In episode 4 of the Performance Leaders podcast, Ray D’Cruz is joined by mindfulness consultant and Partner at the Potential Project, Murray Paterson.
Potential Project helps firms enhance performance, innovation and resilience through mindfulness and other practices, grounded in neuroscience and research.
Murray led the introduction of a mindfulness program for partners of a large law firm, with stunning engagement.
Listen to this podcast to learn more about how to engage your people and optimise the performance of your firm through mindful people-centric leadership.
Full interview transcript
Ray: [00:35] Today I’m joined by Murray Paterson. Murray is a partner of the Potential Project Australia. The Potential Project helps leaders and firms enhance performance, innovation and resilience through mindfulness. Before joining the Potential Project, Murray was head of L&D at Herbert Smith Freehills, leading the design and delivery of leadership programs. In that role Murray introduced the Potential Project’s mindfulness program to HSF. Murray is here today to talk about how firms can use mindfulness to improve performance and wellbeing. Murray welcome to the Performance Leaders’ podcast.
Murray: [1:10] Thank you Ray. Great to be here.
Ray: [1:13] Let’s start at the beginning. What is mindfulness and how can it help someone working in a professional services firm?
Murray: [1:18] Well there’s a simple way of describing mindfulness and I would say it’s the capacity to focus your attention on the object of your choice. So, if you think about that literally, if you have the capacity at any stage of your working day to go ‘this is what I am focusing on right now to the exclusion of everything else in my busy world’ and I pay attention to that. I work through that piece of work or that conversation or that relationship whatever it is. And that comes to its natural conclusion and then I redirect my attention to the next thing that I need to attend to. So if you think about that in comparison with many people’s experience of professional life and that is that they are completely distracted, they sort of feel this sense of overwhelm, that there’s always something else to attend to, that their minds are fried, that they can’t hold attention, that they every few minutes even in important conversations with clients, you know, with the leadership team, at home with a family member, you’re having the conversation and within seconds your mind is off on some other tangent and you’re literally following another conversation. In fact, I’ve been in conversation with the executives who we need to interrupt themselves: they’re telling you a story and then they interrupt and change the subject and they don’t finish a sentence and I’m going “I’m sorry, I’m not quite with you. You were talking about something, is that something we should return to?” “Oh yes sorry I lost track of mind”. How extraordinary, if you think about the consequence of that.
Ray: [2:50] Is it because at any one time these leaders or these managers have 10 or 15 things on the to do list and in their mind is just wandering back and forth between all of these things?
Murray: [3:00] Yeah. Well we’ve coined the phrase the Potential Project called the ‘paid reality’, and this sense of being always under pressure, always switched on like there’s no off-button. You’re overloaded with information and fundamentally distracted. So if you think about that and the people I’ve talked to in organisations this is a common experience that there’s this level of real disquiet. The mind is feverishly active but not in a good way. It’s kind of just all over the shop. It’s not even like being on a hamster wheel – at least a hamster is on one wheel – that’s all they’re doing, they’re going round and round and round. But our minds are disturbed by distractions and all sorts of things. So you’re off on a on a conversation you’re anticipating a piece of work you’ve got to do. You’re regretful about something happened the other day. You’re concerned about finances. You’ve just noticed a news report something popped up on your iPhone and that sense of never holding your attention never being able to focus your attention is a felt experience of unhappiness and unease. I think.
Ray: [4:10] Is there a sense in firms that this hyperactivity is a good thing, that if you’re if you’re busy in that way it means you’re dedicated or energetic or productive. Is your misconception around this?
Murray: [4:24] That’s a great question Ray. I’ve had heard somebody asked me the question of. Surely it’s a measure of your discipline and your determination and you’re really, really good at work because you’re frantic. You had eight cups of coffee before ten o’clock in the morning. Nobody can understand what you’re saying, you sort of speaking gibberish. And so I think there’s a an attraction to this idea of being really busy, because being really busy means you’re important in some way. It’s like the lift conversation: you wander into a lift and somebody says ‘how are you?’ and the most common response you ever hear is ‘I’m busy’. Wouldn’t it be better if somebody asked you that question you said, ‘I’m focused’, ‘I’m effective’, ‘I’m calm’, ‘I’m having a fantastic impact on my business’, like that would be more compelling, I would think. I mean probably people think you’re a bit weird, honestly.
Ray: [5:18] Well only because it’s not the paradigm.
Murray: [5:20] It’s not what we’re used to hearing, we’ve got this, it is a badge of honour, I think, it’s you know, well if I’m successful and in demand in this place, then I should be busy and if I’m not, there’s something wrong. But what about if you were relaxed and composed and thoughtful and strategic and intervened at exactly the right moment because you had this fantastic presence? That would be better.
Ray: [5:44] And so in your work with the Potential Project you would be exploring the link between mindfulness and high performance. What is that link?
Murray: [5:53] That’s another good question, Ray. I think mindfulness is as I’ve explained is the capacity to build your attention and hold your focus, but one of the first things that happens when you start practice mindfulness is your self-awareness improves. You just begin to attend to yourself in a different fashion. You’re conscious of the feelings you have, you’re conscious of feelings of happiness of joy of stress of distress and you then, if you can develop that self-awareness, you more likely to go ‘Isn’t that interesting, in the presence of this person I often feel anxious. Why is that?’ Not in the moment, perhaps in the conversation, you don’t want to be having second thoughts going through your mind. But as a reflection afterwards. You go ‘that’s interesting, I just I feel uneasy or I feel unworthy or I feel this person’s expectations are so high and perhaps I might not make them’. So you have the opportunity to be curious about your own behaviour and your own reaction to others. And if you think about a leader, so getting to the performance side of this question, if you are very clear about yourself as a human being and in relation to others and you’re clear about your role, it’s more likely that you’ll make informed choices at every moment, not just kind of technically informed good choices but in relationship to team members, somebody who is distressed in front of you. ‘I notice that person’s really stressed, I wonder why?’ So it’s just a question of curiosity not one of impatience. ‘Can you just get yourself together and sort this out because I’m a busy person, I haven’t got time for your struggle’. So self-awareness is the first thing and the research indicates lots of other things which are useful to know, like your decision making capacity improves, you are quicker to make decisions because there’s less noise in your mind. ‘Yeah I see that question, I understand it, this is a good choice right now, let’s do it’. Next question. That focus point again. So this is a task focus orientation but also other things improve so you decrease in the likelihood to multitask, to try do several things at once, which we know we actually can’t do. So that typically reduces and also your stress levels decrease if you practice mindfulness and all of those things are related to how effective you can be.
Ray: [8:18] Murray how do high performance sports people or sports organizations use mindfulness?
Murray: [8:25] A number of ways. So if you look in Australia we’ve got a number of codes of sport that is the Australian Football League which is a time honoured and peculiarly Australian sport.
Ray: [8:38] Which we won’t try to explain the rules of –
Murray: [8:41] No because it’s too complicated. Great to watch if you’re on late night TV. So a number of the clubs have engaged mindfulness teachers and one of the most high performing clubs in fact, one that won a premiership which is you know the grand final in that one season, off the back of this instituted mindfulness as a core skill for their players. And it’s interesting too. And then the one comes to mind is Richmond Football Club. But there are others in that league who do this and I’m sure there are other codes too. So what they’ve looked at is the link between performance and effectiveness and performance on the field and mindfulness and discovered that what happens is situational awareness improves with mindfulness so you’re more likely to have a have a broader scope of player. You will see things – you won’t see things in tunnel vision. When you think about what happens when you’re under pressure or under stress at work, what happens is that your focus narrows fundamentally. You can only see a very, very small window. You can only attend to a very small area and you typically work more on automatic pilot because you don’t have the capacity to think through what’s happening, you’re not, you’re just so highly stressed that you can’t be very effective. So a mindful sports person is more likely to have a better field of view to anticipate play fact they say things like well I don’t focus on my opponent, I don’t focus on the ball, I focus on the gap, I focus on the evolution, I see what’s about to happen before it’s happened and I have plenty of time to decide what to do. So watching players who have that capacity is very interesting because those are the ones who just seem completely calm and they make a choice, a considered choice about what to do with the ball, even as other players are rushing towards, and they seem completely unconcerned about that threat and dispose of the ball more effectively than somebody who is mindless and anxious and stressed. And it goes to other sports so they look at the Olympics. There are many, many Olympians who practice mindfulness to improve their performance.
Ray: [11:00] There’s a really interesting conundrum that I’m hearing as you’re talking which is that mindfulness is allowing you to both focus as well as expand.
Murray: [11:12] Nicely put Ray. That’s really, really well put. To be effective mindfulness practitioner, you have to develop this intentional focus, so you choose to attend deeply at a particular task or conversation whatever, but you need to be attending to the circumstances that surround it. You need to attend. So it’s like, you could describe it as a peripheral vision of your mind if you like, so your intent, you know that there is a context for this observation that you’re making. So it’s part of you to have this very broad awareness and focused attention at the same time and that’s when practice really pays off. We start in typically, we teach we people learn to focus their attention the that the practice we use is simply focus on breath when you’re sitting quietly with your eyes closed following a guided practice or a recorded practice session. And most usually will focus on the breath. So every time you notice your attention has wandered from your breath you redirect your attention back to your breath. That builds a new neural muscle, built a new pathway. You become aware, so there’s awareness of distraction, awareness of mind off task is one thing. Choosing to redirect your attention is another thing. And being present with your breath is a third thing. And these are different capacities of your brain and your mind at work. So that’s the first gain. Building the skill of attention in the second gain is being able to hold an awareness of all of the complexity of your life so you’re not sitting in a cave on a hill. You’re in the busyness of a working life with phones, emails, people distractions, that’s just how it is. But they don’t distract you. You hear them but you don’t attend.
Ray: [00:12:58] Murray, was there a particular event that prompted you to explore mindfulness in the first place?
Murray: [00:13:05] Yeah, yeah, there was. So many years ago, my father had lymphoma, and he – my dad – was a scientist, agricultural scientist in fact. And he was a rational man and thinking man, problem solving man and great deal of faith in science and its capacity to help people who are ill. And in dad’s journey through lymphoma, he did everything as he should do and he went through all of the treatments that were available to him, bear in mind this is 40 years ago, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma had a much greater impact than perhaps it does today. So Dad did all the right things but still was getting progressively ill and I listened to a fellow, I watched an interview with a guy called Dr Ian Gawler, who is a vet in fact, and Ian who had his own serious cancer, looked into – his view was if you can get sick then you can get well. It’s a mechanism perhaps we don’t understand, bearing in mind again this is 40 years ago. So Ian investigated all sorts of strategies for improving health and wellbeing and including diet and exercise and all sorts of things but also fundamentally meditation. And so I was intrigued by that. Read a book by a guy called Dr Ainslie Meares, who also happened to be a teacher of Ian’s coincidentally, and took Dad to listen to Ian speak at a few events. My father just didn’t get it. He didn’t understand it. He thought this was strange but the age of 19 I started to practice because it just made sense to me. And I was intrigued by Ian’s story and so often on the last 40 years I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation. And it’s interesting when people ask me, well what’s it like, I don’t know, I’ve just always done it. I can tell you when I don’t do it, I suppose is a better response, and that is when I don’t attend to my practice then, you know I think I’m bulletproof, things are going well, I can do everything. That’s when things go wrong, because I lose that self-awareness, I lose that kind of knowledge that I am actually suffering, I’m actually struggling. I’m actually not doing the right things. I’m actually making poorer life and personal choices. But with practice that all reverts back to what I think is probably the natural state of being.
Ray: [15:29] When you introduced the mindfulness program into HSF some years ago, what was it that prompted you to recognise that mindfulness had the potential to help that firm?
Murray: [15:47] Having worked with lawyers for more – I think by this time when I was working at Freehills I’d been working close from more than 15 years – and I had an awareness about their experience of professional life and in the large commercial law firm it’s a fairly high pressure environment, very high standards, long work hours, six minute billing intervals, all of the rest of course people know if you know anything about professional services. And we were reviewing our leadership programs for emerging leaders and a colleague of mine, who was also coincidentally a meditator of many years standing, we were just talking about what is it that we could bring to these young aspiring leaders, a skill that could really help them in their experience of professional life in a law firm. And we both said obviously we should teach them how to meditate. So we thought well let’s experiment with that. So we did, very successfully, tentatively at first. And we just introduced it as an idea at the end of the day those who want to sit around, we’ll just lead you through a short practice. And people were saying to us after the program’s finished ‘that stuck with me, that’s a skill I now use, maybe not well but I’m trying’ and they thought it was fascinating, this idea that you could improve your mind. And somebody who works in professional services wants a good mind, not just be smart, not just problem solve, not just understand complexity but to have a healthy mind that served them well, instead of one that causes them distress. And so we were doing that and with great effect but I wanted to broaden the impact of mindfulness because I knew and I could see the evidence in front of my own eyes that it was helping people, helping lawyers. I was introduced to the Potential Project, ironically by Ian Gawler, who knew of course that I worked in a law firm—
Ray: [17:36] You’d kept in contact with Ian?
Murray: [17:37] Yeah and I still do. Ian’s a tremendous fellow, an inspiration and I regard him as my lifelong teacher in fact. So he said he introduced me to the Potential Project and said you should meet these people, came in, we sat down and chatted and spent most of the time talking about what we were doing, rather than asking questions about them and their program. But in any case, we learned more about the Potential Project and I thought I want a trial the program because I wanted to have a greater impact not just the one percent of the population of leaders or aspiring leaders in an organization. But I wanted the senior managers, I wanted their staff, I wanted non-lawyers. I wanted everybody to have an opportunity if we could make this work. Could we do this in a firm that’s distributed obviously nationally and internationally. So we tried it. We experimented. I went to the partners in Melbourne I said look this is what I want to do. They had sufficient confidence in me to let me have an experiment. And I pitched it that way. I said look this is a 10-week program, 10 weeks, 10 consecutive weeks. One hour a week plus you must practice 10 minutes of mindfulness a day, are you up for it? And if you don’t like it, we won’t persist. And to my surprise 50 percent of the partner population Melbourne turned out. And of that about, I think probably we retained about 70 percent through 10 weeks. So people are saying to me partners don’t go to partner meetings but these people are coming to sit with you and each other for an hour a week. Same day same time. Incredible.
Ray: [19:12] What kind of feedback we’re getting at the time?
Murray: [19:15] Well I asked them actually during about week three or four, you know how’s this going? So I did say to them, look if you think this is a waste of time we don’t even need to finish the 10 weeks. So I asked that general question. They said ‘well of course, this is fantastic you know’. And so they are enjoying the content because it’s highly evidence based and lawyers need that, it’s an important aspect of any kind of learning to say well where’s the credential behind this. So you say where’s the evidence? Good question. And we’d provide that in the Potential Project content. But people were starting to describe feeling differently. And bear in mind these partners didn’t all know each other even though they’d worked in the same firm for some 20-30 years, some had really just passing acquaintance. So they started talking about how they felt. And you think about that as an observation in a law firm, an unusual thing to admit, how you feel about anything. And they’re saying “Well I’m actually starting to sleep more soundly, I’m feeling calmer”, “My team is saying of me I’m actually a nicer person to be around.” Who would have thought?
Ray: [20:20] After only a few weeks?
Murray: [20:22] Well, probably three or four weeks, you know. My experience is between week four and week six you really see significant change, and this is just self-observed, and I asked that question as you did of me. And that’s interesting and one talked about you know – and this is not uncommon – blood pressure returning to normal levels and no longer needing to have blood pressure medication. Others talked about no longer needing sleep medication and no doubt there are stories of less self-medication using other tools but not discussed in the partner session. So that you know during the program and afterwards the results were fantastic. The percentage of change.
Ray: [21:05] And changes at home as well I imagine not just in the workplace.
Murray: [21:09] Yeah, yeah. And I can’t disclose too many of those stories but certainly there were people saying “Well my wife is really curious about what I’m doing.” ‘You’re doing that? Keep doing it because you just seem better’, you know and it might be just be a generalized explanation like that. ‘You just seem like the old you, like the you you used to be. You know when we were young’, you know, ‘earlier in our relationship like it was more fun’. And now ‘you seem to be regaining some of that, your sense of humour is returning, your perspective – you’re not so negative you’re not so washed out at the end of the day’. And they would say things like “I just feel able to get through my day more effectively” and I would ask the question “well are things tapering off – a bit of a quiet time of the year?” And ‘no, no change or even busier, but I’m just more composed’. I more and I would use words like ‘I’m more focused’, I’m less distracted’, ‘I’m clearer in my mind’, and you know that’s a lovely thing to say. If you think about coming to work with a sense of optimism and joy instead of a sense of overwhelming and feeling distraught.
Ray: [22:22]You’d been at the firm some time, so you and your colleagues had obviously built a level of trust amongst the partners so that when you took this idea to them they were willing to go with you. What other sorts of preconditions do you think need to exist in order for a program like this to get going?
Murray: [22:44] Look I think it’s genuine curiosity and care about the organisation and of course if you speak to leaders they’ll say ‘well we’d need to increase our performance, we need to reduce our costs’. You know there’s all sorts of metrics in the business which you just know. So it might simply be you know would this make a difference to these things? And they would say yes it does and that’s kind of one orientation that’s about performance and effectiveness. But what else is going on for you in your business? And so if a leader says to me ‘well I’m concerned about the health of my executive team’. ‘I worry about the sustainability of this level of effort’. ‘I don’t see our commercial world getting any easier. I think it’s getting tougher. We are typically working longer hours. We are finding things change very rapidly and it’s hard to accommodate change quickly. We’re not used to moving so adeptly’. So when people start to talk about things like that, why would you want to do something about it? And if a letter says to me ‘well I really care about the people in my care, it matters to me that some of the people around me are suffering’. Then we’ve got a fantastic opportunity because this person is already kind of has some sense of compassion for the people that work for them. So a precondition is really not just attending to of course that the business needs, the growth needs, the competitive needs, whatever they are but also a sense of wanting things to be better in every way. So that you know and certainly you can look at metrics if you wish to say well what you know what EAP costs. What our sickness level? What’s our engagement score telling us? How are people fronting up? Are we losing really, really good staff? If you’re saying yes to a number of those questions then I’d say well you should attend to this because if you can help people train their minds other things will follow.
Ray: [24:48] Murray, how does is the client experience differ when the professional is more mindful?
Murray: [24:55] Look I think it’s an interesting question because I think about the question you’re asking: to be more mindful or to be less? If you are a client and you had somebody walk into your office as a provider and you were mindless. So think about the professional service context which I know reasonably well. The sense of as a professional you need to give them the right answer, you need to be accurate and you need to be speedy, you solve the problem of the client. And that invites the professional to say to be just in their own head, full of the answer they’re going to give, full of the story they’re going to tell. They walk into a client meeting and they go ‘yep, yep, yep, I know that’s not the answer!’ So, the client has not even really sat down, that sort of sense of you know that the client’s walking in from one other distraction to focus on this particular issue and the lawyer in this example launches into a solution and answer. And the client really can’t attend. A more mindful approach might be to go pay attention to how you’re feeling as an adviser, you know what is it, what’s the message I want to deliver? I want to do this in a calm and considered way. I want to be clear I don’t want to disturb them, make them feel anxious if there’s already some anxiety on foot. I walk into the conversation, I notice that the client is really distracted, they’re checking their phone repetitively, they seem stressed, they seem out of breath, they haven’t even sat down yet, they haven’t said hello, they haven’t acknowledged that we’re in a meeting yet. The best thing I can do is simply wait. Just sit until they are present and then say ‘hey, how are you going?’ and have a conversation about – ‘you seem to be a bit preoccupied, a bit going on is there?’ And so you invite the client to talk about that and I may choose to they may choose not to. It doesn’t matter. It just makes you present and makes them present because a question like ‘how are you?’ invites you, if you’re receiving that question you go ‘oh, well actually, I’m a bit stressed.’ Oh is that anything lot to share. Well, actually it’s about this it’s about this technical issue we’ve got that we’re going to sit and talk about. I’m worried about it. And before you the lawyer jumps in with ‘I’ve got the answer don’t worry’ you say ‘well why is it that it worries you so much?’ So what’s beneath your anxiety? Yes we’ve got a problem to solve but what is it? What’s the consequence of this going wrong, or not arresting this issue? ‘Well the consequences are serious. I’ve got to go to the board tomorrow and I’ve got to make a case and I’m really anxious about that and also the consequences of this could be quite harmful to our business’. OK, well attend to that. So it’s likely that the client experience will be very different if they’ve got somebody who is present, who was self-aware enough to ask them a good question and to pace the advice that they give them. So I know what I need to give them but now is not the right time. We’ll get to it. I can just have a sense of patience about that. I know what my answer is. I’ve got some really good advice, I can deliver it calmly. Best if I deliver it when they’re actually listening as opposed to when they’re not.
Ray: [28:06] Reflecting on your time in a firm and all of the leaders you’ve worked with, what do you think makes a high-performance leader in a professional services firm?
Murray: [28:17] Well look, we’re building some research into that with the Harvard Business Review, we spent a couple of years, we surveyed about 35,000 leaders around the world. We interviewed about 300 CEOs, CIOs and so on. And to try to understand what is it about mindfulness, what is it that a really, really effective leader needs today to make things work well? And we came up with this observation that it was fundamentally about mindfulness. That a mindful leader is one who is composed, self-aware and attentive to those around them. And then a selfless leader. So a leader who believes that they don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. That their job is to enable the performance of the people who work with them. The leadership team of course but their staff. So when your-self regulation improves to the level you simply say ‘that’s okay I would quite like to speak now but it’s just my ego.’ It’s better that I listen. You know, ‘how about I enable all of this talent people I’ve assembled and pay and train to be the best they can be’. Surely that’s a much more accretive benefit than just me being the smartest person in the world. So selfless leader but also compassionate leader. So one who actually cares about the people who work with them. Because if you have the sense of care, and I don’t mean by that kind of a fall over yourself in sorrow or sympathy for the tragedies that often before people all the difficulties that they face, it’s just a sense of that person suffers. Is there something I can do? Is there something we can do to alleviate that? How can we support this person? We value them. We will give them time off. We will attend to them. We’ll ask them how they are. Will support them in whatever way we can. That’s what a compassionate leader does. And they do it because it’s about care. And of course there’s a good business outcome. Mindful, selfless and compassionate.
Ray: [30:27] Murray thank you for joining us today.
Murray: [30:29] Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.