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Be present. Be mindful. Be brave.

Business Development Lead, Paul McKeating, explores how mindful leaders can effect change and improve mental health and wellbeing.

Mindfulness.  It's a simple yet evocative term, defined by the Oxford English dictionary as "a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” Even the written definition can bring a feeling of serenity. My first experience of mindfulness was just that – serene. In a circle of chairs filled with lawyers and business services professionals, I closed my eyes, sat up straight, focused my mind on the present and almost instantly fell asleep, woken only by a semi-conscious notion that I may have been lightly snoring next to a senior partner.

Of course, mindfulness is so much more than having a quick snooze in a quiet conference room. The term has become ubiquitous in recent years, the concept having originated in Zen Buddhism, and mindfulness is practiced regularly by many across the globe. As the business world embraces the concept, and the conversation around mental health and wellbeing is rightly amongst many senior leaders’ priorities, how can we ensure our teams work healthily and sustainably? Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Mindfulness and mental health go hand in hand, so how can marketing and business development leaders working for professional services businesses ensure we embrace the change and truly commit to improving mental health and wellbeing, alongside our professional advisor colleagues?

One way is through the Mindful Business Charter. The Charter, an initiative devised by Barclays alongside Pinsent Masons and Addleshaw Goddard and launched in 2018, commits organisations to “remove unnecessary sources of workplace stress and promote better mental health and wellbeing”. By becoming a signatory, firms such as Herbert Smith Freehills have signalled their commitment to work with employees to improve areas including communication, working hours and considerate delegation of tasks, all of which are of course key areas of focus for marketing and business development professionals, and equally relevant to us as to the hardworking lawyers we work alongside every day.

When signing up to the Mindful Business Charter, organisations make several commitments, including to drive forward the change, to promote a culture of openness and to introduce the Charter to at least one new member every 12 months. What can we do as individuals to support it?

There are four key pillars:

Openness and respect - building trust and effective communication

Trust. Highly desired, difficult to achieve and absolutely essential. We, as business consultants, strive for it every day in our interactions with our teams, internal stakeholders, and clients. So how can we build this trust and communicate effectively? 

The Mindful Business Charter asks us to discuss upfront with others their preferred method of communication. While few will mourn the demise of the pager or the fax machine, is it now time to rethink how we send emails? Could a face-to-face interaction work better?

In some workplace cultures, extroversion is celebrated above all else whilst introversion is confused as a weakness. Could you take a little more time out of your day to read up on personality types, to help communicate more effectively?(Sunday Times Bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a good place to start). Perhaps a particularly introverted colleague, mentally exhausted by a day packed with face-to-face meetings with lots of different faces and voices, would prefer to methodically check through emails, alone, while they recharge their batteries. 

Either way, there’s no harm in asking how others prefer to communicate, and adapting our style to suit our colleagues and clients.

It goes without saying that we should treat others with the appropriate level of respect and courtesy. Providing regular feedback, as well as asking for it on a regular basis, fosters a true culture of openness. Goal-setting systems such as Objective Manager can be a great way to facilitate this in real time. 

Smart meetings and emails - adhering to smart meeting and email guidance

Many of us will have had that moment of deflation when returning to our desks to an inbox overflowing with new messages. Our inbox often acts as our to-do list, and we rarely reach the Holy Grail of Inbox Zero. When sending an email, it’s often a fine line between ensuring the right people are copied and in the loop on important initiatives, and simply overloading people with emails they don’t need to receive. Using clear subject lines, and ensuring the content of the email is reflective of that subject line, can help to separate out the ‘business critical’ from the ‘can wait until next week’.

The Mindful Business Charter asks us to avoid over-use of email, but in a globally connected world where email has reigned supreme for many years, and indeed has many benefits, this takes some real effort. Could a quick query be resolved by picking up the old fashioned telephone, or by popping your head round the door? Instant messaging services provide a happy medium, with many firms now equipped with technology such as Skype. It’s nothing particularly new, but a quick video call could avoid emails being misinterpreted, or even ignored, causing frustration for both the sender and the recipient. Many firms now also have internal social networks such as Yammer, which provides a new way to cut down on email traffic, engage with colleagues across an international network and join in with those non-urgent discussions. It’s a fantastically effective platform.
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was at the aforementioned mindfulness session regarding mobile push notifications and alerts. The immediacy with which we are now accustomed to receiving information is astonishing, and incredibly distracting. News alerts, text messages, emails, social media likes, weather reports. That small blue box in the bottom right hand corner from your Outlook alerting you to yet another email hot off the press. I turned off every push notification on my mobile phone and laptop and never looked back. 

It’s no secret that face-to-face meetings provide opportunities for that essential non-verbal communication. But do we always need to be present? There is no doubt that trust is built most effectively face-to-face, but the Mindful Business Charter asks us to allow others to join meetings by whatever method they deem suitable, by providing dial-in details as a default unless it is imperative that everyone attends in person. Skype functionality allows us to cut across geographical borders, gives users the opportunity to dial in, connect by video or contribute to the discussion through instant messaging. Agile working policies have now become the norm, and particularly when working with an international network, we should embrace that. 

Mindful meetings are very important tools to help build that all-important trust; be respectful of other’s time by planning meetings properly. Our diaries are busy and if we all take a moment to consider each other’s schedules, give appropriate notice, set clear agendas and don’t cancel at the last minute, this will go a long way to avoiding unnecessary stress and frustration. 

Respecting rest periods - consideration given to the need to 'switch off'

Many of us are guilty of checking our work email when we should be switching off. Being connected has become so engrained in our day-to-day and checking our daily screen time figures can be quite the wake-up call. But what about when we’re on holiday? I have definitely been on one sun lounger too many where I’ve switched from my summer holiday best-seller to thinking about work and then taking a ‘quick’ look through emails. Subsequently, it becomes very difficult to switch off, and you have instantly failed in taking the break that you really need. The reality is that if you have been organised enough to plan ahead or hand over any urgent projects or deadlines properly, and you have the right team in place, there shouldn’t be a reason why your focus can’t be on yourself and your own relaxation time and wellbeing, for at least four or five weeks out of 52.

The Mindful Business Charter calls for rest periods to be respected, and that annual leave is exactly that – time during the year where you leave behind the stresses of work. We don’t always need to be ‘on-call’, and replying to some emails or calls, but not all, does nothing but create uncertainty for and disempowerment of your team. Give options for support which may be required outside of someone’s core working hours, whether that be early mornings or during evenings or weekends. 

But emails aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. If you’re sending emails outside of the usual business hours, clearly mark them as non-urgent. We can assume that all emails need to be read at some point (otherwise don’t send them), but do they need to be read now? Email software allows us to send emails at designated / delayed times. If you’re on a roll and clearing out your inbox, others could benefit from you sending it pre-timed to hit their own inboxes on a Monday morning, with a fresh week ahead, rather than last thing on a Friday evening.

Mindful delegation - implementing a best practice approach to collaboration, instruction and delegation

As leaders and managers, we rely on our teams to complete marketing and business development tasks to a consistently high standard. Often in our busy roles, the ever-growing to do list, conflicting demands and high-pressure environments can result in tasks being delegated without much degree of mindfulness. We shouldn’t expect our team members to fully appreciate or even understand a task without context. Have you given all of the information required? Of course, our teams should not be afraid to ask for more information or more context if needed, but we can help that by providing as much context as possible in the first place – it cuts down on unnecessary emails, too!

Deadlines are often a sticking point. Urgent tasks, information required yesterday, a different time zone meaning that you could lose a day if your colleagues have finished before you all create a challenge. The Mindful Business Charter encourages us to negotiate rather than impose a deadline – does the task absolutely need to be completed today or even this week? If you’re holding the pen on an important client pitch, for example, be transparent on the ultimate deadline and promptly communicate any timing changes which might have an impact on others. 

Equally, make sure your teams are empowered to speak up when a deadline is not achievable or unreasonable. A deadline which makes perfect sense to you, might mean a week of late nights for a busy team member who is undertaking other tasks you might not be aware of. 

There is no 'one size fits all' to well-being

What works in one smaller organisation might not translate to a larger firm with ten times the number of stakeholders, and vice versa. Our industry is changing, and we need to change with it. Initiatives such as the Mindful Business Charter, and indeed a strategic focus on mental health and wellbeing are vital, and we all need to commit to taking the time to invest in our own mental health and support others to do the same. 

Many of us work in high-performing cultures, where hard work, drive and a commitment to improving the client experience are key, and which are particularly pertinent to us as marketing and business development professionals. In conversations with team members, performance should be measured by output, not by hours recorded on a timesheet. Yes, sometimes the hours can be long and we can find ourselves in stressful situations, but signatories to the Mindful Business Charter want this to be the exception rather than the rule.  

Change can’t and won’t happen overnight. Cultural shifts take time and effort, from the highest levels of leadership within an organisation, and as the Mindful Business Charter clearly states in its introduction, as a legal community, we have a responsibility to try to do things differently. 

Be present.  Be mindful.  Be brave.


First published in PM Magazine November 2019.  To download the original article please click here.