Little Nudges, Big Results

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So, great pleasure to have Steven MacGregor on the show today. Welcome, Steven.

Thanks, Mark. Great to be here.

So, how do you answer the dinner party question, ‘What do you do?’

It’s an interesting one. I mean, I interviewed him on my own podcast a few weeks ago, Kenneth Mikkelsen, who’s the lead author of a book called The Neo Generalist, and just talking about this day and age when everyone’s careers are increasingly very hard to define because they’re interested in so many different things, and when we first met he give me a copy of the book because he guessed I would have trouble answering this question. So, over the years even talking to my parents or friends at a party, a dinner party as you say, I’ve often struggled with that, and I remember, and I talked about this in the interview with Kenneth, several years ago someone asked me, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘Various things,’ and he said, ‘What are you? A drug dealer or something?’ as if I was trying to hide what I was doing by some generic term. But you know, I’m a teacher. I guess my market these days is very much executive education, a lot of teaching at a lot of the leading business schools worldwide at ESA in Barcelona, IMD, CIBS in Shanghai, and I have an academic background. I wouldn’t say I’m a full-time academic or professor, I’m an entrepreneur as well. Ten years ago, I founded the leadership academy in Barcelona. So yeah, I’m a mix of that/ I think entrepreneur and academic, and with the focus I have had the last ten or twelve years on the area of health at work, so I don’t know how that would go at a dinner party, but I think that’s as close to it as I could maybe get.

No, but I mean you raise a good point. We get defined by our labels and we have to be very careful about what labels we apply because that shapes our thinking, right?

Absolutely, yeah, and even in recent conversations my own interest has been peaked by people instead of asking, ‘What do you do?’ they’ve actually said, ‘What are you passionate about? What really gets you energized? What gets you excited?’ and especially if that’s someone I’ve just met in those first moments I find that is quite a disarming question but it’s pretty interesting.

Yeah. Well, the great thing is everyone’s got an answer to that, right? So, it’s a sort of a way of connecting very quickly with someone? 

Absolutely, absolutely, and again it was something I talked to Kenneth Mikkelsen about, by uncovering a little bit more on passion it really connects us to the other person and it tells us often so much more than a label would I think especially in this day and age when there’s so much change out there, and we are involved in so many different fields, and just with the importance to curiosity, a label often limits, maybe not intentionally, but it often does limit what we do and what we’re interested in just to the confines of that label, you know?

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So, Steven, you’ve recently published a new book called Chief Wellbeing Officer, and the aim of which you write is ‘changing your mindset to the world around you’. So, how does the book do that?

What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to legitimize health and wellbeing and over the last ten or twelve years I haven’t really been attracted so much to the word ‘wellbeing’. I’ve always felt it was a word in business that had connotations of just doing less work, not being a high performer, and just being less serious a business term in general, so I kind of shied away from it until I found the term, actually, from the DO Lectures. So, the DO Lectures are a fantastic, in my view, UK based think tank and they released a report last year called ‘The Stress Report’ and one of the quotes in that was about how companies in the future would need a Chief Wellbeing Officer to look after people and I thought it was just such a great term. And I know that there’s been whispers out there in the last few years of Chief Wellness Officer, Wellbeing Officer, and even Chief Happiness Officer more in the last couple of years but it just was a term that really did capture the essence of taking these elements of health and wellbeing and putting the chief and officer being on either side of it, not necessarily saying, ‘Let’s have a Chief Wellbeing Officer within a board level company,’ or it could be, but it was actually just getting people to think on changing their mindset on actually saying, ‘Our humanity is increasingly important within the world of work and especially in the future,’ and everyone talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the focus is on the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, it really will be humanity that allows us to thrive and I just felt that that term Chief Wellbeing Officer was something that would allow us to do that. So, within the book we just look at what that means and guidance that we can give for a company or indeed an individual to just increase their humanity within the workplace. 

Right, and you mentioned the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so I think the book starts with where we are now and there’s a chapter called ‘The Best Time to Be Alive’, and you also bring up in that chapter the concept of the Stockdale paradox which I absolutely love as a sort of a mental model if you like. Be interested in, maybe you can just explain or describe it for listeners but then secondly, to what extent does the Stockdale Paradox actually…is that a good way of looking at the environment that we’re in today from a business or from a social perspective? Interested in your thoughts on that.

I mean, there’s no doubt we’re in a very complicated age but some of the graphs that we show in chapter one is taken from Our World In Data, that’s the world as one hundred people over the last two hundred years, and we see that things like extreme poverty is decreasing markedly, literacy and education is improving around the world, so a lot of the data points to today being the most advanced time in human history but, of course, there is more inequality, there’s more challenges going forward, maybe more monopolies, the negative side, dark side of social media and all these things, so we have that trade-off, that paradox, but what I wanted to draw out, I just wanted to have an optimistic view of the world, right? And I think it comes back to the mindset that you talked about. You know, we can frame our reality and it can be the same reality for two people but just how we view that, it gives us so much about our own behavior and how then we act with other people. So, I don’t know. I just prefer to stay on the optimistic side and the positive side of the world, but I think the other point also, and this is what I’ve also found over the last ten or twelve years working in health and business is that many things are within our own control. We complain about work or executive work, or it’s the company’s fault, or the environment, or even in Scotland, right? I’m used to the weather, right? You know blaming the crap weather? And I just feel that if you believe that you can take action and you can be proactive in making the change, it sounds a little bit over simplistic or a little bit romantic, right, but I just think it makes such a difference.

Yeah, well you know this concept of gratitude and there’s a lot of work coming out of this subject now which is if you have a mindset of gratitude and openness, you can’t feel depressed if you’re grateful right? There are lots of negative emotions that are almost impossible to feel if you actually are feeling grateful, and I’m with you but I’m curious just to sort of fill the story out about the Stockdale Paradox because it’s a wonderful story. I mean, the guy, I think was stuck in Vietnam, wasn’t he? He was in the Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam and he survived, and when he was asked why he survived he said he was able to hold these two very conflicting perspectives. One was quite how serious his situation was but at the same time have a very powerful vision as to how he could emerge stronger and become free from the situation and go on to lead a very successful life, and I think the question was a lot of people said, ‘Well, how did you survive when others didn’t?’ and he said, ‘Well, if people held only one of those views then they were most likely to perish’ in those very different situations but he believes that his success in surviving and thriving was because he was able to hold those two very, very extreme views at the same time.

Yeah, and it’s something, I guess, taking on from that point we talk later in the book also about the importance of ambiguity. You know, those are extreme views but also sometimes it’s about holding two opposing views in mind at the same time in business, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, that quote, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,’ and we often get that in today’s society where there’s no right or wrong answer, it’s often very contextual, and even in business you’re trying to be short term, long term, or innovation and operations, and I just think being more tolerant for ambiguity into today’s world or holding extreme views in mind it helps many aspects, right?

Yeah, and just wrapping this, part up, there’s a lovely example in the book of a company that might perhaps have been optimistic about the strength of its brand, I mean, this is a very well-established company and in an onboarding session, they discovered that those assumptions weren’t quite correct. It’s a nice little cameo story, can you maybe just tell us that because it does bring out a couple of interesting themes?

Sure. It was a mutiny essentially. They had that well-established, as you say, company, we’re not going to name names but onboarding process for about 300 new graduates and whereas in the past those graduates would just be more than grateful just to be in the door and actually those 300 were selected from a massive influx. You know, many, many thousands of new graduates wanted this job, and in the past the brand luster would have been enough for them to perhaps be in the onboarding process and to go through it relatively passively and just be grateful for being there, but the Chief HR Officer got a call one day into it saying that 250 of the 300 wanted to go home because it hadn’t fulfilled their expectations, right? So, I think that tells us a lot about today’s generation being very demanding, maybe being critical or perhaps overcritical and then the result being the HR Officer could have fired them or perhaps recruited the next 250 on the list but she flew in, because she was only due in on day two, but she flew in early and she said, ‘OK, if you don’t like it then you redesign the process that’s going to you satisfy yourself and everyone else.’ So, it became a complex problem for them to solve, a test for them, so it wasn’t them just being, which I think you know many of today’s generation or maybe we’re all guilty of this, we’re very quick to criticize but we don’t often offer the solutions to address those criticisms, so it was a real test for them to address their criticisms in the first place.

Yeah, and we won’t name the company but what was fascinating about that example is that the head of HR did actually reframe the problem and present and turned it back to them, and the reason I wanted to get into that, Steven, those behaviors that that person demonstrated are echoed further into the book when you talk a little bit about the skills of the Chief Wellbeing Officer and I’m curious, maybe let’s get into that because you touched on one earlier on around exposure to ambiguity. What does that look like? What does good look like in a leader who exposes themselves to ambiguity? How do they do that?

I guess it’s just having that flexibility not to just go down one solution path and think that’s the right answer but actually to be very open to different inputs that may come from the workforce, it may come from more empowerment in the workforce, or it may come just from a changing landscape, right? New technologies or things, it could have even been a product or certain ways of processes or doing things in the company that have made the company successful over a long period of time and because the context changes they just have to very quickly pivot and completely transform their way of doing things, and I think traditionally that hasn’t been easy for people, for senior people. Often the leader of a company has been the one with all the answers but nowadays the leader by no means has all the answers. They have to be receptive and receive those answers and make a judgment call, so I think a lot of it links to these skill sets. My own background is in design, product design and design management, and these skills we’ve called them the design vowels which we can talk about in a second what they are, but a lot of it links also to recent work on digital transformation, the new type of digital leadership, agile leadership that companies like McKinsey and IMD Business School are looking at in great depth and one of the mantras I think that comes from this whole area is strong opinions loosely held. You know, it’s perfectly fine to change your mind if you have the evidence to back that up so I think tolerance for ambiguity is just having that flexibility, that openness to actually – ‘Okay, I think I have the answer today and I’m going to stick with that but tomorrow something could change and I have to be prepared to pivot to that other point.’

And the other piece around the exposure, there was a thing in the Financial Times a few weeks go by Gillian Tett talking about Jamie Dimon who got on a bus from JP Morgan, who took a bus ride with a bunch of his senior managers around the West Coast and the Rockies to meet customers and to meet employees, and some part of the press said, ‘Oh, this a publicity stunt,’ but Gillian was making the point that this exposed him to very different fresh perspectives that he wouldn’t get sitting at the top of his ivory tower essentially. Do you see that kind of behavior in some of the organizations or the clients you work with?

We’re trying to encourage it. I don’t think it’s easy. I think in terms of design, and I think some of your own background, Mark, you’ll be aware that getting into the field is important to get the answers whether it’s an academic or on the 50th floor of the CEO office in the business sense. Getting onto the factory floor, over the years there’s been methods that have encouraged that in management by walking around for example, but with my own background in design, and doing ethnographic fieldwork, and talking to people not just in focus groups but in their natural environment you get the authentic answers, you get the real answers, so a lot of work we’re doing, in terms of agile being a hot topic just now is actually trying to talk to senior people and saying, ‘OK, how do you get out and even talk to humans?’ right? It’s a popular book of the last couple of years from the agile and lean UX fields talking to humans. It’s actually getting out from the kind of over-analysis that you may do in terms of all the data that you’re collecting online and just being on the computer but actually going out onto the street and observing something or just talking to someone, striking up a conversation. If you’re the CEO of a telco when was the last time or even a senior director of a telco that you went to a store and you just looked at that experience? Maybe you have to wear a disguise, so people act authentically. So, it’s something that we are trying to encourage in our conversations with senior executives. It’s not easy to do but I do see evidence that more of it is happening, yeah.

Yeah, yeah, because my background is originally I’m an anthropologist and that’s all around, the core approach, you mentioned ethnography, is participant observation, so observation is another of the skills of the skills of the Chief Wellbeing Officer. How does that look if you like? How do the conversations go with senior executives around helping them become better observers?

I mean this could be it external, so it could be related to that aspect of getting outside and getting into the field, but it can also be an internal thing. A lot of it is just picking up on signals, right? So, even over the years and weeks, signals and innovation, and sometimes it’s just talking to these busy people and saying, ‘Create more space. Create more space in your agenda. Create more space in your life. Don’t always be running about and being over busy because that’s when you tend to observe less and pick up on these signals, these important weak and critical signals to a lesser extent. So, sometimes it’s just – and we advocate mindfulness as many people have done over the last few years – but just even reflection on a basic level and it could be at the end of a day, or it could be the beginning of their day, and it could be related to what we talked about earlier, the gratefulness journal for example, and actually to think back on what happened on that very busy day for a senior exec, and not just the bad things by the good things that happen. So, observation is kind of all of those things and also relates to the way that they engage with the workforce because often the more senior someone is the more that they talk, the more that they participate because they’re giving answers, they’re giving direction but often we say, ‘How can you listen a little bit more?’ so observation is also very much listening, and active listening, and from that just encouraging engagement with the rest of the workforce, right?

Yeah, and I think the concept that we use quite often is this idea of observation without judgment and there’s a great quote, I’m going to get the guy’s name wrong, Krishnamurti, I think, who says that the highest form of intelligence is the ability to observe without judging, and I feel it’s up there with the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that you mentioned earlier on but it is really hard, particularly I guess, if you’ve been trained to judge because you’re hired into these roles because of your judgment and your ability to make quick decisions?

Absolutely, and I think it’s why coaching and executive coaching has been so popular the last couple of years because it teaches that skill, and it’s something also, it’s important for another reason, Mark, because in terms of wellbeing many busy senior executives suffer from a lot of stress, they suffer from poor work/life balance, and sometimes, not all the time but sometimes, the home environment could be improved, and things like active listening, and leading into things like empathy it helps in a personal sense as well, and it links to another part in the book talking to the Dean of Michigan Ross School of Business called Scott DeRue and he said in their research on being well, they found that with senior leaders if they’re not well at home they’re not well at work, and if they’re not well at work they’re not well at home. So, I think that’s also part of the business case and actually trying to train executives to be more well-rounded. It isn’t just for their well-being per se but it’s also going to make them higher performers within the workplace.

Yeah. From a personal point of view, I was very lucky when I was in the corporate world because I had a twelve minute commute on the tram but if I didn’t make a specific choice to actually leave work behind and transition into the home place then I just brought it back, and it ended up with I had what was called a work to home meditation where you would actually imagine leaving everything behind, and leaving the suit behind, and changing, do a visualization basically which I’m sure given your background you know a lot more about it than I did but it was very, very powerful because you’re explicitly taking practical steps to make that transition.

Absolutely. You know, it’s a big pain point for many execs just taking back their worries. It could be rumination, and rumination is a big source of stress for executives, and also on a kind of action level, checking emails on a smartphone, and working on e-mails, killing some e-mails on the sofa when they should be with the family and eating their evening meal and things like not. So, what you described is a very valuable ritual and we often work through these type of rituals with senior execs so that they can transition effectively and maybe still be contactable, maybe they still need to be contactable but they can effectively lay down their worries and stresses of the day and be fully present with their families.

Wonderful. So, let’s go into rituals now or picking up on that language because there’s a section on hacks, ‘The Seven Hacks of Highly Effective Habits’, and there’s a great quote again because the book was so rich in terms of quoting from sources that I have a lot that have been helpful for me, the quote from Maxwell, I think, ‘You can never change your life until you change something that you do daily.’ So, just setting this up, there are seven different hacks. Maybe we can just focus on two hacks, the small ones, hack number one and hack number seven. So, can we start with a small one and maybe let’s introduce it from your cycling background, from the world of cycling/ Can we get into it from that perspective?

Sure. The Maxwell quote, just very quickly, I love that quote and we often preface that quote with our audiences by saying, ‘You always focus on the big picture,’ and I think business is often about the financial year, the mission or the vision or the business quarter, and we often overlook these small habits that we have on a daily basis and it often could be your commute to work. It could be the way that you travel to work, it could be the first ten minutes of your day. There was a Harvard Business Review Online piece a few years ago and another one was ‘How to spend the last ten minutes of your day’, so often we neglect the smaller picture, and this is what we often try to do in our work, to try to think about this daily basis and these hacks support that. So, the small thing is related in many ways to my own background in sport and my background is in design, but I’ve been a competitive athlete for many years. I’m a former duathlon national champion which is essentially triathlon for bad swimmers if anyone doesn’t know duathlon is. So, I competed internationally and even in cycling road races, I competed at quite a high level over the years, and British cycling, track cycling specifically really made this well known, the importance of looking at the small picture, right? So, in track cycling you’re in a velodrome and you’re traveling up to maybe 70 or 80 kilometers an hour, the difference between success and failure often comes down to the width of a tire wheel or a thousandth of a second and that’s quite an intense thing especially when you think the real measure of success for these guys is the Olympic games. So, every four years you’re training day in day out so that once every four years success or failure of those four years come down to a thousandth of a second so it’s quite an intense concept. So, essentially, they knew that success or failure came down to these tiny fractions, so they would look also in these same fractions for potential advantage. So, they would rub down the tires of a bicycle with alcohol after each round of a competition to remove particles of dust, they looked at the bus timetable for the Beijing Olympics, they were the only country to contract their own bus company just so that the cyclists had fifteen minutes extra time in the Olympic Village to rest, so they really did look at the small picture, and the best of all that I often talk about in class, and many people will be aware of I’m sure, in the last few years it was quite a popular story, is that they got this cyclist to talk to a surgeon inf London to teach them how to wash their hands because the biggest factor in the general population catching the cold is that even if we think we wash our hands thoroughly we always neglect the area on the back of the thumb, and the back of the thumb is where different pathogens and germs can live and it results in us catching the cold and you better believe that a surgeon knows how to wash their hands thoroughly, so I often ask in class, ‘Did the Great Britain cyclists have unprecedented success which now counts 22 gold medals in the last three Olympics just because they were washing their hands better than the cyclists from France and Australia?’ and any time I get an Australian student in the class they say, ‘No, no, no. Forget about that. It was just because they have an Australian coach.’ So, there’s always some answer but it’s not about that. So, this was the cumulative effect of marginal gains, and what we often say to your executive students is, ‘What is your daily commute? How do you engage with technology or your smartphone the first ten minutes, last ten minutes of your day? Can you think of psychological depletion for example which says that your willpower, your judgment isn’t as strong in the latter half of the day? Maybe you shouldn’t be taking those big decisions at 9 pm or even sending an email at 11 pm because research also shows that if you’ve been awake from 6 am and you’re sending an email at 11 pm, that wakefulness is probably the same as having two or three beers, that was shown in Nature in 1997. So, the small aspect, because we have that cumulative effect, is something that is probably the most important thing, it’s number one with good reason and we really try to convince execs to look at the small picture rather than just the big picture.

Yeah. In your data, it says this is the easiest things that most people adopt because it’s a minor change but it’s easy to do but it’s also easy not to do because it is so simple. And you also say that it typically takes about 66 days for these new habits to develop. Has that been your experience?

Yeah. So, the data that you mention, we’re continually collecting data. In that chapter it is based on a sample of about a 1000 managers in a leading telco and they committed to change, they committed to changing their habits, and then we got in touch with them 100 days later and it was self-reported so there’s some bias in there but looked at the measures of their success 100 days after their commitment. So, what we’ve found is that, yeah, if something is small it can be forgotten about as you say. The advantage is that it quickly gains an automaticity, so the 66 days that you mention is that average related to previous research from University College London which actually looks at the degree of simplicity of the task. So, something very simple like drinking a glass of water took only 20 days but something significantly more ambitious in the research, doing 50 sit ups, took over 100 days, so it depends on how simple the task is which is another reason that we say make it small, take baby steps because the smaller it is, the simpler it is, the quicker it becomes automatic and that means that you can forget about it because if you’re a busy person and you’re committing to something that is quite ambitious and complex, yeah maybe you’re very driven, that alpha typology that many execs have, something else is going to come in and maybe after 30 or 40 days if it’s not automatic yet maybe you’re just going to forget about it or you’re going to fail essentially. So, we say make it small, it becomes automatic, it’s a habit, you can build on that, you can move on to something else. And the final point on making small a little bit more solid is that you can combine it with one of the other hacks. So, the other thing that we found in the research is that if people committed to – you know, were realistic, we’re not saying take all seven. That would just confuse you perhaps and it just gives you something else to do in an already busy day but what we have found is that people who have committed to a slightly higher average of those seven, say three to four, they’ve had a higher degree of success than the people who just had one or two. So, small, for example combined with specific or shared which gives accountability really can make that a lot stronger so sometimes that makes the key, right?

So, you get the compounding effect within small on small, plus small on something else, so let’s talk about one of the other hacks which is less about the individual proactively doing something and it’s more around the environment that they work in, and this is the most effective hack which is surroundings. Can you say a bit about that?

Yeah. So, environment, it’s split into two hacks essentially which is social and surroundings. So, social is our social environment and the importance of who – you know, our behaviors are often a reflection on the people we spend the most time with – and surroundings is the physical environment. So, in terms of even thinking about where we work on a daily basis. Do we work on a desk for example that is cluttered? Some research has shown that if you have a very cluttered desk it results in fuzzy thinking and lack of completion of tasks, and prioritization and things like that, or even just the wider company at large, and a lot of focus has been placed on office design in the last few years to support wellbeing. Even biophilia, right, the importance of putting in plants or even just something that is green. Some research has shown that even the addition of houseplants to a previously sterile, sparse environment has improved wellbeing, and happiness, and productivity markedly, so there’s a lot of work going on in that area and it’s often the small things, right? It relates to behavioral economics and nudging, and companies like Google have done a lot in this area just so that people make the healthier choice because if you’re busy, and you’re stressed, and you’ve got 100 emails in your inbox, and you’ve got a deadline, you’re going to go to a lunch, you’re not going to think about what you’re eating but you’re maybe going to eat poorly and that’s going to affect your performance and your decision making in the afternoon, and that’s just one example. You could be in an office environment where it’s difficult to find a staircase. So, you’re just spending all day waiting on an elevator, you’re in and out of meetings, and when you’re waiting on an elevator as we all know whether we’re traveling for business or in our office, we’ll check our smartphone, we’ll check an e-mail, and we never get a break, we never get a mental break. So, getting back to the rituals part, and it’s something very simple but often very powerful, we talk to senior execs and we say, ‘Find the staircase.’ That’s going to give you the mental break as well as the physical benefit, and yeah, you can try and check your e-mail walking up and down the stairs but it’s probably a little bit more dangerous, so some of these things make a difference. The physical environment, you know.

And you touched on nudges earlier on but in the book, there is an example of a nudge that you use in your leadership academy at Barcelona and that’s a picture to encourage people to walk up the stairs. Any other nudges that you find really work well either in your work environment or in your personal life?

Yeah. I continually experiment. So, there could be visual cues, like you mention the poster which is essentially a poster that turns on its head taking the stairs in case of emergency and it says don’t wait for an emergency or don’t wait for a fire to take the staircase. You know, other things could be slogans. We’ve used other ones that are figures from the past talking about powerful quotations that can be quite powerful nudges that are inspirational quotes. It’s tricky, it’s a fine line because it can become these types of 80’s ‘Happiness is…’ or ‘Power is…’, and it becomes very cheesy and things like that. So, nudging it could be footprints on the floor. We’ve used that on some clients because we don’t know where the staircase is, so you actually put some physical or visible footprints on the floor and people, because their head is down perhaps checking their email, so they see the floor and they follow these footprints towards taking the stairs. Other maybe less direct nudges are just the vending machine. What are the contents that you have in the vending machine? Google have played with things like the positioning of foods. So, you have a refrigerator and you don’t see any contents of that refrigerator more than bottled water, and everything else like Coca-Cola, because they still want to give choice because they don’t want to be Big Brother and only give water and say, ‘You can’t have a can of coke,’ because sometimes a can of Coke is the best thing you can have, it’s that the rest of these fizzy drinks are behind frosted glass so the nudge is to take the water because you see the water first, and then also if you open the fridge door the water is at the appropriate level to grab in terms of height. If you want a can of Cola you better prepare to dip down below or to go up above, and a lot of that relates to kind of supermarket design, right? If you go to a supermarket Nestlé and the premium brands will pay extra to have their products at eye gaze level and all of that links also to other research that has found we’re 40 % more likely to eat the first thing that we see. So, what we often talk about with our executives is say, ‘You go home, you’re very busy, you’re very tired, you’re probably hungry, maybe skip lunch or whatever, you open the cupboard and you eat a chocolate bar because it’s right there.’ So, we say, create a nudge so that you’re having the healthy snacks and maybe the fruit that is visible, and you hide the chocolate down below so it’s a bit more of an effort to eat the unhealthy things. So, that’s a couple of different things that we play with and we’ll also play with the kind of redesign or the placement of printers for example within an office environment rather than, you know, it often happens in the UK where everyone loves a cup of tea is that they have castors on their chair and they spend all day at their desk or just rolling along in their seat towards the kettle, and putting the kettle on and having a cup of tea, and then rolling back to their desk. I don’t know if you’ve seen WALL-E or if any of the listeners have seen WALL-E from Pixar, this dystopian future where no one moves anymore they’re just on these devices that kind of float them about, it’s kind of like that. So, we cut down the amount of printers, we put it at a window so that they get natural light, and then they have these accidental conversations at the printer which can actually have a business benefit, so all these redesigns, physical changes that actually nudge people towards healthier behavior but also behavior that supports the business results as well.

Yeah, driving the insights that underpin innovation essentially?

Absolutely, and we’ve often said that. Even management, by walking around or a walking meeting – you know Stanford research showed that just by walking on a treadmill creativity increases. Accidental encounters at a coffee machine or water cooler, the water cooler effect from 30 years ago, walking meetings, Steve Jobs was a big advocate of that, and he felt that it was about building relationships, and a lot of innovation and insight comes from that deeper level of engagement and that deeper level of relationship, and again it’s the business case. It supports health and wellbeing, we feel better. You know, we’re human beings, we’re not designed to sit down in an office in front of a computer for eight or ten hours straight. We’re not designed to have a four-hour meeting, a stand-up meeting. An ex-com that we work with in Germany, their ex-com meetings, and these ex-con meetings are very long, of course, they have it standing up, and it’s quite a brave thing, right? They have little tables that they can rest on if they get tired but what they reported is that it makes them much more alert, it makes them much more focused and they actually get through that tough ex-com meeting, that long meeting by standing, right. 

Yeah, and it’s easy to do but it’s also easy not to do, right?

Yeah, yeah, because the orthodoxy is that we sit down, the orthodoxy is that we have a big office and we have the desk and that’s the way that we do business, we’re on the phone and we’re doing e-mails. So, it isn’t easy to create that culture. It’s a combination of things that’s related to the different hacks. It is important to design an environment but at the end of the day it comes down to the leaders, and I’ve often talked about this, if the CEO or the senior person doesn’t believe in this it’s not going to happen which is another reason why in the book we develop the argument that wellbeing shouldn’t just be for the wellbeing manager to reduce sickness or absenteeism which is the typical approach, it should be a part of leadership development, it should be a part of how we get leaders to be more effective, and then if the rest of the organization see that the senior people, because they aspire to be them in the future, are adopting these behaviors, we call these critical behaviors in the book, then they’re going to copy that as well and that’s where we start to develop although it’s very difficult to do, we start to develop these positive cultures.

And it struck me that that repositioning of wellbeing is almost similar to the repositioning or how we think about diversity, because diversity in the past has been around gender, it’s been around ethnicity but there’s a far broader story around diversity which is cognitive diversity which plays such a huge role in innovation, but again many organizations still seem to look at it in the old way in the same way that many organizations will look at wellbeing in the more traditional way as well.

Yeah, and it’s interesting there’s a connection point there also and we talk about it in the chapter where we talk about biochemistry, and there’s a professor at Stanford who’s looked at the different chemicals that occur in our brain and even things like serotonin, and he says that past the age of 50 levels of serotonin naturally decrease and one of the biggest effects on that is that we become more risk-averse, so in terms of diversity it’s about mixing in different age profiles and also other research has shown that tolerance for ambiguity that we talked about before, teenagers are very tolerant of ambiguity, right? It’s a personality trait. So, we don’t see that your ex-com should be filled with teenagers but we say within teams just be careful with the age profile because if it is just the experienced, talented people,  a natural part of what happens is that we become more risk-averse and of course, innovation a lot of that is about encouraging or balancing risk let’s say, so diversity takes that other dimension also.

Got it. Absolutely. So, before we go into the three questions I sent across, one final question, Steven, you’re Scottish and we joked earlier on that it’s kind of rich a Scot talking about nutrition, and health, and wellness. I don’t know how far down that list of healthy nations Scotland is but it’s certainly not at the top of that list, is it?

Yeah. And this is why in my keynotes or classes I’m often quite self-deprecating and I usually say that up front and I think that’s important. Humility is important in general but I think when we talk about health and wellbeing traditionally it’s been the case that some healthy, may be happy, but apparently healthy, physically fit person is talking about health and wellbeing and they’ve started preaching to the audience about, ‘This is what you need to do,’ and the audience say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know all of these things. I’m not going to take it from you,’ and often executives they may have paid attention to these things earlier in their life but they become so busy that these things get thrown out the window, and maybe they become overweight, and then they become a little bit sensitive because their physical shape isn’t as good as it used to be and it goes back to self-confidence, all these kind of things. So, when I talk to people I say, ‘Look, these things are hard. Any bad habit that you can think of I’ve done it also. I still struggle to implement these behavior changes and to be healthy and happy and adopt good behaviors, but I know that there’s a process that helps this work and this is what I try to communicate to the people and it seems to work to a degree, right.

Yeah. The phrase that comes to mind is ‘being active in your own recovery’ and as you said it is tough to stay on the bandwagon because as you said the nudges are alive and well. They take us in a different direction be they in the media, be it in supermarkets, the orthodoxy often is taking us in a slightly different direction anyway.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s just so much, kind of cognitive overload and especially the busier people and we need to absorb all those messages, so we need help, and this is what we try to do, we try to give a little bit of help and we also need to look for help in our own lives. So, accountability works to different degrees depending on the personality but just having someone else there to share the journey or to bounce ideas off, or change, I think is very important.

Brilliant. Steven, we could go on for a long time but time is limited and I’m keen to get into the three questions which you found reasonably interesting. So, let’s start with the first one – what have you changed your mind about recently?

You know, I’m writing a little article, a little blog post on this. That was the one I saved to last because I said, ‘I’ve saved this hardest question to last.’ And I even talked to my wife about this and I said, ‘What have I changed my mind about recently?’ and I found it difficult to answer. There’s a couple of things, and it links to a quote I said earlier about strong opinions loosely held, I see the real importance of being able to change your mind and not just stick to something because you’ve adopted a position which is more a traditional approach in business, I guess. I don’t know. For me, in a general level is recognizing the last couple years that I can’t do it alone and I think in my career, doing a PhD is a very lone wolf type of exercise, it’s a three year thinking project essentially, and even though I worked in design which is by its nature very collaborative, I founded a company myself and I have associates there, a lot of things I’ve done myself, and I think even for many years I thought as long as I’m maintain a very high level of performance, knocking it out the park, that’s all that matters, but I think there’s more to it than that, and often clients just want a job done and they want it done well but they just want it done, and they want something more and that relates to relationships. So, I think the last couple years I’ve tried to throw out the lone wolf mentality a little bit more, just be a bit more collaborative, a little bit more open, even just open-hearted in general, and I think that’s been one thing. And even related to something, kind of more of an epiphany in the last month or two, I went on a retreat with Aberkyn, Aberkyn is the leadership development firm of McKinsey, and we spend with six or seven other business leaders we were three days in wilderness without technology, without even a watch, and this was a really powerful kind of introspection, and a lot of meditation going on, a lot of conversations around campfires, and it was just a fantastic experience, and one of the things I found there during one of the short meditations was just kind of being open hearted, and  I don’t know if people who don’t like meditation maybe just won’t see this at all, but I found as soon as I changed my thinking during that meditation, I had had quite a tricky morning where I was tired, I was a little bit cranky, and a little bit grumpy, and in the meditation I started to settle down, I started to change my kind of mindset and I just became more open hearted for whatever that means to different people, and then in that moment I was just more aware of the nature around me. So, there was all these buzzing things and all these animals that started to come around and I just felt that often happens in life. If we try to force things too much or we’re trying to do it alone which is often what I’ve done, often a lot of long-term success doesn’t come from that and I just think being more open, aligning with the more natural flow of things and in that case it was nature, I think that that’s the way forward, so I don’t know how clear that was for you.

No, no. As you say that, Steven, it resonates. When I came out of the corporate world I realized that I needed to build a network and I knew a few farmers in Thailand but they weren’t really going to help me very much, and what I didn’t want to be was the person ringing up my old network and saying, ‘I’d love to have a cup of coffee,’ so what I did, and it was hugely powerful, is I reached out to people, I prepared for these conversations and my energy was always, ‘What can I do for you?’ versus ‘What can you do for me?’ and it was subtle but it was so profound, and if I look back a lot of the things that have happened and that we managed to put in place have come from just being – so, that’s my example of being open-hearted. It really is a very, very powerful and simple thing.

Yeah, that’s a great example. Absolutely, yeah, yeah.

Lovely, lovely. Okay. And epiphanies, every time I hear the word ‘epiphany’ my ears prick up because we got this lovely quote someone gave us about museums being the custodians of epiphanies, and I was in Barcelona the other day looking at the Pablo Picasso museum and the way they put art with food together, I don’t know whether you’ve seen it there’s an exhibition-

I saw it advertised. I haven’t been yet but, yeah, I’ve saw it, yeah.

It’s wonderful because what they’re doing is they’re pushing together different disciplines and you see the world differently so, yeah. Well, I love the word epiphany. Second question – where do you go to get fresh perspectives and to stay innovative and creative?

I think what really helped, it was a little bit easier for me to reflect on, I think what helps a lot is my background in design and I’ve always valued empathy, challenging assumptions, and another advantage is that I’ve lived abroad. So, I’ve lived in different countries and I think that gives you more of that open perspective and seeing things from another point of view, so generally I really value that. On a more kind of concrete level, I guess there’s two or three things. One is just I’m really interested when I meet people and different people, and having a conversation, and this could be – I was in India two weeks ago on an assignment and a lot of times I’ll talk to the driver or I’ll talk to someone that is serving breakfast, so it’s not just the people in the company or the business and that’s very much a part, you know, I need to talk to them about even their personal life, family balance, all these different things, but just people I meet on the journey, on the physical journey, I like to engage them and it could be one minute, it could be one question but I feel that really keeps me kind of fresh that I’m not just talking to busy executives but I’m just talking to anyone I meet, and I just try to cultivate that curiosity of the humanity that we’re surrounded by and I often find I’m just saw encouraged and energized by just meeting good people, nice people or people that are smiling and they’re happy to tell you their story, so I like to do that. Another thing that I’m trying to do more recently is just read more and I know some people might find that I write a lot but my reading has been very poor and often came as a result of my PhD, and a PhD is like the foie gras of reading methods, you’re force-fed all these crap scientific papers and after I finished my reading practices went downhill. So, now I’m making a big concerted effort to cultivate that curiosity through reading. We talk about it in the book, we talk about this aspect of the CEO of Microsoft talking about Carol Dweck’s book, being a learn it all rather than a know-it-all, so I’m trying to read more. And the third and final thing is that my son is three and I just think about that, just this morning, and he really makes me question things. Over the last couple years, I’ve been looking at what is good parenting and it’s about cultivating their curiosity. It’s not about giving the answer to your children when they ask a question, it’s saying, ‘Well, let’s find out together,’ so that they think about the process whereby they can find out new things. So, he’s in a phase just now, he’s three years old and he’s just asking why and how for everything and it’s kind of driving me crazy, but it’s making me really think, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen this thing for 41 years of my life but he’s asking what it is because it’s the first time he’s seen it and it’s forcing me to just take a different perspective on something. So, anyway, those are a couple of things that I’m using.

Lovely, lovely. Well, one of our previous guests actually talked about reading children’s books more because he wanted to expose himself, and there are a few books out there which I’ve got for our kids which I enjoy reading but they also enjoy reading and I’m happy to share some of those, but again it just shifts your perspective somewhat. Finally, what’s been your most significant low, what did you learn from it and how have you applied that learning, Steven?

Yeah, and again another very interesting question, Mark. I talk in class a lot about the importance of failure but it’s often a different thing when it happens to yourself and it’s about expectations because if you say create the space for experimentation or failure, and if you’re trying something different and you fail and you learn from it, that’s great because the expectation was that it was something new and failure was a possible outcome. It’s different when you’re doing things that you think have served you well but the context shifts, and that happened to me a couple of years ago because I had published Sustaining Executive Performance, the two or three years prior to publishing that book I was flying. I was in a real growth curve, doing a lot of keynotes, a lot teaching, and I thought the book is going to come out, because a lot of people were asking for the book, and I’m going to continue to fly, and I had that expectation. The book came out and things went really quiet and I just couldn’t get my head around it, you know, and there was no real reason for it. My son was born around the same time so did I take my foot off the gas a little bit? Perhaps, I don’t know, but it was a difficult year or two, this was 2015/2016, and I talked to my wife about it and she talked about this actor who is an Oscar winner and there’s an interview that they gave and they said, ‘Sometimes the phone just stops ringing,’ and for no reason, right? And I started to really think through this the last couple years and I think it relates to a lot of previous guests that you’ve had, you know, Whitney Johnson and S-curves, and we also have a chapter on S-curves in the book, I had an expectation or a belief that I was on the really steep part of that S-curve and I thought the book was just going to fly me up the rest of it whereas, in hindsight, the book was the endpoint of the previous curve. So, basically the book came out, I was at that level of maturity of the last curve and I’m looking at the new curve, so basically since that came out I’ve been kind of transitioning. So, yeah, was it a failure? It wasn’t a concrete failure but it was basically I was switching to a new curve, a lot of things went down, I became less busy, the company was turning over less on an annual basis, some of the client relationships that we had for a long time just fell by the wayside, they just came to a natural end, so that was a difficult couple of years, and I read Whitney Johnson’s second to last book recently, I’m hoping now that we’re on the start of the steep part of this new curve but who knows. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but I guess in terms of failure, so learning, I guess, sometimes you have to be persistent, you have to keep knocking on the door, but sometimes you just have to look for a different door to knock on, and there’s many, many other things that you can do instead of just keep digging the same hole which a lot of us are guilty of doing perhaps, just look and start digging a fresh hole and just go somewhere else. I don’t know if digging a hole is a nice metaphor. It’s a negative thing but I guess that’s my answer to that one.

Lovely, lovely. Super. So, Steven, where can people get in touch with you? 

So, yeah, the website of the Leadership Academy in Barcelona is probably the best bet which is,  we’re also through the lab, and my own Steven MacGregor on social media or LinkedIn, all the usual channels, I’ll be pretty easy to get a hold of. 

Great. Well, we’ll put all that in the show notes, and it’s been great to have you back on the programme. I really enjoyed the book, really enjoyed the conversation, and best of luck with your podcast, with the book, and with the next leg up your new curve.

Hopefully. No, I really enjoyed, Mark. Many, many thanks.

Great. Have a great day. Bye.

Cheers. All the best. Bye.

In this episode, we are joined by Steven MacGregor, who is the founder and CEO of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona and author of Sustaining Executive Performance and his latest book is Chief Wellbeing Officer, in which he discusses the importance of maintaining positive mental health in the workplace. Steven is also an academic specializing in executive education and has taught at Stanford University, IMD at Lausanne, and CIBS in Shanghai.

What Is Covered

  • Why Steven believes that positive mental health and humanity will help us to thrive in the future world of work .
  • How not to be over busy, and the benefits of slowing down in the workplace.
  • Why Steven believes we should focus on the small picture, and how to quickly learn new and automatic habits.

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Ambiguity: why being flexible, employing different solutions and the ability to pivot is an essential skill set for successful senior executives.
  • Small gains: how multiple improvements, however small, can have a big impact on results.
  • Mindfulness and well being: how taking care of your mental health can help lead you become a top performer.
  • Agility: how movement can help to boost innovation and allow us to learn fresh perspectives.
  • Nudges: how to take back your worries and feel healthier by hacking your social and environment rituals.

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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