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Danica Murphy

Danica Murphy

17th Sep 2019

Danica Murphy, lead designer for the Mastering the Performance Mindset short programme for senior leaders.

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The Big Interview: Danica Murphy, Mastering the Performance Mindset

What is the ‘Performance Mindset’?

My working definition is that it is a mindset supported with behaviours, practices and habits to sustain an individuals’ success in a world of huge emotional demand and complexity.

Why has this concept come to the fore now? What’s different today from 20 or 30 years ago?

Quite simply, the level of complexity and pace in today’s business environment is phenomenal. Gartner has said that the average organisation has undergone five enterprise-wide changes in the past three years, and nearly three-quarters of CEOs expect this pace to accelerate.

I also know that from doing strategic facilitation with companies how the demands have changed. When I began, it was ten-year business plans, then it became five – today it’s challenging to get a business to think beyond a two-year plan.

You’ve drawn out three main areas within the performance mindset – Focus, Resilience and Wellness. Why those three areas?

I see those three areas as sturdy legs of a single stool, with the seat being agility and adaptability. In other words, the outcome of developing these areas is the ability to respond in this complex world, make good decisions and succeed.

Taking Focus, what makes a leader become unfocussed? Is it innate human behaviour to lose focus or are there processes we can control?

There’re two fundamental factors in becoming unfocussed.

The first is a process in our brain that rewards interruption. We like being interrupted because it makes us feel stimulated and that we’re learning something new. Stanford University did some research that said, ‘the human mind left to its own devices will seek distraction almost 50% of its waking time’.

We need to counter that by first recognising it as an unavoidable fact, and just building structures around it.

The second is knowing what the ideal balance for focus is. There’s a neuroscientist called Friederike Fabritius, and what she says the brain needs is ‘Fun, Fear and Focus’, which is the ideal combination of noradrenaline, dopamine and acetoxolone.

What that really mean is that we create the circumstances in our environment that allow our brain to be in its highly focussed state.

So, what creates the unfocussed brain? It’s the absence of those things.

Taking wellness, it can often be a topic that leaders ignore or pay lip-service to when a wellness programme is being implemented in their organisation. Why should a CEO take the time to develop their own wellness?

It’s fascinating how good we are at changing the goalposts when it comes to ourselves rather than for others. If the same CEO that paid lip-service to their own wellness went to watch an athlete perform and found out afterwards that the athlete hadn’t – by choice – slept or eaten in the previous 24 hours, they’d rightfully be furious.

Why shouldn’t that be the case for themselves? Especially when they are running a much longer race.

If a CEOs objective is to hit the next quarterly target and that’s all they can see, they need to step back and to realise that the overall objective is to hit all the future quarterly targets too. It’s not based on anecdotal evidence or perceived wisdom that wellness will help CEOs perform at pace over time, it’s hard science.

A recent piece of research out of Harvard took brain scans of 63 Fortune 500 c-suite executives and catalogued their behaviours (nutrition, sleep, alcohol intake etc.) over an 18-month period. The executives that performed badly – low levels of sleep, high alcohol – had measurably lower performance in work, and even had lower salary levels.

Taking one aspect of resilience – could you just give a few pointers for a leader when it comes to dealing with failure within their organisation?

I think this is one of the most powerful areas when it comes to how effective organisations are, and I particularly see it when working with high-potential, youthful employees.

I thoroughly believe that we need controlled failure. Our employees need to know that whatever risks they take they are, first, not going to die, but mainly that they can envisage best case and worst-case scenarios and not feel scared by either.

For leaders, simple switches in language such as talking about ‘the next time’ when failure occurs can make a big difference in the mindset of their teams.

What would the transformation look like in a leader that made this type of development a priority?

It’s going to allow them to be healthier, happier and more successful. They are words that are used so often they can sound almost trite but, when you really look at their meaning, who wouldn’t want that?


This interview is an annotated version an episode from the IMI Talking Leadership podcast. To listen to the full interview, click here

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If you're interested in Mastering the Performance Mindset short programme for senior leaders, you may also be interested in our Executive Series suite.