Episode 3: Putting psychology at the heart of transformation

David
Welcome to the third edition of Transformation Talks. My name's David Lancefield and my aim is to explore the topic of transformation through the lens of a diverse group of people who have driven, lived through or studied transformation in their own ways. We will give you some ideas, some research and experience to help you develop better strategies more effective leadership and healthier cultures in your organisation, or at least that’s the intention.

I'm really happy to be talking today with Kathleen Saxton. Kathleen is a flautist, a mother, psychotherapist, Founder of a business, Leader, speaker and writer, and indeed a human being no less. Kathleen founded The Lighthouse Company, the leading talent agency for the media industry back in 2009. She works with start-ups, corporate celebrities, entrepreneurs and the private equity fraternity. She is also a former executive at Saatchi’s and Virgin Radio.

Wow. Deep breath. It’s truly wonderful to be with you today Kathleen. As I said you transformed businesses in the industry you operate in and you work closely with the senior executives who try to do the same. I would really like to delve into your experiences, particularly you have founded businesses and particularly in terms of the psychological of transformation and mental health as well.

You’ve talked eloquently about real and genuine transformation, no fake transformations here. What is the difference between the two, how do you know?

Kathleen
The difference of course sounds obvious but is important which is about congruency and about authenticity. When someone really brings something that they are deeply passionate about, have values based in and are adamant about the vision that they hold, you can feel it when you sit with them or you sit in a room with them or you are pitched to by them or you meet them at a drinks party and you leave their company feeling that something of what they are trying to do or bring is somehow left around you, with you, on you. And I think when I feel that I know that I’m in the presence of someone who is determined to make a change or a difference whether that is in a corporate setting, a human being setting as you said. I think it is something that is very much felt and I think in the age of the fact the robots are coming which I am sure we will come onto at some point, there is still no replacement for that emotional energy you feel when you are with someone who is ready to or is about to or is in the middle of making change.

David
It’s interesting. If you look around some of it, some leaders’ do that, right, particularly those who are perhaps a little bit more curious, a bit more humble and give more of themselves. But many don’t, many hide behind masks or they are running fast all the time. And you talk about bravery, so there is a certain degree of bravery both in terms of taking on the role or leading transformation. Why do you think leaders stop being brave or they struggle with it?

Kathleen
I think there are two things, it’s a bit of a hobby horse for me. I think two things. I wonder in the last decade or so whether or not we have allowed leaders, whether we have managed to grow leaders to have autonomy in a way that they used to. So therefore are they allowed or are they put in positions where they actually can make decisions that may bring change. Or whether or not the corporate structuring and ratio management and all the other things we have to adhere to in corporate structures, whether we allow those individuals to exercise their individuality as a leader as well from an autonomy point of view.

I think the other thing is with the word bravery, and sometimes I sort of get chased down the road on the word bravery, because I think people sometimes translate that as being only charismatic and I don’t think that is true. I think great leadership can be charismatic, but that doesn’t mean it’s brave. I think some very brave leaders are those that are willing to stand by their opinion, they are willing to stand by a vision that they can see. They are willing to make very difficult decisions.

And an example of that I think is transforming businesses right now, particularly in the sector I specialist in in media, there’s lots of legacy businesses that need to make deep change. And the question with that is, are there parts of that business, that P&L that need to be sort of taken out the back and shot but nobody wants to do it but it needs to be done. And what are the new paths that need to be built and to some degree built at speed, because there probably isn’t a silver bullet unfortunately and change isn’t always fast. But there has to be a letting go sometimes in order to start something new. And I think we are often, particularly in the media industry, out of ego states and pride and brands and the many things that we love, we sometimes ignore the need to stop something as much as to start something.

David
It seems to me that transformation wherever you start and whatever you do and whether you are charismatic, it is a lot more demanding of the person involved?

Kathleen
Yes demanding of self I would say. And therefore knowing yourself is so critical to that as an individual because it will touch on the values of what you are willing or not willing to do. That classic saying of, a principle is not a principle until it costs you something. And I think a lot of people are noticing that in some of the changes that are required now because it asks of yourself as a leader to question, where do I really sit with this? What do I really believe about this? And even if I’m the only one on that current board that sees it differently, am I willing to stand by that? To me that’s real bravery because you are being true to self.

David
There is still quite a gap between if you like leaders and those around who sort of say, I get all that, but come on just focus, you know give more, push harder. So in a way there is a bit of a gap between sort of knowing and doing. I just wonder how do you think that is going to be addressed?

Kathleen
Yeah. It is back to the urgent first. It is important isn’t it and I think most of us that deal with retail clients or FMCG clients right now for example will look at. You know, we used to look at the year results or the quarterly results and suddenly now we are pushing monthly sales numbers like everything is becoming quite myopic because of the pressures on businesses.

And so back to the point about, well how do we really address that and make that change? Is it about whether or not you can allow to build in that investment time and space where a business for example is given a period of 18 months to actually make the changes and recover? There is quite a well known newspaper group right now which is in the midst of that where they have the ability to carve out an 18 month period of investment, less pressure on delivery of profit and revenue results because they are building something for the future. And the CEO of that organisation has said to me, ‘My legacy needs to be the digital readership of my publication. That is my legacy and I have to do whatever I need to do to get that done. And I won’t always be popular in the short term with various shareholders or owners. But if they really want to transform that business they had to take that deep breath’.

David
It’s refreshing for a leader in the midst of transformation to talk about in this case his legacy, that is relatively rare and meaningfully as opposed to sort of glibly?

Kathleen
Absolutely. So to your point about the gap. I think there is also the gap between where the leader may see that and or the board versus all of the people that need to execute that. And can you genuinely bring them with you.

So to your point about you need to work faster, harder, don’t go on holiday, all the other things that happen, the truth is there are periods of time where you need to ask extraordinary things of your people. But I think if they know that there is a plan for that, there is a period of time that that is required to get through to the other end, and you are honest and vulnerable about that as a leader, they are more likely to do it for you and with you. If it is all either glossing over as in everything is fabulous or if you don’t do this, you know, it’s all going to go wrong.

David
Or it is going to go on for years and years and no end in sight?

Kathleen
Absolutely and/or you won’t be rewarded for it by the way because you are just one of the minions, that is where you see the disconnect and the fracturing and the splitting that goes on between the ambitions of the business, the board, the Leader, versus the people that are actually going to get you to execute it. And they have to be connected, they have to be aligned and that is what I can see go wrong sometimes.

David
You used the word vulnerability in what you just said. How vulnerable should people be? How much disclosure should people be? 

Kathleen
I think with most things my favourite word is continuums. I love the idea that we are all on various continuums and I think that people do and will be vulnerable in different ways. What I am seeing and I think we see this again as human beings just in the world and society right now. When we understand more about somebody we tend to find ourselves being able to stand a little closer to them. So even people that have a very different opinion to you, you may violently disagree about various pieces, you may not like the way they behave for example in business or personally. But sometimes when you understand why that may be happening, what some of their back story may be, what some of their previous experiences have been, we tend to be a little bit more compassionate about them. So my view is that rather than get frustrated by people, we need to be fascinated by people because that tends to bring us to a different space with them.

And you know I will interview, my business interviews about 5,000 people a year, in my clinical practice I see hundreds of people every year that have all sorts of differing reasons to be coming to sit with me. And I am also human. But there is not everybody that I relate to. There is not everybody that I instantly like. But when I do, when they allow you to understand more about them then I think there is a huge gift in that.

But I think what we can do about that is to be willing to go first. And I think as Leaders, if we are willing to show some of our own vulnerability first, we only encourage others to do the same. It is what we would call appropriate risk. Are you, yes to the point, telling everybody everything, I was always told the best thing, the best advice for a first date is to not bring everything. And I think that is right. So the same I think in business is that you, you decide what the appropriate risk is, at what point, and to what level will you be willing to show your vulnerability? But in my experience the majority of the time others then come forward and share a little bit of their own story.

David
I mean within that you have to look after people and especially in knowledgeable businesses, obviously physical health is important, but mental health is important too. A lot of initiatives around that, often on the back of crises or problems and in particular sad and tragic events. Where do you think we are at in terms of Leaders, particularly in the transformational context, how do you think they are doing in nurturing and protecting mental health?

Kathleen
I think they are awake to it. I think that we are probably only 20% of the way through where we need to be. I think on the physical health we have got better at being able to name and talk about, even let’s say cancer. You know we didn’t talk about cancer in the office 15 years ago, we have moved to becoming much more open and willing to talk about physical difficulty in whatever form that takes.

I think for mental health we need to be exactly in the same space in the same way that if you have you know a personal trainer or you have an intellectual business coach and you are kind of proud to say you are going to those two places, I think people certainly in England still struggle to say, ‘I am off to see my therapist’. And I think until we can get to a point where we are as appreciative and proud to say, of course I am looking after my mental health in the same way I look after my physical body. You know our cognitive part is 50% of who we are and it pretty much drives our body. So if that is not 100% well or certainly being looked after to try and have that ambition then we are ignoring a very critical part.

I think that the difficulty that I have experienced both through The Lighthouse and through Psyched our psychotherapy businesses, it often gets pushed to the HR Departments or the Talent Department or the People, Chief People Officer who do incredible roles but actually my experience is, if the CEO of these businesses is willing to be very open about their own connections to mental wellbeing, mental health, whole self-development, funnily enough the rest of the company moves faster to get to a better, more healthy space.

We did an event about a year and a half ago where we filmed ten CEOs who on camera said they had had psychotherapy. They talked about being better parents, better wives, better husbands, better leaders.

And in the room on that night you know you could have heart a pin drop because 500 people in our industry were staggered that ten people that they all knew very well would publically say on camera, I have had psychotherapy. And in some ways it was glorious but in another for me it was incredibly disappointing that, that was the reaction. And a lot of people were quite quiet in that evening. I think it touched a lot of people that knew that maybe it is something they either had had or really wanted, but were trying to find their way to do it in a way that didn’t make them feel that they had some level of weakness. I think we connect weakness or stigma still in the UK and that is the bit we have got to get through.

David
Mental health is normally a negative, it is a problem or an issue as opposed to as you said the wellbeing part of it. And if you go through it logically as you did, the sort of knowledge business in whatever shape or form of the organisation you are in, being healthy is critical for great ideas, being productive, it is an obvious equation?

Kathleen
It is an obvious equation. I think obviously we also bandy around stats around you know one in four etc. I think that is nonsense. I think it is one in one. Because again if you look to the continuum of mental health at the one end, yes you have got psychosis and schizophrenia and some things that really need medicated help. But at the other end, we have got anxiety. I don’t think I interview a CEO in my day job that does not have some level of anxiety or can’t say, if I look back two years what is expected of me, the pace I work at, the amount of workload I have got, the expectations on me, are greater than they were even two years ago never mind ten, And so therefore there is a cost to that and the cost tends to come towards our physical, mental wellbeing.

So my view is if someone says ‘I never get stressed and I never get anxious’ I am probably a bit more concerned about them than someone that says that they have, because I wonder where it is going in their body.

David
I guess the challenges on transformation again whatever context, there is the actual pressure, self-imposed pressure, the momentum, the expectation, you are very visible as a leader. People are watching you all the time from employees to investors to everyone else. How do you create the space, apart from having a problem, i.e. health scare which does happen, how do you get the space to just pause and stop and either change the way you are, think about other aspects of your life? How have you done it? You have an incredibly busy life. You have lots of different roles, how do you create the space when you’re transforming either The Lighthouse or other organisations you have been involved in?

Kathleen
I think it has been difficult for me at times to follow my own advice. And I think that I have managed to find ways to do it, it comes back to natural things which is about boundaries. So it comes back to, if I’m not okay then I can’t look after anybody else. And there is a lovely parable about a circle of people that all need to be fed and there is one pot and there is this spoon and how do they do it? They can’t feed themselves but they can feed each other.

So to me I always bring it back to a similarity of, if you are on an airplane and the pressure goes, they always say you have got to put your own mask on first and you do, because you can’t help other people, you can’t lead other people unless you are okay. And I think we were up in the ‘80s, ‘90s, we kind of believed that speed was the badge and busyness was the badge that we had to wear. And I certainly bought into that, the idea.

But of course then we started getting burnt out, and we started getting sick and we realised that it wasn’t good for us. So it is about boundaries and I think again, particularly if you are on the throws of transforming a business, there are a few things aren’t there. Having the space and time to think, because our best creativity comes from when we are quiet often. And when we, people talk about having their best ideas in the bath or the shower, there is no surprise to that because it is time when you tend to be on your own and it is a moment in the day where you are either preparing for the day or you are ending your day. So therefore it is chance for creative ideas for innovation, for those moments of eureka to actually come in.

So creating the space to think, time to think. You know Nancy Cline’s model I think is, it is important that we make that time for ourselves most certainly.

You have then got the collaborative thought which is for everybody to contribute to that idea and to build on that idea, to steal and build I think is also important. So where do you create the time and space for your team together with you to invent as a team together rather than have something enforced on them is important as well.

I think the other thing I have noticed actually as a head hunter is people are starting to take their holidays over the last couple of years.

David
How radical is that?

Kathleen
How amazing. So if you look at the research actually that Harvard and Stanford did a joint piece of research about 18 months ago and it showed that most managers and leaders are nullifying their holiday by working 29 extra days a year whether that is via three extra hours at night or cutting short a holiday or not taking all their holiday allowance. But when you accumulate it they are nullifying 29 days. So they are basically not taking a holiday that they are due. It is quite staggering. And actually when we look at ourselves probably, we have all been guilty at some point of doing that.

David
I just wanted to change tack a little bit because in terms of the beginnings of the transformation journeys it can often be quite sort of both exciting and frightening. Exciting in terms of what you could potentially build, but frightening, it is like, what is your first move, what is your first step, where do I start?

And looking back and we’ve known each other for a number of years, you made some pretty sort of bold moves, you will always dismiss them as, ah no it wasn’t that bold. But take for example advertising, which is one of your ventures. You attended it in New York, you approached Matt Scheckner, the rest is history. But one year later I think I am right in saying, AdWeek Europe, which is a huge event, highly successful. How did you? And that is transformational in terms of taking something into Europe, building a place for creatives, sounding like your sales agent! How do you stop feeling overwhelmed at the beginning when you’re trying to do something genuinely new? And how do you know where to start?

Kathleen
So interestingly, I never feel overwhelmed at the beginning. I normally feel overwhelmed sort of three-quarters of the way through when there is no way back. And I’m feeling the enormity of the sort of imminent birth. So I guess I am sort of in a corporate sense I’m sort of 7 months pregnant, at that point I then start to feel overwhelmed. I think I am very excitable at the beginning, I am a naturally good fire starter, I’m very curious, I have got a lot of energy, natural energy. I am very lucky for that.

But actually Advertising Week is probably quite symbolic of what we have been discussing, because on one hand Matt Scheckner for me emotionally was someone that I really felt I understood. He is very willing to be his own man. And we used to have a signal whereby if he was, if I could notice that our clients were getting bored or he was talking too much, I would turn my bracelets and it was my elegant way of saying to him, it is time to zip it. So we had this hilarious sort of duo that would go to these meetings together, but I think it worked and it was his vision and his creativity and I guess our joint bravery in a way. My view is that we didn’t have an event like this in Europe. I really felt that our industry needed it. We needed the celebration of it, we needed the collaboration that came within it and we needed to remind ourselves at a pretty tricky time in the industry that there was still really good stuff that was happening. There was a lot of innovation, certainly in the tech side that many leaders weren’t willing to admit they didn’t understand.

So to sit in some great auditoriums and be trained under the auspices of being at a conference was a brilliant way of people getting a one on one, one-on-one rather in how to work Instagram or how to work you know ads live or whatever. So it was a way of people being able to in some ways normalise levelling which was whether you were a graduate, whether you were a global CEO, you might be sitting next to each other in an auditorium listening to a boxer talk about how to come back from adversity or whatever the topic may have been.

So he had the vision and bravery but he also has great authenticity. He is not willing to deviate from what he believes. And I actually find great safety in those people because I really know where I stand with him. So he was a great partner.

David
But when you are in those moments when you are going through some form of transformation, you are coming up to launch or you are coming to a moment when you are, oh the anxiety still kicks in, and it does for all of us, where do you turn?

Kathleen
So I have what I call the ‘board I can’t afford’.

David
The ‘board you can’t afford’?

Kathleen
The ‘board I can’t afford’. So they are a set of people that have very differing skills and personalities that I really feel very, very safe with. And it takes me a while, given my back story of a very difficult childhood, it takes me a while to feel I am safe with someone. But once I am, I am in and I am locked in with them.

So on one hand it could be an incredible girlfriend who I can ring up in tears at 11 o’clock at night saying the whole thing is going to go wrong and our reputation and our investment and everything else is hanging on this, who will beautifully, kindly listen to me with great compassion. Not try and offer me any advice because there is no point but can receive my anxiety and my concern in a very loving way.

On the other hand I can ring one of my mentors who is highly financial, highly cut-throat, very much into delivery and he can normalise to me the reality of what we are doing and why, almost remind me why we are doing it and just make sure that I am course correcting anything that maybe looking like it could be coming out of shape a little bit. So there is a strength, almost a parental strength if you like in that energy. Equally there will be, I have got a fantastic coach who again will, understands that I think very fast and I act very fast. So she can keep up with me. I find that in those settings that if someone can’t keep up with me it makes me feel even more unsafe. So I picked a coach who can run as fast as me which is very, very helpful.

And I have the most incredible therapist. My therapist is an Italian Buddhist monk, he used to be in a band. So we share our love of music. But actually because I am so fast and I can be quite rational, he is pretty spiritual and he really slows me down.

So, and I’ve got probably 8 or 9 people that are in that board, but just to give you a flavour. They are very different people, many of them don’t know each other, but they are people that I can ring. Some of them I could ring at three in the morning and they would be there. And others I could certainly ring with three minutes notice and I know that they can catch whatever it is I am bringing and react to me in a way that they know helps me and works for me. And that is the greatest blessing that I have in the people around me that I have that.

David
That’s wonderful. It is uplifting, reassuring. I have always admired the fact that you are not precious about reaching out to people and asking what you might think are dumb questions, you use that term, but actually they are really sharp questions. I remember when we worked at Virgin Media, radio many years ago, new industry for you and lots of caveats but then you asked some really searching questions and certainly to have humility and indeed bravery as we talked about earlier just to sort of reach out either to people or ask the question.

Kathleen
I think that comes back to the sense of self though. Because I think if we know what we are good at and where we do value ourselves, we can stay in that when we need to put ourselves in vulnerability. 

At the time I think it was valuing an Ofcom license for example which I knew nothing about. I remember the first meeting in PwC’s offices and me thinking if anybody asks me a question at this first meeting I am done for because I don’t really understand what is going on. But of course [laughing] but you go away and study and you learn and you ask and by the fourth meeting I knew exactly what was going on. So it is just a case of being able to sit, and I call it sitting in the fire. You know you sit in the fire of this discomfort, can you stay close enough to the flame of discomfort long enough to grow yourself into that space and become comfortable. It is very tempting as human beings to run away from things that we don’t understand or we feel discomfort around.

And actually what I have learnt through training as a therapist is to sit with the discomfort because something else happens. Something else will move and transform. And I think, you know back to your podcast sort of theme around transformation, I think it is sometimes the leader’s unwillingness or discomfort in sitting in that not knowing. And the ambiguity of not being quite sure where we are going to end up. That stops them from even taking that journey or continuing, they kind of retreat back to what we know best. As humans we tend to retreat.

David
They retreat within themselves.

Kathleen
Yes absolutely.

David
Actually talking about it and actually bringing other people in to share ideas or actually just being honest and say ‘Hey I’m not sure’.

Kathleen
Yeah.

David
You don’t have to be the hero leader all the time. You have been very generous in talking about other people who have inspired you and you have obviously worked with some great people.

Kathleen
I have, I have been very lucky yeah.

David
And it’s quite rare, other people are not always as generous, it is all about them. What are the one or two things, and those leaders obviously have transformed their own businesses and been highly successful, but also had ups and downs?

Kathleen
Yeah, absolutely.

David
That is real life, right. What are the one or two takeaways you have from working with those two people or others?

Kathleen
I think when you have a culture of trust, when you have a contracting between you as a team that is very trusting, proper magic happens in those moments and I see it happen often. And that again comes back to sometime, it is back to the leader. Because if we can see their authenticity we have something to hook ourselves into and onto and we can belong. And we like to belong as human beings to something even if that journey is going to be difficult, we can hang onto that.

I think when there is lots of masking and there is lots of pretence and there is lots of glossing over, pre-frontal cortex rational brain will, our physical body will tell us something is not quite right here. And even if we can’t absolutely you know diffuse what it is particularly, there is something that holds us back a little bit. We will hold something back because we are not quite sure. And I see that so often in corporate businesses and it is a real shame when it happens because it is kind of catching as well. It catches in a positive way and it can catch in a negative way.

David
It feels like we are in a period where we are sort of shifting from different leadership styles and capabilities and people have been awakened, there is a greater consciousness.

Kathleen
Yes.

David
I am always inspired by how you talk about your, you know the psychology of leadership and transformation and your inner self. And also nurturing and protecting the mental health of the people around you, which is a big theme and actually we are just at the early stages of understanding.

Kathleen
Absolutely.

David
But at the same time you are just candid and straight in terms of, you know you have had successes and failures. Some people would hide them away. How, if you are trying to do amazing things, you have to give more of yourself, you have to pick you know, the imagination of others?

Kathleen
Of course you do.

David
And actually be smart and actually quite street smart around the people you need around you to sort of lift you up?

Kathleen
Yes.

David
And sometimes I mean you don’t need other people and you have to move on from people?

Kathleen
Yeah, sometimes I think when difficult decisions have to be made, I know certainly for myself and some things are very difficult decision or a painful decision, I will notice I am probably on the extrovert, introvert scale, although I present as very extrovert, I am actually quite border line on that scale. When something is very difficult I tend to move within. I tend to go more into myself and I try and really figure out how I am feeling and I make the decision. I may then go back out and test that with some of my ‘board I can’t afford’, but I tend to make more difficult decisions alone interestingly and that isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong thing. But I notice that of myself. So again back to knowing self. I worry that sometimes breathing too much of our air is quite dangerous right. We have to go and seek alternative opinion and perspective. You know perspective is such a wonderful thing.

So sometimes I will take that decision with all its multiple justifications and it is good sometimes to be challenged. And again having those around you that have a different opinion is a great gift because you can absolutely disregard what they say and you can disregard their opinion but to at least have allowed it be heard and to come into that decision making is incredibly valuable.

David
It’s remarkable isn’t it, the people issues, if you can base on such, are the biggest cause of failure of transformation?

Kathleen
Absolutely, yeah.

David
Yet our understanding and deep understanding, not superficial understanding. Deep understanding of the person, the psychology, the way they think, feel and behave is often sort of laughed away. I think that is changing.

Kathleen
It is changing.

David
It is a bit like a sort of macho, ah yeah we will get to that on the away day, we will get to that on, once we have done the real business. Well this is real business, this is real.

Kathleen
Look at how much M&A money has been wasted by people buying fantastic businesses and literally destroying them within seconds because they really didn’t look at the cultural marriage if you like. And again the sort of, the contracting early on around what is and isn’t going to happen for these cultures of businesses.

Again I think it has always been put into the soft measures, whether it is marketing or HR, then tend to be seen as soft measures. But in fact actually the positioning of a brand and the comfort and vision and compassion around your people will be the things that will make those businesses more successful than anything else.

David
It’s amazing as we’re talking I’m going through this listing and reflecting and going back through as we’re talking and about my own sort of successes and failures and every time I speak with you I learn a hell of a lot. It touches something in terms of something I want to do better. I appreciate the candour which I think is fantastic.

Kathleen
Always.

David
And you’ve done it in lots of different ways. And my sense is you want to create people around you who are better as a result of working as a sort of positive intent. It has been a privilege speaking and learning from you Kathleen.

Kathleen
Pleasure.

David
And there are clearly loads of points around the people, the psychology, the mental health, the depth of understanding of ourselves in order to fuel transformation. I hope it is relevant to everybody across all walks of life, different roles and across business.

Please do subscribe to other transformation talks via Sound Cloud, Acast or iTunes and indeed have a look at our Business and Transformation Blog on pwc.co.uk

End.

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