I have been promoting the benefits of engaging management for a long time now as attendees at the masterclasses held for the Manufacturing Alliance may testify. Funnily enough interest in the topic usually heightens around the times of recession. This is a shame as the best time to do it is when things are going well so the benefits of engagement can be extracted against a less fevered background. Nevertheless, it is a potent tool which works in all weathers. I thought after a lifetime of practising, writing and researching the topic that I had all the bases covered. However, questions from attendees at my classes, particularly the ones on the LEAD programme held by Quolux in Cheltenham, have recently made me think whether the subject was being tackled earnestly enough:                                    

Last year I had a bit of a damascene conversion which made me reappraise my whole approach to engagement. I was asked to collaborate with Philip Dyer, a well -known business mentor in the NW, on the subject of “Healthy Leaders”. I assumed initially that I had been selected as the equivalent of the “Before” example in the slimming ads. I was the fat, stress-ridden lump and athletic Philip, the “After”. Philip has been working with leaders of SMEs for many years in various guises and has progressively become alarmed at the very high proportion suffering from mental health issues, poor diets and general unfitness. He suggested a holistic approach to business based on organisational health, mental health, nutrition and fitness. Philip himself has been, since his teens, very much into fitness (he is international standard in Karate and latterly indoor rowing) and diet as his family has a history of diabetes. Over the years he has studied the subject from the perspective of business effectiveness.

We duly put the programme together and launched at the University of Central Lancashire with some uncertainty as to whether the subject would appeal. The response has been overwhelming. It is now apparent that the demands of leadership in so many instances have led to a neglect of the Leader’s own personal health. Anti-depressants, blood pressure tablets and antacids seem commonplace in the profession. Diabetes in all its forms is rampant.  Most are us are aware of the issues but get caught in a vicious spiral where the business always comes first.  It is a matter which rarely gets discussed as it is often perceived by those in authority as a sign of weakness to talk about it. But the problem is nevertheless widespread.

Lockdown could be seen as an opportunity for all Leaders to reflect on whether they are sacrificing too much for the business and whether there is a middle ground where both the leader and indeed the business could benefit by doing the four elements above differently in a co-ordinated fashion. The work that Philip has carried out directly with senior decision makers across the NW would indicate that the all- encompassing stresses of many in the SME are exacting a heavy toll personally. From personal experience I can attest that the pressures of business and the feeling of responsibility to employees, shareholders and external agencies can draw you in to the exclusion of, at times, everything else. So, you have no time to eat properly, no time to exercise adequately and no time to consider the consequences for both your work life balance and your mental health.

My solution to the above has always to rely on the benefits of an engaged organisation as almost certainly it will ease pressure and in time will ease workloads through pursuit of the inevitable delegation of responsibilities. However, after listening to Philip, I think it is too easy to underestimate the perceived additional stress of the transformation. While I would argue that in reality it is very easy and straightforward, it does demand a degree of soul searching and self- reflection. And for some this is a risk they do not want to take. While this sounds somewhat paradoxical, that those in charge of introducing change are generally loathe to challenge themselves, the reality is that engagement hasn’t taken off anything like as fast as I and many others believe should be the case. Getting managers out of their familiar but stressful comfort zone seems a step too far.

Philip’s answer is to tackle the matter holistically. As well as the engagement processes I talk about, he believes you should also address:

Diet: he recommends the approach adopted by Ivor Cummins who has a YouTube channel called the Fat Emperor. Ivor does not go for fads but for research- based facts. It is very easy to follow. It creates new habits to change the insulin resistant culture that so many of us have unconsciously adopted.

Exercise: Many of the new generation have got into this already but too many of us see it as discretionary. When you get to 60, you’ll discover that wasn’t. To do enough to keep healthy is not actually that demanding and will do you good

Mental Health: This is a subject on the lips of many nowadays but a lot of us in positions of stressful leadership think we are invincible, until the sleep deprivation and panic attacks creep in. At Leyland Trucks we had someone teach at least 50% of the workforce how to meditate, many years before mindfulness became popular. Combined with understanding negativity, stress and the importance of positivity, the results were astounding.

However, there is an additional element here and one which I think the Manufacturing Alliance fills admirably. Leadership can be a very lonely activity and at times you need someone to talk to. Mentors are expensive and the personalities have to be right for the process to work. But having an accessible, trusted and capable network can work wonders. I see this repeatedly and the need is self-evident across all business sectors today. The original Lead programme, pioneered locally by Lancaster University, excelled in this regard but sadly has fallen away due to funding issues. The only remnant left are the self- funded LEAD programmes run by Quolux in the South West where the network is the key to everything. The Manufacturing Alliance members are fortunate in having a stable and established mechanism so I hope you all maximise its potential. It’s good to talk!

But we’ll leave the last word to Philip: “When I started this journey, I knew there was an issue out there. But getting involved has demonstrated that the problem is enormous. I feel desperately sorry for the good people caught up in this. It is time to educate”

Something for the Alliance to reflect upon?


Prof John J Oliver OBE  

Team Enterprise Solutions