#55 Improving workplace wellbeing – Darren Black, CEO, SuperFriend (s03ep11)
DISCUSSED IN THIS EPISODE
- What caring means in the workplace for Darren
- The focus on improving the wellbeing of Australians
- Darren’s passion about improving mental health and suicide prevention
- Creating a culture of care
Transcript from the interview
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Graeme Cowan, Darren Black
Graeme Cowan 0:06
It’s a real pleasure to welcome Darren Black to The Caring CEO. Welcome, Darren.
Darren Black 0:16
Thank you very much, and Graeme, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
Graeme Cowan 0:21
Darren, what does care in the workplace mean to you?
Darren Black 0:25
Well, Graeme, there’s a lot of depth potentially, you know, in that question, I– look, like my first career was in the military. So, I was trained as an Army officer. And so, you know, as I was taught, you know, first taught to really, you know, look after, look, after your people, look after your soldiers and take, take good care of, of your people. And, you know, that was in an environment where the circumstances meant that, you know, people were often, were often placing our people in danger, in physical danger. And, in fact, you know, psychological danger. And so, you know, thinking through really carefully, you know, applying that kind of care and diligence as a leader, I think was, has been instilled in me for many, many years. And something I, you know, I think I’d probably just taken on a second nature that, you know, when you take on the role of leadership, it comes with responsibility. And it’s not just responsibility to deliver business outcomes. But its responsibility to look after the people in your care. And so, this notion of duty, duty of care is something that, that I take on quite literally.
Graeme Cowan 1:56
And you’ve also, since leaving the military worked in a lot of not for profit, social enterprises, you know, you’re doing the good work, it’s all about care. But how do you balance that need between having a caring workplace but also a high performing workplace?
Darren Black 2:16
Well, the– I think the first thing to say is that, that you can, you can, and, in fact, I think you need to do that. I work for an organization. Now, that’s very much driven by research and data and insights, that the research tells us that you know, people who are happier, that feel valued, feel supported at work will contribute better to the, to the, the outcomes and the performance of the organization. So I think there’s a reciprocal benefit there of, you know, treating people with care and respect and diligence, providing good, you know, a good working environment, clear direction, clarity, and clear job roles, support and resources, to do their work, ensuring that people fit and feel like that they’re able to apply their, their skills and their experience in a way that benefits the organization. And the evidence tells us that if you’re able to do that, then it’s going to lead to improve productivity and performance across your enterprise, across the business. So, for me, it’s the to go hand in hand, they’re not, they’re not mutually exclusive, you can and need to, you know, look after the people and the culture of your organization, and in my experience, that leads to improve performance of the business as well.
Graeme Cowan 3:52
Yeah. And for the purpose of our listeners, Darren, can you just explain your sea of super friend. What does Super Friend do?
Darren Black 4:00
So Super Friend is it’s essentially the mental health initiative that was established by the industry Super Funds in the life insurers in Australia, about 15 years ago. And it was created, because, you know, regrettably, the insurers were seeing rising rates of claim that was related to psychological harm in the workplace, and rising rates of suicide related death claims. So, it was very much driven from a basis of seeing a problem and increasing problem across workplaces and across society and the industry wanting to do something proactive about it. And so Super Friend, is an initiative that is there to look for ways to essentially improve workplace mental health and wellbeing In. And today we work very much through a lens of improving the data and the evidence and the research that tells us what works and what best practice looks like in that in that environment.
Graeme Cowan 5:14
And you also produce a yearly index on wellbeing, what’s that called? And what does it reveal? What does it show?
Darren Black 5:26
It’s called the indicators of a thriving workplace, Graeme, it’s an annual survey, effectively a research report that we produce, it goes across all industries and all sectors nationally. And it really, it is really helpful in terms of establishing changes or trends, themes in areas where there’s issues or problems in terms of workplace mental health, but also in areas where things are improving. And so, what we get from that, from that annual research report is that there are a few keys we refer to them as domains in that workplace mental health space, and they include things like leadership, they include connection, they include work design, and the safety or safety within the workplace. And more recently, that has expanded to include psychosocial risk and psychological safety, which has, you know, when it went into legislation in terms of workplace and employer requirements in April of this year, so it’s actually a terrific insight into workplaces nationally, we get a lot of readerships of that report. And ultimately, where we’re taking it is to is to start to provide deeper and richer insights to workplaces nationally around ways that they can improve work in mental health, ways that they can improve a policy and practice. And ultimately, this, this comes right back to the first question you asked me around, you know, care and performance. And the fact is that you need to, and you need to look after both the physical safety as well as the psychological and emotional safety of your workers. That’s now legislation nationally, employers have that obligation, you know, from a compliance perspective, but we really, we come at it from the perspective of it’s not only a legal requirement, but it’s the right thing to do. And, and it’s the sensible thing to do in terms of performance of your business as well.
Graeme Cowan 7:55
There obviously, would be lots and lots of data there. What are the trends now? What’s changed in the last 12 months do you think?
Darren Black 8:06
Well, look, it’s a really interesting time, I mentioned the advent of the new legislation around psychological safety, that’s a big change. What we’re seeing there is that many, many, many workplaces are worried. They realize they’ve got an obligation there. They know they’ve got to do something, but they’re not very clear about what and how to approach that. So, there’s some new challenges and opportunities there. And of course, that’s all coming on the back of, you know, coming out of the post COVID pandemic, period where you and I were talking earlier around the impact of, you know, businesses being locked down. And, and many of us sort of learning to do business by remote by virtual for a couple of years there. So, there’s been some massive changes in the work environment in the last two or three years, that mean that the responsibility of leadership today in running, running any enterprise is more complex than it then it probably ever has been before in terms of understanding your obligations and responsibilities, but also, just in terms of, you know, care and diligence for people today in that environment. So, we’re getting, there’s a lot of interest around the insights that we provide and increasingly calls for training that will help leaders and supervisors around awareness in the workplace, what does it mentally friendly or mentally healthy workplaces look like? How do you create that environment and providing some practical and kind of tangible tools for people that they can use, so that you know, this sort of theory can actually become common practice.
Graeme Cowan 10:07
And Gallup research estimates that a manager contributes 70% towards the, the engagement and wellbeing of the team. Do you also see managers playing a really essential role?
Darren Black 10:25
I look absolutely, I mean, leadership has, you know, you could argue always been critical to the success of any enterprise or any organization. We’re finding that leadership is pivotal, it’s one of the key domains and you know, teams and organizations can sort of rise or fall on the bait on the strength and quality of their leadership. And so, you know, one of the things we need to be conscious of these days, you know, from a governance perspective, from a board perspective, is supporting our leaders and ensuring that they’ve got the right resources and the right tools to be able to, you know, manage and cope and do well in in that environment.
Graeme Cowan 11:13
You started your career just jumping back in the, in the army or in the Defense Force. What was, you know, one or two highlights from your time in that space?
Darren Black 11:31
Well, I look, there are many, there are many highlights. Look, I think, I think one of them was actually the opportunity to, to teach the next generation of young leaders at the Royal Military College Duntroon, where I was a graduate of, and that I had the opportunity to go back there as an instructor and a staff member several years later. And what I loved about that, was that you, you were there to provide expertise. And training the young officer, you know, candidates, the cadets, and there was elements of technical competence that were required. But the thing that I thought was most important was, I guess, setting an example of, you know, behavior and conduct, and, you know, very much we were there to, to be role models and set the standard for the kind of the next generation of young leaders. So it was, it was a terrific, it was a terrific opportunity to contribute and to, you know, to serve and, and to support the development of, you know, the next generation of young leaders and, you know, something I’d had the opportunity to, to, to experience and learn and then and then, you know, contribute and give back. So, yeah, I mean, that that was certainly a great highlight for me. And, and I guess it probably was, was a strong motivator and driver in, in the work that I’ve done since leaving the Army, much of which has been around the development of others, particularly, you know, having led a couple of youth development organizations, very focused, very much focused around leadership development, character development, and, you know, building, building good, good young people and citizens for the future. So, the army had a very, very positive, you know, that was a very positive experience for me. And, you know, I had some terrific opportunities to learn and grow and develop through that journey.
Graeme Cowan 13:51
And as you said, Darren, when you left, you’ve been primarily involved in the social enterprise or not for profit sector. And you seem to have taken, especially in the last few years real focus on improving mental health in Europe, you had a stint at AWS help, as well as your current role now. And I also see that you’re a non– the Australian Men’s Health. What does that really resonate with you? What’s the thing that has drawn you to that sector?
Darren Black 14:32
Yeah. Graeme, that’s a good, good question. Look, I mean, I think fundamentally, there’s, there’s, you know, there’s a bit of personal experience and there of having, having lost colleagues who I served with, and I you know, that I was fortunate in my military service, I had operational service in the Middle East. But I never, I never lost any colleagues through conflict or through warlike service. You know, I had mates who were, who, who were wounded. And, but I did lose a couple of mates to suicide. And that happened, you know, after they left the service, and, you know, they really struggled, I think there are elements there of PTSD, relationship breakdowns contributing factors. But I think those sorts of experiences, you know, they, they really can challenge but they can also be a motivator for trying to do– make things better. And, and so my work in recent years in mental health, whilst it hasn’t been focused on veterans, it’s been very strongly focused around high-risk cohorts, often in male dominated industries. And, you know, I think there’s a very strong motivation there to improve awareness and improve the communication around the risks, the risk factors, but also the protective factors. And one of the things we know, we know really clearly is that work, work can be a tremendously positive thing, and a really strong protective factor in terms of people’s mental health. And this is very much I think, what drew me to the role at Super Friends, which is all about providing insights and guidance and advice around, you know, what are the protective factors of work that keep people well, and work is much more than about, you know, earning an income, paying the bills, you know, paying the mortgage, and so on. We know that work, when it’s good, provides people with great meaning and purpose and an ability to contribute and to feel valued and to feel connected and part of a community. And there’s so, so many benefits to work when it’s working well. And so, there’s a there’s a few thoughts and as to what sort of got me to where I’m at, in this role today.
Graeme Cowan 17:44
Thank you for sharing that background. What do you think about leadership teams? Did you felt, have you found there’s any difference between what you’ve had to create in the not-for-profit sector versus what you’ve had versus your military leadership in terms of how the teams run?
Darren Black 18:07
No. Look not really. You know, I think there’s some cultural nuances in every organization. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned, Graeme is that every organization, every industry, you know, has, you know, these cultural nuances and, and you need to be sensitive to the culture of your organization and understand it. But the fundamentals, I think, are really consistent. And, you know, one of the absolute fundamentals Is that is that in any team or if you want it to be a high performing team, you’ve got to have, you’ve got to build trust across the team and, and that trust needs to be built on mutual respect of the individuals and an understanding of, you know, what is our collective role or mission or purpose. And, and then what are individuals, you know, kind of roles and responsibilities within that. So, you know, for me, team leadership development, the ISTEP, you know, creation of high performing team always requires trust across the team. It always requires clarity, of mission, purpose, roles, tasks, responsibilities, all that sort of thing. It always requires good communication and consistent communication. And I think one of the things that people appreciate is consistency. I mean, there’s enough challenge and change and irregularity in the world. And I think people need consistency from their leadership. So, trust consistency, good communications, clarity. There’s some, I think, you know, just common factors there to leading and creating any high performing team across any workplace.
Graeme Cowan 20:21
Yeah, I fully agree. And it’s interesting in in recent years, there’s been a real discovery that psychological safety is a basic foundation of any high performing team where people feel that interpersonal respect and trust where they can be their authentic self, where they feel they can make ideas and challenge ideas, and then believe in how do you make it safe in the team, you lead to, for people to be able to challenge an idea they don’t, they don’t agree with?
Darren Black 20:54
Well, look, I mean, I think this is, it’s hard to put a recipe around this. But I think, you know, a part of it is ensuring that the space that you create is safe, and it is safe to, to ask to challenge to inquire, and one of the things I always say to my team is, you know, we need to walk out of the room, whatever the challenge, the issue of the decision is that we’re considering we need to walk out of the room in agreement, but the conversation that sort of goes on in the room has got to be open and honest. And you all need to feel able to kind of challenged the status quo, to disagree. You know, your role is not to agree with me as the CEO. Your role, and sort of obligation is to, is to say what you think and, and look, look for ways to help us get better, and to improve and to come up with better ways of work and making, making the best decisions we can with the information that we’ve got. And so, if you’re going to make the best decisions, you can with the information you’ve got, then every member of your team has got to feel able, that they can speak up and share their thoughts and their opinions, in a respectful, you know, you know, courteous, sort of, sort of culture. So, it’s– I haven’t sort of told you or the other or the listeners how to do it. I mean, it’s a, it’s a thing, it’s a process, it takes time. But I think a lot of it comes down to how you treat people. And, and also how you respond, when things don’t go, you know, according to plan or don’t go as well as you’d hoped. And, and when that happens, I think it’s probably almost more important than when things go great. Because when things are going great, it’s easy to sort of pat people on the back and say, hey, you know, look at what we’ve done, this is terrific. But if things don’t go so well, then, then what is critical at that point, is that you, you I guess you reflect upon what happened and why and why, you know, it didn’t go as we’d planned. And then very quickly get to well, how do we improve? How do we do our best? How do we do it better next time without assigning blame to people? So, I think there’s some ways around creating a culture of safety and confidence in respect. And it comes back, comes from that sort of basis of trust and respect that you build among a team. And there’s some of the ways that I think you do it.
Graeme Cowan 24:06
Yeah, very good. And I had spoken recently to Amy Edmondson, who’s from the Harvard professor that really is champion psychological safety for a while, and she talks about, you know, we need a culture that welcomes failure, but it should be intelligent failure. You know, because we can never be 100% when we make a decision, and your hypothesis is doing this and to best it always has the right path forward, if it works out fantastic. But if it doesn’t, you know, that also has to be celebrated with trying something hasn’t quite worked. How to respond to it, then. Is, is that something that you think is well taught in leadership places now, whether it’s universities or private training programs?
Darren Black 25:09
Look, no I don’t, I think there’s, there’s a real opportunity for us to do that better and with much greater insight and look, and I think Amy Edmondson as, you know, a great thought leader around psychological safety. And so, I would, I would really agree and embellish that. I think we’re really taught rarely, rarely are we taught to, you know, essentially celebrate failure. But in fact, the, the greatest ways that you learn is by trying things not succeeding, the first time trying, again, improving and then you know, ultimately you improve, you improve. And, and that is, that’s where the greatest learnings and often the greatest successes come from is not, is not easy success, but hard-fought sort of, you know, wins over time. And so, you know, try and test and adjust and failure along the way is absolutely essential in terms of product development, in terms of service delivery, in terms of, you know, and even in terms of building a high performing team, and it’s accepting that rarely are you going to get things perfect the first time. And often it’s, it’s an iterative process of try and test and fail and learn from that and, and try again. So, I think they, I think they actually think there’s great wisdom in that. And but I don’t think we, we teach that with– at all, in fact, in most business schools, in some of the entrepreneurial schools of entrepreneurs, and that sort of thing, I think this is a much more accepted way of thinking. And it sort of comes back to that sort of theory that if you know, you’re going to fail, fail fast, and then learn from that, and then try again and iterate. So, look, I’m very much an advocate of that. That approach and that way of thinking.
Graeme Cowan 27:17
Voice fascinated by careers, and ups and downs, and then careers, I worked in recruitment, and career management for about 15 years or so. And it is filled with ups and downs, if you had a career crisis, at any stage, and what did you learn from that?
Darren Black 27:38
Look, I mean, I think the, the, it was probably, the point of reflection, for me, it was, was a crisis that I had to deal with, it was more than a career crisis for me, but it was it was a crisis I had to deal with at work, and it was the, you know, the most, I would say a reflection, you know, most challenging day and period of my life, professional life. And it was the day that we, in a previous workplace, it found out that one of our, one of our staff, one of our, our team had, had taken their own life. So, we had a suicide in one of our people. And, you know, that was a very, very challenging situation to deal with. And I, you know, I think at that point, I’d had all sorts of challenging, you know, situations that I’ve been exposed to in my military career and felt that I was pretty well prepared to deal with crisis from a whole range of perspectives, but not that one. Yeah, I mean, that was something very new. And, you know, I don’t think, you know, anyone is really prepared for that sort of situation. So, it was a real reflection point. And we had to, we had to stop and pause and, and, you know, our team needed support. And I very quickly realized that, you know, I needed support, through that, that whole situation in terms of being able to, you know, continue to lead with care and diligence and support the team through in essence, what was a, you know, was a traumatic and sort of grieving period. Yeah, so, you know, there was a whole journey there of guiding a team and an organization of people through a grieving process that you know, that they were able to bounce back from and continue.
Graeme Cowan 29:58
Sadly, through my work with ‘Are You Okay?’, and the work I do with companies, that’s not unusual anymore. Really, sadly, it’s happening in a surprising number of workplaces. Having the experience of going through once, obviously, the goal is to prevent. You and I very much in the prevention stage, but if that tragedy does happen, is there anything you would do differently? Or what would you recommend that other leaders do if they experienced this situation as well?
Darren Black 30:33
Well, you know, I’d say it’s not the sort of thing that there’s a, there’s a manual for or a checklist for. But there was certainly some, I think, really good lessons learned from that process for me and for our team at that time. Now, one of them, you know, I think Graeme was, you know, don’t think, you have to kind of shoulder responsibility for that all by yourself. And, you know, it became very, very clear that, you know, we were, we were all surprised. When that happened, it took everyone in the organization by surprise, but the level of kind of leaning in that I think occurred, you know, in terms of that sort of peer support, that sort of, you know, mates and colleagues sort of, you know, rallying around each other was, you know, in some respects, was just really heartwarming to see. And from, but as a leader, I mean, I think if, for me, I found that the default for me was to go into crisis kind of management response and to think through, okay, we’ve got a problem here. What are the steps in the eye that I need to kind of follow in terms of trying to work our way through this problem? And part of that was to realize I didn’t have all the answers, no one did. We needed to be compassionate. With each other, we needed to be supportive of each other, we needed to be supportive of the family. We needed to surround ourselves with, with other experts, because, you know, I had a team of nurses and social workers and counselors. The risks there was that they end up cancelling each other. And so, we very quickly made a decision not to have our counselors providing sort of trauma support to other staff that we brought in independent trauma informed experts to help coach and guide and support our people through that whole process. So, there’s a lot there. And I think, in that situation, easy to become overwhelmed. That you know, lean in, be patient, be compassionate. Don’t think you’ve got all the answers, and you’ve got to solve all this yourself. Draw on external supports and expertise, to support yourself and the rest of your team through that process, and, you know, my sort of prayer and hope for any of your other listeners is that actually, they, you know, you never have to experience that yourselves.
Graeme Cowan 33:42
That’s a really great overview. Thank you for sharing that. I can just imagine what up, you know, challenging that time would have been. And as I said, I’ve sadly spoken to a number of other leaders that have had to navigate that whole path themselves. And, you know, they just basically confirmed what you said, you know, just there’s no one size fits all. It’s a matter of assessing and just realizing what you can do and what you can’t do and what external experts, you need to move through this and to, you know, step forward, and because you just can’t stay in the same place, but you also have to honor the situation and honor the person as well. So, it’s a hard title.
Darren Black 34:34
Graeme Cowan 34:36
What do you do for self-care, Darren, how do you keep your own tankful?
Darren Black 34:44
Well, you know, having sort of grown up in the military and then run outdoor education organizations, I have a great passion for nature in the outdoors. So the great circuit breaker for me is a bit of quiet time in the mountains, usually off the grid and, and I find that you know, from time to time, it’s just the best therapy for me to throw a backpack on, head into the hills, out of mobile coverage usually with a mate, or by one of my kids, or it’s sometimes even just solo and just take a bit of time out. And I think, you know, for me, nature has great healing power. And there’s, we’ve taught this, we’ve taught this for years and I think regrettably in this very fast paced technology-driven sort of society that we live in these days, where you know, we are constantly being barraged with, with media and with information through a range of social platforms, you know, people talk about always being on and, like, always been switched on, and always been available and accessible. And, you know, that that can have really detrimental effects, I think, on our health over time. And so, I think there’s great value in having those periods where you’re literally offline, off the grid, and for me a way to do that is into nature into the outdoors. And, you know, I look I commend it to anyone who works in leadership, any sort of, you know, senior position of responsibility where your time is in high demand, where you are, you know, sort of regularly placed under pressure of performance and decisions and being constantly accessible and available to make that time, you know, for yourself, you know, for reconnection with your family and your friends. I think we all need downtime, the old, the classic, old, you know, military saying of R&R, so you know, stands for Rest and Recreation. And we all need it in our in our own way to rebalance. And so, you can come back and continue to do the good work that that we’re here to do.
Graeme Cowan 37:32
You share your passion for time in nature. I’ve been fortunate enough to do a number of walks, including the Kokoda track, and a number of other walks around the world. But I came across something which I thought was really, really interesting, which plays very much to your point, it’s a solo adventure called Kokoda Brady and one of his claims to fame is going across Antarctica, unaided and unassisted. And to do that, he had to get into the habit of really marching for 12 hours every day, that was part of it. So, it happened a number of years back. And then when COVID hits, you know, he suddenly couldn’t do his adventures anymore. And so, he had this idea of just going for a 12-hour walk, and without any phone, or even company, a 12 hour walk by yourself. And I heard about this on a podcast, I thought, I gotta give that a go. And so, I did it. And it is quite amazing, you know, without another person with you, without using your phone, unless you gotta find the blue dot and make sure you’re not lost for that period of time. And it really helped me to identify the things that were really important to me in terms of how I want to live my life. And I came up with the five C’s, which is caring, centered, curious, constructive, and chuckling. And, and I don’t think that would ever have happened if I didn’t do that 12-hour walk. So, I really commend people to think about that, you know, there’s actually a book now called the 12 Hour Walk, but there is something magical happens when you do have without the distractions. Just really focus on yourself and what you’re experiencing.
Darren Black 39:44
Well, totally I mean, that’s really resonant with reflective practice we used to do on Outward Bound courses, and every Outward Bound course we were designed with an element of solo experience in there, because typically it was group work, either with young people or adults and working together traveling on a journey in a group over a number of days, but we would always try and factor in a period of a few hours or half a day or overnight of solo reflection time. And it was very, very powerful. And, you know, often our people, our participants would get learn the most lasting lessons and in sort of form these commitments to themselves much like you did with your 5C’s, through that sort of that solo, that solo period. So, you’re very, very connected with your, the 12-hour walk, I’ve probably done many, many 12-hour walks in my time.
Graeme Cowan 41:03
It’s been absolute pleasure catching up today, Darren, I really thank you for you know, sharing your ideas, but also some really tough experiences as well. And what you learned from that. I always finish by asking, I always finish by asking my guests, knowing what you know, now, what advice would you give your 18-year-old self if you could go back and share that. What comes to mind for you?
Darren Black 41:31
Oh, wow, that’s an interesting, somewhat challenging question I– look, I think it’s, there’s, there’s probably two things, there’s, there’s a bit of trust, trust yourself, trust your instincts. But also, but also, take wise advice. So, look carefully, you know, for your trusted advisors. And whether, you know, whether it’s your parents or you know, your first boss or you know, your first footy coach, or, you know, whoever that though, that personal people might be and I think there were times I look back now, and I think, by young headstrong, thought I knew what was right and I do recall, there were instances where, you know, there were, there were people kind of older and wiser than I giving me certain advice. And there was a couple of points that I kind of wish I’d listened to it. And so yeah, look, look for those trusted advisors to take counsel. And, and use that to help guide you. Because, you know, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Graeme Cowan 43:09
Yeah, that’s, that’s great perspective. Thanks for being part of The Caring CEO, Darren.
Darren Black 43:16
Absolute pleasure, Graeme. Thanks so much.
Oh, you are inquisitive… getting all the way to the bottom of the page!
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