Future fit: why focus matters in a world of fast-paced change

(This article was originally published in the Irish Times

What is the mindset leaders need to survive in today's business environment? (Picture Source)
What is the mindset leaders need to survive in today’s business environment? (Picture Source)

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Sustained personal health and wellbeing is fundamental to leadership performance. But today’s business leaders struggle to maintain optimum levels of focus, resilience and wellness in a world of fast-paced change.

In Ireland, with uncertainties around Brexit being keenly felt, more than ever they must find a way to stay present in the moment, avoid distraction, adapt to stress and find value in adversity.

How to stay at the top of their game, so that they can ensure their organisation does likewise, is the challenge tackled head on by Mastering the Performance Mindset, one of three new programmes in the Irish Management Institute’s Executive Series.

Launching this autumn, the Mastering the Performance Mindset programme is designed to equip leaders to be future-fit and is led by renowned thought-leaders such as Danica Murphy, an internationally recognised expert in coaching senior leadership and developing high performance teams.

In advance of her arrival at the IMI, we caught up with Danica at her base in Co Wicklow to get an insight into how leaders can up their game, when the game keeps upping.

Danica-Murphy-1.jpgWhat is a performance mindset in business?
It’s about developing a skill set and culture that can succeed in the crazily fast-paced world of work and technological change that we are living in.

Why do we need it now?
The first industrial revolution came from new technology – the steam engine. The second brought the light bulb and the combustion engine. In the 1980s we had the digital revolution. Already we can see that the gap between these revolutions is getting shorter.

We are currently in the fourth industrial revolution, which is about developing the internet, embedding it, and using it to make connections. Everything is happening much faster.  With the digital revolution creativity and innovation were key. They still are. But today it’s all about connectivity.

What role do focus, resilience and wellness play?
In the past you had time for trial and error. Now innovation and creativity have to be done much faster and in a much more collaborative way. It’s leading things like artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things, and it requires a different pace.

Senior leaders I work with say the past five years have made them more tired than the previous 40 years. Resilience has always been important but previously resilience was assumed to be about bouncing back from hardship. Today’s leaders need to bounce back every single day.

It’s driving people to look for a new strategy to cope. They want to succeed at this pace but the habits and behaviours they traditionally relied on are leaving them exhausted. They need new ones. They are asking ‘how do I arm myself for success?’

Why do we need greater powers of focus?
Part of the problem for leaders is that, given the pace of change, the normal decision-making process doesn’t feel as focused. There are a lot more variables and the complexity of these variables have expanded with our access to knowledge.

A Harvard study showed leaders with poor wellness practices tend to use what we call exploitative strategies. That is, just keeping the head down and doing more of what they were already doing. They don’t exhibit bravery in their decision making.

By contrast those practicing physical wellbeing and who have developed different habits, tended to focus on explorative strategies. They displayed the bravery to innovate, to explore new things and take on new challenges.

Today’s pace of change requires a really high level of bravery and agility, to be able to change tack and business focus quickly, and to collaborate and trust new sources of information and new partners.

Lack of sleep deprives the brain of elasticity. Just think about how Elon Musk’s 2.30am tweet about taking the company private and talking about how sleep is not an option … We need leaders to be conscious of the fuel they put in the tank.

How does wellness affect performance?
To use a simple car metaphor, if the engine isn’t tuned up, if it doesn’t have the right fuel, if it’s not allowed to cool down between races, it’s not going to work.

We know from neuroscience and brain scans that a lot of the chemicals and hormones present in really focused brains are correlated to sleep and nutrition.

Lack of sleep deprives the brain of elasticity. Just think about how Elon Musk’s 2.30am tweet about taking the company private and talking about how sleep is not an option. Tesla’s share price tumbled. We really need leaders to be very conscious of the fuel they put in the tank.

(Click to download the Mastering the Performance Mindset brochure)
(Click to download the Mastering the Performance Mindset brochure)

How is focus undermined?
At a time when we experience more distractions than ever in our day-to-day life, focus is a really important part of maintaining clarity of thought.

You achieve it by understanding what the distractions are, the tools that can help you avoid them and the changes in your habits and practices that you need to make to do that, even if that means changing the habits and practices that brought you to success.

Many leaders I work with today have got stuck in a trap of making rather than thinking, of doing the day to day, like responding to shareholder queries, but not scheduling in thinking time. So instead, they do their thinking at night, when they should be asleep. If you saw it in a movie you’d say it was crazy.

How does stress impact focus?
The biggest misconception in all this is that stress is bad. Humans actually need a certain amount of stress to achieve optimum performance.  It’s what gets your adrenaline, cortisone and endorphins going. You need a fear factor, that feeling of being slightly out of your comfort zone. Of course that’s different from the kind of stress that is linked to clinical depression, but it’s okay to come out of your workplace and say ‘Phew, that was hectic!’.

What we need is to manage the day to day stress, which has everything to do with mindset. It’s about assessing what are the things that are challenging you and making you feel afraid, and what are the things that distract you and take you away from important matters.

Can resilience be learned?
This is a good news story. Some are born with a natural bounce-back-ability but if you need to bounce back day after day, it’s going to have to become a natural competency.

Resilience can be learned through emotional intelligence work, mindfulness work and gratitude practice. It sounds woolly but it’s not. We are used to journaling our problems, writing out pros and cons. We don’t think that is woolly but it serves the same function, it distils our thoughts.

Given that it leads to improved focus and resilience, why is wellness for leaders so overlooked?

It’s a lack of understanding of the real benefits. The narrative has been that wellness programmes are a recruitment and engagement incentive, a sort of icing on the cake. It’s not, it’s the eggs and batter that holds the cake together.

The type of mindset I see in senior leadership is one that is actually really good at self-monitoring. Almost like a competitive athlete, they know how to mind their diets and their exercise.

The folks that go on this programme are those who are really good at looking around corners. They are the ones surveying the landscape and saying, I’d better get a new suit of armour, because the weapons are changing. They are the ones who understand this wave of change that is flowing, and want to float on it, rather than crash on the shore.


Danica Murphy
Danica Murphy

Danica Murphy is the lead designer on the new IMI short programme for senior leaders, Mastering the Performance Mindset. To apply for a place on the Mastering the Performance Mindset programme, click here.