Originally, I was going to train to be a clinical psychologist. The whole way through my degree I kept saying, “I want to be Frasier after I graduate,” and I meant it, but then I did some work experience and I realised that I didn’t want to spend all my time either medicating people or doing six sessions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). For a while it threw me because I had worked so hard towards that goal, but after speaking to a lot of people I respect about my options, I kept being told that I could add so much value in business. I had run multiple businesses of my own, had worked with celebrities and huge brands all over the world, and I began to realise that I could combine my wealth of business knowledge and experience with psychology to help people in organisations. It turned out that this was actually a much better fit for me as a person than going into clinical work.
I’m passionate about helping people in business because the root of so much discontent and unhappiness for lots of people comes from their work lives and jobs. We spend more time at work than anything else in our lives, and if our workplaces are not happy, thriving, productive places where we can be ourselves, it has a massive knock on effect. My personal focus and areas of specialism are around innovation, disruption, creativity, millennials, and supporting businesses to adapt to the future. My Masters research was about which specific traits and behaviours lead to disruption, innovation and ultimately growth within businesses, and about what it means to be intrapreneurial, which means applying the qualities of entrepreneurialism within the business you work for as opposed to starting your own.
‘Quite simply, apart from my children, the reason I get out of bed is to make people happier at work and the best way I’ve figured out how to do that is to work with leaders.’
I decided to make leadership my specific area of focus because that’s where change needs to begin. In any workplace, it’s very difficult to make any change stick unless it comes from the top. You can do every single intervention but unless you’ve got leadership buy in and your leaders are modelling the behaviours, not much is going to happen. When you work with leaders and you see them shifting their behaviour and shifting their worldview about their team and employees, it’s almost like a domino effect, and once that happens, the positive impact on the rest of the business is absolutely massive. Businesses overall need to be agile nowadays, and to do that, they need agile leaders with agile teams. Lots of companies find that incredibly difficult because they were set up in the industrial age. That’s where bringing in performance coaches, consultants and business psychologists can be beneficial.
Nowadays, all sorts of people work with performance coaches and psychologists. Whether it’s competitive athlete at the top of their game in their respective sports, or CEOs and leaders who work with people like Tony Robbins, or even stock market traders working with a high-performance coach like in the TV show Billions, it’s become much more widely accepted that we need help and support to perform at our best.
Historically, a lot of leaders would have been more reticent to being vulnerable and actually saying that they need any help and support. The attitude was that people should be able to do everything by themselves. It used to be seen as career suicide to admit that you don’t know if you’re leading or motivating people as effectively as you could, but it’s become a lot more acceptable to get input and help. There’s a legacy of perfectionism and infallibility from some key sectors like banking where failure hasn’t been seen as acceptable, but that has gotten a lot of companies and even whole sectors into trouble. On the surface, the banks, Uber and even Mark Zuckerberg look like they’ve got it all together, but the truth that has emerged in each of those cases tells a very different story.
To someone who only wanted to look at strategy, tactics, systems and operations, I would say that addressing that side of things alone, without considering the deeper psychological forces at play in your business, you’re probably not going deep enough. So many companies do not work at the right level to effect change. You really have to work at a deep psychological level with the most senior leaders in a company to create profound and lasting change. I can’t even begin to imagine how much money is wasted on one off team days, interventions and workshops without there being buy in from the top, but without it, little will change. If you look at what’s happening in Deliberately Developmental Organisations like NextJump, it’s clear that when top level leaders fully embody any proposed change, it ripples across the whole organisation in a powerful way.
If everything’s working well in your business – if your workforce is really engaged, people are performing brilliantly and your hitting all your targets with low attrition, you’re winning awards and so on – then carry on doing what you’re doing. But if you’re part of a company that’s not performing where you want to be, then you might need to look more deeply at what’s going on. Even for companies that are on top of their game, the world is changing in such a massive way, with lots of the younger people coming into organisations who view the world of work in a totally different way to people twenty years their senior. That is already having a huge impact and it will continue to do so.
My recommendation to anyone curious to explore working with a performance coach or business psychologist would be to do a pilot project within one team, department or area that’s not performing well. Work in a deeper way with them, bring in the leadership and see what the results are both short-term and longer term.
About the Author
Sarah Jane Last is a Business Psychologists, Executive Coach and co-founder of the Work Psychologists. Her current research interests are focused around the early identification of Intraprenurial & disruptive talent. She coaches private clients, Channel 4, We Work, Experian and works with a multitude of tech entrepreneurs.