Be Well to Lead Well – with Francois Barton

Good leadership requires CEOs and senior executives to be responsible for others wellbeing, but who supports the leaders?

We spoke to Francois Barton, the Executive Director of the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum, about the importance of leaders taking care of their own mental wellbeing to be able to lead well and the launch of a new programme which supports this.

Tell us about the aims of the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum?

The Business Leaders Health and Safety Forum is a place of exchange and learning for almost 400 chief executives across New Zealand. Our work is around the leadership of health and safety and more laterally wellbeing. We make that distinction because I think often health and safety and wellbeing are very management heavy, whereas there are a range of really critical roles that leaders and chief executives play as they have access to all of the levers of the organisational wheelhouse. This includes influence over work arrangements and design.

So for 11 years, we've been working in this space and we continue to grow and we're really thrilled to have a huge number of consulting engineers from across New Zealand as long standing and very active members.

You’ve launched a new programme for CEOs called ‘Be Well to Lead Well’ – what’s the problem your programme is trying to solve?

The Be Well to Lead Well programme is around recognising that CEOs need to be supported in their own wellbeing in order for them to do their critical work in organisations. 

I wouldn't be the first person to suggest the last three years has been a challenging time for everyone. For our political leaders, families and communities, but also for the leaders of organisations as we try to navigate the current periods of uncertainty.  We noticed that chief executives and senior teams, like everyone else in the workforce, were under the pump and to say that some were struggling wouldn't be an overstatement. Particularly given the huge amount of important leadership work they are doing in the current moment, that’s not going to go away in a hurry. It's an old cliche, but there's a reason the airlines tell you to put your oxygen mask on first so you can be of use to the people around you, and so too with executive leaders.

It can be very challenging for senior people, who need to be strong for their people, and be across all the issues from their board's perspective, to put their hand up and say look, I may or may not be clinically distressed, but I might be having a few struggles.

So, I think trying to signal this is an increasingly common and healthy part of all people's work lives, being able to check in on that, and there is support that they can access if and when they need.

What happens to and in our businesses if our leader’s wellbeing isn't prioritised?

I think the reality about our mental wellbeing is that it's not just a negative thing about struggling or being in distress. Our mental wellbeing sits on a continuum and the opportunity to be going okay, or ultimately to be thriving is equally part of our wellbeing opportunities.

When we're thriving, we're present, we're fully engaged in the work around us, our judgment is not impaired, we have more patience, we are cognitively more present. The science is really clear around what those benefits look like. Unsurprisingly, and I think everybody in a quiet moment would acknowledge that when they're distressed, or fatigued, when they are not doing so well, often patience can be less, the leap to conclusions might be faster than it need be, and a whole range of other judgment elements. Given a huge part of the chief executive and the senior people’s role is around judgment and nuance and subtlety, we want to be hitting these complex, difficult situations with as much juice in the tank as we've got.

So, there's sound business, personal and organisational cultural reasons that an executive team checking in and managing their wellbeing better, has to be better for those around them, but also themselves.

Is there still a stigma around leaders speaking up?

My personal view is I think that one of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that it's accelerated a deepening of understanding that the whole person counts. We've, appreciated over the last two years, there is more to a person than who rocks up in the office from 9 to 5. Indeed, 9 to 5 is a question that's under a lot of reflection at the moment.

So, what previously might have been a high-risk conversation around talking about mental wellbeing and the whole person, I think we've had an accelerated global masterclass in accepting it as true.

However, I think we’re still in a transition point around knowing how we then activate and engage, and understand what's our respective work as leaders in an organisation and individuals around our own self responsibility and stepping there.

What advice or strategies would you give to leaders to support their mental health and wellbeing?

The main point I make to any senior leader when I talk to them is just reminding them that they are people too. The beauty of mental wellbeing as a topic, is unlike safety specific risks, like working at height or vehicle safety, every single person is exposed to mental health risks but also mental health opportunities. So, the one thing I'd encourage any senior person just to acknowledge is that their wellbeing is important, and it can go up and there will be times when it goes down and that's not good or bad, that's just being human.

And so taking the time and the space and giving yourself the permission to just actually reflect and check-in on yourself, around what’s happening at work and home and how are those things helping or hindering? That then gives you the opportunity to make some calls.

In a very simple sense, the Mental Health Foundation have done a really powerful piece of work, they borrowed off the UK. It's a framework called the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’. Basically, it says we need to connect, we need to learn, we need to give, be active and we need to take note. And those five things can look very different to different people, but they are proven things that top us up.

What can people expect if they sign-up to the programme?

It’s a two-part program – a reflection on self and then a leadership comparison and exercise with others around how do we lead.

We've partnered with a New Zealand company called Leading Safety, who have got access to the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey. This survey really lets CEOs and senior executives reflect on how their wellbeing is being affected by aspects of their professional and personal lives. You then get two one-on-one confidential coaching sessions with an accredited provider who lets you make some sense of your results about where you have got some drivers, enablers or some barriers. Then there's a follow up session where you've got the opportunity to pull together a personal wellbeing plan. That’s the reflect part.

Then, the second part sees leaders come together with their peers, either as an executive team, or across the Forum or ACE New Zealand whanau to have a 1/2-day workshop facilitated by Leading Safety, to share ideas and experiences on how to lead wellbeing in your organisations.

It’s about giving CEO's a resource and an approach that's tailored to the specific nature of their work. We’re currently offering this programme to ACE New Zealand members at the same rate as Forum members.

What are some of the broader challenges businesses have in this space and how do we help them overcome those challenges?

In my role, I get to engage with senior people right across the New Zealand economy from all different sectors.  One of the shared and common challenges I see organisations struggling with is really trying to understand what do we mean by mental wellbeing? Where do individual responsibilities start and organisational responsibilities finish?

Often what we see is a quite a confused grab bag of investment across the wellbeing spectrum and everyone asks a very legitimate question, is this making a difference? And what I see is what I call the ‘yoga mats and apps’ temptation.

So, the challenge as organisations is taking the time and making the effort to get clear that mental wellbeing is a continuum from being unwell to thriving. It is a dynamic, holistic and subjective reality. As an organisation, we need to be first curious around what are the work-related things we're doing that are either helping or hindering our people's wellbeing, as well as understanding what other support can we give to people that might just be dealing with the unfortunate slings and arrows of life?

Many organisations and leaders tend to focus more on individuals, which is a long, hard road. If you don't change the environment that contributed to their wellbeing challenges in the first instance, you're going to be in for an even longer journey. 

The work that the Forum has just recently embarked on, by partnering with ACE New Zealand around mentally healthy workplaces, provides a really concrete structured, evidence-based framework, approach and program. I'm so excited to really help members across the ACE New Zealand whanau to really start to step through.

Do you have an example of an organisation that is doing this really well?

I'm often asked, who's doing this really well, and what I would say is actually genuinely investing in and understanding how we can design and enable mentally healthy work and support mentally healthy people are still a very emergent area. So, I can't point to any organisation that would say with any confidence they’re nailing it, because they are appropriately modest and self-aware that this is an adaptive, complex challenge.

What I am noticing is organisations who are starting by starting. They are being patient and they are being curious. They are opening their minds to the reality that they may unintentionally be creating work environments or work situations that might be contributing to people's wellbeing.

A quote that I often end up leaning on, which feels relevant in this conversation and is characteristic of the organisations I see making progress is by a MIT Culture guru called Edgar Schein. He says leadership demands we access our ignorance, vulnerability and discomfort. By that he means, we are ignorant because we don’t know and we can’t know everything. Telling people you don’t know means you need to be vulnerable and ask. And upon asking, what you find out will sometimes be things you wish were not the case.

Feeling ignorant and feeling vulnerable and feeling uncomfortable doesn't mean you're doing things wrong in this space, it probably means you're actually starting to step into the right space. And so that's why this is leadership work. That's why this is not just management work. This is very, very clearly leadership work.

If you were to challenge our sector to do one thing differently today, what would it be?

If I was to be so bold as to put a challenge to the sector, myself, or indeed to any organisation, I think my challenge would be to really ask yourself honestly - where are you putting your wellbeing effort? Are you focusing more on trying to fix people? Or are you looking to try and fix the work? And if your answer is we're spending more of our time trying to fix people, the challenge I would have is, I think there's a chance to change the balance of that.

When I'm engaging with leaders and I look at the influence they have, as they’ve got the ability to have an impact on how work is arranged and how work is designed, and if we bring that lens to our organisational leadership, wellbeing doesn't need to be yet another straw on our already near breaking back. It can be an opportunity for us just to be able to shift our focus.

Someone said to me the other day, shifting your perspective by an inch can let you see for miles.  Some of our leadership work around wellbeing is as much around our work design and work arrangements. If we accept that's a true idea, that gives us a lot more opportunity to make work better. And in a world with a tight labour market and a global competition for talent, I would argue that's a good challenge to go after.

For ACE members wanting to join the Be Well to Lead Well programme

The Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum are offering ACE members the course at the same rate as Forum members. The total cost of the course is $1500 per GST per leader. 

ACE members are able to register for this course via the Forum website (if you're not a Forum member, then select ‘Non-Forum members’ from the organisational drop-down menu).

Connect with Francois Barton on LinkedIn  

Learn more about the Be Well to Lead Well course

Access the Forum’s Mental Wellbeing resources