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Leadership, burnout and the importance of taking a break: A Sideboard interview with Laura Bouttell of Quarterdeck

As our working lives get busier and we face an unprecedented pace of change in the workplace, we speak to Laura Bouttell, Managing Director of leadership training and consulting business Quarterdeck, about managing change, inspiring others and making space for creativity.

Today’s organisations are facing an unprecedented pace of change. How can leadership help them manage this, particularly in relation to staff engagement and wellbeing?

Leadership is ultimately about relationships with people. Strong relationships built on trust and integrity will help any business navigate through change. Communication is key here. I always advise honesty above all else through any difficult process. Lots of leaders fear honesty but there are ways of being honest without giving away information that you would rather not. For instance, if the information that needs to be communicated is financial then percentages can be used instead of absolute figures. If it’s a conversation that involves emotion though, I would always say that honesty pays. It helps people deal with their own anxieties and fears if they know the boss shares some of those too or has shared them in the past. You can reveal emotions without seeming weak or vulnerable by saying things like, “Change can be a bit scary but without it we’ll be standing still, or even going backwards compared to our competition. It scares me a bit too but as a business we’ve had to change and adapt to get this far and we’ll do it again. Fear is good sometimes. We’re a strong team and we’ll get through it together.” Or, “In the past I have sometimes been terrified of the change we’ve had to embrace but it’s all been fine in the end. Change frightens most people to a greater or lesser degree. It’s necessary but I totally understand that you feel this way.” The bottom line is that people need to feel that they can communicate how they feel to you without being penalised for it. It needs to be okay to talk about feelings that are often considered negative but are often completely normal and usual.

Can leadership be taught or is it innate?

Leadership can absolutely be taught. In fact people need to be taught it! As I said above, it’s all about relationships with people. While we should all be experts at dealing with people (doing it every day), the reality is that life often gets in the way of the things we know we should be doing to encourage and support those around us. Leadership is the consistent practise of inspirational behaviours that encourage a culture of excellence in yourself and those around you. It takes training and practice to make sure you can consistently display those behaviours. Most people, unfortunately, practise those behaviours only when things are going well and they’re nice and calm. When their backs are against the wall people often revert to methods that are proven not to get the best out of people. It’s important to practise not until you can do it right, but until you can’t get it wrong. There’s a huge difference.

As many businesses move away from a traditional workplace hierarchy, what new skills are needed at board and senior management level to inspire and motivate? 

I’d say the main skill here is listening with humility. It’s not a new skill but as people rise up the ladder it’s a skill they often forget to employ, so used are they to being listened to. So many leaders proceed on the basis that they know everything, that they have been in every situation before – but, even if they have, a pair of fresh eyes often reveals something of importance. The trouble with our workplaces now is that we work with such frenzied intensity that listening is seen to be a waste of time. It isn’t. Listening well, with complete focus saves time.

Greater automation could open up more opportunities for creativity at work and a better work life balance. What advice do you have on how to make the most of this new era?

Anything that saves time is worth considering. Greater automation could remove a lot of the boring repetitive jobs from our workloads but people live in fear of automation. People will never be replaced completely but if you fear this then you need to make sure that you are an essential part of the workplace. You can do this by using your humanity. People often forget, or choose not, to bring their real selves to work with them. They leave happy smiley self at home and become very professional. The trouble with this is that people would probably warm to the real self so much more than their professional self. Being super efficient and effective will only get you so far. Being warm, approachable and being able to build great relationships with people resulting in a more motivated, happy workplace means you’ll never be able to be replaced by a robot.

We also need to stop feeling as though ‘being really busy’ or ‘being stressed’ is a marker of success. It isn’t. When people ask me how my summer was and I say, “it was great, I took most of August off”, people can’t believe me. We need to focus on quality of life and working in a sustainable way. If you’re working from 6am until 10pm every night, living for holidays, then you’re going to burn out at some point or other. Burnout is a real issue that we must engage with if we want to harness our people most effectively. I recommend sleep and time out at lunch time to everyone. People work better when they have some time out to refresh and recharge. Automation could give us our 8 hour day back. Embrace it with both arms. It’s okay to have nothing to do in the evening. You’ll never get to the end of your To Do List so stop trying. Embrace  a bit of boredom and let creativity flow. Who knows what you might get out of it?