Dec 15, 2020

12 days of Christmas, with love from team Unleashed

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Now… the eagle-eyed amongst you will notice only 11 gifts in this post — that is because the 12th gift is only available to people that subscribe to our newsletter. So if you’re not currently signed up to receive Unleashed Thinking, it’s not too late to save yourself from the naughty list. Just don’t tell anyone 🤫 (actually tell everyone 🗣). Anyway, without further ado…

Welcome to issue 8 of our newsletter; the ‘Thank F**k 2020 Is Over’ edition

This month we’ve been reflecting on 2020 and after what has been a difficult and tiring year (to say the least), we have decided to gift you some seriously special stuff (resources that will truly be a gift to you, assuming you love to learn as much as we do). Each member of team Unleashed has chosen something to share based on their reflections of 2020, and as there are 11 of us, below you’ll find 11 short reflections with 11 gifts.

The 12th gift (yes, your maths is correct — there are 12 days of Christmas so there should be 12 gifts in total) is a chance to win a People Hackathon with members of team Unleashed for your Leadership team or your People team. (Read the email — the newsletter you subscribe to and landed in your inbox — for all the details)

Here we go…our Christmas reflections and gifts 🎁 from each person at Unleashed

1. A reflection from Hannah on … mental health + finding comfort in connection

In my mind, we’ve had two pandemics this year: one being COVID, the other being the huge mental health impact it’s left in its wake; both for those impacted by neurological symptoms and just (JUST!) the isolation, grief, anxiety and uncertainty we’ve been living with and dealing with in different ways. In a year where my mental health has at times been the poorest it ever has, I found great solace in this book by the ex-Surgeon General of the US, Dr Vivek Murthy. The first half is about the hugely debilitating impact of loneliness, but it’s the second half, about the power of human connection that is really balm for the soul.

I’m very thankful that the pandemic has opened up a conversation about the systemic, social and cultural factors that contribute to our mental health and mood. This book is a great place to start for finding out more about just that — it’s incredibly researched yet super accessible — I really couldn’t recommend it highly enough!

2. A reflection from Pavneet on … racism + a call to action

2020 was the year that the world finally bore witness to the murder and injustice it had ignored or dismissed for so long.

Following the killing of George Floyd (and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Belly Mujinga here in the UK, and many others), the Black Lives Matter movement urged us all to wake up and take action.

The big bright light that shone upon this injustice, as well as on everyday acts of racism, cannot be switched off if we want to see and feel real societal change.

As Founders, Leaders, and People people, we have a responsibility to co-create this change and build workplaces that are inclusive, for all. To do that well we first need to pause, look and listen. Look at how our biases and behaviours affect the culture and spaces we inhabit and listen to how those around us (including our employees and colleagues) are thinking and feeling.

If you haven’t personally looked directly into the proverbial mirror to understand the role you play in upholding or challenging racial inequality, now is the time. Here is a wonderful resource from Anti-Racism Educator, Layla Saad, to guide you. Even as a long term advocate for equity, this opened my eyes to the way I have upheld institutionalised racism.

This movement isn’t fleeting — it’s only just begun. Do the work.

3. A reflection from Asha on… compassionate leadership + why you shouldn’t let the vaccine make you immune

What a year. Family and work lives have been unceremoniously thrown together. We have seen the true colours of company leadership; the good, the bad, and the absolutely diabolical. For the first time in our lifetimes, we have one, overarching, unavoidable, thing in common with every person we work with. This community in crisis, breeds compassion. It is impossible to dismiss or minimise someone else’s worries when they are also your own.

When the world changes again — and it will — we will go forward (not back) to having more varied problems and worries. So how do we hang on to the compassion? We train. Just as we train for a marathon, an exam, or to move up the career ladder, we train ourselves in compassion.

Myriad studies on how compassion shows up in the brain tell us a particularly helpful story. It makes us feel good. Compassion activates the reward pathway in our brains. Unlike its cousin, empathic distress, which activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain. We can control which pathway we take through compassion training, and use this skill to become the best boss, the best leader, and perhaps the best everything else, we can be.

In this short paper, Trisha Dowling discusses the evidence for the long-lasting impact of compassion training in increasing our capacity for empathy towards others through reducing, or ideally, eliminating, the fatigue and burnout associated with empathic distress.

4. A reflection from Jo on … what FAIL really stands for = For All I’ve Learnt

Failure. Urgh. So many powerful associations with that word. The best word I could find was icky, before discovering this wonderful podcast: “How To Fail” by Elizabeth Day. Together with the host, I uncovered the humbling and beautiful stories of some of the most successful people in the world, and what they’ve learned from failure throughout their lives.

Here at Unleashed, failure isn’t really a concept we engage with. Instead, our perspective is that we’re never going to get anything perfect first time around (we’re only human, right?!). Every time we try something new, we have the opportunity to learn and grow.

In the past I’ve constantly beaten myself up for not getting through my to-do-list. I felt like I’d “failed” to complete tasks that I’d set myself. What have I learned this year? That time with my husband and son is precious, that sleep is necessary for me to be resilient and that I’m happier when I’m more realistic with my capacity. So, rather than thinking about what you haven’t achieved this year or where you’ve gone wrong, I invite you to instead think about what you’ve learned. I guarantee there will be SO many wonderful things!

5. A reflection from Michaela on… transitioning to remote + putting your people first

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many businesses to become remote, overnight! I think it’s fair to say that many of us were not prepared (it was pretty sudden!) and the adjustment wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Thankfully, at Unleashed, we got to work with many businesses during this time to make the transition as easy as possible — and the best part?! Witnessing some of those businesses embracing a new way of working, enjoying the benefits of having more distributed teams, and creating more individualised experiences at work. As always, we want to empower companies to be creative in designing what works for them as a business. For those that have loved what becoming remote has brought to their culture, that includes their approach to becoming fully remote-first (not just remote-friendly).

As with everything People + Culture, there’s no ‘one size fits all’… Transitioning to full-time, remote-first working needs care and attention. We’ve put everything we’ve learnt from guiding many businesses through this journey into this handy-dandy playbook on how to take a people-first, empathy-driven approach to becoming remote-first.

6. A reflection from Victoria on … courageous leadership + strength in vulnerability

Joseph Campbell offers the purest calls to courage for leaders: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

To be a courageous leader is to own up to your fears; choose courage over comfort and whole hearts over armour, and build an organisational culture based on bravery & vulnerability. In allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you create a culture that feeds innovation and creativity.

Vulnerability is a key component of being a courageous leader; the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, failure, risk, and emotional exposure.

This year has been riddled with uncertainty. Leaders have had to make decisions they never thought they would have to make and faced endless difficult conversations. Even the most experienced leaders have found this year challenging, but in our experience, those who display courage, authenticity and are open to showing their vulnerability, will be the leaders who will thrive through these uncertain times and will continue to grow successful organisations.

Fundamentally, a leader is…“Anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential,” (Brene Brown). Brene Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’ book is a MUST read for all leaders.

7. A reflection from Anouk on … team resilience + getting each other through

There couldn’t have been a truism greater than “there is no I in team” in 2020. When the going gets fricking hairy and mentally exhausting, when reactivity and firefighting are front and centre, when the Christmas break can’t come faster… what got us here is being a team. I know for a fact that it isn’t just at Unleashed that strong teams got businesses through.

No one got through this alone. When we talk about resilience, it is typically referred to as a trait of an individual; a person is either resilient or not. We don’t talk about it from a team perspective. But you know what, if you are a true team (not a bunch of individuals working together) then you build resilience together and draw strength from one another.

This year (and the pandemic in particular) affected each and every one of us in different ways and at different times. Truly resilient teams enable each person to feel shit and feel good and feel week and feel strong — and together, as one, they come through fighting and knowing that they have been there for each other every step of the way. That’s team resilience and it is the most important thing when it comes to high performance and success. Listen to this incredible podcast from Eat Sleep Work Repeat on this very topic; it is a phenomenal conversation!

8. A reflection from Ciara on … reframing + how you can change your thoughts to change your experience

Uncertainty is not an unfamiliar concept for start-ups, but the scope and scale of it this year is more than any of us bargained for. The forces at play are so much bigger than ourselves that, at times, it can feel like there’s not much in our control.

For me, 2020 was the year I found myself unexpectedly out of work after the business I put my heart and soul into for 8 years suddenly went under. As a natural optimist who embraces change as a part of life, I initially took this all in my stride. But over time, my positivity gave way to fear, insecurity and worries about the future.

We’ve all had our own struggles to deal with this year, but one thing I find helpful to remember is that it’s not our circumstances alone which define how we feel; it’s often our thoughts around them. So if we can find a way to change our thoughts, then we can change how we feel — and put ourselves in a more resourceful state of mind for creating new possibilities to move forward. One tool which (almost) always gets me out of a funk is the self-coaching model discussed on this episode of The Life Coach School podcast. I hope you find it useful.

9. A reflection from Tom on … rethinking creativity + starting new things

This was the year we got reacquainted with boredom. For some of us, that made it hard to get through the day — for others, it bred boundless creativity. For me, and I’m sure a lot of others, it was a bit of both. Some of my new ideas and hobbies stuck, others burned bright but passed quickly.

We have a tendency as human beings to beat ourselves up if we don’t persevere with something — that’s why I found this article from friend of Unleashed Sarah Weiler so powerful — and I’m sure it will resonate with a lot of founders too. Read it. Just read it.

10. A reflection from Liz on … the incredible resilience of female founders

In a year that’s been full of change and where everything has been far from normal, one thing has remained the same — our enormous capacity as humans to be resilient and to overcome adversity.

Some businesses have suddenly lost their entire markets overnight, some have been forced to pivot and transform into something else to survive, and entrepreneurs have had to find new ways to innovate and hustle to stay afloat. But there has been a special kind of creative resilience bubbling away.

Whilst female founders in the startup space (and in particular those from the BAME community) have been disproportionately hit this year, they have elevated their hustle game to another level. I’ve been heartened to hear of female-led companies that have sprung up during lockdown, and are thriving.

I think there’s a lesson here for us all: as we end this doozy of a year, I’m thinking of the ways I can do more than just survive, find new ways to be inspired and different ways to thrive. Need a little inspiration from some of these female founders doing their best to do more than survive right now? Take a look here.

11. A reflection from Ginni on … planning for 2021 + why setting OKRs is a wellness initiative

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught me (in reality it’s taught me many things!) it’s that while feeling connected is an issue, the biggest problems we’re experiencing are happening at the individual level.

For any of us who are lucky enough to have a long ‘to do’ list in the pandemic, trying to get through it in isolation is tough; few of us are part of a company culture that is deliberately designed for asynchronous work. We’re battling the balance between clunky mechanisms for staying connected to what we have to do, whilst working much more independently — and all of this means we’re working more. The ‘to do’ list gets longer. Effort is increased. Productivity is up. But wellness is down.

It’s true that it’s good to talk (in many scenarios and for many reasons that can support better wellness!) But, talking’s also pretty inefficient. I totted up a grand total of 7 hours and 45 minutes of ‘Zooming’ in one day recently, and that is a million miles away from being sustainable! Afterwards I certainly didn’t feel better connected, or particularly well.

Company cultures that are better navigating the emerging ‘new normal/different/whatever-we’re-calling-it-now’ are, I believe, doing so because they’re better organised. They’re getting good at goal-setting and good at organising themselves around these goals as a core component of their culture; ie: without having to talk about them all the time!

Personally, in planning for 2021 I’d be planning to introduce or reintroduce OKRs; only this time around, instead of that being in the primary pursuit of delivery and achievement, the focus should be on alignment, autonomy and therefore, wellness.

Rather than link to one of the myriad talks on goal-setting, I wanted to instead point you towards this TED Talk with Martin Danoesastro. I could watch the beautiful murmuration at the beginning for hours, but more importantly, I love it when he talks about creating the kind of autonomy that sees ‘every employee becoming a leader.’ Perhaps most relevant as we move into 2021 is his challenge in the question ‘what are you willing to give up?’ in pursuit of better ways of working.


And on the twelfth day of Christmas, Unleashed directed you back to their brilliant newsletter 😉 to win a People Hackathon.


Whatever you celebrate, whatever you might be doing this during this Christmas period, please keep yourself safe and raise a glass to yourself for getting through this truly wild year.

If you enjoy both boat puns and great insight on all things People, Culture + Leadership, then sign up for our newsletter Unleashed Thinking. One email per month, no spam.

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