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Karen Powell and Lesley Heath from A Matter of Choice say leadership has to change after the pandemic.
Karen Powell and Lesley Heath are identical twins. Both worked in HR leadership roles in male-dominated jobs: Lesley in the rail sector and Karen in the Royal Mail where she ran the learning and development team and did a lot of work with school children and vulnerable young people.
They were both interested in what makes people behave the way they do and had worked together on safety and behaviour issues.
But then life events took a different turn. Their mum died suddenly and Karen was made redundant and then diagnosed with breast cancer. One of Lesley’s daughters was diagnosed with arthritis. The two have six daughters between them. The family traumas gave them the impetus to do something different and showed them the importance of women supporting women.
They decided to set up a business and leadership development consultancy, A Matter of Choice, around 10 years ago to capitalise on their experience in mental health, safety and coaching/mentoring young women. At its core is something they call ‘narrative coaching’, a focus on getting people to tell their stories so they can understand where they are coming from. “You have to start by understanding the people you are working with,” says Karen.
It’s not enough to change the person, though, if you don’t change the environment they are going into, says Lesley and Karen, and that requires a systemic approach focused on leadership, backed up by a strong business case for diversity and inclusion – something they say Covid has underlined.
During the pandemic, they have been doing research on leadership. They say it has shown that the organisations that have succeeded are those which have acknowledged that the command and control approach no longer works and that a more compassionate people-centred model is necessary to address burnout, the blurring of work and family life and mental health issues. Yet they say many employers are not capturing these benefits because they still see these things as a ‘nice to have’ but not essential.
Karen and Lesley offer business leaders direction and advice on how to navigate the fast-changing business and workplace environment and provide guidance on how to deliver tough business messages whilst engaging with their wider teams.
Lesley says: “We are witnessing a tricky new world emerging where business leaders are having to walk a tightrope between balancing the focus on commerce without it being interpreted as at the expense of compassion. The pandemic has affected people’s lives, with many being exposed to situations out of their control, which in turn can jeopardise mental health. Therefore we must communicate with business leaders the importance of compassionate engagement with employees, which in turn will encourage a more efficient and productive team. Clearly it is not in the interests of the on-going success of a company to reduce its focus on productivity otherwise the effect on employees should the business fail is even more disastrous. Nowadays it is about finding a path which does not dilute the commercial messaging, but is delivered in a way that does not exclude evidence of real compassion.”
To do this managers have had to go on a steep learning curve which Lesley says is causing anxiety and an erring on the side of inaction which is not in the long-term interest of any business. They are concerned, for instance, that many employers will assume that people can just return to work as normal as the lockdown is eased as if nothing has happened and without making any accommodation for what people have been through over the last year.
Instead, they think people need time to reintegrate into the workplace – as they do following other extended periods of leave like maternity leave. And they also need flexible working. “People are questioning things,” says Karen. She thinks many employers will lose people, especially women, if they return to the normal model.
Generally, they say, managers need to lead with compassion and self-awareness and to accept that being commercially astute and compassionate are not mutually exclusive.
Compassion is, of course, about listening, and one way Karen and Lesley are looking to make employers reflect on the last year is through a Covid journals project where people write diaries about their Covid experiences.
Karen and Lesley also run many other programmes, on mental health, women, safety and coaching/mentoring among others. Their coaching and mentorship programme focuses on people’s mindsets and beliefs in order to create transformational change. Karen and Lesley says mentoring can sometimes be fairly passive. Their programme is about challenging, supporting and reflecting at the deepest level.
Their women in the workplace programme is about giving women the tools to create their version of success, to build their mental toughness to cope with life’s stressors and challenges and to have the confidence to make better choices.
Karen says: “We start with the person and with what we can control.” The confidence comes from women telling their stories, not from ‘shoehorning’ them into a certain way of being, she adds. “Confidence is not something you can train,” she says. “It is something you feel.”
Lesley adds that women need to talk about their experience at work without judgement and without being told how to be and men should support that. The programme gives them a safe space to speak about their experiences and is aimed at women at all levels, including maternity returners.
Karen and Lesley say: “Our programme enables you to move beyond perceived barriers and use obstacles to help you be the best you can be. Together we focus on the things you can control: your mindset and behaviour.”