People: How can founders improve personal performance and build a culture for success?

Tips on releasing the full potential of your people, through your own actions – from the 2019 series of Threads discussions.

Discussion host: Dr Phil Johnson – Clinical Sports Psychologist, performance and executive coach


It can be lonely at the top for a boss. It can be hard to express feelings and thoughts. It is important to speak with people throughout the business, at all levels and regularly, within a safe setting whereby people feel trusted.

Setting the company vision

All businesses begin with a passion and a belief. Founders start their business with others who share their vision and believe in the mission. Founders set and communicate their vision, and those who join later help to adapt this vision. Communicating this evolving vision top-down, while adapting to ground-up feedback, is a must.

The company mission statement is valueless unless the business can communicate it and it feels meaningful in ways that others can connect with.

Founders are not playing God. Those who do so risk becoming disconnected.

Measurements only tell part of the story

It can be hard to know how well you’re doing as a boss. It would be limiting to think “if I can’t measure this, it’s not happening”. Seek feedback from a diversity of people on your style.

In identifying your business purpose, ready to communicate to others; ask yourself “why do we do this?”,” why do we exist?” and “what is our individual purpose?”.

In communicating your business purpose, you must use clean and unambiguous language; use it regularly and it will become integrated into the daily life of the business and its people. 

An organisation’s principles arise from the values the business adopts in its mission statement and the actions taken by its people when no-one’s looking. 

Self value is determinant of our self beliefs. Challenging self beliefs; low self value stems from an unaddressed trauma, illness, or injury – perhaps through a blame-culture or bullying incident at work. Micro-aggressions must never be tolerated, from anyone.

A healthy business operates like a healthy body, it communicates from the top-down and bottom-up; the brain and gut talk to each other, the business leaders and ground floor staff must all remain in good communication.

Taking fresh perspective from new team members

New staff members can usually see and understand with fresh eyes what’s going on with your business within six weeks of joining. They aren’t yet blinded by the status quo and you must encourage them to take notice and to share their insights.

Regularly place yourself in the position of your customers or team. Get ‘into character’ by swapping chairs with a colleague who plays the role that you would ordinarily take. Pay attention to the feelings that arise, as these form the experience and lasting impression.

Success is enabled, or blocked, by the broader context of what is happening in our lives. Only around 25% of performance comes from how well we do in the moment, and 75% comes from our lives more broadly. Listen to what else is going on for your people.

To understand personal performance, you must take a connected view of yourself. You need to acknowledge yourself as a whole person, attuned to your innate needs. Failing to do so risks losing your sense of social identity – if you become too attached to your business, for example.

Intrinsic and extrinsic influences

Be mindful of intrinsic and extrinsic influences. Intrinsic influences drive what we want to do, towards understanding and accomplishing our life mission. Extrinsic influences are external factors that may offer short-term reward, but don’t necessarily fulfil our values.

Listen out for extrinsic motivations expressed by your people. Perhaps “I’m saving to buy a house” may reveal the real, intrinsic, motivation (“I want to be a great mum” or “I want to prove to myself that I’m self-sufficient”) and relate to this in the personal development opportunities that you encourage them to explore. Relate back to this in your encouragement and feedback.

Your subconscious brings into consciousness that which you haven’t yet resolved. Listen to your own choice of words which may reveal things that you don’t recognise in yourself, but which may be noticed by others. Is your language tired? You might need a break, or a fresh focus. Is your language optimistic but feels hollow? You may be striving towards something that’s too nebulous and needs breaking down into smaller chunks to engage others.

Talk to everyone in a way that is bespoke to their individual communication style.

Your personal leadership style

Most coaches, and leaders, fall into two camps, ‘commander’ or ‘cooperative’. Think Jose Mourinho (commander) versus Jurgen Klopp (cooperative). The cooperative style goes further, but you may need to command now and again.

Humans tend to have three states: parent, adult and child. A leader who is by default ‘too parental’ seems dictatorial. A leader who is ‘too adult’ seems to lack empathy. A leader who is ‘too childlike’ may lack credibility. A leader who can provide clarity with empathy and a sense of fun usually gets the best from most people.

Most people lead, and parent, in ways that echo the style of their own parents, arriving at an intergenerational ‘style’ which, if unaddressed, may have compounded shortfallings. Good coaches don’t cling onto power or authority.

Setting goals for the team

The most common reason for people failing to achieve SMART goals is because they typically underestimate Time by around 50%. 

Whenever setting SMART goals consider adding two letters to become I’M SMART, where the Intrinsic Motivations are also understood and are fulfilled as a bi-product. This greatly benefits personal satisfaction and fulfilment.

Communicating your ideas

To arrive at trust you need to use clarity of language, delivered with empathy.

It is better to talk of ideas, than to give advice, to your team. This aids fluidity, fresh thinking and builds understanding and trust.

Give the context and people will apply themselves just right

Technology projects tend to expand to fill the space that is available. It is infinitely possible to improve upon technology. The over-engineering of a solution is usually a symptom of engineers failing to understand the broader context and purpose.

Find the game inches in order to achieve the yards. It is the multiple, incremental changes – the inches – that add, both personally and within the business.

In the film ‘Any given Sunday’ Al Pachino gives a speech on winning game inch by inch, play by play. He finds the human angle that connects, he empowers, and his players want to win for both themselves and for their leader. He makes the inches mean something.

Perfectionism gives rise to dissatisfaction. Perfection is a temporary thing, and it is always disappointing. Perfection offers little that isn’t transitory. Don’t say “perfect” as a matter of course, or you’ll unwittingly normalise a culture of perfectionism.

Honing your leadership instincts

You can trust your broader sensory system. We talk of “gut feel”, “gut instinct” and “trusting our gut”. Our gut senses an experience half a second before the signal from our eyes hits the same spot in our brain. Thus, we can reliably listen to our ‘gut instinct’ when gauging success.

Performance is usually blocked by trauma that occurred previously, usually rising from a personal disappointment, an embarrassment or a humiliation. This causes our brain to get stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode, blocking the brain’s ability to process effectively. 

Be sensitive to people who may have suffered past trauma from a related failure. Show them that you believe in them and that it’s ok to make mistakes. Help them make the first steps back to self-belief.

Be mindful of your ‘positive circle of influence’, and compartmentalise that which is toxic.

Avoid, at all times, words that block performance or make assumptions. Don’t say “obviously” as nothing is obvious. Don’t say “probably” as this is a disconnect from ownership of the matter at hand.

Context is everything. The environment – the leadership, the culture and the physical space – that your people work within sets the context within which they think, work and thrive. 

Published by Andrew Gifford

Co-organiser of Threads South West. Founder/MD and people person at techfolk. Interested in the people aspects of running a progressive business.

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