Talking to John Le Drew is like talking to an old friend-come-therapist. And therein lies his power. His birdseye view of how organisational change can cause stress and burnout is not only enlightening, it’s bang on the money. Here he explains how to engage staff by asking them to be part of the solution and leading with empathy to prevent stagnation. But most importantly, treating people as they are: simply human beings with imperfect, messy lives.

Welcome John! Tell us, what is your business focus for 2022 and how has that shifted since the start of the pandemic last year?

The thing that’s most interesting to me, as someone that has worked in software for 20 years, is there’s always been a big bias towards people working from home. The tech industry – since the internet became a ‘thing’ really – has always seen it as a good move. 

It’s more traditional industries that have experienced a real struggle for people to understand, particularly how to do it properly. Then covid happened and they’ve had to adapt overnight. A huge amount of my work, for the last 12 months or so, has just been that kind of thing and asking: how do you build a healthy organisational culture in your business when people aren’t actually congregating very often anymore. And how does that work, and how do you still function as an organisation in that way? There’s an interesting thing about trusting employees and trusting people to do what they need to do, when you can’t see them. And does it matter that you can’t see them at their desk all the time? Business leaders need to go through a change – that was happening anyway, but it happened more suddenly – and so there’s been a lot of hand-holding of leadership. 

As a consultant, you’ve got a microscope and a more global view into what’s going on in various organisations as they’ve adapted to this ‘new world’. In the last 18 months we’ve seen a  blurring of professional and personal boundaries and so what do you think people – both as individuals and within wider teams – need most from leadership going forward?

To take on the first part, when you talk about the blurring of lines, I think that working from home was always a thing, and was happening more, but it became a pertinent thing because of lockdown. And the idea of personal and professional life being separated was kind of a fictional idea and you can’t separate those two ideas, really. You do ‘live’ at work and what I believe has actually happened is it’s not that those two things have been blurred as such, but that the space has. 

I think the separation was made for convenience so we could say that those people who had to leave work early to collect children early etc. were somehow less professional and it gave a certain group of leaders an uncompassionate way of discriminating against individuals. It may sound harsh, but it’s reality. Leaders like to make decisions where they have to dehumanise people in order to make them. 

As far as what we need from leadership, it’s flexibility and empathy. Empathy beyond everything because the core thing is that if you recognise that you don’t have work/life separation then you’re willing to hire an entire human being that can’t leave their personal life hanging in the cloakroom when they come into the office and so you’re getting all of them.

The only way to deal with human beings effectively is to show understanding and accept that people have lives and stuff happens. Yes there is a balance and yes there needs to be professionalism on both sides, but showing professional empathy is key. Interestingly, there is a lot of bias towards, or stereotypes of, women in leadership roles and them being more empathic and able to demonstrate it. But there is some kind of truth to that in terms of ‘openness’. I don’t think that women have an inherent ability to empathise more than men do [AS: arguably they’ve been socialised that way], but I think there is an openness to showing empathy. When you look at some of the organisations around the world that have done ‘better’ through the pandemic and come out of it more successfully – not necessarily just because their industry is one that wasn’t immediately affected – it’s the ones that have more women in the C-suite. They are simply able to deal with the idea of work/life and recognise that for the business to function effectively and to have a truly effective workforce that is at home and that all their life and boundaries are blurring together, you have to accept and understand that that is reality.

Being a founder and leader yourself, how do you manage your own stress levels and how do you communicate to others around you when things are a little more difficult? 

That is a very good question and I am sure I wouldn’t be the first coach to say that I am exceptionally good at giving you advice on how to manage stress while frequently finding myself at the end of the day wondering how the hell to follow it myself.

As it happens, I recently had a conversation with a client who was very grateful about the particular thing we worked on regarding their processes and how to plan out a product delivery. They said it was amazing how I helped get it all on one page and sorted. When in the same breath, I had been working on some training that I want to deliver early next year and it’s just been complete chaos! [laughs]. 

It can be very hard to coach yourself and I would say one of the key things, is that actually, it’s no easier for me to do it than it is for people to coach themselves. Simply having another human being that you trust to be able to discuss and sort things out with, is by far the most important thing. I am also no stranger to therapy – it’s a really valuable resource that we should destigmatise massively.

It’s very easy to end up, especially now, diving in and out of meetings and it gets to 4-o-clock and you realise, okay, I’ve barely finished my morning cup of tea, not stopped for lunch and I’m ready to collapse. And then the children are back from school and you’re thinking about what to cook for dinner and any other life admin. So, how do I manage my stress levels? Mostly poorly [laughs] but I would say:

  • Have a clear idea of what you’re tackling – there is a massive amount of truth to reducing cognitive load by creating a list; and
  • Block out time for things, not just for meetings – i.e. an hour at the start of the day to review what your working day is going to look like and to get your head clear

When I suggest things like blocking out time and ask them questions like: “What time do you get up?” Or, “What time do you normally start your day/sit down at your desk?” Let’s say it’s 8.30am then just block that hour out where you don’t take any calls every morning. People think I’m crazy – that’s like five hours a week! I know it’s not a small amount of time relative to the week, but it’s not a huge amount of time either. If you think about the amount of time you comfortably waste through procrastination – particularly when you feel overwhelmed in my experience – it works really effectively. 

Again it’s about empathy, but this time in the other direction: showing it to yourself. We’re all living beings with our own stuff going on; there’s a lot happening right now, and there will be days when everything completely fails, but that’s just life. You have to be able to show self-compassion. The biggest thing for me at least is – and this is probably made even worse by the fact that I am a coach and a consultant who spends their time helping people deal with this stuff – I turn around and look at my own life and think ‘what a mess!’. You can end up getting into a really negative cycle of judgment when actually, it’s a good thing to say, “Don’t worry, it’s fine“. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, how much knowledge of process improvement you have in your head, you’re still going to have those bad days. And accepting that is key. Because truth be told, I find one of the biggest causes of stress, is judgment. And a lot of the judgment that we feel might be coming from outside of us and society, isn’t really; it’s us letting it in. We emphasise it and therefore we make it real. 

So, if you can get to a point where you’re recognising the raw imperfection of reality and it doesn’t matter how organised you are, it’s all going to fall apart at some point – and it potentially might be chaos and painful – just let it happen. It doesn’t make you more or less of a failure than any other day.  

Also, good leaders in organisations are actually a big part of this. When you are an employee, leaders can help you better manage stress and keep an eye on things to ensure you aren’t overworked. They need to ask if people are okay, and reflect on whether or not they have demanded too much of them (i.e. if someone says they’re ‘fine’ but their behaviour is saying otherwise), and make sure they’re not judging them for struggling. Because most of the time, while commercial realities exist, deadlines don’t matter that much in the big scheme of things. There are not that many industries that operate on a genuinely urgent basis, but people still put that pressure on because it’s about them, as leaders, saving face the next day. So you have all these people worrying about judgment, pushing themselves to the limit, and actually none of it is that important. You can make a far nicer and more effective environment for people as a leader when you can be real about what does and doesn’t matter. 

That takes me very nicely to my next point! When we talk about stress and burnout, many people focus on the negative side of mental health and people being at peak capacity/struggling. What kind of culture changes are needed to ensure that wellbeing – including positive wellbeing and good stress/challenge – is truly integrated rather than just an afterthought? 

When you have a team delivering software or working on a product let’s say, one of the key things I found was we had a problem with accountability. What we like to do in the corporate world is hold everyone accountable to do X by Y date. And that normally implies there will be some ‘punishment’ like being fired or not getting a bonus if they don’t. A carrot and stick approach.

What I find interesting about making someone accountable is that you take away their ability to choose to be responsible or not. They can’t control it and it really demotivates and disengages people, especially in knowledge work and the creative industries. The reality is that the majority of people I work with that haven’t been negatively impacted by their environment are generally professional, experienced, knowledgeable and they have a desire to do good work. If people fit that basic description – which is definitely true of most people I’ve encountered in the design or programming spaces – those people should be able to be responsible. 

It’s crazy that we’re able to hire people on six-figure salaries and then don’t expect them to be accountable. The issue is you end up creating this situation where you are actively disempowering them as individuals – or the entire team if you’ve brought one in. These brilliant, skilled people arrive to take up a role with great power and suddenly you take that away from them. It’s a disparity and comes back to this historical idea of leadership; the scientific management approach of separating the strategic thinkers and the doers i.e. people on the factory floor have no input into the bigger picture. Unfortunately, that is a pattern that still infects corporate culture across the world, certainly in the older organisations. If you create that separation then it is very difficult to create a culture where individuals can truly feel autonomous. 

Dan Pink’s ‘Drive talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose being the cornerstone of motivation and engagement. If leaders don’t allow people to take responsibility, they are not giving them true autonomy. This is further impacted by arbitrary deadlines, because it makes the person feel like you didn’t trust them to work hard enough to produce the work in the actual (real) time frame. It knocks people quickly, especially those who care about the quality of their work and the quality of their delivery. It’s tied to their identity as an individual and if they feel like they aren’t given that space to learn, talk to peers and explore new technologies or master something they love, their progression will be strangled by such a culture.

Purpose – even where there isn’t strict value alignment with an industry – is often linked to pride in quality work and being supported to do the best work you can do. There are still organisations that are stagnating because they have yet to realise how important this is and still like to treat their experienced engineers like children. 

Absolutely agreed. And what we’re seeing is not just burnout on an individual level but collective exhaustion at team level. How should leaders respond to that so they’re offering both adequate support but also balancing the competing priority of minimising disruption and the impact on delivery and commercial objectives?

These two things go hand-in-hand. The idea that there is a compromise here – that you’re saying: ‘How much team wellbeing can we really afford, if we’re going to hit that deadline?” to me, is a broken idea.

When you’re trying to win a race – let’s use the F1 for example – and you see these teams desperately trying to push this car that is not working and hasn’t been maintained properly, over the finish line and they’re just pushing and pushing and everyone is exhausted and it’s going very slowly, i’ts becasue they haven’t stopped to notice that they don’t have any back wheels and the reason the engine isn’t working is because it’s on fire.

There is often a real inability to have collective mindfulness of teams. A big thing for me is contextual awareness which is essentially the notion of team mindfulness. Each team has a context: the work they were doing. But combined in that context is the team itself; the people who make it up and naturally this context is a continually moving goalpost as the people change, the work changes and the organisational demands change. And then what you have alongside that, is what you call structure; this is the team’s response to that ever-changing context. If you imagine the structure is something the team is building, that structure also contains the people. It could be process changes or team constitution changes but they go hand-in-hand and they work together.

One of the things I find is that in most circumstances, where you have that collective burnout, is where you have situations where frequently, vast amounts of the structure is imposed upon the team i.e these are the processes and tools you have to use and these are the people you have to work with. They get no say in the matter. It always amazes me how many teams seem to have no input into hiring decisions that will affect them. Often you find engineers hired by non-technical managers who were being advised by non-technical recruitment agents. It’s both hilarious and tragic at the same time. And this adds a layer of tension between teams because you have people who don’t have the competencies needed to operate effectively becoming part of that structure and yet it’s not their fault. 

I’ve never seen a company that never changes even though people often feel like theirs doesn’t, but actually what you see is angle turns and that is the environment in which many people have worked in. And it’s worse when more people are added, not better. The reason why it gets worse is the further you are from the C-suite – who are making high-level decisions – the less you hear about it. It takes a long time for those messages and changes to filter down and suddenly it hits the people at the lower ends of the structure and it’s a shock. I once worked with a team who found out that they were moving buildings – which added an extra 30 minutes to their commute on average – changing team structure and having several redundancies within the space of a few months. These were all different C-suite lead initiatives that happened to fall at the same time because they weren’t communicated to one another. It’s those things, those massive changes, that cause burnout across a team, because everything people know and are used to, is taken away. It’s a huge stress. 

People, in general, are really flexible. As human beings, we cope with changes very well. But, like metal that is used in skyscrapers for its heat and weather-changing adaption properties, if you take it and bend it back and forth constantly, it develops metal fatigue. The structure breaks down and eventually it will just get hot and snap. The same happens to people when they have changes imposed upon them and they have to compromise your autonomy; it breaks us eventually. 

It’s very easy to make changes in an unempathic way when you are at the top of an organisation – like when they refer to people as ‘resources’. And as I said previously, when they do this, it’s much easier to impose such things when you’re terming and considering people in the same vein as an office photocopier. “We need to reduce our resources by 5% next quarter” = 10,000 people just lost their jobs, 100,000 still working there just lost their colleagues and friends and connections with people. 

Whenever you’re planning and implementing change, you have to engage the people. In most of the industries outside of the top-down leadership model, this is done. Toyota is a good example: their core belief is that the person on the factory floor is an expert at what they do. Leadership is there, and they have their own expertise, but there is this mutual respect between the worker and the leader that the latter has this bigger picture perspective and the former has the detailed, on-the-ground perspective. They can have an equitable conversation that takes into account those two different perspectives. 

If, as a C-suite leader, you want to make changes, invite input from the people that will be affected where possible and ask them to help solve the problem you believe there to be. It doesn’t make you a weak leader; it doesn’t mean you’re not setting the direction or defining the strategy, you’re simply asking the people who know what they’re doing – the experienced, responsible engineers that you’ve hired – to help you fix the issue, because that’s what you pay them to do. If you do that – and in my opinion, if more leaders did that- you would find significantly less stress and burnout.

Finally, can you recommend a key book or a podcast that you think every technology leader should read or listen to?

There is a series of books called Fearless Change and More Fearless Change written by Dr. Linda Rising and Dr. Mary Lynn Manns. They are wonderful human beings who have been completely decisive in the space of how to introduce changes within your organisation and patterns you can use that address a lot of the fears and challenges that we’ve been discussing. They’re fantastic books and a great read and any opportunity to see Mary or Linda speak is also recommended. 

As far as podcasts go, if you’re feeling stressed, binge-listening to the comedy My Dad Wrote a Porno by Jamie Morton, Alice Levine, and James Cooper [laughs]. It’s very good and very funny and laughter is a very good way to destress so do that!

Well, there you have it – straight from the coach’s mouth! Thank you, John! 

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