High Performance Cultures with Sue Firth

No executive should be in the wild without a coach, there’s too much head trash, there’s so many stories, there’s too much stress and all of those things, and I just feel like for mental health reasons, every executive should have a coach.

-Jen Thornton

Do Leaders have to get everything right?

Jen and I both work regularly with Executives but I wondered if telling them they need to engender a learning environment, enable people to develop a positive culture, and play to their strengths, would put a lot of pressure on them. Jen feels the leader isn’t the only person who ‘has a role in the show’. All employees need to build self-awareness so that they ask for help, avoid burn out and understand how they tick.

Success in business isn’t then down to one person but down to a team who gel well together and communicate regularly.

We also discussed the role brain chemistry has in much of our behaviour, exploring how dopamine ‘hits’, often influence how much we want to win and get things right. Being aware of what we’re thinking and doing enables us to make good choices and start the day with a success mindset. Instead, many of us are wired for fear and don’t realise how much this affects both our mood, behaviour, and achievements.

-Sue Firth, The Executive Edge

0:00:00.1 S1: It’s The Executive Edge with Sue Firth. The podcast that gives you an edge in life and business, the practical skills that you can apply to achieve and maintain success. Welcome everybody to this week’s episode. Now, this is number 37, and today I have Jennifer Thornton, and now I’m really interested in talking to Jen because she and I actually cover some similar subjects, so I’m looking forward to talking about everything from peak performance culture and neuroscience. You’re in for a treat today. So Jen, it’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you for your time.

0:00:43.3 S2: Thank you for having me. It’ll be a great show. Bless you, thank you.

0:00:47.3 S1: So tell me a little bit about you because your background interests me, I know having looked at it, you’re an expert in talent strategy, but you’ve also got a strong background in HR, haven’t you…

0:00:57.7 S2: I do, I grew up in the retail industry and I love the retail industry, and so half of my career was spent in the operation side and interacting with the customers directly and those pieces, and then early on, we realized I got my results through creating great teams and that talent strategy, those things I was passionate about, so I made a switch and moved to HR, and so I’ve always had a different spin on HR because I grew up in operations, and I really see human resources as the strategy to deliver the business results through people… And so I was fortunate enough to work both domestically here in the US and all over the world, putting together great teams to deliver results. So

0:01:47.1 S1: As you say, really with your experience being both in operations and also hands-on clearly, because what you’ve been able to see in practice is how to build a good team. What does it actually mean when you talk about high-performance culture, what do you feel that’s actually about? How do we do that?

0:02:05.2 S2: You know, it’s so much easier said than done. And would it be great if there was this magic prescription or something that you…of the things when you think about high-performance teams to things that I think most people don’t start to think about are… Is really the way we work together. Yes, there’s competencies and yes, there’s skills, and there is all of that, that stuff that we normally talk about, but I think part of the conversation that’s always missing that actually creates the performance is how we work together, and that is… You’re a pasture on neuroscience and mind, understanding how the brain thinks about a team, takes in conversation how it responds to fear, and as a leader, you have to do everything you can do to reduce fear in the workplace so that someone can perform at their best and also creating environment where people can tell the truth, and when I look at high-performing teams, there is this sense of You can tell people exactly what you think, you can brainstorm with them. You can say, I’m not sure that’s gonna work. Can we beat it up to see if… To make sure it works.

0:03:17.1 S2: And without those things about reducing fear and having an environment where you can talk about the truth at any given time, I just think it’s really hard to ever create a performance-driven team.

0:03:29.1 S1: So that fascinates me because there’s probably several facets which are going off in my head at the same time, I think one of them would be… You’re calling to that in quite an interesting way, so you’ve said in so many words that we want to actually reduce fear, now, of course, entrepreneurs, high-performing organizations and especially high growth companies would probably only look on the positive, they would be much less conscious for the fact that although some of that high performance will induce stress, they won’t potentially see it as fear, so clearly your perception has come from seeing that first hand, do you feel… You assume that you’ve seen people disconnect or not perform as well as they could because they just… They’re not comfortable in the environment they’re in.

0:04:11.7 S2: Absolutely, and it’s interesting because when you… As you know, as your fear increases or access to our prefrontal cortex, it goes down, and that’s what we want to access, that’s where we learn, where we have emotional control… Lever, all the stuff we’re looking for is there. And so if we live in an environment where if you say the thing in a meeting, then you’re in trouble or you’re being judged, or if you come with a great idea that you think is gonna be amazing and your leader looks at you and goes, That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard, Well, you’re gonna never come up with another idea, you’re going to create this fear of, I can’t have new ideas unless they’re widely accepted, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. And so then those… When that environment happens, the employees start to just do what they’re told, they stop making decisions ’cause they’re waiting for someone to tell them what they’re supposed to do, they stop coming up with new ideas, all of the stuff you need to create a peak performance starts to go away because people have been taught, you get in trouble if you make a decision, you get in trouble if I don’t like my…

0:05:21.1 S2: Or, I don’t like your idea. And that’s the kind of fear we have to start reducing so that people can be innovative in the workplace, and

0:05:29.1 S1: So what happens if we’ve got a culture which when you walk into, you actually feel is really quite positive, has got a certain amount of energy about it, and I’m not implying it’s perfect, so it doesn’t require tweaking, but it’s at least pretty good, it’s a positive environment. What’s happening then? Are we experiencing brain chemical changes which engender greater support or connection or productivity, and more so than we even appreciate, because that’s obviously clearly part of the ingredients, Mario like…

0:05:58.6 S2: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, and the… The more we can predict, ’cause the brain is a prediction tool, and so when you’re going to work that day and you start and you’ve had great… The last three months have been fantastic. Your boss is listening to you. You’ve got a great relationship with your co-workers. All of it’s good, right? Then when you wake up every morning, your brain is predicting it’s probably gonna be a pretty good day at work, so therefore you create even a better day, and I think that leaders don’t always understand that if they treat someone really poorly for a couple of weeks, then every day that employee wakes up, their brain’s gonna be predict, I’ll probably get treated poorly, I will probably have a bad day, therefore they’ll be working with that mindset, and it’s so important to create this environment where people are predicting success every single day so that they can be actually successful.

0:06:56.1 S1: Or at least a positive chance of achieving something… Constructive or creative, yeah. Yeah, so for example, I mean this Friday, I’m about to present to a group of people who are coming online, who are fast moving, fast growing organizations, and almost to a T, they will be a chronically overworked or feel that they’ve got an awful lot to achieve, so the higher up the business gets, and it’s not always a great solution to everything in life, just because you think you’ve got more control or more say, What do we do to help them? Because in a way, they’ve got to either be very self-aware, they are contributing to the self-fulfilling prophecy of success or fear, and they’ve got to not push themselves quite so hard that the only thing they’re wired for is dopamine. So how do we get them to… Heres, what do you feel? You start saying.

0:07:53.8 S2: I always start to talk about the talent left, and that is the thing that we’ve all seen in fast growing businesses, a business is able to take off because the individual or individuals starting at their skill set is higher than the needs of actually running the business… So they’ve got all this skill set, but the business hasn’t taken off, so they have all this capacity to make futuristic decisions, to think about innovative ways to handle these things, so they have this capacity to drive the business. And then what happens typically in a fast ring organization, we put all that energy towards our widget or our service or our marketing, all of these things that business plan we’re supposed to have, and the business keeps accelerating, but what most companies don’t do is also say, How do I look at my key players or really anyone on this team and continue to develop them so their skills always stay ahead of the business needs, because what happens typically is the business takes off and then it gets out of control or fills out of control or feel scary. And so then the leaders don’t have the skills to manage the business, good talent starts to go because you’re managing through direction, you’re not having conversations ’cause you’re stressed, you’re just telling people what to do.

0:09:23.5 S2: All of the good people are gonna be like, I’m not gonna work in this. They’re gonna leave, you might be left with some people who just say yes and no, and they’re not innovative at that point either, and when your talent goes off the cliff, the business is right behind it, and that’s what we love to do here, is really help people understand how do you keep the skill set of your team ahead of your business needs?

0:09:44.6 S1: So if I may though, I suppose where I’m coming from in my mind, this is a little bit of a question, and probably that’s just me being a bit cheeky and devil’s advocate that although strong leadership, and I 100% agree with you is vital. We also need self-aware people who are further down the line, don’t we… Because in a way, we’re also singing to them, you have a responsibility to be aware of what it is you need as well to ask the help or not drown or not burn out, or not push yourself too hard, simply because you are wired towards being an adrenaline junkie or a dopamine feed.

0:10:27.0 S2: And pace that…

0:10:30.1 S1: So if I’m asking it in a fair way, is it a 50-50 split or do you still feel ultimately it is predominantly the responsibility of the leader to get everything right?

0:10:40.7 S2: I think that everyone has a role in the show. I think it’s leader’s responsibility to provide the space and the encouragement and the culture in which we’re all growing, and then it’s the employees also responsibility to keep growing, and when the leader is talking about… I watched this course, or I listen to this podcast, or I went to this conference and I met someone, and I learned about this. When our leaders, no matter what level of leadership, any level leadership are talking about how they are growing or how they are pushing themselves, they make learning cool. And it creates this environment where individual contributors will also be like, Oh well, I learned this, or I did this, but if our leaders show up, there are… I know everything. There’s nothing left to learn. I’m the smartest person in the room. Then guess what? That everyone’s gonna think, Well, gosh, I guess if I don’t know it all, I’m no good. You don’t create this culture of growth, and you create a culture through your words and your actions, and that language has to line up.

0:11:48.2 S1: So one of the things I loved in prep for this particular podcast was I listened to one that you had been on where you were talking about the addictive nature of being right, and I thought it was a great statement, because you do… Let’s face it, we do get a hit when we think we’ve said to something that’s either… Interesting, funny. Right, right. Yeah, all of those things. And I see that wiring, to be fair to us, occurs really quite young because we’re not born with it per se, but the need for approval or they need to be accepted and they need to be a positive, enthusiastic person, it’s all very key for all of us isn’t it… And especially when we’re young. So we learn pretty quickly what to say and do to get that hit, don’t we…

0:12:36.2 S2: And I love

0:12:36.9 S1: The reference, the addiction of it, but this is what happens, I think with some leaders, isn’t it? They like being

0:12:43.2 S2: Right. They do, they like being right, that dopamine hit starts to become more and more important to them, and they started touching it to their success. I’m right, so I get the dopamine hit. We’re often I talk to clients about, Let’s re-attach it because we need that, we are humans and we need those dopamine hips to keep us happy, or mental health, we need to feel successful. But what if we attached it to, I get my reward, not when I’m right, but when my team comes with great ideas, I get my hit, if I’ve opened up the space for a great conversation, and so it’s really about not saying good bye to it, because as you said it’s just part of it. We’re human, but it’s learning where should it come from and allowing it to come from the right place.

0:13:36.1 S1: That’s a great point. And also, I think there are several really great books about releasing the ego of this, because so many others, and I mean me included, I would say probably not even consciously attach our go to something that we do, because as I’ve already said, a minute to go, it’s a really great feeling when you think someone’s welcoming or they like it, or whatever it is, and this is never more… So I find them when you’re on the platform as a speaker, I mean there’s nothing quite like the hit when you look out and everybody’s smiling, and I go, Oh yes, I agree. You still quietly think yourself, God, a brilliant… Yeah, dotted really mean it.

0:14:12.4 S2: But I just… But it’s… That’s the behind that you’re getting…

0:14:16.1 S1: So I can imagine as a leader, it’s easy to fall into a several traps, and one of them you’ve referred to, which is avoiding the talent Cliff, which is a really great one, but also this being right syndrome. Or addiction to being right? What are the other traps that we find or that you ever discovered people fall into, did you spot any others…

0:14:36.3 S2: I think the other one we fall into is quickly shutting down new ideas or the opportunity to just put ideas out there to see if there’s anything in them, and that happens often, especially with new employees, you hire that new person and they see everything bright and shiny they don’t have the emotional attachment that we have, and they come to their new leader and they’re like, I’ve been here for 90 days, and here’s the feedback and here’s what I wanna do, and the leader is like, yeah, we’ve tried that before. No, no, that’ll never work. So… And so we’ll never like that, and so now we’ve just told this brand new employee, don’t bring me your ideas ’cause I’m not gonna listen to them, but sometimes people are gonna give you good ones and sometimes they’re not, but if you have time… And probably 80% of the time we can do this. I always say, just say to them, I don’t see it, but change my mind. And you’re telling the truth. I don’t see is this idea that you have, I don’t see how it’s gonna work, but I’m open for you to change my mind, I’m open to hear your reasoning, your research, your views, your experiences, and what a great conversation you can start to have because then you start to learn how they think.

0:15:48.9 S2: There may be some great ideas in there that you can apply somewhere else, your team’s gonna get used to being ready to tell you something because they’re gonna have to defend it or change their mind or change your mind, and so often your mind gets changed because you took the time to listen, and I think we’re told all the time as leaders, well, we should listen more, we listen more. How do you do that? And I think it’s through having some of those conversations around allowing someone to put pressure back on you and listen with this open mind, I think that’s a great way to start to build that and create an environment where people can bring you the truth, the ideas and tell you what you need to hear to drive your business.

0:16:32.4 S1: So I would say that in the 50 yard episodes that I’ve been doing now in the podcast, I would, I think constructively make the assessments that you’ve gotta be good to lead well, and I think if you truly know that you’re an entrepreneur and you love and enjoy running your business, but actually the leadership angle, which is by any other name, bringing people on in order to support your culture is not quite your thing. I think that’s a good viable reason to be bringing in a management level that’s underneath you that then actually can support the people junior to them. So if you’re not a very big business, it’s one of the reasons why I would say, and I’m hoping you agree, that it’s worth recruiting someone in who does have these management or people skills or empathy and develop people because… I don’t know if you’ve got the same experiences, but I certainly find with entrepreneurs, they’re notoriously impatient, so in a way, really the biggest mistake is they don’t have the time to consider other people the way we’re really asking them to do, even though we’re telling them it to pay off.

0:17:42.3 S2: You’re absolutely right. And I think bringing someone in… And again, if they bring someone to lead the day-to-day, it allows into energy and space to be creative to drive the business, but if that’s your role is to be the visionary and drive the business, but you are caught up in stuff that you don’t enjoy that you’re not good at, and you don’t have the energy left to do what you’re supposed to do, and too often it’s this like, Well, I don’t know, I’ll feel bad or I should be doing this. And I’m like, No, you should be doing what you are really good at, you should be doing what you were built to do, and that was drive this vision and hire smart people around you to fill in what you are natural… Naturally good at… And again, they have to make that mind shift that by doing something I’m not great at, I’m actually holding my business back because I don’t have the energy and space to do what I am good at, and maybe that’s a vision and creativity.

0:18:40.9 S1: Yeah, interestingly, one of the people I’m coaching at the moment is extremely bright and has worked at it for himself and realizes that if anything, he does need a team underneath him, and actually that he can’t play to his strengths unless he does, but I still find one of the paradoxes I come across quite regularly as people who will not release their grip, so they might… This a different person now, but they might bring in their small, junior or still senior individual depending on the size of the business. But they won’t let it go. Now, what is it that’s going on there? That’s partly neuroscience. A play, isn’t it? And partly trust, I guess, and the sheer fear, finally enough, when we’re talking about fear when we first started this, all letting go so that someone else can try… This is, I guess, where we are most afraid sometimes isn’t it doing… Letting them do their best.

0:19:35.4 S2: Yeah, I think you’re so right. It does create a lot of fear, and everyone’s gonna be unique, and where that fear story comes from, someone may say, Gosh, they’re gonna make me look back ’cause they could do it and I couldn’t, or they may be someone who just has a high sense of internal responsibility, you know I should be doing this, I feel bad I’m putting my work on someone else, and that’s why executive coaching is so important, it helps you discover that fear story so that you can then do something with it, but that takes work, that takes some exploratory conversations And Rani in a very safe, close personal space to do that, but if you are experiencing fear, you’ve gotta figure out where it’s coming from, and the story it’s creating in your brain so that you can create a new story that serves you better. And

0:20:27.6 S1: This is an interesting point, I think. I’ve often described the expression, the stories we tell ourselves, but I don’t find many people refer to it, and you just have… So what do we really mean by that? Let’s just explain that to the lesson ers, the stories we tell ourselves. So please do explain what you mean.

0:20:47.1 S2: So we all talk to ourselves in our head all day long, but what we’re doing is our brain is working through things, our brain is predicting what could happen. So again, if I hire someone to do the day-to-day, my brain then starts to predict what could go wrong, and then I create a story around that, Well, if that goes wrong, then this will happen… That will happen. That could happen, and that’s how the brain processes information, it also fills in the blanks, and so sometimes we create this story about someone’s mad at us or someone believes this because we don’t have all the facts, and because we use fear to stay alive, we are fear-based animals, we typically fill in the story with a negative thought or a fear to protect ourselves, and so then that’s the store, we start to believe, because the brain believes whatever you tell it, so be careful what you tell it, and then we start acting on this fear as if it’s true, and a lot of times it’s not true, and one of the things I teach a lot of my clients when they start that, I always say, what else could be true? Oh, well, what else could be true as they haven’t called me back this week because they had family in town and I didn’t know it, and they’re just busy.

0:22:00.3 S2: What else could be true is that this person will my vision and manage my company in a way I never thought possible, and I will in the company will grow even more, and so really starting to tell yourself what else could be true and working in a… From a positive aspect in creating a new positive story, it will change the chemicals in your brain, which change your actions, which obviously would change your results, and

0:22:29.3 S1: Thank you for that because I intuitively knew that it’s often that we default to the negative, but I’m not certain that I had really thought through why we do this, and I think the way you just described it, that we’re a fear-based animal, there’s quite an interesting one, because sometimes you do come across people, and I find it in all walks of life who seem to be inherently positive, there’s almost nothing that throws them off except for very deep-seated or very significant events, and the rest of us could em you like that if we could only try… It’s just a really key way of thinking, but I think what you just expressed, and let’s just make sure we ramp that point home, is you’ve got to look at the facts, let the facts help influence the way of thinking and allow yourself to look for those because in their lives, the truth of the situation, rather than the slight tendency we have to fabricate or extrapolate data or what we call a psychologist, catastrophic thinking. So I think all of those are there. So obviously, when it comes to maybe leading change for organizations, again, is that largely down to the leader, the culture that they’ve managed to agenda, I’m thinking, covid, and some of the most difficult times that we’ve got at the moment, for example.

0:23:53.9 S2: So I think leading change is very difficult, but it is a competency that every leader needs in today’s world and will need going forward, because our change happens at such a rapid pace. I read a statistic recently that we, in today’s world, experienced more change in a day then two generation ago, if you went back two generations and what they experienced in a year… Wow. And so even if… Can you imagine our brain is just constantly considering change or never can get that comfortability, and so as a leader, you have to understand the emotions of change, and I think that’s really the first and most important part of leading change. And we don’t talk about that, we talk about great communication and having a plan and all that stuff, and… Yes, check all those boxes. But before you do that, understand the emotions that are connected to it, because you know when things first happen, when change is first announced… Were in shock or in disbelief. We think this can’t be true, then we go in to worry, and am I gonna be able to do this? What does it mean to me? And oftentimes, we go into blame, this will never work, they’re gonna mess this up because blame feels good, it’s no longer a problem.

0:25:09.3 S2: So I say blame feels fantastic, who wouldn’t wanna set and blame, I no longer own my own responsibilities that someone else is, and so when you start to think about all those different phases of it, and someone you talk to and you recognize their emotion, then you can kind of say, Okay, here’s where they are in the process, how do I help them get to the next step and the next step? And if you don’t help them get too experimenting with the change, which can be very fearful… I don’t know, we have a new software system. Maybe… Well, I used to be really fast, I was taking me twice as much to do time to do my work and helping people say that’s okay, because you’re gonna get fast again, you were fast before you just need to practice this and helping people reduce fear, so they’ll start to experiment with the change, get better, and then that’s when we start to cycle out of it, it becomes normal, but if we don’t think about the emotions and manage to those emotions, then we’re just ramming someone through the emotional cycle of change without really addressing what their needs are…

0:26:10.0 S2: And then at the end of it, were surprised that we left some people behind, and I’m like, So don’t be surprised, righteously.

0:26:19.4 S1: The bigger the organization, the worst this becomes because it not only happens in particular pockets, but it also is again, once again dependent on the manager-employee relationship and how effectively that communication is passed on. So where can people find you, Jon? I know that you offer executive coaching, and I know that your website is 304coaching.com, but it’s that where people would basically try you down in order to find information that you’ve got and stuff that you’ve done…

0:26:48.5 S2: Absolutely, you can go to our website at 304coaching.com. We have a whole resource section, you can also connect with me on LinkedIn at Jen Thornton, and we have a YouTube channel where we provide instructional leadership videos at Jen Thornton | 304 Coaching.

0:27:03.7 S1: Brilliant. So if somebody feels particularly stuck or they can tell relay that they’re missing the point in some way, shape or form in their leadership skill, this is where they would find you so that they can really get to grips with what story they’re telling themselves or the fear-based emotions that they’re not really tackling, and I think slowly with your help, they can work that through and just to sort of flip that around or reframe it rolling, ’cause that sounds like being a lot more constructive, it’s really gonna give them a good start. Isn’t it?

0:27:31.8 S2: Absolutely, and no executive should be in the wild without a coach, there’s too much head trash, there’s so many stories, there’s too much stress and all of those things, and I just feel like for mental health reasons, every executive should have a coach.

0:27:49.1 S1: I feel that’s really, really brilliant. I think you’ve just sold both of us. That’s absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a real joy. Thank you, Jen. I had such a lot of value for people… I know we covered a lot of ground there. There was everything from avoiding the talent Cliff to peak performance and understanding and leading change. So if you’d like to hear more from Jen, please do subscribe to our Podcast. You can find us on all the major platforms that includes Spotify, iTunes, Google, and I hope radio. Take care of everyone. And see you next week.

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