Over the past eight years, I’ve had the privilege of the working with the team at Quolux in Cheltenham, playing a small part in delivering the employee engagement element of their hugely successful lead programme. Having been involved in the subject from an operational management point of view for over forty years, I thought I knew quite a bit about employee engagement and its dimensions. However, interacting with participants, all tremendously energetic and challenging, has given me a much broader perspective. My thrust has always been to keep things simple and to focus on organisational success, with everything else following as a consequence of improvement in core metrics. But now, I see that there are individual benefits that are so powerful that these can be prioritised from the get-go.
Last year I had a bit of a damascene conversion. I was asked to collaborate with Philip Dyer, a well-known business mentor on the subject of “Healthy Leaders”. I assumed initially that I had been selected as the equivalent of the “Before” example in the slimming ads – I was the fat, stress-ridden lump and athletic Philip, but for the “After”. Having worked with leaders of SMEs for many years in various guises, Philip has progressively become alarmed at the very high proportion of people suffering from mental health issues, poor diets and general unfitness. He suggested a holistic approach based on organisational health, mental health, nutrition and fitness. Philip himself has been, since his teens, very much into fitness (he is the international standard in Karate and latterly indoor rowing) and diet, given his family’s history of diabetes.
Although we put the programme together and launched it at the University of Central Lancashire with little expectation of any success, the response has been overwhelming. It became apparent that the demands of leadership in so many instances have led to a neglect of the leader’s own personal health. Anti-depressants, blood pressure tablets and antacids seem commonplace in the profession. Most are aware of the issues but are caught in a vicious spiral where the business always comes first. It is a matter which rarely gets discussed as to discuss it is often perceived as a sign of weakness. But the problem is nevertheless widespread.
This lockdown could be seen as an opportunity for leaders to reflect on whether they are sacrificing far too much for the sake of the business, and whether they can arrive at a middle ground where both the leader and the business could equally benefit from the four elements outlined here in a co-ordinated fashion.
Looking back on a career dominated largely by a series of extremely difficult turnaround situations, I would have said at the time that I thrived on pressure and enjoyed the challenge. I think now that I was kidding myself. It was in retrospect all too easy to get wrapped up in a bubble that places work at the centre of everything.
And I would strongly urge you to review your general management style and modus operandi, along these four areas:
- Organisational Health: There is little doubt now that an engaged workforce will not only provide an overall environment characterised by less stress, but the associated need of extensive delegation which will ease the time load on leader(s). If the financial and general performance benefits don’t attract, then perhaps the prospects of a quieter life will!
- Diet: There are many approaches to losing weight, most of which don’t seem to work. One analysis endorsed by Philip can be found on the YouTube podcasts of “The Fat Emperor” aka Ivor Cummins (Irish Heart Foundation). A self-confessed data geek, Ivor tackles the issues from the standpoint of proven science. I would recommend listening to his philosophy as it is not based on fads or theories but research-endorsed facts. When you hear about the consequences of the carbohydrate dominant diet of the Western world in terms of heart disease, diabetes, IBS, dementia and vulnerability to Covid-19, it will certainly make you think.
- Mental Health: This is an area of such complexity that I would loath to comment. However, meditation (now termed mindfulness), when introduced to the majority of the workforce at Leyland Trucks, produced significant benefits collectively and individually. At the very least, I would strongly advise finding a mentor, someone to share your problems with in a dispassionate and objective fashion. It is good to talk. Feedback from the lead programmes, especially from the Quolux group, indicate that building supportive networks can help SME leaders massively.
- Fitness: Most of the more recent generations of SME leadership have already got the message here, but the benefits of regular exercise to combat the stresses of working life in the twenty first century are now unquestioned.
Above all, don’t think that pursuing the path of a healthy leader is selfish. The heathier you are, the more likely you are to succeed in tackling the challenges of the post-Covid era. Employee engagement is capable of the most rewarding transformations in organisational performance as I have seen on many occasions. But the return for the individual leader/manager can be equally powerful if a more holistic approach is adopted.
Author: Professor John J Oliver OBE, Team Enterprise Solutions