Employee Engagement and Peak Performance - With Abigail Ireland

Employee Engagement and Peak Performance - With Abigail Ireland

November 19 2019

Following her excellent article in our Employee Retention Guide, peak performance strategist Abigail Ireland joined Laura & Paul to talk about employee engagement and peak performance.

You can visit Abigail's website here.

Read on or listen to the discussion below.

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Podcast Interview

Ok, let's get into the discussion . . .

About Abigail

Abigail Ireland: I started back in banking back in 2005, 2006, and I worked my way up from private equity, acquisition finance. I was in strategy for a while. And after a few years, I think it was 2015 when I decided I wanted to set up my own business, and so did something completely different. But over that time of going into the more entrepreneurial space, I got more and more involved in productivity and performance, and what makes peak performers operate at their best. And so I consolidated everything I knew, and now I do work in that space. So doing training and coaching, executive workshops on peak performance. Essentially looking at the mind, body, and productivity as the three aspects of business, mind, and body, and how they all integrate to make people work at their best.

Paul: In the article you wrote for us, for our retention guide, you talked about the changing nature of work. What are the main things that you think managers and leaders should be thinking about for the future?

Abigail Ireland: I think one of the biggest things that people do need to realize is that the generations coming in, things are changing in terms of how people like to work. And one thing that I've noticed myself when I've gone back into the corporate world, is the way that even young people are, in how they work, is very different to how people who are maybe in the older generations would work. So it's about understanding that and being flexible enough to deal with different types of people, not always implementing a certain approach, a one-size-fits-all. And I think that's something that companies are realizing more and more now. It's about tailoring things to the individual, rather than making everyone conform to a certain way of working.

Paul: In terms of work that you do, I know you said your background is financial services, but do you work across different industries?

Abigail Ireland: Yes. I do lots of leadership and management training and coaching across all sorts of industries. I do still do a lot in financial services as well, and I do still notice some trends that are still there in terms of how people work. There is more flexibility in some companies over others, but there's still that mentality, in certain teams, of having to work crazy hours, just do what it takes to get the job done. And it attracts a certain type of person as well, I'd say, at the same time.

Paul: Yes, that was exactly what I was going to ask, because we work within financial services and FinTech specifically. And on the FinTech side, there're tech companies I happen to work in, financial services products, on the FS side, it's an awful lot trickier to implement change or look at kind of slightly different ways of doing things. Just wondering if you see the same things.

Abigail Ireland: Yes, definitely. And I think it's the larger organizations that are having the biggest trouble, because it's not only changing systems and the way that people work, it's moving a whole giant beast to try and make it more agile. It's also the people side. So changing mindsets and mentalities. People have been used to working a certain for so many years, and then suddenly... and they're all so used to that constant change in financial services. So restructures constantly happening, change of leadership. But I think there's almost a fatigue that's set in over the years, and now there's this whole shift towards going more digital and changing the way people work as well. And I think it takes a lot to move people on that journey.

Paul: In terms of financial services, again, one of the main things that we've noticed kind of through the report and from doing the podcast and everything else, one thing that keeps coming up all the time is that leadership and managers need to be authentic. So there's kind of two things at play. One is that they want to change and move and shift, but beanbags and pool tables don't quite feel right sometimes. So it isn't a case of you change seats, take a beanbag in a corner and you're kind of Google now. There's that kind of mismatch I suppose.

Abigail Ireland: There's also a lot of lip service towards certain things. Like they think if you put a ping pong table somewhere or a beanbag, it's going to change the way people are. But that's not the case. And it is really more about having ongoing changes in the way people work, habits changing, not just these one-off things that happen. And we have, I guess you'd say, the older school generation as well would have a different mindset in terms of things like that, and thinking that they aren't necessary. Whereas the younger generation, like I said earlier, are much more open to wanting to try different things, do things differently, see what works, what doesn't work. It's kind of like a conflict between the two generations, I think. And also because people used to work in a certain way, I think it makes it harder to change that and to be open to allowing different ways, because they didn't have that approach when they were working their way up the career ladder.

Paul: I always remember, someone I used to work for, trained in one of the big four accountancy firms, and he trained people were still smoking in the office. And that's a fairly obvious and dramatic change, but still a lot has changed over the years.

Employee Retention Guide

Laura: And Abigail, talked to our retention guide, which you very kindly contributed to. You talked about the why, what makes people tick, and using skills. Why do you think these are the keys to performance?

Abigail Ireland: So I think everyone needs drivers and reasons to show up at work and to keep that going on a sustainable basis. I think it can be a lot easier to show up at work and get things done in the short term, but if you want people to stay, if you want to retain people, you need to give them something to stay for. And this is different for different people. So it's really about understanding the individuals in your team, what makes them tick, what's important to them, what's going to make them motivated to want to be there and go the extra mile. And in the past, I think that's something that we haven't always focused on as much. It was very much, "You need to conform to the way things are done." Whereas now a lot of leaders are thinking, "We need to conform and change the way we work, to make sure each individual in the team has got what they need to perform at their best at work, and to stay and be happy whilst they're working."

Paul: In terms of performance, how do you actually measure performance, or what advice do you have around that?

Abigail Ireland: Performance can be measured based on results, which is the most obvious way, in terms of the outputs, the productivity of the team. But it can also be measured looking at engagement levels. So things like the engagement surveys that companies run every six months or every year. You can look at the levels of absenteeism in a team. So how often people are taking sick days. Turnover, how often people leave a team, are there high turnover rates in an organization. And I think from a team level, as a leader, you can really see when there's real high-performance in a team, because everyone's just working together very well in a dynamic way.

Paul: And people talk about this term flow, a kind of intangible almost, everything just seems to click.

Abigail Ireland: Yes. And it's being able to be creative, come up with ideas, not being stagnant, doing things the same way. High performers are very open to change and trying to do things or experimenting with doing things differently, and they also won't dwell and have that toxic environment that we so often come across, when you're in an environment where people have fatigued, and are sick of change, and sick of doing things differently.

Laura: Where do you see flexibility in terms of work fitting into all of this?

Abigail Ireland: Flexibility is something that still has a long way to go, and it depends on what people term as flexibility. So it could be flexibility in terms of the type of work you do, but also the traditional sense we're talking about, being able to work when you want to, in the way that you want to. In terms of the work I do, I look a lot at the energy levels of people. So when are you at your most productive versus when are you maybe going through a slump period in the day, and everyone's got a different cycle. So if companies are more flexible, it means that they can get the most out of their people at the same time, whilst keeping people happy. So whether that means people start later, finish later, or work at different times of day, working from home, all of those things help people to become happier employees, at the same time.

Paul: If you were advising someone in financial services around implementing flexibility and all of that around remote work or flexible hours, what advice would you give to leaders thinking about implementing this, or managers managing people, who now have this flexibility option?

Abigail Ireland: There definitely has to be a high level of trust in an organization. And that's probably what's missing, because what I've noticed is that even when organizations do implement flexible working, sometimes there's the, "Oh we need to check that you're online the whole time that you're at home, or we're going to call in and have a meeting every single day, just to micromanage and make sure that you're actually working." The distrust that that causes means that it demotivates people and makes them feel more and more likely to almost not want to work. So with organizations, being able to encourage people to work in a way that works best for them, and trust in them to do a good job, is what will help them to get ahead.

Paul: So with that in mind, how do you encourage people to do that? 

Abigail Ireland: I always think that it's for an individual to speak to their boss and say, "Can we trial flexible working for a week or for two weeks? Is that possible?" Hopefully most managers, most bosses, would say yes to a trial, and if it doesn't work in the way that they want it work, then fine, they can go back to doing the more inflexible, come to the office every single day for example, or having set hours. But if it does work well, then why not extend that for a longer time. And most people, if they're asking for a trial, will go over and above to make sure it works, so that they're more likely to allow that to happen in the future as well.

Paul: Yes, because they appreciate the flexibility. I suppose on the manager side, it must be really important to make sure that objectives are clear and communication around expectations is really clear as well.

Abigail Ireland: Definitely. One of the biggest things I noticed when I was in banking, I used to work a lot on the balanced scorecards and creating these, and working with all of the executives to come up with what the objectives are going to be for their teams. And even at that top level, it is so difficult to get the objectives down. A lot of the time there's confusion or debate over what the objectives should be and how they link into the overarching company objectives, and people are sometimes confused as to how they can actually translate those objectives and goals into the way that they work every day. So the more time that can be spent with people at all levels of the organization, to understand how what they're doing is contributing to the company's overarching strategy or strategic goals, the more effective those people will be in their jobs. They will feel like they're doing something that's worthwhile, and because of that recognition and that empowerment and that feeling of having a meaning in what they do, they're more likely to stay somewhere.


Laura: Excellent. What advice would you have for companies looking to drive performance and productivity?

Abigail Ireland: For me it comes down to not looking first at the outside, so looking at how can we get better results, or how can we increase sales. It's first looking at the individuals in the team. So going back to that, looking at the whole human point that I made earlier, it's about understanding each individual, actually looking at them as a human being. Are they operating at their best on a mental level, a physical level? Are they productive or are they just busy? And looking at how we can shape those individuals before we then look at what the actual work is. So I think looking at that side of things first is going to help to, not only drive high-performing individuals, but then also drive high-performing, happier teams, that work well together and then get the results.

Paul: Sounds good. Abigail, thanks a million for your time. If people want to find out a little bit more about you and your business and what you do, what's the best way to get in touch?

Abigail Ireland: So you can contact me on LinkedIn. So it's Abigail Ireland on LinkedIn. But also my website is probably one of the easiest ways to get in touch and just learn more about what I do, which is www.abigailireland.com. So it's an easy one to remember.

Paul: Especially for those of us in Ireland!

Abigail Ireland: Yes, exactly! 

Paul: Abigail, thanks a million for your time, and thanks again for your contribution.

Laura: Thank you.

Abigail Ireland: Thank you so much guys.

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