Humanising Leadership – interview with Rebecca Adlington OBE and Vanessa Sallows

Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work 2019 report, called upon workplaces to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, in workplace mental health. The research still shows we have a long way to go. 70% of managers say there are barriers to them providing mental health support, 52% of those with an experience of poor mental health cited that it was due to pressure, and just 11% of managers in the UK have received training on understanding workplace stressors .. It is vital changes are made to help employees feel safe and supported at work.
We speak to two leaders in completely different fields – Vanessa Sallows, our Claims and Governance Director of Group Protection at Legal and General, and our Not A Red Card ambassador Becky Adlington OBE, 4-time Olympic gold medallist and business owner of Becky Adlington Swim Stars, about their personal experiences of being a leader, and why it’s important for senior figures to be authentic and compassionate.

What does 'Humanising Leadership' mean to you?

Becky: As a leader you must make a conscious choice to create an environment where people don’t just show up for work, but that they show up and feel that what they do has meaning, whatever that job is. It’s also making sure the organisations values aren’t just talked about, but they are demonstrated all the time.

Vanessa: For me, it’s about being authentic, being true to your own values and treating everyone you work with in a way you would want to be treated yourself. It’s very important that our people feel valued, that they care about what they are doing, and that we are always open and honest, so that we can have those honest conversations with our people, and they really trust us within the workplace.

What does it mean to be a compassionate and open leader, and what is the impact on a business that is led by one?

Becky: My swimming coach Bill was my leader and mentor, and he used to say all the time, ‘a happy swimmer is a good swimmer.’ I feel this is the exact same as work. If you have a good relationship that is open, honest and trusting between your line manager, or team leader, you will be more enthusiastic and driven. Bill always treated me like a human first, an athlete second, and he respected and recognised that my life outside the swimming pool would impact my performance. He listened to me, he trusted me, we created a partnership of mutual respect and it positively impacted my performance.

Vanessa: The compassion is really allowing people to bring their whole selves to work and being authentic and enabling them to thrive. It’s about demonstrating that I’m human, I have faults, none of us are perfect. Some days I have considerable failures, and I’m honest enough to say that I made a mistake – I think that’s really important.

How have you seen your leadership change over the years? How have you had to adapt your leadership during the pandemic?

Becky: I feel I’m in a very fortunate position because I have come into the industry at a time when mental health and human leadership is on the agenda, and I feel like it’s only going to get better and better.

Vanessa: A massive difference.  I personally think my maturity has enhanced my leadership style. It is about how I have learnt from poor directors or leaders of business to make sure I didn’t make those same mistakes. I’m a social person and love the interaction with people and being in the office, that’s what I’ve found most different about the pandemic. I have had to adapt my style to remain connected to my people, because I genuinely miss them all. We have held virtual briefings to stay connected, and every two weeks I’ve been sharing stories or anecdotes from my own personal life during lockdown, but also from a business perspective.

How and where people work has significantly changed. How can businesses ensure they build a psychologically safe culture, if face to face contact is a rarity?

Becky: I think it has a lot to do with acknowledgement, to be aware of creating a safe work culture. It’s about doing stuff that’s not just meetings and giving everyone the opportunity to build a community they want for their work. We’ve created a buddy system which works really well, it’s about the colleagues being together and checking in with one another, seeing how they’re getting on with things, and then you have someone to turn to if you’re having a bad day or if you need help.

Vanessa: Our managers have daily morning huddles and ‘no work’ meetings, where people check in with each other. Our meeting etiquette is that if you start a meeting you all check in, not about work, but to find out how you are as individuals at the given moment. But it’s so important to really listen to what someone is telling you. If you’re prepared to ask the question ‘how are you?’ you need to be prepared to listen and if that person isn’t in a good place then you need to try and understand why and help them overcome that and provide the appropriate support.

We’ve also been doing quizzes and virtual escape rooms, trying to do fun things together that isn’t about work. It’s also so important to make sure they are fully aware of the support mechanisms in place. We have an Employee Assistance Programme in place, over 160 mental health first aiders and mental health champions, it’s important for us to make sure they know they have someone to go and talk to if they’re struggling.

How important is it for a leader to tell their own personal story of mental health and wellbeing to their team? What impact does it have?

Becky: I think it’s huge! I’m not saying every leader out there has their own mental health story to tell, but for those that do and its personal to them, I think the knock-on effect is so huge. Not only is it inspiring – they have got to where they have by getting through those challenges – but it sometimes makes them seem more relatable, approachable, understanding.

Vanessa: The ability for a leader to tell their own story, and in my case the story of family members, is really important. I’ve seen people really struggle with depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and eating disorders. Experiencing and working through my own family’s mental health enabled me to see it from the other side. I have always been very compassionate, but experiencing negative mental health gave me another dimension, and it really made me so determined that other people and other families weren’t going to suffer or struggle in the same way that I had. As leaders, it’s business critical that people see us as human beings, all our strengths and our failures. The more we share these experiences, the more we all learn from each other. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

What’s the risk for leaders who don’t show the human side, or don’t show empathy?

Becky: The success of the business is going to be directly linked to the workforce, and how engaged and motivated they are. You spend so much of your life working, and we don’t get to separate them. You get one life and that’s it, for me I don’t want to be going into an environment that I don’t like, and I don’t want my team to feel scared or that they’re suffering in silence.

Vanessa: People want to work and do a good job. They want to care about the business they’re working for, and I think it’s our responsibility to help them do that. Because if we have a disengaged workforce, we will be unsuccessful. Ultimately, we all want to be successful. How good do we feel when someone praises us? When someone says thank you? We have an initiative at Legal and General called ‘shout out,’ where if someone has done a really good job, or you want to say thank you, you send them a virtual card to say thanks. I think things like that are really important because people see you as that human, compassionate leader.

Mental health in the workplace resources

Our Not A Red Card campaign isn’t just about talking about mental health in the workplace, it’s also about giving you – businesses, leaders, HR professionals – the tools to increase your knowledge and find out what works best for your working environment. Access all our resources for free on the Not A Red Card microsite here, and protect your team’s mental health, today, tomorrow and in future.

Access on demand content on workplace mental health

Read more articles from the likes of Becky Adlington OBE, including, Why I’m backing mental health,’ and How I manage my mental health’. You can also watch insightful panel discussions and talks from our fourth Not A Red Card Forum on demand here.