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Better health

Focus on the next curve with Hintsa Performance.

There are some startled looks when leadership coach Pekka Pohjakallio asks every employee in the audience to imagine what a perfect version of themselves would look like. This is followed by a role-playing exercise in which those imagined identities are acted out. The drill, says Pohjakallio, focuses on positive psychology and self-fulfilment. It is run by Hintsa Performance, a Helsinki-based business-coaching firm that helps to improve mental health and wellbeing.

“Employees who see their work as meaningful and important on a personal level are much more likely to perform their tasks better,” says Pohjakallio, who prior to his coaching career spent 20 years working as an executive for the Finnish telecoms giant Nokia. “Sometimes they realise that their current job is not a good fit for them and start looking for change. In the long term, this is good for the company too.”

Hintsa’s method is based on a simple idea: a better quality of life leads to better performance. Instead of teaching sales techniques or productivity boosting, Hintsa’s team of 70 coaches tutors its clients in how to live better, healthier and more fulfilling lives. It examines issues such as nutrition, sleep and physical wellbeing in order to bolster individual and team performance.

The coaches, many of whom hold PhDs, have backgrounds in fields that range from sports science to psychology. “Most coaching companies aim to boost a specific skill set, whereas our approach is more holistic,” says Annastiina Hintsa, who runs the company. It’s an approach that might sound rather vague but it is actually deeply rooted in science; the company does its own scientific research and has spoken about the results of its work at key gatherings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. “We put a lot of emphasis on quantifying and measuring what we do so that we can analyse its effects,” says Hintsa. “We don’t offer any quick fixes and we are cognisant of the fact that the process is never fully complete.”

This is all the more important during uncertain times, such as the coronavirus pandemic. For many, the instinctive reaction in a crisis is to project strength. But according to Hintsa, it is more important to adapt to the new normal rather than to fight it. “The ones who survive are not necessarily the strongest but the ones who adapt the fastest,” she says. Put another way, crisis is always partly an opportunity. “Great companies are born in bad economies,” adds Hintsa. “Leadership is critical in shaping the outcome. And it will continue to be critical as we adapt to the new world that follows.”

It’s also important to keep things moving. Hintsa’s recommendation to entrepreneurs is to plan ahead, keep it simple and tick things off as you go along. When faced with challenges, the key is to identify what gives you a sense of accomplishment. “When a crisis hits and everything piles up, the mistake that we often make is to de-prioritise ourselves,” she says. “Stress negatively impacts our immune systems. Our cognitive performance declines when we’re sleep deprived. We are less capable of critical thinking, creativity and empathy – skills we desperately need to perform.”

The fact is that even in non-crisis times, work often takes over the entire lives of start-up entrepreneurs and business executives. That means less exercise, less sleep and an unbalanced diet. But it’s also about a healthy working mindset: ceos can lose sight of the bigger picture if they never pause to contemplate. “Don’t try to maximise every single area in your life,” says Hintsa. “Focus on what truly matters to you and optimise your life to reach that goal. Significant improvements in performance are the result of small daily steps.” Hintsa puts it in racing terms. “Focus on the next curve,” she says.

Racing is in her blood. Hintsa Performance gets its name from its late founder, Aki Hintsa. Annastiina’s father was a Finnish doctor who spent his career working with some of the leading drivers in Formula One motorsport. Using methods that helped propel many drivers to world championships (Hintsa’s clients have been involved in 96 per cent of podium finishes over the past six years), the firm shifted to work with businesses too, including high-level executives running Fortune 500 companies.

“There are parallels between F1 racing and being a ceo,” says Hintsa’s medical and sports performance director, Luke Bennett. “Both face tremendous pressure and need to react fast and be good at organisational optimisation.” The parallels don’t only apply to racing. Aki Hintsa developed the method when working as a doctor in Africa and observing Ethiopian long-distance runners, such as multiple world and Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie. “Their life had a sense of purpose beyond running – as fathers and as members of the community,” says Annastiina.This meant that they were able to deal with challenges and setbacks more effectively.”

Pohjakallio’s session is about to end and a dozen or so employees from today’s clients, electric-vehicle charging company Virta Global, seem to be in a positive mood. “Hintsa Performance has helped our staff focus more on their wellbeing, which in turn has measurably increased their performance and boosted our business,” says Virta’s HR director, Mia Kotakorpi. “They now sleep better, exercise more and eat better – but have also started to focus more on their strengths and weaknesses.” 

What we learned

1. Sleep and eat: A good diet and decent rest cuts stress and keeps your brain healthy.

2. Don’t be afraid: Leadership in a crisis is less about strength, more about adaptability and finding opportunity amid the bad.

3. Self-fulfilment is important: Your job won’t always put a smile on your face but a sense of accomplishment can help you in the long run.

Better posture

How Stretch Asia is helping us to sit it up straight.

When Snøhetta fitted out its new Hong Kong studio last year, the Norwegian architecture firm installed adjustable desks as standard. With a few clicks of a button, designers are on their feet working in front of their screens while colleagues remain slouched over their keyboards. Similar scenes are being replicated in modern workplaces – and homeworking spaces – right across the world. Sitting down has become the new smoking and the global war on sedentary office chairs has gone upwardly mobile.

Herman Miller’s Aeron chairs have morphed into bouncy balls, swopper seats and even self-propelled treadmills joined to tables. The problem with these fancy chairs and faddy desks is that we can’t be on our feet all of the time. Most of us just don’t know how to sit correctly.

“Sitting isn’t the new smoking – you’re just not doing it right,” says Peter Schneider, a posture expert at Stretch Asia in Hong Kong. Schneider has been teaching the city’s executives and business leaders how to sit and stand since 2007. 

“That’s the best seat,” says the upright Aussie, pointing towards the window of the open-plan studio. His chosen apparatus – a simple four-legged stool in the style of Alvar Aalto’s e60 – is easy to overlook among the row of luxurious-looking green massage beds and the distracting view of Tai Kwun, a former policecompound turned arts base.

Schneider uses the design classic, a masterpiece of Finnish modernism, because it is solid and stable. “The problem is that everything we tend to sit on has soft surfaces that dull the feedback,” he says. “When your body sits down it is always looking to be stable. If I sit on something hard there’s instant support, instant feedback.”

Schneider uses the Alexander Technique, a hands-on method that starts with him watching how you hold yourself while seated. He then guides your head and limbs into the correct position. It can take weeks of repetition to retrain the brain and nervous system – forget the 10-minute, box-ticking seat consultation arranged by many HR teams.

The technique was born in Schneider’s hometown of Melbourne in the early 20th century by a Tasmanian voice coach who later found success in Edwardian London. Originally taught to stage performers, it has found more lasting success as a treatment for back problems.

Pain relief is normally what prompts people to come to see Schneider rather than prevention or good practice. While he has nothing against the ubiquitous Aeron chair, he says that few people sitting on one will know how to adjust it properly. Learning how to sit correctly would be a more sustainable investment; Stretch Asia charges hk$1,200 (€150) for a session lasting 60-minutes. 

Make sure you are sitting down for this final bit: proper posture technique can even provide a work out. “If you are able to sit with your spine activated, balanced on your sit bones, your body is designed to stretch and strengthen itself as it moves,” says Schneider before launching matter-of-factly into an anatomical explanation of the human skeleton. Essentially, chairs should support the “sit bones” at the base of the pelvis and this activates the body’s internal support – the spine.

“People have it the wrong way around. They look at a chair and go, ‘Oh that is going to support me,’” he says. So forget about leaning in. Simply sit up straight and perhaps buy a nice stool. That’s where the war on sitting is really going to be won. 

What we learned

1. Firm is better: The right seat and upholstery can go a long way to improving your productivity in your home or workplace.

2. A lazy workout: Sitting well will not only relieve back pain but can actually be a form of exercise if done properly.

3. Practise, practise, practise: Learning the right sitting position isn’t for couch potatoes; it takes weeks of repetition.


Better presentation

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s key role.

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art is one of the world’s most storied stage schools. For the past 20 years its sister firm, Rada Business, has helped companies and ceos with their pitches and presentations to help polish to their communication skills. Its trainers, who mainly come from performance backgrounds, deliver sessions in 30 countries to firms ranging from tiny independents to vast multinationals. Charlie Walker-Wise, a school alumnus, is an actor, trainer and client director. He explains how a little drama can serve entrepreneurs well.

What can companies learn from stage schools?
One misconception about acting is that it’s about lying: pretending to be someone who you’re not. It’s really the opposite, it’s about finding the truth. In business there’s another word for that: authenticity. It’s the same thing. Actors have to be able to convey emotion in a convincing and believable manner in order to make the audience feel something. But that doesn’t mean that they have to be able to cry their eyes out. That’s often a really bad way of conveying emotion.

What types of industries ask for your assistance?
Many are financial services, from insurance to banking. We also work in media, so get lots of broadcasters, advertising agencies, design agencies, branding agencies and technology firms.

Why do they come?
There comes a point when people realise that they need to connect and communicate with other people but also realise that they’ve never been taught how. Organisations develop and celebrate people for technical excellence but there comes a point when you have to lead, present, connect and sell ideas in ways that are engaging – to tell a story that connects with other human beings. The education system isn’t really geared up to helping people with that.

How do you help?
We offer skills and techniques and some fundamental principles. We’re in the business of creating self-awareness and the overriding issue that we deal with is confidence. People need to be able to demonstrate it. It’s all about having the confidence to be heard and seen.

Do you get common requests?
One is to “control a room”. That always gets challenged. Control suggests tension, which is the enemy of communication. By letting go and releasing that, we can move from “controlling” the room to “commanding” it – that’s a much more powerful and exciting proposition.

Is drama taken seriously enough as a subject?
Drama sits right at the bottom of the sort of pyramid of respected subjects; it’s not always seen as essential. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that many people don’t have skills such as presence, being in the moment or gravitas.

What kind of skills will you be teaching in a session?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the MD or whether you are the floor-washer. We all have the same physical tools to use, we all have a body and a voice and breath for communication. Our training approaches everyone from the same place.

It sounds simple. Is it?
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art is a big name so people are often dazzled by the idea of it. We try to quickly establish a sense of trust both in the session and the rules of the game. We try to disarm people and create a space where people are allowed to fail.

Tell us about the different types of courses on offer.
One that we provide is one-to-one performance coaching. If someone has a speech coming up in a couple of weeks, that’s a very simple thing to do. There are different tiers of coaching and we have a menu of 11 courses that range from personal impact to presentation skills and leadership.

We also offer in-house training where we design a programme for an organisation. This is where we become a bit more of a consultancy business. We design a programme from the bottom up, based around meeting a company’s needs. These are the ones that we enjoy the most, when we don’t just have one single intervention. We get to understand an organisation and build a relationship.

Has the commercial arm of Rada always been a successful undertaking?
For a while people didn’t really get it and then the [2008] crash happened and suddenly everything that people thought about business seemed not to exist any more. The whole slant and angle of what work meant – what the contract was between the management and the employee – began to change. Suddenly many companies started to think about how they were going to win trust with their employees, to develop them and retain them.

Has the way that you teach changed over the years?
I don’t think so. Theatre is an ancient art and it has been operating in its current form since the time of the ancient Greeks. The idea of someone being honest while others are watching and listening is ancient. How we teach is by doing, experiencing, getting it wrong, trying again, receiving feedback, sharing ideas, doing it again, getting it wrong again, playing. We believe in learning by play – we’re in the business of plays.

What we learned

1. Learn how to act: Presence and gravitas can be as important as technical prowess.

2. Project yourself: Good presentation is about confidence and self-awareness; the ability to be heard and seen.

3. Get everyone onside: The ability to “command” rather than “control” a room is a more effective way to think about public speaking.

Better dialogue

Speak your piece thanks to Essential Partners.

We’re all familiar with the concept of “fight or flight”. Faced with a physical threat, our mind quickly calculates the best survival option: confront the threat head-on or retreat and live to battle another day. What we might not realise is that the same concept applies to difficult or awkward conversations – a political or cultural insensitivity shown by a colleague, for example, or qualms about the ethics of an investment or business strategy.

“Fight or flight responses come up in those moments too but we often don’t recognise it,” says Katie Hyten, co-director of Essential Partners, a 30-year-old consulting firm based in Massachusetts, that coaches organisations on how to better communicate and foster a more inclusive culture in their increasingly diverse workforces.

Hiring more women or minorities, for example, is not enough on its own; it’s about getting everyone integrated – something that can take years and a solid commitment from executives. “We are hearing from a lot of organisations that have taken pride and have succeeded in recruiting and developing a more diverse workforce – but then end up struggling when it comes to retention,” says Hyten.

The company’s coaching philosophy is not only about improving people’s interpersonal skills (particularly with those of a different cultural background) but finding ways to create the space for co-workers to have more honest and constructive conversations. It’s the latter, in particular, that comes down to managers and culture in the workplace: companies need to get better at helping to settle any differences before they get out of hand.

It’s a coaching philosophy that’s born of conflict resolutionand facilitation. Essential Partners works with faith groups, universities and political organisations where the need for mediation is more obvious, whether that’s helping to integrate refugees in Jordan or fostering student dialogue in the Philippines. But the same principles that apply in mediating conflict situations can also be relevant to the workplace.

The trick in any conversation is to encourage people to stay in the moment. Unlike a physical threat, there’s little point in hiding from an awkward or difficult discussion. Instead, it’s important to be open, patient, honest and curious; to allow people to make mistakes when they interact with you as long as they show an interest in finding a resolution. “There’s often a gap between intention and impact; we might have the best intentions and yet cause a very unintended impact,” says Hyten, whose own background is in managing religious conflicts. “Part of our goal is to make those gaps transparent so we can be aware of them and minimise them in the future.”

If talking doesn’t solve the problem, managers need to show that they’re willing to listen and take action. “It’s on the managers and supervisors to build up that relational infrastructure,” says Hyten. “There has to be enough trust and enough appropriate action for people to believe that things have changed.”

That includes making space for the new voices in your company to be heard. Hyten says that one of the most common problems in company meetings is that the same three to five people are always the ones who speak. She encourages simple steps, such as having everyone write down questions or comments ahead of a meeting to make sure nobody is left out by the end.

As many businesses move to remote working amid the coronavirus epidemic, Essential Partners has been busy encouraging companies to keep up the dialogue – and not just about the business at hand. “With virtual teams, it’s important to keep connecting on a personal level,” she says. “You don’t have the watercooler any more Hyten suggests opening virtual meetings with some personal questions about new passions and interests that colleagues might have developed during their time apart.

It’s also important to build in time for reflection. “There’s a natural urge to fill the silence on video calls. But you want to give all your team a chance to gather their thoughts, make some notes or look up a piece of information,” says Hyten. “Team leaders can build moments of reflection into the meeting to facilitate that process and reduce the awkwardness of dead air.” 

What we learned

1. Don’t avoid awkward conversations: Showing curiosity about your colleagues and their backgrounds builds a more inclusive atmosphere.

2. Ensure everyone can speak up: Don’t let the same people dominate every conversation.

3. Silence is productive: Even in video calls, incorporating pauses for reflection can help people to make better contributions.

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