‘People with Purpose’ is a series where we speak to people who lead businesses and organisations driven by a clear purpose. We’re fascinated and encouraged by businesses that put people and purpose above profit; and think there’s plenty to be learned from these examples.

For this edition, we’re talking to Audrey McGibbon, cofounder of EEK & SENSE and co-author of the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS).

EEK & SENSE is a long–term partnership between psychologists Audrey McGibbon and Karen Gillespie.

While working with corporate leaders and professional service firms, Audrey and Karen began noticing that leaders were experiencing persistent threats to their wellbeing. Worse, this was having a knock-on effect, negatively affecting their teams’ and their organisations’ performance and productivity.

In response, they created the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS) – an evidence-based wellbeing tool backed by over 50 years combined professional experience in organisational psychology, leadership development, executive coaching and capability design initiatives.

We caught up with Audrey McGibbon, cofounder of EEK & SENSE and co-creator of the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS) to find out more about the vision of GLWS and talk about whether businesses ‘need’ a higher purpose.


What’s your background and how did it lead to the GLWS?

Audrey: My background is as a psychologist – I did a double degree in psychology and commerce. I was really lucky to land my first role at what was then the world’s leading firm of business psychologists – a company called SHL in London. I was helping write test questions for personality questionnaires and aptitude tests.

I worked for a guy called professor Peter Saville, who is one of the most famous names in psychometric testing. He was great, and the whole company was great, and I ‘grew up’ with them.

By the time I’d been there five years in London, I was offered the opportunity to come to Australia to be their New South Wales state manager for a year. And so I jumped over here for a year and never went back!

The business was just growing and growing in Australia and globally. And I was at the right time and right place – I ended up being the managing director of that Australian business before I was thirty.

It was a very exciting time – flying off around the world, learning about assessment and working with leaders of businesses everywhere. And I was involved with the running of companies from both the inside (us) and outside (our clients).
It was just fantastic, but really bloody hard work!

And then I started a family of my own and I learned that actually flying off on airplanes around the world while feeding babies was quite difficult. So I took a break.


So you were exposed to both sides of these big businesses?

Audrey: Yeah. I had a foot in both shoes. That was interesting.


What happened next?

Audrey: Then I had my baby and I thought, “Well I have to work,” because I was just going crazy.

So I thought I’d just do a bit of coaching work just to keep a hand in, and then I’ll get a proper job once the kids are out of nappies and things. Well anyway, that came and went – and I never got myself another proper job. I just carried on.

Initially those years before GLWS came along was doing lots of leadership development work and programs with big companies. I have a handful of really lovely clients that I’ve worked with for a long time who just knew me and wanted to carry on working with me.


How did that lead into GLWS?

Audrey: I was doing leadership development in great companies with really talented people – both in the HR side but also coaching some talented executives. Karen was doing roughly the same sort of thing. She and I had worked together at SHL in Australia, and we knew each other back in the UK.

Karen and I used to do ‘peer supervision’ with each other. We’d have a debrief on challenging coaching scenarios and leadership programs and just pick each other’s brains. And one of the recurring themes was, “I’m coaching this person, but because they’ve got so much on their plate, I can’t really get to the main coaching because they’re so stressed or distracted.” It could have been family issues or a dysfunctional boss.

The problem was staring us in the face – we were seeing really good people, senior people, capable people – challenged by what was going on in the work place and what was going on for them outside of work in a way that I don’t think was happening when we first started working with senior leaders back in the early 90s.

This is materially different and it’s to do with the rate of change in the world and a whole host of other reasons. These leaders are all operating under increased pressure and strain. Even the best of them are finding it challenging to sustain their performance.
I felt strongly that there could be a better way. That it was neither the individual’s responsibility nor the organisation’s responsibility – there had to be some way of getting this stuff on the agenda, talked about, identified, looked at, understood, empathized with.

It wasn’t happening at the time – it would have been around 2013-14. And Karen was seeing the same stuff.

We said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be really good if there was a survey about this – there’s bound to be one.”

We went off and did a bit of research expecting not to design a survey, but to find one that we would simply use in our coaching businesses. It was never our intention to design a survey and certainly not our intention having designed a survey to set up a business!


So GLWS came from the need to help leaders cope?

Audrey: It was born out of a very clear need, and a very strong personal passion for helping people at work.

In my own small way, I knew what it was like to be doing a big job, feeling stressed with too many demands on your time at the same time as having a family. I really related to that. And they were dealing with it in much more amplified ways than I ever had to deal with.

And frankly, it’s still a position I hold today – enormous empathy and respect for the people that are in these executive roles. I honestly don’t know how they do it and stay sane.


How important is empathy in your role?

Audrey: I think the empathy and understanding – being able to relate and visage the pressures and strains for our clients are under – that’s in the fabric of the GLWS survey.

A good coach can empathise like that, and we’d like to think that’s what we were doing. But it’s slow to get out some of that information from these leaders. It could take four eight coaching sessions. And we wanted to speed that up – because one of the pressures, ironically, is that people don’t have the time. They might really benefit from sitting down and connecting with a coach, but it’s a luxury.


How did the GLWS develop into the tool it now is?

Audrey: Having designed the survey, we thought, “We’ll just use it ourselves, and that’ll be nice because I’m pretty sure now we’re doing better coaching work and better leadership development programs that will help the handful of people that we come across.”

But it became quite an ambition. I thought we should open this up. Because our colleagues and fellow coaches were asking, “Oh that looks pretty interesting. Can we use that?”

Then we thought, “Imagine if every single leader in the world had the opportunity to do the GLWS and get a debrief on it?”
It’s not going to change the whole world, but we do have people who tell us that going through the GLWS and having had their debrief has literally saved them. It’s let them stay the job that they love but were being beaten by – or has let them see things they needed to address but haven’t had the language to articulate it.

These people aren’t clinically unwell – they’re all super smart and bright, and coping, by and large. They’re unlikely to take themselves off to see a clinical psychologist or a marriage counsellor or time management expert. It’s just that sometimes life is really hard, living in the year 2019.


What was the journey like for you bring the GLWS into organisations?

Audrey: In the beginning, we thought the people most in most need would be most receptive. But actually, to this day that still is not quite true.

The first lot to really connect and get interested in GLWS were fellow coaches, or the more enlightened or progressive HR people within organisations. But also some of the line managers we were working with would say, “Hey, you need to talk to my HR person,” which is really helpful.

It’s been somewhat organic. At the heart of it, it’s about identifying with people and growing a bit of a community around what we do. What’s happening at the top of organisations is so universally experienced – there are all sorts of challenges flying at us every day. Even the best of us find that tough.

But it’s results-based too. The people that are receptive to GLWS are the ones who understand – whether intuitively or by reading the research – that if people are well and feeling balanced and holding their lives together in a way that’s not just ‘hanging in there’ but actually thriving and feeling quite rewarding, they’ll produce better work, their teams are happier, they are happier and productivity goes up.

We’ve definitely got hard-headed, analytical clients who use GLWS because they’re looking for the competitive edge. And then there are others who recognise that to be good employers now, and in the future, they actually have to offer something that is of more appeal. So they’re buying in more to the idea that workplaces can be quite uplifting and rewarding and enjoyable.
I suppose we’re rich in having created a tool that addresses a real need.


What is the most rewarding part for you and Karen?

Audrey: I think the professional calling is definitely there; this idea of a world filled with leaders who have had the opportunity to focus on their wellbeing and directly influence other people’s wellbeing. And the effect that would have on not just the individual, but actually the bottom line of organisations. I find that a really fascinating and quite inspirational picture in my head. And I fervently believe that if every single person at the top of the organisation could do this, that you would see their results move up significantly.

Going back to my origins, I did a double degree in psychology and commerce. It’s the commercial side to this that I find so convincing. Alongside that, of course, it would be fantastic to feel like you might have alleviated some unnecessary stress or strain or distress, and maybe even made the world a happier place. How lofty is that?


Do you think that all businesses need a purpose or responsibility to their staff?

Audrey: I really struggle to answer that other than through what the research shows. We did a piece recently about why having a sense of purpose is more important than profit, where we showed that ‘having a strong sense of purpose and meaning’ is one of the most important factors affecting executive wellbeing and performance according to our research. So I just think the evidence shows it, but yes, it is a personal philosophy as well.

If you flip that on its head and ask, could I work an organisation who was doing something that I could see no point to or worse than it was against what I believed in? I don’t think I could. But then I have the luxury of being in a westernized world, far from the poverty line. I suppose if I had no money in my family were starving, I’d do whatever I could to put food on the table. In one sense, we’re extremely privileged to be even having these debates. But on the other hand, we have people who are doing 10, 12, 14-hour days and don’t see their families.

So I think it’s not so much about organisations having ‘a purpose’. It’s about the individual being able to turn up to work with a very clear sense of purpose about why are they coming to work today. And I think sometimes the organisation can really contribute very positively to that.


If you weren’t a psychologist, what would you be doing?

Audrey: If money was no problem, I’d be a philanthropist, part-time researcher, adventurer, studier of the world. No ties – just explore.

But if I had to have another job… Actually, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else!

I suppose I’d like to be doing some sort of good in the world. That’s what I gain from what I do – I feel that when you strip past all the admin and the emails and all the rest of it, at the kernel of our business is trying to do some good in the world.
And I find that really, really, really rewarding.

Find out more about Audrey & Karen’s work with leaders at www.glwswellbeing.com

‘People with Purpose’ is a series where we speak to people who lead businesses and organisations driven by a clear purpose.

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