Is this global pandemic time for the planet to pause?

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In the midst of a global pandemic our leaders are necessarily focused on the immediate.  Survival - in life and in work. Entrepreneurs and executives alike are shoring up business, optimising current operations and cashflow; the need to stay afloat taking precedence over the long view. But with the passing of this crisis, may there come a sustained shift in values?

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, is there perhaps a unique, once in a generation opportunity to re-boot, reassess and re-evaluate what really matters in our work, our lives - our entire relationship with the planet even? My view is that following a killer virus, killing yourself for the company is rendered redundant. The question now is what happens next.

The lockdowns imposed as a result of the Coronavirus have slowed the spinning of our world, creating time to reflect, stop and reconsider. Yet, the virus’s rapid and widespread infection vectors prove our global connectedness and paradoxically highlight our isolation. It has thrown up some big questions about the very value of our existence.  Where is the risk adjustment for healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line for often much less than £30,000 a year while our investment risk takers are making sizeable sums? Where is the balance? Why does our system price the value of life at £30K anyway? While our handsomely paid venture and industry leaders will not suddenly renounce their salaries, bonuses and options out of spiritual principle, many will be experiencing a check on their sense of omnipotence. Maybe some will abandon the corporate script for a life rooted in rediscovered, long lost core values setting out to change the script. Either way, we will see a shift.

“I haven’t met too many people that don’t intend to have a fulfilling life”

— Clayton Christensen

As the late Clayton Christensen once said to his MBA students: “I haven’t met too many people that don’t intend to have a fulfilling life. High-achievers however, end up allocating their resources in a way that seriously undermines their intended strategy. This stems from the fact that so many of them are wired with a high need for achievement. The problem is, that isn’t what makes us happy in the long run. The single most important factor in our long-term happiness is the relationships we have with our close family and close friends. But these relationships rarely deliver the same short-term ‘hit’.” The current crisis, more than ever, highlights that congruence across all levels of our lives may become more valuable than just hitting the professional peaks.

Already there is a cultural shift in the wind. Several months ago, a former colleague invited me to join a two and half day performance programme at Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida. Originally conceived as an elite training programme for top athletes and hostage negotiators, the HPI employs specialists in performance psychology, nutrition and exercise physiology to help achieve lasting behavioural change. Nowadays aimed at corporate athletes, their multi-disciplinary approach designed to expand energy and improve productivity is a lifeline for the exhausted executive who spends their life on the road, eating poorly, seeing little of their families and experiencing diminishing returns at work. Supported by the four fundamental pillars of energy management - physical, mental, emotional and purpose - the course treats the whole person, not just their professional output.  

The physical module focuses on the need for regular, nutritionally balanced light meals, regular exercise and better sleep to boost energy levels for improved performance and wellbeing. It may sound obvious, but how many of us actually abide by these disciplines while hustling for the corporate dollar? The examination of how we manifest and use mental energy turned a few accepted truths on their heads. In a world where multi-tasking is a virtue it was refreshing to learn that this is actually another term for partial engagement. Full mental engagement in the present moment is by far the most productive approach to work, improving concentration and critical thinking as well as driving down stress. Many of us believe that we simply don’t have time to write in a journal or read a new book, but these activities actually create time. They are disciplines which focus the mind and remove unhelpful obstacles to clear thinking and creativity. It’s a counter-intuitive approach when more and more is being demanded in ever-shrinking pockets of time. Just look at the unicorn-like valuations of many of the mindfulness businesses.

We tend to think of our emotional life as something separate from work but the emotional module of the course invited us to think differently. Our performance at work, our connection to others and our very wellbeing is interdependent and fostered when we fully engage with the emotional energy dimension. We may know that hope, optimism, gratitude and compassion bring happiness, but few of us make the connection between those feelings and optimised performance. By looking at our emotional triggers - situations or activities which promote positive or negative emotional states - we gained valuable awareness of what to avoid and where our energies are best served. 

Driving it all is the purpose component of the programme, those core values which underpin the entire spectrum of our lives: job, health, happiness, family and friends. Only by uncovering our deepest values and beliefs, then aligning them with our behaviours can we experience harmony and that elusive state of flow. Prior to the course, participants and their friends, families and co-workers were asked to rate these areas of the participants’ lives. How do they perform professionally? How is their health, happiness and relationships with family and friends? The truth was often uncomfortable. Corporate athletes may tell you that their families are the most important thing in their lives, but the evidence doesn’t stack up because as Christensen suggests, family life does not give them the same short term hit as success. To a greater or lesser degree, most of the people on the course had a wildly skewed work/life balance and felt dissatisfied and exhausted. An 80 hour working week and disengagement and fatigue at home is making nobody happy. 'I’m doing this for them' won’t wash.

As someone who has lived and experienced both the corporate script and entrepreneurial hustle, I was fascinated by the course. Much of the HPI’s teaching draws together insights and disciplines I discovered for myself by trial and error as I attempted to navigate my own career. Through a combination of hard work, good fortune and the willingness to bet on long odds, I have enjoyed a diverse and rewarding career. At 18 I was working on a building site. Ten years later, via the computer department, I was Director of Planning and one of the youngest ever board member at a global ad agency. Along the way I have helped grow household name consumer brands, managed billion-dollar marketing budgets, developed and invested in new media ventures, launched and sold an innovative agency trying to push advertising beyond traditional campaigns into digital and supported and advised entrepreneurs in the NHS and the Startup Leadership Program. The journey taught me a lot, so eight years ago I launched WhiteCap, a professional advisory firm working with executives and entrepreneurs seeking personal and professional growth.

I have lived through ‘sleep is for losers’ and the fourteen-hour day. I know from experience that sheer determination is neither the most productive nor sustainable way to work. Now through my educational and coaching work I have an opportunity to share my experience with entrepreneurs and corporate athletes alike. Like the HPI I champion becoming aligned with whatever purpose is most important to you. This is the bottom line, but managing the mission differs according to whichever flavour of thought leader or business guru you ask. The HPI approach is both broader and deeper than the many of the alternatives. It’s a long way from traditional leadership development but their more synthesised philosophy is gaining traction. We should not be considering such a comprehensive strategy a luxury. We need to get it right. Life is short.  

What drives anybody, be they corporate athlete, entrepreneur or healthcare worker is a sense of purpose but many of us struggle to define that purpose. Or indeed price it into what we are worth. If you travel without a destination you’re probably going around in circles. It may sound simple but purpose can be an incredibly difficult thing to pin down. Few of us take time to consider such challenging concepts when there is work to be done and families to care for. What the HPI course gave us was a structure and the gift of time to consider ideas we wouldn’t normally engage with, delivered by insightful experts we’d wouldn’t normally meet. I doubt many of us had given much thought to what our ‘best self’ might be but by getting some clarity around just that one idea priorities and behaviours can begin to alter.

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Participants leave the course with some answers and a plan for a 90 day training mission to shift our reinforced, habitual behaviours around. Having identified our priorities, values and purpose – a personal inventory if you like - we can plan a set of actions which will move us into alignment. Most of us live on autopilot, driven by a patchwork of handed down values and the immediate demands of our daily lives. What if we were to take a step back and ask ourselves what it all meant to us? The HPI course does exactly that, guiding us to honesty and the search for our truth. It reminded me to regularly revisit where I’m going and why. Capabilities, skills and focus shift and so must we.

In the coming months the demands of rebuilding businesses in a flattened economy will require us to be in better shape than ever. The temptation will be to rush our fences and make up for lost time. There will be an irresistible sense of urgency but if we give in to that we will be passing up a golden opportunity.

We can use this time to think creatively, act decisively and eschew the autopilot ethos for something more personal, more congruent with our individual values. But we cannot do it alone. ‘You don’t get to first place without a second opinion’ is the perfect motif for this new landscape. We must allow ourselves to be held accountable. Firstly, by articulating where we are going and secondly, being honest with ourselves about how we intend to get there.  

The changes are happening already. People up and down the United Kingdom are standing on doorsteps and leaning out of windows to clap for healthcare workers. We are learning to appreciate what we have and reconsider what is truly important. Unlike recent pauses, whether they be financial crashes or terrorist attacks, Coronavirus will profoundly affect us all for an extended period. We could never have imagined that our world would turn so slowly. We have a choice - and a chance - to create a new honest and accountable framework for ourselves. Familiar aspects of our lives will return but there will be no getting back to normal. That time has passed. It’s time to move forward on your terms.