Graeme Cowan is on a mission to bring caring back into business.
His new podcast, The Caring CEO, explores how leaders can look after themselves and their teams, and talks to people who lead by example, with lots of tips that media leaders can use.
After a career and personal crisis that saw him battle depression for five years, Graeme emerged stronger and is now a thought leader and ‘resilience expert.’
He came through his crisis with a different view about how we can increase our resilience, mood, and performance. Graeme is the author of 5 books, including the internationally acclaimed Back from the Brink and now hosts the regular podcast that talks to leaders to learn about their methods for building successful businesses that care.
He shared his journey and revealed his tips for better mental health in the workplace with Steve Ahern.
I was a Vice President for management consulting firm, we had a huge market… I crashed and burned, I lost my job, my marriage broke down, and I was five years out of work.
I had lost all hope. I tried different ways to improve my mood, but nothing seemed to work, and I even had suicide attempts. It was a slow path out of there, I began to walk regularly, to reach out to friends and that really helped, then I embraced meditation.
When I was really depressed I tried to meditate and I really couldn’t, but little my little little I was able to meditate and it became a real foundation for me. With that and exercise, I felt stronger and stronger and then I wrote ‘Back from the Brink,’ where I talked to a series of people who’ve been through depression… then people began to ask me to speak about my experiences and what I learnt.
At about the same time, I met Gavin Larkin and who was the founder of RU OK.
I began to a lot more in the corporate space and was also heavily involved with RU OK, particularly in the early days, where we had no money and no employees. Since then, in the last five years I’ve taken thousands of leaders through workshops to show them how to build more caring and resilient teams who enjoy growing together. That has become my real mission now.
It has been tough in the media industry during covid, with staff and leaders all struggling at some time. You have ten commandments for truly caring leadership. What are they?
They are to help leaders to look after themselves and also some tips for how they should build the right kind of organization that supports everyone who works there.
First is to begin each day with the self care plan, because if we as leaders don’t look after ourselves, we can’t look out for other people and we can’t inspire the confidence and trust that is essential to building really strong performance.
Leaders should act like a VIP.
- V is for vitality, enough exercise, a good sleep, eating well.
- I is for intimacy, having strong supportive relationships around you.
- P stands for prosperity, making a contribution to your media business and the people around you… doing great work and serving your communities, feleing proud of what you are doing.
Once you can practice self care that leads to the capacity to be able to care for others. There is some really compelling research from the Gallup organization about this. They have researched engagement for over 50 years and they have found one statement that best predicts whether an employee is engaged and working hard: ‘My supervisor seems to care about me as a person.’
The more people who agree with that statement, the higher the customer service levels and the longer people stay with with the organization.
Number three is to embrace good leadership practices that send people home each day safe, healthy and fulfilled. This creates a healthy environment where people feel energized by the work they’re doing.
Leaders should ask themselves three questions, the first question is ‘Are we connected?’ Are we enjoying ourselves bouncing off each other, are we doing things that help us to get to know each other better? The second question is, do we feel safe? When people feel comfortable being themselves it’s safe for them to take some moderate risks. If they try something that doesn’t work out, they know the teram are all in it together, they will learn and move on. The third element is, do we have a shared future?
Commandment four is to align your actions with an inspirational view of the future. When the pandemic began there were lots of unanticipated changes, but there are incredible opportunities for those who have a vision for the future that allows them to adapt and change.
I’ve been really fortunate to interview some amazing leaders who have done incredible things even in these tough environments. They are always thinking about where the opportunities lie besed on their vision for the future.
Number five is to be clear about expectations and goals. A clear understanding of what the goals are is really important for people to have a sense of focus and a sense of achievement.
Number six is allow each person to use their top strengths daily. Studies have shown that if we use our top five strengths each day we are 600% more likely to be engaged at work and 300% more likely to report high life satisfaction.
If you go to the Gallop Strength Center you will have the opportunity to do an assessment of what your top five strengths are… I think it costs about $40 to do it.
Number seven, make it safe to be vulnerable and take moderate risks. Build a learning environment and keep learning each day. Leaders should move from being the one who has all the answers to someone who thinks the answer can be learnt together. Caring leaders say things like, ‘I reckon if we work together bounce off each other we can come up with the best answer together.’ Teams that are involved in finding solutions together do well.
Number eight, celebrate small steps of progress daily. Various Business School studies have found that the most motivating thing for information workers is knowing they’re making progress on meaningful work, it doesn’t matter how small that progress is.
Number nine. If you’re concerned about someone ask are they OK. Lots of people are going through a really tough period and identifying if someone’s not OK is important. Ask open ended questions, find out if there is an issue and if there is, recommend that they take action to see their GP or someone who can help them.
Commandment 10 is measure success by how caring, helpful and growing your team is. That’s how we should measure of success.
What I like about those commandments is that they are a little bit more sophisticated than many of the leadership books or management self help books that you read. They also embrace the commercial reality. You have put these together yourself from your own journey and your discussions with successful caring leaders. Your podcast seems to continue that process.
Yes. I’m talking to successful leaders who have equal emphasis on creating a culture of care and a culture of high performance. The leaders I have interviewed for the Caring CEO Podcast practice this and they’re delivering amazing results even in these really troubling times.
Think back on those people you’ve interviewed and tell me some of the things that have really jumped out of the various interviews.
My first interview was Mike Schneider CEO of Bunnings. He has 60,000 people around Australia… he’s seriously a big operator.
Something that struck me about him is that he admits that he has his faults so has gathered a a leadership team around him to help him balance them. He has a four H philosophy: honesty, humility, helpful and happy. He also talked about getting professional help from a psychologist when going through a really tough time and using a business coach.
Emma Hogan, the Secretary of the NSW Department of Customer service leads over 9,500 employees. She really embraces RU OK. When I talked to her what I really loved is that she took it to another level. She asks three questions: Am I OK, Are we okay as a team, then Are you OK?
In my latest interview with Cameron Schwab, the CEO of Richmond Football Club, his humility came through. It helps to create a really inclusive environment.
SBS chairperson George Savvides was just incredibly humble. He talked about having a cohesive team. He used a red sock metaphor. His wife was away and he decided to do the washing, so he put everything in, including the red sox. Of course the washing turned pink. He said it’s the same if you have someone who is obstructive or adversarial, it destroys the culture of the team.
Graeme Cowan’s upcoming interviews will include Lucy Brogden, the Chair of the Mental Health Commission, the CEO Twitter, and Danny Gilbert, the managing partner of Gilbert and Tobin.
Graeme Cowan’s 10 Commandments of Truly Caring Leadership are:
2. Know that self-care allows you to care for others
3. Embrace leadership practices that send people home each day safe, healthy, and fulfilled
4. Align all actions with an inspirational view of the future
5. Be clear about expectations and goals
6. Allow each person to use their top strengths daily
7. Make it safe to be vulnerable and take moderate risks
8. Celebrate small steps of progress daily
9. If you are concerned about someone – ask R U OK?
10.  Measure success by how caring, helpful, and growth-oriented your team is