilience from the perspective of coaching.  I completed the doctorate and the outcome of that process is the book which McGraw Hill/OU Press have now published.

 

The book is a symbol of my  learning, but it is also a  marker of my own resilience.  I started a doctorate many years ago and abandoned it, although the conditions to complete it could not have been easier.  I was working in a business school.  I had easy access to organisations.  My fees were paid.  I could legitimately claim time to study.  Yet, I abandoned the work because it failed to make my heart sing.  I could see no purpose in doing the work, other than getting a qualification.  This time around, I achieved a doctorate despite working full time, paying my own way, having to negotiate access and giving up weekends and holidays.  What got me up at 5am in the morning to write before going to work, was not the lure of a qualification, but the desire to learn and for that learning to strengthen my own work .

And, there was another reason: I drew on the role modelling of my mother.  She had died shortly before I began the doctorate.  She was a feisty woman who had left school at 13, and who began studying in her 40’s, so that she could win a place to train to be a nurse.  The memory of her getting up  on a dark winters’ morning to ride her moped to a hospital many miles away; working nights,  and somehow managing to care for 3 children as a single parent, without ever complaining, stayed with me.  Her example sustained me as I wrote. At times I could even hear her voice telling me to just keep going.

Resilience research repeatedly reports 2 key themes in those who get through tough times:

  • The power of having a purpose
  • The importance of having support

My own experience supports those themes, but what I have also learnt is that  support can be virtual.  As much as it is enormously valuable to have friends and family who are physically there for us, it is also true that we can create our own virtual support system.  Calling on people who are no longer present in our lives, but who model qualities which can help us achieve our goals, can  be as powerful as having them physically present.  It is a tactic reported by people who have been taken captive.  As they live day to day in the harshest of conditions, they imagine those who love them talking to them with encouragement, and they use their voices to  keep them going.  Asking ourselves  “What would . . .   say to me if they were here right now?” can be a powerful motivator in tough times.

 

So, as I look at the book, I am celebrating not just the journey that took me from a feeling inadequate in my understanding of resilience, to being able to write a book about it, I am also celebrating the parental voice that kept me going.

If you are facing a challenge which is testing your resilience right now, then ask yourself:

  • Do I have a purpose in getting me through this?
  • Who can I draw on for support, even if  they are not physically here for me?

You can find out about the book by watching the video at www.https://carolepemberton.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Resilience Training: The Evidence on What Works

resilience flower

Recently  I sat in a presentation by a major supermarket. The audience of business leaders listened with sceptical curiosity as the speaker claimed resilience as  a core organisational skill, and explained how they had introduced resilience training to thousands of  employees, many of whom work at checkouts .

The question of ROI hung in the air.  For some it was business ROI – how could they justify the cost of a large scale programme at a time  of financial difficulty?  As a coach and trainer the ROI I was interested in was whether a 2 hour session on mindfulness could make any difference to an employee’s ability to work with uncertainty and pressure. Can resilience training make a difference?

This question is addressed in a timely new study by Ivan Robertson and colleagues, reported in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology.   The Robertson Cooper i- resilience questionnaire is widely used as a diagnostic of resilience capacity.  The follow on from diagnosis is how best to address identified needs.  Do some approaches work better than others? Does the length of intervention make a difference?   What is most likely to be impacted by a formal training programme?

The study is important because it is the first to systematically look at the 155 English language studies on resilience training published in peer reviewed academic journals since 2003.  After applying rigorous criteria to filter the studies, it concluded that only 14 were robust enough to allow for examining the validity of their outcomes.

The 14 studies included programmes varying in length from single 90 minute sessions to workshops run over 12 weeks;  From on line programmes to 2.5 day retreats and group workshops supported with 1:1 coaching.   While positive psychology and CBT have been the most commonly used approaches written about in the professional resilience literature, their study also included programmes built around mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the stress reduction brain training model Attention and Interpretation Therapy.  One programme even used technology in the form of emWave biofeedback machines to help participants self manage their own stress. So with such diversity of approaches, what conclusions did they reach as to the value of resilience training?

 

The Evidence

The research  concluded that resilience training may have benefits for subjective well being outcomes such as stress, anxiety, depression and negative thoughts and emotional responses, but the evidence is not yet robust enough to make claims with certainty, because sample sizes are so small that claims of significant shift are difficult to defend.

Several studies did, however, show a significant positive effect on self efficacy i.e. the participants confidence in their ability to take action was increased as a result of the input.  Another study showed a significant reduction in participants’ fatigue after resilience training.

A study which measured biological outcomes reported a significant increase in  participant antithrombin levels after training.  Antithrombin is an anti-coagulant which helps prevent thrombosis.  It also reported a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol amongst those who completed the programme.  So resilience training can work at a physiological level.

 

Most programmes included a cognitive behavioural approach to developing resilience but they concluded that there is no strong evidence on what makes for the most effective training content or format, or that there is an optimal programme length.

Implications

Inevitably, since this was an academic review it highlighted the weaknesses in the methodologies of existing research and therefore the danger of drawing firm conclusions.  However, it offers some hints as to what works when designing resilience programmes.

  1. The organisation needs to be clear as to what they mean by resilience, and to design interventions that build from that definition.  There are many academic definitions, so it is important to understand what the particular context means by resilience and why it is important to them.
  2. If the organisation wants to assess ROI, it makes sense to uses a resilience questionnaire designed for work rather than clinical settings at the outset, and to do a retest after the completion of the training.
  3. While there appears to be no one best way of developing resilience through training, there is evidence that some element of 1:1 coaching and/or on going support is advisable.

What this work  highlights is that while resilience is a word frequently claimed by organisations as a requirement for success, and by individuals as a capacity they wish to develop, finding an effective way do so in organisational settings is still in its infancy. It also encourages coaches and programme designers to focus on the need of participants within their particular setting and to build the programme with the end in mind.  It also highlights that just as resilience is aided by the availability of support, resilience training is aided when there is room for 1:1 support alongside any group activity.

Full details of the article ’Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: a systematic review’  by Ivan Robertson, Cary Cooper, Mustafa Sarkar and Thomas Curran can be found at:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/joop.12120/abstrac

 

Getting the Right Sort of Mentor

mentor

In the ‘old days’ it was obvious what you wanted a mentor for – to help you up the corporate ladder.  Being associated with a more powerful person who could open doors, drop your name into conversations and position you for opportunities was a key element in many stories of those who rose to the top.  Then, notions of equality entered the discussion with the recognition that those powerful people were more likely to be male and were more likely to offer that sponsorship to younger men who they saw mirroring them in style, background and ambition.  Mentoring moved from sponsorship to development or rather development with the hope of sponsorship.  Informal mentoring where a senior figure spotted younger talent and offered a helping hand has largely been  replaced by formal mentoring schemes, with selection and matching, time frames  and agreed goals. Or finding a mentor is regarded as the responsibility of the individual, and a test of their career pro-activity.  Alongside this the aims of mentoring have become more diverse.  The original Mentor was a wise old counsellor offering his wisdom to help young Telemachus deal with the challenges of life, because his father Odysseus was away during his formative years.  Today a mentor can be anything from an advice giver to a teacher to a coach.  The question that now has to be asked is what sort of mentor do you need?

Needs come in two forms:  the sort of help that is needed and the sort of mentor who you will work best with.

Michael Heath an expert on mentoring suggests there are 4 varieties of mentoring that are of value.

  • The Buddy mentor who can teach the things that are essential to the transition into a new organisation or role.  That person need not be senior or older, but they are good at understanding how the place works.  They are often of most value in the first few months, when they   provide nuggets of information on how to do things, who not to upset, how to work best with your boss.  They transmit information.
  • The Expert mentor who can help you deliver on your work more quickly because of their expertise.  This may be someone who is more senior in your team, or at least is further down the line in terms of their experience.  You can take your concerns to them and they will give you an answer as to how something should be done.  They save you the work of figuring it out yourself, by teaching you.
  • The Attached mentor is someone who can help you do the thinking for yourself within your area of work.  They have more expertise than you but they use that expertise to help you figure out how to approach a project or a piece of work.  They do not assume you will do it their way, so they use their skill to ask you questions that will enable you to think it through for yourself.  They are attached to the area of subject knowledge, but they are not attached to there being only one answer.  They will offer advice but only when it is clear you can’t find your own solution.
  • The Detached mentor does not offer expertise, and may know little of the content of your work, but they are open to your bringing concerns regarding yourself, your  work or career to the table.  They are able to  help you  think the issue through from multiple perspectives, without having any attachment to the answer you come up with, other than that it works.  They use their experience to challenge and to help the other person widen their perspective and explore options. They are facilitators of your thinking.

Getting the right mentor is about acknowledging what you need at that moment.  Someone struggling to understand how to get things done in a very different culture from their previous employer, will gain more at the start from a Buddy mentor than a Detached mentor.  Someone who is losing motivation in their work will value the safety of being able to say and think things they would not share with their boss that a Detached mentor can offer.  Someone who is starting to become more independent in their work role will welcome an Attached mentor rather than the Expert.

Getting it right is more than looking at the content of the work, it is also about looking at the style of the mentor, and how it fits with your own.  It is about being honest about your own preferences and your desire for support or challenge.  A mentor who is like you is will make you feel comfortable.  If you are a highly analytical, concrete thinker than a mirror version of yourself offers a  sense of ease.  Similarly, if you are a highly relational, intuitive thinker then finding a colleague who offers that match will feel safe.  However, it may not be what will best help you develop, particularly if you are seeking space to explore issues about the limitations of your existing approach, your relationship with your boss, your management of your team or how to develop for the next role.  Seeking a mentor who will mismatch is often a powerful way of developing.  They will notice things you don’t notice about yourself.  They will ask questions you don’t ask yourself.  They will create some discomfort, and it is from discomfort that change is stimulated.

Whether your employer offers you a mentor, or you decide to find one yourself, the keys to success are the same: be clear on what you want the mentor for, and be willing to challenge yourself in the service of your development.

Go On Take A Risk

old man on a bike

A 60 year old man came up at the end of a  presentation.  I had been talking about one of the markers of resilient leaders being their  ability to go beyond comfort.  Expecting a conversation about his  leadership, I was surprised when he began by confessing, “I have never learnt to ride a bike”. His colleague over hearing then added, “How do I learn a new sport as a middle aged man, when I know I won’t be any good”.  The answer to both their comments was the same: find a purpose and you will find the courage.  There is an apochryphal story that Albert Einstein learned to ride a bike when he was 80.  The truth of the story is less important than its message.  Learning to ride a bike at 80 cannot have been easy, but if he did so, he did it because he found a reason why riding a bike was now important to him.  It may have been linked to reduced mobility, or it may have been directed by the desire to master a new skill.  Whatever the reason, he had a purpose, and that purpose sustained him through the embarrassment of the failed attempts that were necessary before his body had the physical memory of how to balance on 2 wheels.

 

What was holding back the rookie tennis player was the belief  that he looked a fool on the tennis court, even though he was a successful businessman.  He was trapped by a sense that he should be good, and therefore he was judging himself harshly for his constant double faults and inability to hit the ball where he wanted to.  His fear of being bad was the very thing that was ensuring he could not be good.  He needed to  replace fear with  purpose.  What else could tennis give him beyond winning?  Once he finds  that purpose: whether it is doing something with his children, enjoying being outdoors, or making new friends, it will be easier to quieten the internal critic and pay curious attention to what he is doing with his racquet.  It is probable that the less he worries about his technique, the better his technique will become.

 

It is undoubtably harder to expose oneself to failure as one grows older.  No toddler ever judges their attempts to walk as so abysmal that they will give up walking.  They are so directed by the desire to have their first experience of independence that they simply pick themselves up and start again. They are not afraid of failure because they accept it as secondary to achieving a desired end.  As adults we need to accept the value in continuing to expose ourselves to new learning and risk, and define the reason for doing so, more broadly than being the best.

The Executive Myth of the First 100 Days

Entering any new role there is an acknowledged transition period: a time when it is OK to say ‘I don’t know’.  For a hotel receptionist that period may be days, for senior executives it has become commonplace to talk of the first 100 days.  A report by McKinseys based on a survey study of leaders entering the top level of their organisation has discovered that the idea that executives are performing and comfortable in their role in 100 days is untrue. Up to a third of those who made a successful transition reported that it took up to 6 months before they felt they understood the business, the demands of the role, the culture of the organisation and the capability of their team.  This was true even if their move was a lateral move rather than a promotion, and it made no difference if the appointment was internal or external.

 

So powerful has the idea of the first 100 days become that it adds to the pressure that newly appointed senior executives feel to perform quickly, and in doing so they fail to do the very things which ultimately will help their success.  According to McKinsey, the most important factor in success was the ability to create a shared vision and to build alignment around that strategic direction. But in order to be able to do that the executive needs to understand the culture they are operating in, and to give sufficient time to getting under the skin of how the organisation really operates and its values in action.  The reason that executives reported that they gave less time to understanding culture than understanding the business is that measuring culture is more difficult than understanding business figures.  Having a handle on the numbers provides a sense of certainty, trying to assess culture is less certain, and relies on intuition and sensing as much as it does data.

 

Executives acknowledged that they had underestimated the personal demands the new role would make of them.  Those that successfully made the transition were more likely to have given time to preparing them self for the role, rather than simply immersing themselves in it.  They defined what was their unique contribution to the executive team, and gave time to those issues that they alone could influence, rather than doing things which others in their team could do.

 

Finally, the successful transitioners acknowledged that they did not know it all, and drew on their direct reports to determine the solutions to the strategic problems they faced.  Mobilising their team to be high performing was second only to creating a shared vision, and for nearly 3/4 that did not mean wholesale changes to the existing team.

 

The conclusion that McKinsey draw is that the short term pressure new appointments feel to deliver results quickly needs to be balanced with the need to think holistically about their role.  A successful transition is based on business, culture, team and self understanding.  Each of those areas is equally important and requires different tools.  The leader who is able to develop a clear vision of strategic priorities, build their team, rigorously assess the organisation’s culture and prepare themselves for the demands of the role will ultimately be more successful than the leader who can only focus on the quick wins.

Why You Should Exercise When You are Too Busy To Find the Time

We all know we should exercise, eat healthily, get enough sleep and take regular breaks from the pc. And yet . . . the things we know we should do are the very things we don’t do when we are feeling pressured. The thing that goes first for many of us is exercise. The pull of meeting a deadline, clearing emails, or preparing for the next day is often stronger than the lure of an exercise class, a bike ride or a session in the gym. I am no different, even though I know that my head is clearer after I have worked up a sweat.

Now I know why that is – it’s all down to galanin. Never heard of it? Neither had I until I came across research by Professor Philip Holmes of the University of Georgia. Galanin is a neuropeptide. It may sound like a new wonder ingredient in anti-aging face creams, but it is more important than that. Galanin protects neurons. It helps them to fire up so that they can send signals to the pre-frontal cortex: the part of the brain responsible for complex cognitive functions like planning, decision-making, emotion regulation and stress resilience. His research has shown that when stressed galanin starts to degenerate. so that neurons are not able to work so effectively. In contrast when we exercise galanin is increased. In experimental work with rats the study found that those with higher levels of galanin were curious in finding ways around obstacles. They were resilient under pressure. Whilst sedentary rats with lower levels of galanin became anxious when faced by an obstacle and stayed put. Extrapolate that finding to humans and it suggests that sedentary working unbalanced by exercise reduces our mental capacities and increases our stress levels.

You may exercise because you want muscle, tone or flexibility, but all of those desires can be put on hold when under pressure. What you can’t put on hold is your need for galanin. It is when you feel you have the least time to exercise that you need it most. So no excuses. When the choice is between staying on to cope with your workload, knowing you will go home tired as a result or leaving to do some form of exercise, remember that with a galanin enhanced brain, you will cope a whole lot better the next day.

Measure Your Resilience

Neuroscience and gene mapping have confirmed what many of us have suspected – some people are hardwired to be resilient, and some people are hardwired to experience the same situation as more stressful than others.  However, it is also confirming that genetics only explains 30% of our variability , the rest is down to what we learn from our early years, and from dealing with the challenges which life throws our way.

 

From looking at the wealth of research on resilience, there are a number of key qualities which appear in research findings, regardless of whether they are drawn from looking at children, adults with life limiting illnesses, Olympians or high achievers at work.  These qualities together provide protection when we face difficulty.  We all have them to some degree, but there will be some that you draw on more easily, and some that are less developed.

 

So, to discover which of the Big 8 Resilience Qualities you have learnt most effectively, ask yourself the following questions.

 

Score yourself according to the number in the column which best describes how you see yourself.

To what degree am I:

Resilience Quality Very 

 

Moderately 

 

Slightly 

 

Not at All  Don’t’ Know 
  4 3 2 1 0
PurposefulI know what is important to me and what guides my choices in work and life
FlexibleReadily able to adapt to changing circumstances
ConfidentI have a sense of trust in my actions, which is not confined to those things where I have established expertise/qualifications
CreativeAble to work with what’s there, and come up with solutions even when resources are limited
ProactiveAble to take action to move things forward, rather than waiting for others to put things right
Support SeekingAble to ask for help when I need it in order to deal with a situation
Emotionally ControlledAble to manage my emotions when under pressure.
Realistically OptimisticAble to make the best of things as they are, rather than relying on blind optimism.

 

 

 Total

 

What does this quick assessment tell you about what you call on to keep you resilient, and what you make use of.

Are you someone who offers support to others, but is reluctant to recognise that at times you need support also?

Do you lose emotional control when the pressure is on, or are only able to access negative emotions?

Do you lose flexibility at times of difficulty and become fixed on things being a certain way?

Have you lost a sense of meaning in aspects of your life, and does that make you less able to persist through difficulties?

Is your confidence linked to your ability in certain areas, which makes you reluctant to take on challenges outside of those areas?

Do you give up when the ideal solution is not available to you, or get creative?

Do you become passive when things aren’t going your way?

 

Recognise that the qualities you can easily claim have largely been learnt, so the ones that are more difficult for you to access can also be learnt.  You can wait to learn them through the next big challenge that life throws at you, or you can start learning them through experimentation:

  • Rather than keeping a concern to yourself ask someone you trust if they could help you?
  • Notice when you are operating from a negative emotional palette, and ask yourself how those emotions are helping you.  Is there another emotion that would be more useful?
  • Do one thing differently.  If you notice that you are becoming fixed in how you live your life, take the risk of doing something outside of that routine – whether it is the route you take to work, the paper you read, the sort of films you watch, the exercise regime you follow.
  • Rather than relying on your confidence in an established area.  Grow your confidence by moving outside of that area.  Find something you would like to do, but assume you can’t and take a risk.  Then notice how it changes your view of yourself.
  • Think of something you want to do at work or in life, but the resources are not there, and ask yourself “How can I do it without . . .?”  Get creative.
  • When you feel the passive you kicking in, challenge yourself to take an action.  Whether it is phoning a friend rather than waiting to be phoned, instigating a meeting rather than waiting or others, or writing the letter of complaint rather than assuming it is pointless.

You may be one of the lucky 30% blessed with innate resilience, but if you are not you can acquire it by repeated practice.